on April 9, 2003
I've always been a fan of Russian novels, ever since I read my first Dostoevsky novel at the age of 10...(okay, it was a Classics Illustrated comic book version of Crime and Punishment!)but had never run across anything by Bulgakov until a few years ago. A Russian friend of mine really pressed me to read the book. I bought it, but it just stayed on the shelf until a few weeks ago. All I can say is, I didn't know what I was missing. Master and Margarita is a wickedly funny, sad, frightening, and ultimately haunting masterpiece of fiction.
Bulgakov was one of the first generation of Soviet writers who flourished in the 20s, during the short lived Soviet Experimental movement, and then suffered horribly after the stregnthening of Stalin's regime. Bugakov was primarily a man of the Theater, and something of a theatrical quality hangs on to this book. The chapters have an almost tableaux style construction. When the Stalinist purges began, Bulgakov was began work on Master and Margarita, pretty much to please himself. He knew that he would never live to see it published.
The novel itself is nearly impossible to describe. It consists of three separate plots. On the surface is the visit to Moscow, of the Devil in the guise of a professor named Woland, and his henchmen, two grotesque disfigured men, a naked woman and a cat who plays chess among other things. The group proceeds to essentially terrorize the city's intellectual community, mostly by exposing each character's inner hypocracy. The satire of communist society in this section is quite biting, and uproariously funny. Embedded in this story is a "novel within a novel" ...the story of Pontius Pilate and his encounter with the itinerant spiritual man, Yeshua. Finally, there is the story of the separated lovers, the Master and Margarita, who interweave between the other two stories. They live in the present day Moscow, but the Master ostensibly wrote the manuscript which told the story of Pontius Pilate.
This rich and complicated stew of a book works on so many different levels. At it's most obvious, it is a scathing attack on communism and the cultural elite's complicity with the evils of the system. It is also rather pitiless in it's exposure of the greed, corruption and mendacity of human nature. But Bulgakov is not a conventional moralist. The Devil as Woland is an evil figure...sometimes a terrifying figure, and yet he ends up as the instrument of the redemption of both the Master and Margarita. There is a deep spiritual viewpoint at work here...Early in the novel, Yeshua tells Pilate that, "all men are good", to Pilate's incredulity. In the context of the novel, Yeshua seems hopelessly naive, but by the end of the novel, you wonder if this may actually not be the author's central point. Even the devil is capable of some good here.
This book contains a whole world. Characters change in dizzying fasion and events go by with lightening speed. And yet, by the last pages there is a haunting beauty, an almost incandescent light that shines over the prose. Some of these final images stay etched in my brain even now, several weeks after finishing.
I highly recommend that anyone read this book. It may be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. It certainly is the greatest Russian novel of the last 100 years!
on April 30, 2000
I am Russian, and have read this novel (which is my favorite Russian novel), in Russian. However, for some reason, a week ago I decided to look through Michael Glenny's translation of this novel and I was shocked by the various little mistakes in the text. In the very first dialog, one of the main characters asks for a glass of Narzan (which is a famous brand of mineral water in Russia), which M.Glenny translates as lemonade. Close, but no cigar...And it goes further like this. That leads me to believe that the translator probably was not familiar with nuances of Russian language, or may be simply didn't care. Nevertheless, I know that it had been the only one English translation available since 1967 and thanks Mr.Glenny for that. Now we have Mirra Ginsburg's more accurate translation (I have checked), which makes me happy. The novel is truly fascinating. A really remarkable person wrote it. Bulgakov was a doctor by profession, he received an exellent education in the pre-Revolutionary Russia and lived through the horrors and turmoil of the Revolution of 1917 and the Civil war. This is a wonderful satire on Communism and a biblical story. This novel populated by very interesting characters, one of them is "unknown visitor" Woland, who is the Satan visiting Moscow with his entourage. Woland is a complex figure, a diabolical seducer, father of lies - the Devil himself, but also "he, who has brought the light" - Lucifer. He laughs at the Soviet Communists, who mistakenly think that they have rooted out all evil and have build a society which is even beyond the good and evil. In the clash with Woland they watch how the "perfect" and godless society crumbles down. Please read it, and you will enjoy it, because the novel goes beyond Russian culture to the world of archetypal characters and events that have meaning to all humans.
on August 8, 2000
I suppose that I can start by saying that "The Master and Margarita" has been my favorite book for over 7 years now (that says a lot since I read quite a bit!). I don't think it is necessary to discuss the plot of the book, since you can read what the book is about by looking at the editorial reviews. However, I will comment on the various translations.
Without a doubt, the book in the original Russian is incomparable, but if you don't read Russian I would recommend the Burgin/Tiernan O'Connor translation. The first translation I ever read was Mirra Ginsburg's - although it is very charming and enjoyable, certain bits of conversation as well as almost an entire chapter are omitted from this translation. I have also read parts of Michael Glenny's translation, and I don't feel that his translation accurately relays the depth, rhythm and richness of Bulgakov's style. Burgin/Tiernan O'Connor has given the most complete and accurate translation of this work. Another superb feature of this translation is the commentary section at the end of the text, which is very helpful in understanding what influenced Bulgakov, and is especially helpful if the reader is not familiar with certain aspects of Soviet culture while the book was written (during the 1930's).
Lastly, I have to comment on the thing that I love most about "The Master and Margarita" - it is impossible to classify this book as one certain genre. This book is a philosophical and religious novel, an historical novel, a satire, a love story, an action/adventure, and a fantasy all rolled into one. Simply put, it is timeless - an original, brilliant and beautiful novel.
on June 5, 2004
There are four translations of "The Master and Margarita" presently available Two of them, those by Mirra Ginsburg and Michael Glenny, are based upon a 1966 censored Russian version of the novel, while the later, Burgin/O'Connor and Pevear/ Volokhonsky translations are based upon the final uncensored version. Additionally, the latter two translations contain useful endnotes (footnotes would have been preferable) that explain references to people, places and things in the Moscow of the Thirties.
Despite these shortcomings, after reading all four translations, I found that I enjoyed the Ginsburg translation the most. Since I do not read Russian, I based that opinion on the facts that (1) for me, it read the most smoothly, and (2) the comic passages were simply funnier in her translation (Russians, justifiably consider the novel to be a comic masterpiece). I attribute these characteristics to the Ms. Ginsburg having been born and raised in the country of Byelorussia and her being a successful writer (in English!) in her own right.
Based upon those criteria, I rank the translations as follows:
1. Mirra Ginsburg (1967) [ISBN 0802130119]. Simply the most readable. Read also her translation of "Life of a Dog."
2. Diana Burgin and Katherine O'Connor [ISBN: 0679760806]. Conveys a wonderful sense of mood, especially in the Pontius Pilate chapters.
3. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (1997) [ISBN: 0141180145]. I had the sense that this is the most accurate translation, but it is less literary than the two preceding choices. The comic passages simply do not come across. Pevear and Volokhonsky, a husband and wife team, are prolific translators of Russian literature. I have enjoyed several of their other translations, but this one just does not seem to work.
4. Michael Glenny (1967) [ISBN: 0679410465]. No reason to buy this one.
Having read all four, would I do it again? Absolutely! I'm convinced that this is one of the great novels of the 20th century, and with each reading I picked up subtleties that I had not noticed before.
on August 7, 2009
This review does not refer to Master and Margarita, which is a powerful and genius work of art. This review, instead, refers to the Classics House translation of a powerful and genius work of art.
I will sum it up like this: I came across the phrase 'bum-freezer made of air' on the second page of the Classics House translation. I am fluent in Russian and have many Russian friends, and I asked one of them for their Russian copy of Master and Margarita, so what in the world the translator was intending to convey. In short, they had translated 'vasdooshnei pidjakot' (which means an airy or diaphanous jacket) as 'bum-freezer made of air'. Good job, translators!
Throughout the text, I found extremely strange phrases and sentence constructions that were clearly the result of some of the shoddiest translation I have ever seen. What more, the typeset of this book was chock-full of typos and mistakes - I have counted seventeen on the page I am looking at right now. When reading a novel, it is not fun to be constantly jolted out of the reading experience by noticing all the strange typesetting mistakes and constant strange phrases that make me wonder what word the translator bungled this time. And I really do not recommend this edition to anyone who is not reading it for the laughs.
This novel belongs in its own category, for there has never been another like it. A really great novel is like a best friend. We love to see them praised and are hurt when they are attacked. I am elated to see that so many Amazon readers share my love for this great work. I have been reticent to write a critique, as I really can't do it justice. Words are too meager a medium to convey my true response to this masterpiece. Suffice it to say that this has long been my first recommendation whenever anyone approached me about books I most enjoyed. Now with the appearance of Diana Burgin's and Katherine O'Connor's superb translation, I can recommend it even more unreservedly. I've read the Ginsburg and Glenny translations, as well, and have to agree with the other reviewers here who take exception to them. I haven't read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, but haven't been too excited by their work with Dostoevsky, so will probably skip it. I envy those who can read Bulgakov and other Russian masters in the original language, but I make do with finding the best translation I can and pay heed to what native speakers have to say about the various translations. I haven't heard any negatives about Burgin's and O'Connor's efforts. The volume also contains some useful annotation, particularly helpful if you are unfamiliar with the era and with the layout of Moscow. There are also some great Bulgakov sights on the net that have detailed maps of 30's-era Moscow, for those interested in getting a clearer mental picture of the sites Bulgakov describes (Patriarchs Pond, The Aryat, etc.). As far as placing Bulgakov in the Pantheon of Russian novelists, this novel alone propels him to the front ranks. Some of his other works, most notably Heart of a Dog and White Guard have not been adequately translated yet, so it is difficult to assess them. If you are a Pasternak fan (which I am not) you will probably enjoy White Guard, however. It is not satire, though, which in my estimation is Bulgakov's strong suit. Nor is there much humor there (at which he also excels in M&M). In fact I would be hard-pressed to come up with any other work in any literature that is as scathingly humorous and dead-on-target satirical as M&M. Burgess and Vonnegut are rungs below Bulgakov in either category. Bulgakov skewers every Moscow bureaucrat and literary hack (unfortunately in the Stalinist era most of those who maintained positions of authority in literary circles were obsequious no-talents who mouthed party-line propaganda) that ever did him harm (and these were legion). Yet there is not an ounce of vitriol involved in the skewering, which is remarkable in itself. Bulgakov had to be one of the most good-natured people ever to pick up a pen. That is the overall impression one gleans from the accounts of his contemporaries and it is evident throughout this book. Yes, stupid people behave stupidly and predictably
(Annushka is Annushka ! ) but in most cases the divine forces at work here let them off the hook. If you haven't been convinced by all these testimonials to give this novel a try, I am probably wasting space here anyway. This novel is the reason I go on reading. I hope someday to come across another like it. There aren't enough stars in the Amazon galaxy to do it justice.
on October 1, 2009
I would be careful purchasing this edition of The Master and Margarita. The lack of a translator was apparent with misspelled words (haze, spelled ha2e), poor sentence structure (often lacking a verb), and the spacing was not indicative of who was speaking.
I have since gone on and purchased the edition by Picador and find it an entrancing read. I realize now how much I missed out of the first three chapter of the edition I purchased from Amazon by Classic House Publishing.
on June 15, 2003
"The Master and Margarita," Mikhail Bulgakov's sparkling fantasy of Satan's visit to Moscow under the guise of a magician named Professor Woland, must rank as one of the greatest acts of literary heroism of the past century. Bulgakov wrote the novel in the late 1930s, under what was arguably the most repressive government ever on earth--the Soviet Union at the height of Stalin's power. When even the mildest criticism of the regime led to a death sentence, Bulgakov dared to place all the cruelty, venality and treachery of 1930s Russia under a microscope. The book was of course unpublishable in Bulgakov's lifetime; it only appeared in its original form nearly a half-century after the author's death. We can chuckle at the wicked tricks Woland and his retinue play on various arrogant, incompetent Soviet officials, but knowledge of the power wielded by the real-life counterparts of those officials gives the chuckles a grim undertone indeed. The titular characters don't even appear until the book is nearly half-over: the Master, a despondent writer sent to an asylum after his novel about Pontius Pilate is rejected by the Soviet writers' union, and Margarita, the beautiful woman who loves him and will literally go to Hell for his sake. Through their dealings with Woland, Bulgakov exalts the power of the imagination, the need for the spiritual dimension in life and the courage to live by one's own convictions--virtues that Stalinist Russia strove, mostly successfully, to undermine. Interspersed with the tale of Woland, the Master and Margarita are chapters from the Master's novel, depicting Pontius Pilate's dealings on the day of the Crucifixion with Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus of Nazareth), Levi Matvei (St. Matthew) and Judas of Kerioth (Iscariot). The leading theme of those chapters is the essential nature of humankind: are people good, as Yeshua argues, or bad, as Pilate does? Bulgakov never answers this question, and Christian fundamentalists will be outraged to find Levi Matvei and Woland at the end to be allies, albeit uneasy ones. But in the Stalinist moral vacuum that denied the existence of both Heaven and Hell, how could they avoid working together? Bulgakov insists that people have moral choices, and that the greatest evil comes from abdicating those choices, as Stalin not only encouraged but demanded. The Vintage International edition of "The Master and Margarita" benefits mightily from the idiomatic, easily flowing English translation by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor, and the afterword by Bulgakov biographer Ellendea Proffer provides invaluable information, from the standpoint of both the societal context and Bulgakov's own life history.
on May 21, 2000
This extraordinary and unique book opens in 1930s Moscow during the darkest period of Stalin's repressive reign. Near Patriarch Ponds, two writers sit on a bench engaged in a discussion regarding the nature of Jesus. True to their times, both writers devoutly discount his existence. As their discourse continues, they are joined by a third man, a well-dressed stranger who claims not only to believe in the existence of the historical Jesus, but to have actually been present at Jesus's trial and crucifixion. Unbeknownst to the two writers, this stranger is none other than Satan, himself, who is now calling himself Woland. The next chapter takes us to Yershalaim (Jerusalem) and Pontius Pilate's interrogation of Yeshua Ha-Nozri (Jesus). Much to Pilate's dismay, Yeshua freely admits to all of the charges brought against him. Pilate, although finding himself captivated by Yeshua and desiring to free him, has no choice but to order his execution instead. Yeshua is sentenced to death and crucified and Pilate grows more and more disturbed. Back in Moscow, things have taken a bizarre turn. When Woland's prediction of the death of the writer Berlioz turns out to be true, another writer, Ivan the Homeless is unceremoniously carted off to an asylum and the esteemed Dr. Stravinsky. As heads roll and people are driven mad, Ivan meets his neighbor in the asylum, one known only as The Master. The Master, also a writer, has been working on a novel centering on Pontius Pilate and the story, not coincidentally, is more than similar to Woland's eyewitness version. Ivan also learns of The Master's love for the beautiful Margarita with whom he shared both an apartment and an affair until the rejection of his novel drove him insane. Margarita, meanwhile, is living in a loveless marriage and spends her days pining away for her lost Master, knowing nothing of his whereabouts. The story then moves back to Yershalaim and Pilate's struggle to come to terms with the death of Yeshua. He is visited by Matthew Levi and subsequently orders the death of Judas of Kiriath (Judas Iscariot) for his betryal of Yeshua. Moving back to Moscow again, we learn the reason for Woland's visit. He wants to give a Grand Ball and is in search of a hostess--a hostess named Margarita. Margarita instantly agrees and the Grand Ball proceeds, apparently lasting for hours and hours with the guests having been chosen from among the most sinful and corrupt of all the deceased. With the dawning of the new day, Woland, who is pleased with Margarita's performance, tells her he will grant her her fondest wish. Of course, that wish is to be reunited with The Master. How this request is accomplished is one of the most extremely inventive passages in all of literature and involves not only Woland, but his wily accomplices (Azazello and Behemoth), Matthew Levi and Pilate, himself. Suffice it to say, all turns out well for all intended and The Master and Margarita eventually come to reside together for all time. In The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov has created, not only a technical masterpiece of flawless writing, but also one of immense creativity, making use of innuendo, iconography, metaphor and satire. This is a multi-layed book, encompassing many themes, drawn with a painstaking commitment to detail. Although, at first glance, the two concurrently running stories seem to bear no relation to each other, a closer examination shows us just how creative Bulgalov was and how great was his genius. As the story of Yeshua and The Master are occurring nearly two thousand years apart, it would seem, on the surface, impossible to link them. Bulgakov, however, forgets this span of years and tells the story by the day and the hour instead. As the Easter weekend unfolds, so do his stories, just as though they were occurring each at the same time but in different locations. Bulgakov did not intend for the story of Yeshua to be of historical significance. Instead, it is used as a device to further the satire of Stalinist Russia. For it is within the social and political issues of Stalinist Russia that the true basis of this work is grounded. Banned until the 1960s (and then embraced) the story of The Master is a veiled belief of Bulgakov's in the importance of his own work. However, one does not need a knowledge of Russia or Russian politics to enjoy this extraordinary book. It is an entertaining read in its own right. If one understands the subtext, it is all the more enjoyable. The Master and Margarita represents one of the greatest literary works of the twentieth century and one that has certainly never been equalled. Anyone who is serious about literature absolutely cannot afford to pass this up.
on August 7, 2003
This book has got it all -- decapitations, crucifixions, vodka-drinking cats, and naked women flying on broomsticks. What's more, it is a refreshing change of pace from the 19th century works that most people think of when they hear the term "Russian literature." Bulgakov is no Tolstoi or Dostoevskiy, and I mean that as a compliment. All three are top-notch writers, each in his own way. But where Bulgakov differs from the latter two is in his ability to infuse his work with a light-heartedness, even when the subject matter is serious. While Tolstoi is known for epic tales on the grandest of scales, and Dostoevskiy for his penetrating insights into the darkness of the human soul, Bulgakov breaks from his predecessors by creating fiction with flare, stories that dance off the page, with an undeniable element of humor that is extremely rare in Russian literature.
This edition of Master and Margarita is a bit choppy in the translation, but it more than makes up for that minor flaw by providing an excellent set of comments on the text at the back of the book. This is one of those books that is so much easier to appreciate the more you understand the historical references and the social context of the story. Bulgakov, in addition to be a master of the pen, was also a capable historian and keen observer of society and politics. His novels, particularly this one, make this clear. In Master and Margarita, thanks to its novel-within-a-novel structure, you have not one but two socio-historical portraits, both of them exceptionally accurate. Bulgakov showed no fear of the Communist censors, depicting with remarkable honesty the Soviet Union of the 1930s. (No wonder this book didn't see the light of day for several decades.) But perhaps more impressive is his portrayal of a period which he did not witness first-hand. Through the character of the Master, Bulgakov relates a completely unorthodox, though not at all unbelievable, account of Jesus' trial and crucifixion from the perspective of Pontius Pilate, who comes across as most sympathetic and likeable.
As one would expect, the two stories are flawlessly woven together. Parallel plot lines and similarities between the characters in each story make the novel that much richer, that much more of a literary achievement. It is no surprise that most Russians consider this to be their finest example of 20th century literature.