Long awaited, and the first book of 2016 read too.
This review is a bit rough and rushed, but it’ll do for the time being.
It took five serious attempts, four recommendations and two translations over the course of eleven years to finally read this novel. Having now finished it (both translations read simultaneously as well), the beauty of this novel for me isn’t so much the story of Woland, The Master or Pontius Pilate within the book, but more the context/backstory of the book itself.
First some boring backstory of my own M&M reading experience: I’ve had a Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of The Master and Margarita since I was 16 years old when my mum bought me the Penguin ‘Banned Books’ box collection. I never understood why she bought me such a set given that she thought me too rebellious to begin with and would also censor my bookshelves every now and then of books she deemed too explicit (though she left The Complete Marquis de Sade untouched for the entire time I lived with her simply because I think she saw it was The Complete Works of Somebody and only moral upstanding writers could have Complete Works editions made). Each time I tried to read this novel, I’d enjoy it, but I always hit a wall when it came to the end of the third chapter. For some reason, as soon as Berlioz is hit by the streetcar, I just was killed off as a reader as well. I always hit the reading wall and found it hard to continue. Determined to finish reading the other 30 chapters of this novel, I decided to buy the Burgin and O’Connor translation thinking maybe translation had been the problem all along.
So I finally read this over the holiday period and having someone around who had read the novel helped me to break past the third chapter of doom and keep on reading. I’m glad I stuck it out, because The Master and Margarita is worth the hype. The novel itself is made up of three stories; it begins with Satan visiting Moscow during the 1930s to wreak a bit of havoc on the city (especially members of the theatre/literary society), and within the opening chapters Satan introduces us to the second story: Pontius Pilates’ involvement in Christ’s execution. This second story in turn weaves with it the titular story of The Master and Margarita. Along with the topsy-turvy hilarity that ensues in the first part, there are many characters in this novel, some which are memorable and central like Woland’s cronies, others which make just the odd appearance like members of MASSOLIT. In the first part of the book there are a lot of meaningless theatrics, but this is balanced out by the second part of the novel which looks inward, pulling the reader into the world of Satan via Margarita’s involvement and it is the titular characters which unlocks the emotional depth of the novel.
“Manuscripts don’t burn.” Ironically, this novel started off as a burnt manuscript and it is an unfinished novel still with fragmented sentences and unexplained loose ends here and there in the book. Knowing it would never be published, Bulgakov spent years amending and revising parts of the novel up until his death in 1940. In M&M there is a lot of Bulgakov himself in there: his opinions of the literary society at the time, experiences had living in communal flats, stories he heard of crimes and interrogations (all of which he satirizes wonderfully). There is also the personal aspect; his love of music and theatre pervades the writing, there is a sensuality present and what I found particularly poignant was the implied sense of failure he felt as a writer reflected in the characters of The Master and Ivan N. Later on in the novel a character visits a doctor after being told he would die of liver cancer within the year, a little segment added after Bulgakov’s own dealings with his doctor. This novel is very much a living and breathing entity for those small details, some of which Bulgakov finished relating and those which never will be.
M&M was first made available as a censored version during the ’60s and the uncensored version was released in 1973. Earlier on this evening my boyfriend mentioned to his mum that I’d finished reading this book (my boyfriend and his parents hail from Moscow, living just off Patriarch’s Pond), and she told me that when she was younger she was given a typewritten copy of this book on the sly to read within one night before she had to return it (a practice known as samizdat: evading censorship by distributing censored texts), so she stayed up all night reading M&M and copied down passages she wanted to memorise and pass on to other people. She also said that she along with others would copy down different versions of the novel and compare line by line the differences between each versions. That kind of context also makes The Master and Margarita a great read on reflection. If only Bulgakov knew.
Ps. Translation wise, I found it enjoyable reading two translations simultaneously as I feel like I would have missed the point of some passages if I only stuck to one translation. For instance, even pedantic little things like ‘MASSOLIT’: written as an acronym in Burgin and O’Connor’s translation which worked better for me as a reader (English variant would be ‘LOTSALIT’) than written down as ‘Massolit’ in P&V translation. Burgin and O’Connor described the character Ivan N. by the Russian name ‘Bedzomny’ as given by Bulgakov (P&V’s translation referred to him as ‘Homeless’) which I liked, but then failed to relate the humour of MASSOLIT member’s names in the main body of the text. A member is referred to ‘Sladkin’ in the B&O version, but in P&V translation they’ve translated this as ‘Sweetkins’ which is funnier. The notes and introduction/afterward to both editions were incredibly useful though.