Two Reasons You’ll Love “The Master and Margarita”
I know I said I wasn’t going to review “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov, and no I haven’t been drinking. I simply spent a lot of time reading and enjoying “The Master and Margarita,” and I want to talk about it. I don’t have to nor am I capable of examining “The Master and Margarita” through the lens of critical theory, and I don’t want to get intimate with Bulgakov’s allusions and symbols. Instead, let’s talk about why anyone might like “The Master and Margarita,” regardless of how serious they are about reading.
First, a bit about the book. “The Master and Margarita” is a difficult book to summarize because there is so much going on. It is a conglomeration of subplots loosely tied together by Ivan Homeless, a poet who is admitted into an asylum after Woland (Satan) accurately predicts the decapitation of Homeless’s colleague.
The Master and Margarita have little to do with the first half of the book. Instead, the first half focuses on Woland and the mischief he and his band of demons make. We don’t even meet Margarita until book two and find out that she is trapped in a loveless marriage but dreams of being with her paramour, a writer we only know as The Master. She makes a deal with Woland and book two follows her adventure as she transforms into Queen Margot, hostess of Satan’s Ball.
All this plus a novel within the novel dispersed throughout the book that tells the story of Jesus’s crucifixion through Pontius Pilate’s point of view. This sounds like a lot, and it is, but somehow “The Master and Margarita” comes together beautifully and has become one of my favorite books. So, here are two reasons why you’ll love it too.
Two Reasons Why You’ll Love The Master and Margarita
1) The Satire
I’m a sucker for satire and Bulgakov is particularly creative in the way he criticizes the Soviet Union. For example, in “The Master and Margarita,” Woland comes to Moscow as an artiste. He gets a gig at the Variety theater and his demons perform a black magic séance where money rains down on the audience and women are invited on stage to trade in their garments for more expensive ones. The audience takes the money but when they try to spend it after the séance, it turns into scraps of paper. The women who traded in their clothing leave the theater and find themselves naked on the streets of Moscow. This scene is funny, and, mostly likely due to the public nudity, reminds me of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” though Bulgakov is criticizing Soviet greed.
I’m also a sucker for poignant quotes. Early on Woland argues, “Yes, man is mortal, but that would be only half the trouble. The worst of it is that he’s sometimes unexpectedly mortal—there’s the trick!”
This quote so eloquently sums up the human condition. Woland’s specific argument at this point though is that if there is no God, who governs man? Homeless argues that man governs himself. Woland then asks how man can govern himself if he “cannot vouch for his own tomorrow.” This is part of Bulgakov’s criticism of Soviet atheism, which is a theme throughout the book, and the absurdity of trying to disprove the existence of God to Satan himself tickles me.
2) The Fantastical Plot
The second reason why you’ll love “The Master and Margarita” is because it’s fun and surprising. In book two Azazello, a member of Woland’s posse gives Margarita cream to rub all over herself. She first applies it to her face and instantly appears younger. In a fit of glee, she rubs the cream over the rest of her body, and, before she knows it, she’s flying naked on a broom.
Margarita’s maid, seeing Margarita’s transformation, rubs the cream all over herself. She too levitates. Instead of flying on a broom, however, she rubs the lotion on a depraved male character who turns into a hog. The maid, also nude, flies off on her hog in maniacal bliss.
This whole chapter is ridiculous and entertaining and somehow both misplaced and right at home. “The Master and Margarita” is surprising in the way it effortlessly mingles the biblical with the fantastical and the commonplace with the absurd. Sure, it gets a little hard to follow at times, but such is the territory of a difficult book.
Review of “The Master and Margarita”
Because “The Master and Margarita” is a difficult book, Penguin’s “The Master and Margarita: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition” translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is especially helpful. If you read my review of “When My Name Was Keoko,” you can guess that I knew nothing about the Soviet Union or Stalin before reading “The Master and Margarita.” And my knowledge of the Bible is basic at best, so the detailed notes sprinkled through the book proved to be invaluable to me. The forward by Boris Fishman and the introduction by Pevear also helped me understand the historical context of the book.
My only complaint about “The Master and Margarita” is that it’s slow at times, particularly in the first book, but it’s definitely worth reading. Historical significance aside, “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov is ultimately another reminder that we are all, in the words of George Eliot, “struggling, erring human creatures.”