Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Master and Margarita -- Mikhail Bulgakov (Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky, translators)

In the late 1960s, the Signet paperback edition of The Master and Margarita was all over the paperback racks.  I loved the cover, but I was a grad student in American literature and didn't really have time to read a long Russian novel.  After all, I was reading a lot of Gold Medal originals in my spare time.  

The other day I read that the book was Soon to Become a Major Motion Picture (not that is hasn't already been made into motion pictures and TV series), so I thought it was time for me to see what I'd been missing.  The edition I picked up was published by Penguin Classics in 1997, and it's about 400 pages (not counting the end notes) of tiny print, not the kind of thing I usually read, but I persevered.

There are several main plot threads in the novel, but they're all connected with the arrival one day of the Devil and several of his pals (that's one of them on the cover pictured above) in Moscow.  Hijinks ensue, to say the least.  I'm not sure whether to call the book a fantasy or magical realism.  Maybe some of you can help me out.  Another plot thread has to do with Pontius Pilate on the day he condemns Jesus to be crucified.  This is both a story told by the Devil and a novel written by the Master, who hardly appears in the first half of the book.  Margarita appears even less and doesn't figure at all until the second half.  But those two are the third strand of the plot, which I won't try to unwind for you.  It's one of those books you just have to read for yourself.

If I knew more about the political, social, and literary goings on in Russia in the 1930s, maybe I could some up with some comments about the book's satire.  I'm pretty ignorant of all those things, however, so I just enjoyed the story, the wild happenings, the humor, and the characters, who, I must admit, were a bit hard to keep up with because of the Russian names and the fact that everybody seems to have at least three or four names, most of which aren't like the others.  Is this one of the great books of the 20th century, as it's often been called?  You can't prove it by me, but I'm glad I read it.

11 comments:

Rick Ollerman said...

I've still got this one on the shelf. I'm still recovering from some of the stark brutalistic realism from Isaac Babel's short stories. I may be too sympathetic for Russian literature of a certain era. Or I'm just a weenie.

Bill Crider said...

Weenies can read this. I'm one.

Cap'n Bob said...

I swore off Russian novels in 1973 and see no reason to change.

Karin said...

Is there a list of characters and their various nicknames? Sounds like it would be helpful.

Bill Crider said...

No list in this edition. Might be helpful, all right.

George said...

I read THE MASTER AND MARGANITA decades ago in a different translation. I tend to like translations by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (I'm about to read their translation of THE THREE MUSKETEERS).

Bill Crider said...

I don't know about accuracy, but they have a readable and fluid style, which I like a lot in a translation.

Thomas Miller said...

I had never heard of this, but then I wasn't a liberal arts major.

Dan said...

I somehow find a satire on Stalin's Russia a bit dated. Quit reading 50 pages in.

Bill Crider said...

I was tempted to quit, but I wanted to get to the Master and Margarita. And the Pilate story was interesting.

TracyK said...

I am very glad you read and reviewed this. I have only recently bought a copy, a Penguin Classics edition with a fabulous cover, and I wondered how hard it would be to read it and understand it with very little background on Russian history. Glad to hear it can be enjoyed without knowing all the references.