Saturday, August 13, 2011

Completed (finally!): The Master and Margarita

Dear Jenny,

This the first month I've fallen behind and did not finish a book in the allotted month (this was July's book... it is now August 13 -- I finished this morning. Oof.) I don't know why, but this book was a struggle for me to get through, and yet... I felt almost compelled to keep reading.

What is usually said about this book is that it is "two novels in one," but I would argue that it is even more novels (stories, at least) in one and that some of them were incredibly interesting to me and some were... not so much. Therefore, the interesting ones kept me coming back and the less interesting (to me, at least) ones made me want to quit.

The two main stories are:
1. The story of Pontius Pilate at the time of Jesus's crucifixion.
2. Satan comes to Moscow in the 1930s with his band of misfits and wreaks mischievous havoc there.
Both of those stories were interesting. It's the "side stories" that kind of wore on me.

The main stories are connected by an author (the Master): he has written a novel about Pontius Pilate in the days preceding and following the crucifixion and he lives in Moscow at the time of the visit from Satan (called "Woland"). He paints Pilate as an extremely sympathetic and tormented character, which I really enjoyed, because I don't remember hearing much about Pilate other than... Yup. He's the one who gave the go-ahead. When The Master and Margarita opens with the story of Pilate, it's not immediately clear that we are actually reading the Master's book -- we find that out much later in the novel, and that is incredibly well done. I love how Bulgakov ties all of the stories together, even when they seem unrelated.

The Master's lover is Margarita. Her story was my favorite by far and definitely sucked me back in about halfway through, when I was ready to quit. Woland (Satan) asks her to be his hostess at a yearly ball. She agrees and becomes a witch for the night, and her witchy scenes are very, very fun. The ball is grueling, but she does not break, so Woland grants her one wish. Her first wish is selfless -- that a woman who has been suffering in limbo/hell be relieved of her burden. Woland grants her that wish, but since it was for someone else, he gives her another.

The Master has been in an insane asylum and she asks that he be restored to her and that they may return to their basement apartment to be happy together. Woland is kind of skeptical that that is what she wants, but he gives it to her. The rest of their story is great... do you want to know how it ends? I don't want to spoil anything for you.

The less engaging parts of the novel came out of Woland's general havoc in Moscow... mostly, where Bulgakov turns things into a social commentary on Russia at the time. I don't really know much about Russian history -- the footnotes were helpful, but wading through the social commentary felt like a chore.

It's a bummer, because Woland's band of misfits were great characters, especially Behemoth -- a giant black cat that walks on his hind legs and seems to be featured on most English language covers of this book, although I'm mystified why he's frequently depicted as skinny, because he's clearly described as gigantic throughout the novel:

Of those covers, I feel like the final one really nails Behemoth -- he's a clown. An evil, evil clown.

When the novel simply focuses on Woland's crew and their antics, it's very entertaining... but getting into the nitty-gritty details of the people who were affected wore on me. I realize it was a social commentary and if I shared an interest in the issues that Bulgakov addressed, I probably would have been shouting "Yeah! Take THAT!" But... I was really only in it for the story/ies, so that part was skip-able.

Overall, the novel is masterfully written -- Bulgakov throws a bunch of seemingly unrelated stories out there and then weaves them all together artfully. As a story, I loved it. As a soapbox, it left me in the cold. I'm glad I stuck with it, although I could have skipped the (long-winded!) Epilogue, which basically gave me follow-up details on all of the lesser characters in the novel that I didn't give a crap about.


PS -- If you want to know what happens to the Master and Margarita (and I think you probably do), let me know in the comments and I'll tell you there... that way, anyone reading the post doesn't have to worry about the big spoiler!


  1. K,

    First of all: OF COURSE I want to learn what happens to the Master and Margarita! I'm also glad you explained who they were because I had been wondering how the title played into a book in Russia!

    It sounds like it ended well, which is great. Sometimes it's worth it to power through and see how everything turns out.

    Have I told you that I had never even heard of this book? It's amazing what you can miss. I'm not sure I'll ever get to this one, though. If there's a great Russian novel that's on the Lifetime Bucket List (which now that I think about it would be a pretty interesting list), it's Anna Karenina.


  2. Sooo... the Master and Margarita are ready to spend the rest of their days together in their cruddy basement apartment, but Woland decides to give them, basically, eternal peace together. (There's probably more of an explanation as to why, but I cannot remember it). So he sends one of his henchmen to poison them, then resurrect them. When I was reading it, I thought, "Whaaa---? They're going to Hell?!" But they don't go to Hell, they apparently go to Limbo, but it seems way better than I ever remember Limbo being described when we were kids.

    Basically, they'll be together and at peace in Limbo for the rest of eternity, which seems like a pretty good deal. It's apparently not the ecstasy of Heaven, but peace is pretty great.

    When they get to Limbo (never called that in the book, btw -- that's my own word for it), they meet Pontius Pilate, who is having a sort of miserable time there. He feels really terrible about pulling the trigger on Jesus although, really, he didn't have a choice. Also, Jesus forgave him immediately, but he cannot forgive himself. Somehow, the Master is able to grant him forgiveness, although that seems odd to me because, although the Master wrote a story about Pontius Pilate, he was a real person who did exist (or... did he? Which may be the whole point of this. The Russians are recent atheists at this time, so there's a lot of question about what's real and what's fiction/faith).

    At any rate, the Master helps him to forgive himself and he is then sent on a path of light to walk with Jesus... Heaven? I guess so... it's not spelled out and I'm not a theologian, but white lights + Jesus usually means Heaven to me, so I'm going with it. (I could probably poke around online and find someone's thesis on this, but I'm going to just leave it at that.)

    I wish it had ended there. As I mentioned, there was an incredibly long Epilogue that basically covered all of the Muscovites that I didn't care about. I would have rather finished with the Master and Margarita or even Pontius Pilate.

    I've read a few Russian books, I guess. Didn't we read The Brothers Karamazov in high school? I read Cement in college (which was, unfortunately, as interesting as its name) but my favorite so far was Crime and Punishment. I don't remember much about it, but I do remember just *loving* it. It was the same summer I read Les Miserables so I guess I was enjoying epics that year.

    I'd like to read Anna Karenina, as well. Now we've got A Moveable Feast and this one... let's do a Planned Read-along. Perhaps we should start a list?

  3. Maybe next year's 2012 reading blog should be us reading the classics together!

    Have you heard of this book:

    Sounds like it might be worth checking out!