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The cover blurb on this made the think that the book would concern itself mainly with "the Master, a writer pilloried for daring to write a novel about Christ and Pontius Pilate" and "Margarita, who loves the Master so deeply that she is willing literally to go to hell for him" (cover blurb, 1996 Vintage International edition). But actually, the Master makes his entrance in Chapter 13: 110 pages into a 335-page novel. And although he talks about Margarita a great deal in his first scenes, she doesn't show up until Chapter 19. The author is cheerfully self-aware about this: the title of Chapter 13 is "Enter the Hero." It's that kind of book: rather like a Terry Pratchett novel, if Pratchett were a repressed Russian writing in the 1930s.

Really, this is a story about the Devil taking a holiday. He arrives in Moscow with a small retinue, leaving behind Hell and presumably abandoning the onerous job of punishing the truly evil to his lieutenants, and instead goes a spree, extravagantly tormenting the merely unpleasant. The early parts of the books are taken up with showing us how nasty and petty and small-minded the Moscow literati of the time can be, and indeed how obnoxious and greedy and sneaky most of the Muscovites are. The Devil and his crew make merry mayhem among them by exploiting their weaknesses, especially greed. Greed for money, luxury goods, higher positions, and revenge on others causes person after to person to fall into the Devil's snares. Both the nastiness of the sinners and the comic cruelty of the Devil's rewards are described in fond detail. But when the Devil tempts Margarita, things go rather differently.

I can't say I liked this story. In fact, I found it mostly rather unpleasant. The only parts I really liked were the bits of the Master's novel that Bulgakov shows us, paralleling the main action. But the book was quite involving, and very literate, and I'm interested in continuing to make my way through the extensive notes provided by the translators at the end.

 

The Master and Margarita (review)

There's a certain glamour and fascination to the marathon Bosch-esque ball over which the Devil has Margarita preside. I also have to admit that I was moved at Margarita's request in response to the boon that the Devil grants her for completing the event in a queenly fashion: instead of requesting anything for herself or her lover, Margarita requests that one of the sinners that she has encountered at the ball be granted relief from eternal torment. It's this that causes the Devil to respond by removing the Master from his imprisonment in an insane asylum, reuniting them, and granting them peace. But they aren't granted salvation: they haven't earned it. Theologically this makes sense, I guess: Margarita is an adultress.

In any case, it's a book that wasn't very satisfying to me. The Master and Margarita escape from their unpleasant situations, and many nasty people are punished. Some few of them seem to have grown and learned from their experiences, but because the author hasn't given us any reason to like any of them very much, it doesn't really matter. And there's the problem. I don't like anyone in the story enough to revisit them by re-reading the book. Even Margarita: Bulgakov doesn't really put us inside her head, so we never really get to know her. Even when the action is described from her viewpoint, she doesn't reflect on anything or give us her feelings. My main emotions after reading this are "Wow, I've finished this famous book. Now I can get on with something that captures my mind and heart a little better."

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
(Anonymous)
Feb. 11th, 2008 11:54 pm (UTC)
Master and Margarita
I think you're trying to read the book through a moral lens instead of an ironic one, which is why you end up dissatisfied. Here's my take on it: http://www.sexualfables.com/From-Russia-with-Love.php
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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