The Master and Margarita

  • Colin Lewis
    • Book Reviews
    • Mikhail Bulgakov
    • Translated by Burgin & O'Connor
    • Vintage, Reprint edition 1996
    • ISBN 0679760806

You will need to know a few things: the history of Russia, the Soviet Union, and the Bible, for example. A familiarity with Gounad, Goethe and Gogol will also help. You should bear in mind the novel’s color scheme: red, black and white, as well as the yellowness that signals misery, madness and betrayal. Note the differences between the backstabbing Finnish knife, the bread knife stolen by Levi, and the many other knives brandished or held in check behind belts. You may require a pencil and paper to recall the dozens of Russian names: Nikolayevich, Ivanovich, Koroyev and more. Finally, you will need a sense of humor, a poetic soul, and if not an intimate acquaintance with true love, at least the fierce desire to know it.

I know some of these things; not many, but enough. As we wandered the bookstore, R— pointed to books she wanted me to read. “What’s this one about?” I asked. “It’s…just wonderful,” she replied, then said no more.

How else can we sum up this wild and far-reaching classic? It satirizes Soviet bureaucracy. It took the author twelve years to write, and he threw his first manuscript into the fire. The book features Satan, a talking cat, and a panoply of supernatural figures who terrorize Moscow’s nonbelievers with black magic – especially the literary highbrows. In another story line we follow the crucifixion of Christ. Over a third of the book passes before we meet one of the main characters; the Master, an unnamed writer confined to an asylum. Several chapters later we meet his estranged lover, Margarita, a future witch and queen, and a woman who will abandon everything she knows to reach her heart’s desire again. Her revenge on the one who took this from her will stand your hair on end.

R— and I had lost touch over a longer period, but though we had not met in years there was that same electric disturbance in the air between us. At a certain age you may wonder about your missteps and missed opportunities. You may wonder if unseen forces could charge in, as they do for the Master and Margarita, and if you have earned the chance to watch these powers set things right. “You are still thin as a dime,” said R—, “I could wrap my arms around you twice.” “Please do,” I replied, and she did. “And now to let go,” I thought, as she loosened her grip, and we both took one step back.

After giving Ivan this lecture, the guest inquired, “Your profession?”
“Poet,” Ivan acknowledged somewhat unwillingly.
The newcomer became distressed.
“Oh, how unlucky I am!” he exclaimed, but then caught himself, apologized, and asked, “And what is your name?”
“Uh-oh,” said the guest with a frown.
“What’s the matter, don’t you like my poetry?” asked Ivan with curiosity.
“Emphatically not.”
“And what have you read?”
“I haven’t read any of your poetry!” retorted the visitor irritably.
“Then how can you tell?”
“Well,” replied the guest, “it’s not as if I haven’t read other things like it, now is it? But maybe, by some miracle, yours is different? All right, I’m ready to take it on faith. Tell me yourself, are your poems any good?”
“Horrible!” Ivan blurted out boldly and frankly.
“Don’t write any more!” the newcomer implored.
“I promise you, I swear I won’t!” was Ivan’s solemn reply.
They sealed the vow with a handshake, and then the sounds of soft footsteps and voices were heard from the corridor.
“Shh,” whispered the guest, jumping out onto the balcony and closing the grille behind him.
Praskovya Fyodorovna looked in and asked how Ivan was feeling and whether he wanted to sleep in the dark or the light. Ivan asked her to leave the light on, and Praskovya Fyodorovna exited after wishing the patient good night. And when everything had quieted down, the guest came back again.

—from chapter XIII, Enter the Hero