The Master and Margarita

Posted by : atcampbell | On : August 5, 2013

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Ten people attended this meeting at the Milwood Library. Our discussion topic was The Master and Margarita, a literary Russian novel. The book alternates between two plot threads: a visit by the Devil to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and a historical story involving Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate. Two people in the group had read Bulgakov before. Six of us started the book and four finished it.

Notably, two members of the group were unable to find copies of the book to read. Several members of the group are now reading many of their books electronically. Unfortunately The Master and Margarita was one of the first books we’ve discussed in a long time that did not have an e-book edition.

The publication history of the book is complicated. It was written between 1928 and 1940, but not published until 1967. Early versions were censored, and the full text was only made available in 1989. The book was written in Russian, and there were several English translations published between 1967 and 2008. The people in our group read several different translations.

One reader said that she was puzzled because this book had so many levels to its story. Despite that, she found the book to be frequently funny. She could tell that this book was the inspiration for the Rolling Stones song “Sympathy for the Devil.” She thought the book still felt current, despite its age. The book was so interesting to her that she did research on the Internet to learn more about the book and author.

Another attendee had first read the book when she was young, after uncensored translations first became available. She was impressed by the use of Jesus Christ as a character, which she said seemed “transgressive” at the time. She enjoyed the surreal nature of the story, but felt that “the plot did not cohere” and “the ending seemed superficial.”

One participant enjoyed that the author “does so many things that were experimental at the time.” She appreciated how the author would introduce important characters and then not use them again for several chapters. She liked how the author wrote the modern sequences as fantasy and the historical sequences as straight history. A highlight was when the book made fun of the foibles of the members of a writers’ group.

The person who’d recommended the book was at the meeting. He called attention to how Soviet characters in the book react to strangers: “Are you here to arrest me?” He felt that this book lays out everything the Strugatsky brothers wrote decades later. He enjoyed the book’s use of puns in the names of people and places. He said that everything in this story connects together, as in Cloud Atlas and Little, Big. He liked how it demanded more of the reader than other Russian novels of the era. He really enjoyed the levels of irony and satire in the book.

A few people started the book but didn’t get very far. One said the story was hard to follow. Another was dismayed that he didn’t know if he was reading a novel or a set of hallucinations. Another simply hadn’t had much time to read.

Overall we had an interesting meeting. Afterward, many of us had dinner together at Marrakesh.

–A. T. Campbell, III