Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita is a fiercely satirical fantasy that remained unpublished in its author's home country for over thirty years.
This Penguin Classics edition is translated with an introduction by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the acclaimed translators of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. In Soviet Moscow, God is dead, but the devil - to say nothing of his retinue of demons, from a loudmouthed, gun-toting tomcat, to the fanged fallen angel Koroviev - is very much alive.
As death and destruction spread through the city like wildfire, condemning Moscow's cultural elite to prison cells and body bags, only a madman, the Master, and Margarita, his beautiful, courageous lover, can hope to end the chaos.
Written in secret during the darkest days of Stalin's reign and circulated in samizdat form for decades, when The Master and the Margarita was finally published it became an overnight literary phenomenon, signalling artistic freedom for Russians everywhere. This luminous translation from the complete and unabridged Russian text is accompanied by an introduction by Richard Pevear exploring the extraordinary circumstances of the novel's composition and publication, and how Bulgakov drew on carnivalesque folk traditions to create his ironic subversion of Soviet propaganda.
This edition also contains a list of further reading and a note on the text. After finishing high school, Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) entered the Medical School of Kiev University, graduating in 1916.
He wrote about his experiences as a doctor in his early works Notes of a Young Country Doctor.
His later works treated the subject of the artist and the tyrant under the guise of historical characters, but The Master and Margarita is generally considered his masterpiece.
If you enjoyed The Master and Margarita, you might like Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, also available in Penguin Classics. 'One of the great novels of the 20th century, a scary, darkly comic allegory' Daily Telegraph
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 432 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
- Publication Date: 06/09/2007
- Category: Classic fiction (pre c 1945)
- ISBN: 9780140455465
- Paperback from £6.55
- CD-Audio from £15.99
- EPUB from £3.99
Showing 1 - 5 of 7 reviews.
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Review by petterw
Burlesque fantasy with a series of unforgettable, hilarious and thought provoking stories and situations. Obviously coloured by the Soviet time in which it was written, but I found it nevertheless entertaining and enlightening even today.
Review by girlunderglass
There's nothing can say about this book that others haven't said before me. It's daring, it's witty, it's cynical, and never boring. It's a satire, it's a love story, it's an absurdist play, it's a Bildungsroman, it's a postmodern take on Faust, it's a protest against censorship. Or, as the book's Wiki page informs you, "<i>part of its literary brilliance lies in the different levels on which it can be read, as hilarious slapstick, deep philosophical allegory, and biting socio-political satire critical of not just the Soviet system but also the superficiality and vanity of modern life in general</i>" And because of this characteristic, "The Master and Margarita" is one of those books that you can't just digest in one read. At first I had mixed feelings about it - it was always intriguing, exciting, yes, but not <i>lovable</i> enough, I thought. Its light and talkative tone didn't seem, to me, to capture the agony and pain of people's lives in Stalinist Moscow. Moreover, with the possible exception of Behemoth, the vodka-drinking, chess-playing, pistol-toting cat, the book had no characters that one truly cares for. Or that's what I felt as I was reading it. You can see why, then, it surprises me that weeks after finishing the novel I find its colourful cast of characters - Woland, Azazello, Behemoth, the Master, Margarita, Ivan Ponyrov, and Pontius Pilate - frequently popping into my head and putting a smile on my face. It probably won't go down as one of my favourite books, but it is certainly memorable, unique, and unlike anything I've ever read.
Review by AndrewBlackman
The devil is unleashed in Stalinist Moscow. The funny thing is that while the devil kills, maims and causes havoc throughout the city, he is very far from a traditional definition of evil. In fact, the character struck me as being more like an avenging angel, punishing people for various sins such as cowardice, greed, vanity or lust.There is a further subversion of expectations later in the novel when Margarita makes a pact with the devil to find the character she calls the Master. We are so used to Faustian pacts throughout literature and popular culture that the assumption is that it will work out badly – which it does in a way, but not in the way that you’d expect. The devil is more true to his word than most of the human characters in the book, and doesn’t require much in return for his favours.Cowardice seems to be chief among Bulgakov’s targets, which is understandable given the times in which the novel was written. In Stalinist Russia, as under any dictatorship, the choice between cowardice and death would have been a frequent one, and the majority necessarily chose the former. There are frequent allusions to Soviet life: sudden disappearances, bureaucratic entities with ridiculous compound names, etc. I suspect that many of the characters are thinly-veiled versions of Russian writers and critics of the day, too, but my knowledge of 1920s/30s Russian literati doesn’t allow me to get the references. Still, it doesn’t matter – there’s plenty more going on here.In fact, it’s the kind of book that you could probably read several times and get new layers of meaning each time. The character of Pontius Pilate appears throughout the book, including at the beginning and the end, and was the subject of a book written by the Master and a story told by the devil to prove the existence of Jesus to a doubting literature professor just before he predicts (or engineers?) the professor’s decapitation by a tram. Decapitation is a repeated motif, as are sin and punishment.One thing I found amazing about the book was that I believed in the characters and the action, even when it was absolutely absurd, as it frequently was. I think Bulgakov achieved this by focusing on the ordinary aspects of the situation, not on the absurd. For example, when a cat jumps on a subway car and attempts to pay ten kopecks to the conductress, Bulgakov adds in little details like the fact that he grabbed hold of a handrail and paid through a window “open on account of the stuffiness”. By reminding readers of familiar things like this, he makes the situation seem more real. I know it probably still sounds absurd when taken out of context like this, but in the book itself it worked, trust me!
Review by kpolhuis
Reading this book was first a surprise and then a joy. Surprise because I was quickly drawn into this fascinating story (not knowing what to expect from a new-to-me author), then joy because I did not wish to put it down, joy again because of the other strands that were introduced to me (Puskin, Goethe etc.,) When I read this book again (and I most certaily will), I plan on reading Faust beforehand as well as some of the other works of literature referenced. Also, I will listen to nothing but Shostakovitch whilst reading it (because I could not help but hear his string quartets in my mind... particularly the first one).
Review by dmsteyn
O goodness infinite, goodness immense!That all this good of evil shall produce,And evil turn to good.- John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book XIIWhat is Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita about? I find that an impossible question to answer, at least, in a nutshell. The meaning of the novel is too complex and multi-faceted to summarise in a few words. The content of the novel can be conveyed a bit more readily, although even here, one experiences problems: the titular ‘Master and Margarita’ do not appear in the novel until almost the half-way point. Problems also arise with descriptions like ‘Satan and his retinue arrive in 1930s Moscow and wreak havoc’. For one thing, do we know that Woland, the diabolical foreigner, really is Satan? Bulgakov is certainly coy about this identification. Moreover, we do not even know whether this really is 1930s Moscow. Again, Bulgakov avoids giving particulars about the period. It is certainly Moscow, but a fictional representation of the Russian city that mixes in fictitious places (Griboedov House) with real locations (the Patriarch Ponds). And what about the scenes from the Master’s manuscript? Are they really about the Passion of Christ? Bulgakov goes out of his way to contradict the gospels, changing facts (well, putative facts) and adding information that is quintessentially apocryphal. His use of Aramaic names and other details give these scenes a verisimilitude that contrasts strongly with the actual Biblical narratives. Why does Bulgakov go to such lengths to obscure his source material? Any lengthy consideration of Bulgakov’s masterpiece leads to a proliferation of questions, as this introductory paragraph illustrates (perhaps too clearly). I do not pretend to be able to answer these questions, but I will attempt to illuminate some of them, especially as concerns the interpretation of the novel. Most of my tentative conclusions are based on the excellent Critical Companion to the novel edited by Laura Weeks.Several approaches to the novel are considered by Weeks in her introductory essay concerning the novel. Although, like Weeks, I prefer a unified reading of the novel, I will consider each of these approaches briefly. The first is the view of the novel as carnival, as suggested by the Russian formalist critic Mikhail Bakhtin. This reading takes its cue from the medieval mystery plays, where the ‘collision of the eternal… and the ephemeral allowed carnival goers to air their social and economic grievances and… set the prevailing social and moral order on its head’ (p.18). The representation of the Passion story was a popular part of the carnival days, and was often presented very realistically. This part of the carnival contrasted with the foolery and horse-play of the rest of the celebrations, which can by analogy apply to the role of Koroviev and Behemoth (Woland’s humorous assistants) in the novel. Some critics see this reading as applying to the novel because they claim that, just as nothing really changes after carnival, with the social order reasserting itself, so nothing really changes in Moscow after Woland and his retinue leaves. I do not completely agree, but more on this later.Another way of seeing the novel is as a Menippean satire. Briefly, such a satire is a ‘mixture of seemingly contradictory elements: history and myth, philosophy and fantasy, the serious and the comic, high- and low-narrative levels’ (p.19). A famous English example would be Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels Being satirical, this kind of writing aims to ridicule the vices of society, which Bulgakov obviously does in writing about Stalinist practices. Closely following this satirical reading is the view of the novel as roman-a-clef, or a novel in which actual people and events are disguised as fictional characters and events. Bearing in mind Bulgakov’s own treatment at the hands of the Stalinist authorities, this reading is certainly tenable, but only to a degree, as it unfortunately leads to the parlour game of ‘identify-the-character-with-the-person’, which distracts from actual interpretation. This is also a problem with reading the novel as a straight political allegory of Stalinist Russia. Although this type of interpretation was quite in vogue for a while, there are several problems with it. As Weeks notes, there are problems of chronology, but it also cheapens the novel, implying that once one has guessed the ‘actual’ meaning of the scenes and who the characters ‘actually’ represent, ‘most of the marrow has been sucked from the bone’, (as Weeks puts it), which obviously is not true.A different reading is to see the novel as a parody of Goethe’s Faust. There are certainly similarities between the two works, with characters sharing names and roles, and both works sharing similar moral concerns: the epigraph at the beginning of The Master and Margarita (which is from Faust) makes this clear. It is, however, important to note that Bulgakov consistently undermines our expectations. For instance, Woland, who initially seems to be a Mephistophelean figure, quickly departs from this role (as Weeks mentions, he does not conform to the Faust-Gretchen-Mephistopheles triangle in his relations with the Master and Margarita). Also, the Master does not conform to the role of the ever-striving Faust; nor does Margarita remotely resemble the innocent, demure Gretchen. So, while the novel can be seen as a reworking of the dramatic poem, direct analogies quickly break down. Similar problems arise from viewing the novel as a form of ‘miraculous Russian fairy tale’. Although there are certainly similarities (Russian fairy tales posit a similar blending of reality and fantasy), the fairy tales tend to strongly endorse binary oppositions of good and evil, while the fact is (as Weeks puts it) that ‘no one in this novel (except Yeshua) is unambiguously good or evil’ (p.25).None of these formal approaches are quite satisfactory, as they ignore aspects of the novel that do not quite fit into their views. An example from Weeks:For those haunted by the images of Rimskii’s shaking head and white hair, Baron Maigel’s burning body, and Berlioz’s severed head, this is no Bakhtinian “temporary liberation” from the prevailing social and moral order.As Weeks goes on to mention, this is because these approaches ignore the theological and metaphysical aspects of the work. A useful way of looking at this is through Christian iconography, which I will not go into here, and the possibilities that Bulgakov was influenced by Gnostic and Manichean worldviews. The Gnostic and Manichean views both posit two plains of existence: ‘one transcendent, divine; the other fallen, material – a division that is echoed in the polarization of Bulgakov’s universe.’ The courage-cowardice polarization is of utmost importance in the novel, as it is the crux on which Pilate’s and the Master’s redemption hinges.And what, then, of Woland and the opposition of good versus evil? Bulgakov’s cosmology differs markedly from traditional Christian eschatology, which was strongly influenced during its formative years by Persian dualism in which ‘good and evil do not coexist in the creation but are forever battling it out, until the final reckoning’ (p.42). This is obviously simplifies Christian eschatology, but it does contrast interestingly with the role of Satan in the Old Testament (especially in Job), where he is an agent of divine justice. Woland also seems to fulfil this role of punisher, but he also rewards characters. Weeks notes that ‘a number of critics see Woland as source of evil’ (p.43), or as playing the role of the Father of Lies. For example, Edward Ericson says that ‘the contrast between the end of Woland and Company and that of the Master and Margarita… should lay to rest any notion of Satan as a “good guy” in this novel’ (p.65).As I began this review with a quote from Paradise Lost, I will end it by saying that I see a correlation between the roles of Satan in both these works. Critics, perhaps swayed by their personal beliefs, tend to interpret Satan and Woland (who may not be the same entity) as either fundamentally good or evil. I would contend that both play roles outside traditional Christian doctrine. Both Bulgakov and Milton were forming their own cosmologies based on Christianity, but neither were doctrinaire practitioners of their faiths. Their diabolical characters, though very different, are both ambiguous agents of a will which is perhaps not quite divine. As Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice, ‘The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose’. Perhaps writers can cite the Devil for their purposes.
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