The Master And Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Diana Burgin & Katherine Tiernan O’Connor

with notes and an afterword by Ellendea Proffer, who is smart enough to put all her illuminating, excellent content at the end in order to avoid spoilers. That said, I rather wish there’d been a bit of footnoting to direct readers to this area, tho understand that this isn’t meant to be an annotated version.

Lord knows, I could have used one, tho. You know how there are some books that you read and you realize “this was not written for me”? Well, this was not written for me. My familiarity with Russian culture and history is broad but not deep; similarly with my grasp of Christian history. Yet a more than working familiarity with both these subjects is integral to the enjoyment of this modernist novel, that was written with decidedly Romantic sensibilities while under a repressive Soviet censorship system. On its face, it’s a perfectly acceptable, madcap satire that reworks the tales of both Pontius Pilate and Faust into a post-Revolution Moscow setting. For people with little to no familiarity with Russia/Christianity, it reads like a fever dream. Its pathos and sophistication only become apparent once you learn about its direct influences, as, in my case, through Ms Proffer’s excellent endnotes.

Essentially, a practitioner of black magic named Woland (who is, perhaps, the Devil himself) comes to Moscow and wreaks havoc among the literati and associated circles. The otherwise nameless Master has already been confined to an insane asylum prior to Woland and co’s arrival, but his faithful lover Margarita will do anything, including dealing with the Devil himself, both to restore the Master to her side and to restore the novel that he burned before being sent to the sanatorium. Interspersed with the goings on in Moscow are chapters from said novel, reimagining the tale of Pontius Pilate in his dealings with Jesus of Nazareth.

Often called audacious (agreed) and brilliant (eh), this book is subversive both in how it treats the artistic/political climate of pre-WWII Russia but also in its somewhat hazy morality. While it’s pretty clear that Mikhail Bulgakov was sending up the very environment in which he was forced to write, it’s less clear what he means by the ending, and deliberately so. The often mystical evocations of the moon, harbinger of ambiguity, combined with the dueling propositions put forward by Jesus (“all men are good”) and Pilate (“all men are bad — myself included”) lead to questions as to who is really who in this text and who deserves what in the grander scheme of things.

For all its lofty metaphysical aims, however, there is a lot of pettiness in this book, which reads to me, as someone dissociated from the events described by almost a century and half a globe, as more self-indulgent than necessary. But, I suppose, where else to get one’s revenge in the face of an oppressive regime? Self-pity is, after all, a valid response to persecution. On a personal note, I’ve found that books that lean on readers’ familiarity with a less universal than popular culture & issues of the time don’t often translate to accessible reading more than even a handful of decades later (see also: Middlemarch.)

Doug will likely be disappointed by my tepid response to this Russian masterwork, but that’s why he’s our Eastern European expert-in-residence, not me. That said, for not being an annotated version of the classic, this was a very well-put-together version of a novel that’s been spliced and reworked and censored, with really thoughtful notes from both compiler and translators as to how they prepared this edition for print. It feels authoritative and is, in my layperson’s opinion, a version not to be missed by modern aficionados.

The Master And Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Diana Burgin & Katherine Tiernan O’Connor was published September 28 2021 by Harry N Abrams and is available from all good booksellers, including

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2 comments

  1. Not disappointed at all! In fact, I read this so long ago (probably 1995 or so) that I mostly remember it like a fever dream myself.

    That said, it’s a book that meant a lot to seemingly all of my Russian friends. It was a touchstone for them from growing up, so it’s clearly got power even nearly a hundred years on. This sounds like a good version for readers of English, what with the notes and the choices made among previous Russian versions. I might even go back for a re-read with this edition and replace the copy that I lost in my great debookening.

    (Although the Russians that are presently lined up are Vasily Grossman with his prequel to Life and Fate, Platonov when I want to get my weirdness on, and maybe the bicentennial edition of The Brothers Karamazov, since I’ve never read it. So many good books! To say nothing of Taubman’s biography of Gorbachev and Kotkin’s of Stalin, both looking at me from my shelves.)

    1. Oh yes, I have an older Polish friend who commented on my FB post saying that this book was really popular back home when he was younger because it was so evocative of how life was growing up for him! In a way, it’s a good thing that the book doesn’t feel universal, even as the author is clearly writing for the people who shared his experiences.

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