The Master and Margarita

Rec­om­mended Read: The Mas­ter and Margarita

The Master and Margarita cover

The Mas­ter and Mar­garita by Mikhail Bul­gakov (1967)
 Cover by Diana Bur­gin and Tier­nan O’Connor

The Mas­ter and Mar­garita ignited my pas­sion for nov­els when I first read it in high school about four­teen years ago. Unfor­tu­nately, it’s just one of those titles that falls under the radar a lot, that not many peo­ple have read or even heard about, even though crit­ics con­sider it to be one of the best nov­els of the 20th century.

It’s an epic Russ­ian clas­sic by the inspir­ing author Mikhail Bul­gakov. Inspir­ing because he knew the book would never see the light of day but wrote it any­way. The com­mu­nist oppres­sion under Stalin’s rule would never allow a work filled with such oppos­ing ideas to and crit­i­cism of the Soviet Union to be pub­lished. In fact, if the book had been dis­cov­ered, he would have faced a death sen­tence. Writ­ten around the years 1928 to 1940, the year he died, the novel was left unpublished.

At one point in the story, the dev­il­ish char­ac­ter Pro­fes­sor Woland states, “Don’t you know that man­u­scripts don’t burn?” And so, Bulgakov’s mas­ter­piece was finally pub­lished in 1967.

The Premise

The premise is sim­ple: What would hap­pen if the devil—the actual Devil–came to com­mu­nist Moscow in the 1930s? The answer is: a hell of a lot. Satir­i­cal, fan­tas­ti­cal, and con­tem­pla­tive, the novel con­sists of three sep­a­rate sto­ry­lines: the devil and his ret­inue wreak­ing havoc through­out Moscow; a young woman named Mar­garita look­ing for her depressed lover referred to as the Mas­ter; and an alter­na­tive account of Pon­tius Pilate’s trial of Jesus (which the Mas­ter wrote).

Lit­er­a­ture Meets Pop Culture

One of the most inter­est­ing things is how seem­ingly ahead of its time this novel was. Stephen King com­mented on the meet­ing of the lit­er­ary world with that of the world of pop cul­ture in a speech enti­tled Build­ing Bridges, which raised the ques­tion of why can’t we have both types of sto­ry­telling in one book. Some­times peo­ple feel com­pelled to sep­a­rate the two as much as pos­si­ble, to think lit­er­a­ture offers qual­ity, while pop cul­ture offers sen­sa­tion­al­ism. That the two are mutu­ally exclu­sive. If I remem­ber cor­rectly, King made an inter­est­ing point that both lit­er­a­ture and pop cul­ture bring some­thing dif­fer­ent but equal to sto­ry­telling, and that one is not inher­ently bet­ter than the other. The Mas­ter and Mar­garita is the per­fect blend of lit­er­a­ture and pop cul­ture, and Bul­gakov wrote his book some sixty plus years before Stephen King gave his speech.

Although both lit­er­a­ture and pop cul­ture are amor­phous, some­what hard to define words, there are some gen­er­al­iza­tions. Clas­si­cally, a work of lit­er­a­ture excels at form, style, and tech­ni­cal prowess, and it usu­ally deals with not fan­tas­ti­cal plots but fan­tas­ti­cal emo­tions and feel­ings. Think: To Kill a Mock­ing­bird. Some of the intrigu­ing lit­er­ary ele­ments in The Mas­ter and Mar­garita include: pro­found themes such as with its bib­li­cal ele­ments and those deal­ing with the nature of the artist; emo­tional strug­gles such as with redemp­tion and temp­ta­tion; polit­i­cal com­men­tary and satire; com­plex story struc­ture, word­play, allu­sions, and a bevy of other items you could find by just leaf­ing through a book on lit­er­ary theory.

On the other hand, pop cul­ture tends to be the oppo­site and gen­er­ally is any­thing that appeals to mass or com­mer­cial soci­ety. Think: The Hunger Games. Some of the pop cul­ture ele­ments in The Mas­ter and Mar­garita include the incred­i­bly high level of satire; the pulp-feel of cer­tain scenes such as those involv­ing behead­ings and nudity; the over-the-top sit­u­a­tions such as a demonic ball with the dead in atten­dance or when a spell is cast on cit­i­zens at a the­ater show; and the crazy, fla­vor­ful char­ac­ters such as witches, vam­pires, and a giant cigar-smoking, gun-wielding talk­ing black cat.

Don’t Miss Out

Bul­gakov blends lit­er­a­ture and pop cul­ture expertly, mak­ing for an incred­i­bly inter­est­ing, smart, fun, multi-layered, and engag­ing read that can be enjoyed again and again. But, I don’t think Bul­gakov was actively seek­ing to blend these ele­ments, but was just being a good sto­ry­teller, telling a good story. He wasn’t con­cerned with let­ting over-delineated schools of thought or extreme ide­olo­gies stop him. If you haven’t read this book yet, I hope you enjoy it. And if you have, I hope you enjoy it again. Four­teen years later, I’m still find­ing new things, and lov­ing it as if I were read­ing it for the first time.

–Arti­cle by Word­Trance cre­ator, Michael DeCesaris

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Link: http://www.masterandmargarita.eu/en/

In addi­tion to offer­ing a thor­ough look at The Mas­ter and Mar­garita, this site offers anno­ta­tions for each chap­ter, char­ac­ter lists, and a map of Moscow–all great resources to fol­low along with while read­ing this com­plex novel to help you get the most out of it.

Digiprove sealCopy­right secured by Digiprove © 2013 Michael DeCesaris
Acknowledgements: The entire writ­ten arti­cle belongs to more…

2 comments

  1. David Ryan says:

    Wow. Sounds like a good read!
    David Ryan recently posted…Sports LadiesMy Profile

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