Master and Margarita – Reloaded

I am at last re-reading Mikhail Bulgakov (1966) “The Master and Margarita”. The first time I started (and failed to complete) reading it in April 2017 I said this:

All I can say so far is M&M’s seriously weird and compelling. Some cross between Salman Rushdie Satanic Verses and Neil Gaiman American Gods but written in 1930’s Soviet Russia!

Mentioned it in October 2019 again in a Salman Rushdie context, but still had never read it. Strangely my first mention of it was back in December 2007 on a singularly unimpressive recommended book list. (Note: it was only published in 1966, mine is a 1995 Picador translation, but it was originally written and constantly revised under censorship from 1929 until his death in 1940. The published version is stitched together from multiple credible drafts.)

I’m beyond where I got to before, and recognising the humour amidst the weird “Russian Gods” ghost story. Wish me luck.

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OK, so having read the whole over ~5 days, I have to say I’m disappointed.

It’s clever and witty, and easy to see why it was subversive and blasphemous under Soviet political constraints, not to mention the ladies regularly divested of their underwear?

As I read it, the real hero in this alternative reality is Pontius Pilate who had the empathy and nous – and power and connections – to save the vagrant philosopher from his crucifixion and avoid the need for supernatural (ie. it never happened) reincarnation and ascension (though the writing of this possible outcome remains unfinished within the plot). As the epilogue points out most of the satanic back-magic of the plot never happened either, almost all can be explained by trickery. Slightly annoying over-use of the multiple accidental and deliberate fires meme to destroy (or not) documentary evidence along the way. Lots of allusions to Faust and Dante. The perspective of flying over the scenes. Fairly obvious tension in the recurring “the devil must exist” – how can there be good without evil, etc. Everyone reporting the supernatural risking being carted off to the asylum, etc. The historical, political and cultural satire in the characterisation and naming of the cast of cats and ghosts, and locations from Yalta to St Petersburg via Kiev and Moscow is apparent. Reading the commentary notes afterwards, I don’t think I missed many.

As a cult novel, you can also see the use of the location names and quotations from the text in popular culture. Sympathy for the Devil being the most quoted. Many dramatisations exist. Here an interesting BBC R3 Forum discussion.

The devil in the details may be the only aspect I can take away into my own agenda. What did I miss?

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