REVIEW: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)

Publisher: Penguin Classics
Format: Paperback
Original Publication Date: 1967

Length: 412 pages
Author: Goodreads

Purchase on Amazon 

Synopsis from Goodreads: One Spring afternoon the Devil, trailing fire and chaos in his wake, weaves himself out of the shadows and into Moscow in Bulgakov’s fantastical, funny and frightening satire of Soviet life. Brimming with magic and incident, it is full of imaginary, historical, terrifying and wonderful characters, from witches poets and Biblical tyrants to the beautiful, courageous Margarita, who will do anything to save the imprisoned writer she loves. Written in secret during the darkest days of Stalin’s reign, when The Master and Margarita was finally published it became an overnight literary phenomenon, signalling artistic freedom for Russians everywhere.

I’ve been gone for a while, but I’ve really missed blogging! I recently finished reading The Master and Margarita and I wanted to take this opportunity to come back to my blog and start writing about the books I’m reading again. This was the 11th book I’ve read this year with my Goodreads challenge goal set for 52 books read by the end of 2019. Feel free to add me as a friend on Goodreads, I’m always looking for more people to share book recommendations with!

I’ll be honest, I hadn’t heard of Bulgakov’s Russian classic until late last year while watching a book review on YouTube posted by PewDiePie. So thanks to PewDiePie, I’ve found my new favourite book (a sentence I never thought in a million years I would write). The premise of the Devil visiting Soviet-era Moscow and wreaking havoc on the city sounded far too good to pass up. I was picky with my translation and after a lot of internet research I chose to read Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear’s Penguin edition which I highly recommend. Russian literature can be intimidating, but
Volokhonsky and Pevear have made it so accessible that any concerns I had about the book beforehand faded away as soon as I started reading.

The Master and Margarita is split into two parts intertwined with each other. The first focusing primarily on the shenanigans of Professor Woland (a ‘foreigner’ and ‘Professor of Black Magic’, aka Satan) and his lackeys Koroviev, Azazello, Hella, and the hilarious and obnoxious Behemoth, a large talking black cat who loves guns and drinking vodka (think Bender from Futurama meets Salem from Sabrina the Teenage Witch). The second part is the occasional excerpt from a book written by The Master (but also presented as a reflection at the beginning of the book by Woland) about the trial and execution of Jesus from the perspective of Pontius Pilate and Jesus’s disciple Matthew.

While primarily acting as a political satire of Soviet Russia with an extreme dash of magical realism, The Master and Margarita is also a beautiful and somewhat Shakespearean love story between the title characters The Master and Margarita. Since everyone in the book has a BIG personality, Margarita is no exception. Her grand entrance into the second half of the novel shows the full extent of her bravery and unwavering determination. She puts the promise of ‘I’ll do anything for love’ to the extreme when she joins Woland’s entourage and attends a Satanic ball with the hopes of releasing The Master, her lover, from his imprisonment. I loved Margarita, she really made the second half of the book shine for me.

What made The Master and Margarita stand out, other than the bizarre plot, non-stop humour, and extremely fantastical characters was the beautifully vivid imagery throughout. Reading this book felt like watching a movie. Scenes like Woland and company’s ‘magic show’ on a stage in front of Moscow’s well-to-do society, Margarita sailing naked and free through the sky on a broomstick, and the satanic ball with history’s most vile attendees will never, ever leave my mind. And I’m not the only one.

The novel is so visual that it’s inspired artwork by a countless number of artists. One such artist is Ukrainian based Nabokov Andrey who’s work perfectly captures the spirit of The Master and Margarita.

These pen illustrations were completed in 2006 by Andrey who has never sold or exhibited his work. Luckily, he has published them online here for us to enjoy!

Another artist who took a very different approach to illustrating The Master and Margarita is Russian artist Aleksandr Petrovich Botvinov. Just as Bulgakov wrote his novel as a satire of Soviet Russia, Botvinov has merged his visual depiction of The Master and Margarita with contemporary Russian political satire. It’s interesting to see how the ideas in a book published over 50 years ago continue to be used in the same way Bulgakov initially intended.

My enjoyment and love of The Master and Margarita is obviously much more shallow than someone living in Russia either now or during the Soviet Era, but this just shows how many layers exist in the narrative of this book. On it’s surface is a unique, colourful, and morbid adventure with a basis in Christian mythology (the reasons why I enjoyed it), but underneath is a commentary on the systems and laws that governed the world that the author lived in. My knowledge on this era of Russia history is embarrassingly limited, but reading The Master and Margarita has encouraged me to learn more about it. It will certainly make my second read through even more insightful. Any excuse to read this fantastic book again!

(I didn’t have a nice cover photo of my copy because my rabbit literally ate it. At least it wasn’t a library book!)

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