Mikhail Bulgakov – The Master and Margarita

Posted on | September 12, 2010 | 21 Comments

Mikhail Bulgakov's Master & MargaritaIt’s taken me a little over a month to finish this book, and I must say, it’s probably one of my greatest reading accomplishments ’til date. I found the first eighty-four pages tremendously trying, the next one-hundred-and-fifty odd pages amazing, and I was actually totally hooked to the ‘Book 2′ of this intimidating classic.

At the very outset, I am compelled to admit I don’t think I understood the whole book. Large portions of it had me baffled, and I questioned my resolve to continue reading it more than once. At the end of the day, though, I am glad that I read it, for a multitude of reasons which I’ll explain further down. In fact, the book is already begging for a re-read, just because I think I, as the reader, will benefit greatly from the re-read.

Set in the 1930s Moscow, where Stalin was the head of state, the basic premise of this book is that the devil (Satan) strolls into Moscow with his entourage to wreak havoc. In case you’re wondering, Stalin and Satan aren’t interchangeable here, despite this book being a political satire.

In the opening chapter, two members of MASSOLIT (a literary organisation in Moscow) are debating on the existence of god by the Patriarch’s Ponds. A foreigner introduces himself to them, apologises for the intrusion but justifies it by saying that the subject of your learned conversation is so interesting that…

The foreigner who goes by the name of Woland is the devil, and he predicts the impending unexpected death of Berlioz, one of the writers. His theory was that Jesus did exist, a theory that the two writers refuted. Berlioz’s tragic death is only the first of a series of unexpected events that hit Moscow. There’s a seance where money rains down, and the women of the city end up walking the streets in nothing but their undergarments, people get teleported to Yalta, the phone lines break, and devil knows, something bizarre is going on…

So, where do “the Master” and “Margarita” fit in? It’s a good question, and it takes a while for that to be addressed, as the first part of this book essentially deals with the chaos and confusion created by Woland and his gang, which includes the unforgettable talking cat in the bow-tie, Behemoth. The first book also goes back in time, and has a semi-fictional account of Pontius Pilate, and the role he played in Jesus’ persecution followed by the crucifixion itself.

It’s Book Two that revolves around the titular characters. Margarita is the grieving wife of an unsuccessful author, “the master,” who has disappeared into the oblivion and she has no idea as to where he is; is he dead or alive. In reality, he’s gone over the edge, and is in a psychiatric institution. Now, Satan needs a woman called Margarita to host a midnight ball, where the catch is, the woman has to be native to the city. There are a hundred-and-twenty-one potential hostesses but the master’s Margarita is the chosen one. She builds up a rapport with the devil himself, becomes a witch, in return for something…

It’s the entire exchange between the devil and Margarita that had me wondering about the first half of the book, where the devil was shown to be an entity toying with the lives of people, without reason. The second half of the book did, in a manner of speaking, highlight the kind of people the devil was victimising in the first half. It was the greedy and the selfish, the people who were successful due to their vices, not their virtues, the people who we’d call weasels, the bureaucrats and the opportunists. People, who in my humble opinion, deserve to be reprimanded, deserve to be punished. Even today, the weasels seem to be the ones who are successful and go far in their lives, whereas the hardworking ones seem to be stuck in a rut, and I think that’s unfair… excuse the slight aside, but when realisation hit me towards the end of the book, I was sympathising with the devil himself!

And yes, the lyrics of the Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil did come back to me at that point. I love the Stones, I love Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and Brian Jones and… Have you ever heard the lyrics? I did look up the song on Wikipedia once I’d finished this book, and it didn’t really surprise me that part of it had been inspired by this work of fiction!

Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul and faith

And I was ’round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game

So, yes, this is a satirical confusing bizarre story, where too many characters are introduced, and too many of them have too short a role to play. I found myself questioning the introduction of some of these characters, considering their short life in the novel, and couldn’t really come up with an answer. It’s humorous in bits, and thought-provoking in chunks. The characters are mesmerising and some of the scenes incredible.

And an unheard-of thing occurred. The  fur bristled on the cat’s back, and he gave a rending miaow. Then he compressed himself into a ball and shot like a panther straight at Bengalsky’s chest, and from there on to his head. Growling, the cat sank his plump paws into the skimpy chevelure  of the master  of ceremonies and  in two  twists tore the head from  the thick neck with a savage howl.

The banter is hilarious, and it does provide some relief from the otherwise confusing bewildering narrative.

‘Well, what’s all this now?’ exclaimed Woland. `Why have you gilded your whiskers? And what the devil do you need the bow-tie for, when you’re not even wearing trousers?’

‘A cat is not supposed to wear trousers, Messire,’ the cat replied with great dignity. ‘You’re not going to tell me to wear boots, too, are you? Puss-in-Boots exists only in fairy tales, Messire. But have you ever seen anyone at a ball without a bow-tie? I do not intend to put myself in a ridiculous situation and risk being chucked out! Everyone adorns himself with what he can. You may consider what I’ve said as referring to the opera glasses as well, Messire!’

‘But the whiskers? …’

‘I don’t understand,’ the cat retorted drily. ‘Why could Azazello and Koroviev put white powder on themselves as they were shaving today, and how is that better than gold? I powdered my whiskers, that’s all! If I’d shaved myself, it would be a different matter! A shaved cat – now, that is indeed an outrage, I’m prepared to admit it a thousand times over. But generally,’ here the cat’s voice quavered touchily, ‘I see I am being made the object of a certain captiousness, and I see that a serious problem stands before me – am I to attend the ball? What have you to say about that, Messire?’

Have you read this book? Or attempted to read it? What did you think? Worth a read? I’d recommend it…

What’s the most confusing bizarre book that you’ve read? I think this is mine, hands down, beating Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore


21 Responses to “Mikhail Bulgakov – The Master and Margarita”

  1. Teresa
    September 12th, 2010 @ 11:03 pm

    I read this last year and really enjoyed it, although I’ll readily admit that I didn’t understand a lot of it. I just loved the goofiness of it. When I tried to figure out the greater meaning or put together a coherent story, I found that I couldn’t do it, but it didn’t matter because the individual scenes are such wacky fun. I do want to reread it someday and see if I do better following the overarching story.

  2. gavin
    September 13th, 2010 @ 12:56 am

    I tried to read this a while ago and could not get into it but I do want to try again. Your review give me a better handle on it, thank you!

  3. Charley
    September 13th, 2010 @ 4:53 am

    I’m wondering if the 4th time will be the charm for me with this book. Congrats to you for finishing it.

  4. Becky (Page Turners)
    September 13th, 2010 @ 7:30 am

    Sounds amazing. I just failed to complete an epic reading challenge I set myself to read A Suitable Boy so I don’t think that I will attempt this in a rush – but it still sounds amazing. I love books that baffle me. I am going to add this to my wish list

  5. Bibliophile
    September 13th, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

    It’s great book. I read it last year and while I did find parts of it confusing (which I attribute partly to my underwhelming knowledge of Russian culture) I ended up loving it and will definitely read it again.

  6. Jackie (Farm Lane Books)
    September 13th, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

    I think this is the most confusing book I’ve ever read, although if I ever finish The Tale of Genji I think that will beat this! I’ve recently bought the graphic novel version of Master and Margarita and a quick flick through that has helped me to understand this book a lot better. I’ll hopefully read the graphic novel fully and write a review in the next month. Congrats on making it to the end of this complicated book!

  7. Random Reflections
    September 13th, 2010 @ 8:48 pm

    I have to admit to not being a fan of this book. I read it last year (I think) and didn’t get on with it at all and it was a trial to read it through to the end.

    I am glad you managed to enjoy it more than I did.

  8. She
    September 14th, 2010 @ 3:32 am

    If anything, it has a great cover.

  9. Sasha
    September 14th, 2010 @ 8:40 am

    You do realize I am a fan of you now, for having conquered this book. My copy’s still glaring at my from the shelves, where I left it after struggling with a pinch of pages.

  10. JoAnn
    September 14th, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

    First Matt (A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook), and now you! I must give this book a try! Thanks for the push…

  11. Mae
    September 14th, 2010 @ 4:23 pm

    Congratulations on finishing it! Curiously, I’m actually looking forward to reading this even more after your review! Maybe I’m just a sucker for punishment.

  12. Joanna
    September 15th, 2010 @ 3:21 pm

    Wow, what an achievement! I have a copy of this, but haven’t had the courage to start it yet. Maybe someday soon!

  13. Sarah
    September 15th, 2010 @ 10:28 pm

    “Wow!” is right. I am so impressed (and envious.)

    Ever read a book, liked it, but still couldn’t get to the end? It doesn’t happen to me very often, but when I attempted to read this that is exactly what happened. I loved the zany surreality, but just couldn’t cope with being completely unable to understand what the hell was going on.

    But I have always intended to try again, and Banned Books Week must be looming… The perfect incentive for a second attempt.

    Your review is reassuring, encouraging and illuminating; for which I thank you!

  14. Kerry
    September 16th, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

    This is one of my all-time favorite humorous novels. I am so pleased you read it and stuck with it despite how confusing it can be. I have only read it once, so far, but will return because, as you say, a re-read will hopefully be beneficial (and, well, it’s great fun too).

    For another Soviet knee-slapper (which is not nearly as confusing) you might try The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov. It is hilarious and a great book to read if you’ve been stuck in a super-serious rut. And for those who have tried and failed at Bulgakov, I offer Ilf and Petrov as an equally funny, but less confusing alternative. See, you can get your Soviet laughs.

    Loved your review!

  15. My Favorite Lit-Blog Things: September 16, 2010 « Hungry Like the Woolf
    September 16th, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

    […] Cookie Crumbles reviews Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Hooray! She liked it and calls it: “…humorous in bits, and thought-provoking in […]

  16. Kinna
    September 17th, 2010 @ 11:32 am

    This is one of my all-time favorite reads. I recommend his other works – Heart of a Dog and the White Guard.

  17. Claire (Paperback Reader)
    September 17th, 2010 @ 10:59 pm

    Do you ever half-wish that you had the reading life of somebody else? I always come away from your blog wishing I had yours … The Master and the Margarita is on my book “bucket list” and Specimen Days is another languishing on my TBR; both are books I think I will love.

    Most bizarre book to date? The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

  18. anothercookiecrumbles
    October 3rd, 2010 @ 11:59 pm

    @ Teresa : Your comment pretty much sums up what I thought of the book! I’m really glad to see I wasn’t the only one lost for bits of the book, and like you, I’m curious to see how a re-read for bode.

    @ gavin : Hope you try it again, and your second attempt is more successful!

    @ Charley : Well, if it’s not the third time, it’s gotta be the fourth, huh? :)

    @ Becky : I couldn’t read A Suitable Boy, despite finishing An Equal Music and loving it. I want to give that another go… best of luck on this one if/when you try reading it.

    @ Bibliophile : Glad you enjoyed it too, and are looking for a re-read! I’d be curious to see how you get on with the re-read…

    @ Jackie : Thanks! I didn’t know there was a graphic version, but I look forward to your review on that, to see if I should seek that out as well, or not.

    @ Random Reflections : I’m sorry to hear that. I found it trying it places, but in the end, I think I was euphoric for just finishing it, and actually enjoying the second half.

    @ She : lol, yeah! That’s always a good booster!! :)

    @ Sasha : Yeah, my copy did that after my first attempt. I took about a month to read it, and didn’t try to conquer it in one go. I don’t think I’d’ve been able to do that!

    @ JoAnn : I’d love to read your thoughts on this, so go on! Read it! :)

    @ Mae : lol, I hope you enjoy it, despite the fact that it’s confusing. Hey! What do I know? You might find it really easy to read, and will judge me for making such a big deal out of it…

    @ Joanna : Best of luck :)

    @ Sarah : I really hope you stick with it, as it does get funnier, zanier and more addictive. I know exactly what you mean – I went through the same thing with 2666, which is just staring at me in disgust now. I’m “saving it” for next year…

    @ Kerry : Thanks very much. I’ll definitely be looking out for the Ilf & Petrov. I have a couple of Nabokov’s on the Russian writing front at the moment (Lolita and Laughter in the Dark). Attempted reading Lolita before, but found it way too disturbing – hopefully I’ve matured as a reader since.

    @ Kinna : Thanks for the recommendation! I’ll check them out, and hopefully, they’ll be a tad less confusing!! :)

    @ Claire : That’s the nicest comment I’ve ever received! Thanks! :) I haven’t read The Wind Up Bird Chronicle yet – that might be my Murakami for next year, as I’m trying to read them all slowly, as opposed to rushing through them. PS : I’m fairly envious of your reading life, with the Persephones and VMCs! It’s only something I can aspire to…

  19. Science Fiction Challenge II : another cookie crumbles
    October 5th, 2010 @ 7:17 am

    […] Bulgakov – The Master & Margarita (which I read in […]

  20. Célia
    November 16th, 2010 @ 5:54 pm


    A friend of mine that comes from Croacia asked me if I have red this book?because he told the book was phorbiden in Russia..
    and I told him I never heard nothing about that book and today I am almost finishing the book that I satarted last night
    well,it is a great novel but it tooks some time to understand all the story involving himself..

    Anyway your feedback was great..


  21. The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov « A Rat in the Book Pile
    May 1st, 2011 @ 1:31 am

    […] are made of sterner stuff, and with their good example to spur me on (many thanks to Random, Uncertain and Gabriel!) the book is finally read. The novel contains two conjoined stories. A fictional […]

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