Book: The Master and Margarita - Livre d'Or








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livredor
Book: The Master and Margarita
Thursday, 28 October 2004 at 04:05 pm
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Author: Mikhail Bulgakov

Details: (c) Mikhail Bulgakov 1966-7; Pub 1997 Penguin Books; translated Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky; ISBN 0-14-118014-5

Verdict: The Master and Margarita is engaging and utterly surreal.

Reasons for reading it: I've seen various comments on my friends list which intrigued me. coalescent first brought it to my attention, and lisekit enthused about it recently.

How it came into my hands: lethargic_man lent it to me.

The Master and Margarita pulls off the very unusual accomplishment of being successfully surreal. It makes just about enough sense to hold my attention and made me feel I was reading a story, and it's genuinely humourous rather than merely silly. A lot of the humour is very dark, there's a lot of violence and of course the background of the repressive Soviet state with its secret police and informers and so on. But despite the disturbing undercurrents, it really is a romp, funny and zany.

I didn't quite understand how the secondary story about Pontius Pilate fits in with the main narrative, but it certainly works well. (The mangling of Hebrew words, names and places irked me a little, but they've been through three languages at least so I shouldn't really complain.)

Actually, the most surprising thing about tMaM was that the basic narrative is really quite conventional, despite the utter weirdness of the setting. The devil can only harm those who collude in their own destruction. Jesus is merciful and can get people to heaven and promotes true spirituality over organized religion. The hero is saved from the devil because he is truly loved by a virtous woman; this is really the last novel I would have expected to turn into a Tammuz myth!

I'm not crazy about this translation. It feels clunky; I was never unaware that I was reading translation, which is never a good sign, and it's hopelessly over-footnoted. Most of the time I could quite happily just ignore the footnotes, but I'm still a little annoyed that they existed. I also had the same problem that I always have with Russian literature, namely that everyone has three different names and I couldn't keep the characters straight in my head. I have no doubt that I missed whole layers of literary and political allusion, but I enjoyed the book for itself anyway.


Moooood: cheerfulcheerful
Tuuuuune: Chopin: Mazurka in D major
Discussion: 11 contributions | Contribute something

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mummimamma: default
From:mummimamma
Date:October 30th, 2004 05:23 pm (UTC)
2 hours after journal entry, 07:23 pm (mummimamma's time)
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Oh, Master and Margarita is on my (rather long) list of favourite books, I remember spending a whole Christmas holed up in a favourite chair nibbling Christmasfood and reading it, not speaking old old aunts or doing my part of the chores until I finished it. It was so fun for being concidered a classic, not to mention Russian!

My edition had a long foreword and an equally long afterword, but wirtually no notes, just the way I prefer it, perhaos I lost something in the text but I always loose the text when there are notes.

Have you read any Bulgakov's short stories? (hmmm, not sure they're tranlated into English when thinking about it), if you ever find them I think you should read them - early scinece fiction!
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mummimamma: Watching the seagulls
From:mummimamma
Date:October 30th, 2004 05:24 pm (UTC)
2 hours after journal entry, 07:24 pm (mummimamma's time)
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And I can't spell, I hang my head in shame.
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livredor: teeeeeeeeea
From:livredor
Date:October 30th, 2004 08:34 pm (UTC)
5 hours after journal entry, 09:34 pm (livredor's time)
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And I can't spell, I hang my head in shame.
No worries; content this interesting excuses you from spelling, I think!
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livredor: bookies
From:livredor
Date:October 30th, 2004 08:33 pm (UTC)
5 hours after journal entry, 09:33 pm (livredor's time)
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Oh, Master and Margarita is on my (rather long) list of favourite books
Ee, cool. I really like it when I read something outside my normal habits, and suddenly I get all these comments from the bits of my friends list who never normally respond to my book reviews!

It was so fun for being concidered a classic
Yes, I love it when 'classic' books actually turn out to be accessible and non-boring.

Have you read any Bulgakov's short stories?
Nope. I hadn't really heard of him *literary philistine* until The Master and Margarita suddenly started showing up all over my friends list! I'll look out for them for sure.
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From:791_43
Date:October 30th, 2004 07:30 pm (UTC)
4 hours after journal entry
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Heh. I'm sure doseybat will back me up when I say that it's something of a tradition among expat Russians to thrust this book upon unsuspecting foreign friends with a manic glint in the eye and the words, "You must read this!". :-)

I didn't quite understand how the secondary story about Pontius Pilate fits in with the main narrative, but it certainly works well.

The novel about Pilate is the book by the Master - his manuscript wot don't burn.

Actually, the most surprising thing about tMaM was that the basic narrative is really quite conventional, despite the utter weirdness of the setting.

Yep. I long for a good, properly annotated translation which would convey the fact that the setting was very much a satire on the contemporary times. Up until the supernatural really takes off with the ball, it's actually a very straightforward and recognisable portrait of Moscow at the time.

The devil can only harm those who collude in their own destruction. Jesus is merciful and can get people to heaven and promotes true spirituality over organized religion.

It was banned for decades, obviously, and it's difficult to judge what would've been seen as more objectionable: the religious elements or the satire of beauracracy.

Bulgakov's own 'Heart of a Dog' is similar in tone to the non-Pilate thread of M&M, but takes as one of its starting points the subject of medical ethics. It's worth a look if you liked M&M.

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livredor: teeeeeeeeea
From:livredor
Date:October 30th, 2004 08:48 pm (UTC)
5 hours after journal entry, 09:48 pm (livredor's time)
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it's something of a tradition among expat Russians to thrust this book upon unsuspecting foreign friends
Funny that I came across it via definitely English people! (And lethargic_man's copy was given to him by a French friend, too.)

The novel about Pilate is the book by the Master - his manuscript wot don't burn.
Yes, I see that, but I don't understand why Woland quotes the first chapter in the opening scene, and nor do I understand why the characters from that story suddenly show up in the 'real' part of the book at the end.

the setting was very much a satire on the contemporary times.
Well, I could see that it was meant to be satirical, although I was obviously blind to the detail of what it was guying.

it's actually a very straightforward and recognisable portrait of Moscow at the time.
What it's similar to is 1984, which is obviously based on the same reality, only I know the book better than I know the history. Those in charge distort history so much with their misinformation that it becomes impossible to distinguish the official version of reality from sheer fantasy. (As an aside, pace tnh, a lot of the current Bush jokes are retellings of jokes that were originally about Stalin.)

it's difficult to judge what would've been seen as more objectionable: the religious elements or the satire of beauracracy
Yes; I guess the religion seems fairly harmless to me, because I forget that taking a positive view of religion would also have been direct criticism of the state.

Bulgakov's own 'Heart of a Dog'
Thanks for the rec!
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coalescent: default
From:coalescent
Date:October 31st, 2004 09:55 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 10:55 pm (coalescent's time)
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I don't understand why Woland quotes the first chapter in the opening scene, and nor do I understand why the characters from that story suddenly show up in the 'real' part of the book at the end.

Well, Woland is trying to support his position in the debate he's having. You could also argue that he's trying to delay Berlioz so that he gets hit by just the right bus, I guess.

I can't remember the end of the novel that clearly (which I feel appropriately ashamed about), but I suspect it's meant to be some terribly clever metafictional device representing the role of the author. Or, maybe not. :)

Also, I read this translation (Burgin and O'Connor) and didn't find it too badly footnoted.
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livredor: bookies
From:livredor
Date:November 5th, 2004 10:31 pm (UTC)
6 days after journal entry, 11:31 pm (livredor's time)
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Well, Woland is trying to support his position in the debate he's having. You could also argue that he's trying to delay Berlioz so that he gets hit by just the right bus, I guess.
Ah, you're answering the question as being about the internal motivation; why Woland does it from Woland's pov. I meant my question from the point of view of the story; what function does it serve in the narrative for Woland to quote a chapter from the inner novel to characters in the outer novel.

some terribly clever metafictional device representing the role of the author.
Yeah, those are the kinds of things I rarely get or understand even when they're pointed out to me! Ah well.
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From:791_43
Date:October 31st, 2004 11:02 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry
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I don't understand why Woland quotes the first chapter in the opening scene

My take on it has always been that Woland is omniscient - he already knows the novel just as he already knows that Berlioz is going to get hit by the tram. I really like him as a devil; he's wry, and only meets out punishment to the unjust, and has a totally cool cat. :-)

The ending is open to all sorts of interpretations; the last time I read the book (which was too long ago, and I must make the effort to dig it out again), it seemed to fit in with the Master's overall confused state.

I have an old lit crit journal dedicated to Bulgakov on my shelf back home, and you may just have inspired me to go read it properly... :-) If I find anything interesting there, I'll be sure to post it.

As an aside, pace tnh, a lot of the current Bush jokes are retellings of jokes that were originally about Stalin.

Really? I'd be interested in examples... As far as I'm aware, Bush jokes are about him being stoopid, whereas all the Stalin jokes I know are about him being sly and bloodthursty.
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livredor: bookies
From:livredor
Date:November 5th, 2004 10:40 pm (UTC)
6 days after journal entry, 11:40 pm (livredor's time)
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Woland is omniscient - he already knows the novel just as he already knows that Berlioz is going to get hit by the tram.
Good point. It's just that the context that it's presented is as proof that Woland was present at Jesus' trial and execution. Now, Woland was in fact present, (or at least, he's omniscient, which is just as good) so why does he choose to bring a totally spurious proof in the form of a chapter from a fictional novel about the events?

I really like him as a devil
Yes, he's great fun!

has a totally cool cat.
He so does. I think Behemoth is just great, especially when he tries to get on the tram.

The ending is open to all sorts of interpretations [...] it seemed to fit in with the Master's overall confused state
Fair enough. I think I was in quite a confused state myself by the time I got to that bit!
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livredor: ewe
From:livredor
Date:November 5th, 2004 10:50 pm (UTC)
6 days after journal entry, 11:50 pm (livredor's time)
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a lot of the current Bush jokes are retellings of jokes that were originally about Stalin.
Really? I'd be interested in examples...
Well, I think tnh's comment was in relation to this post. But just to show she's not simply making up her own examples, there's similar stuff on my friends list and elsewhere. Though I agree there are plenty of 'Bush is a moron' jokes too.
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