The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, is rightly considered one of the best novels of the 20th century. It is a strange, vicious, witty book steeped in irony. It was a book I struggled with* and found hard to read at first, and one that came alive for me in discussions about it with friends. It is a rare book which is more philosophical than narrative, but whose philosophy is hilarious and exciting and violently delivered. This book is the opposite of dry.
The plot of The Master and Margarita starts with a grisly and untimely death which just happens to be witnessed by the devil himself and becomes more bizarre from there. Ultimately, the plot centers around the titular Master, a writer whose novel about Pontius Pilate has landed him in a Stalinist psychiatric ward. The devil arrives with an entourage of sinister slapstick companions and turns Moscow upside down in his pursuit of rescuing the Master and his lover, Margarita.
The Master’s novel about Pontius Pilate is nested within the broader narrative, with whole chapters scattered throughout. There is a clever intertextual relationship between the Pilate sections and the modern Moscow sections of the book. The style and narration of the Moscow sections is fascinating: the writing is conversational and digressive, coyly unpolished:
It must be added that from the first word the foreigner made a repellent impression on the poet, but Berlioz rather liked him—that is, not liked but…how to put it…was interested, or whatever.
As the above quote shows, the fourth wall in this book isn’t so much broken as it never really exists in the first place. The Moscow sections, at least, are cruel and mean-spirited. The best word I can come up with to describe the tone is spiky. In these sections, Bulgakov draws the reader in as a confidant. It felt, to me, like a very witty and bitter man cornered me at a party, proceeded to get progressively drunker as the night went on, and told me all the catty, mocking secrets he could think of about everyone else in attendance. It’s delicious, and it’s vicious, and it has the bizarre effect of reading something written entirely at the expense of the characters.
The contrast between the Pilate and Moscow sections is stark: the Pilate sections are much more narratively conventional, and they have a realism and steadiness the Moscow sections work hard to upend. The Moscow sections tap into the weirdness and the looming terror of Stalinist Russia, permeating every page with this sense of unpredictability, of randomness, of cruelty. It may be my unfamiliarity with Russian names, but it seemed to me that the Moscow characters were intentionally interchangeable—there is an Ivan Nikolaevich and a Nikolai Ivanovich that drift in and out of the story. The Pilate sections, though, are aggressively realistic. Jesus appears, but just as a beggar-philosopher. The canonically mystical elements of the crucifixation—the resurrection and the empty tomb—are explained away in decidedly natural ways. The characters here are fully realized, distinct individuals. Going from a Pilate section to a Moscow section creates a sense of whiplash in the reader, one that was certainly intentional and reiterates again and again how bizarre it must have been to live in the Stalinist regime.
Two themes stuck out to me when I finished the book. The first is the durability and power of narratives. I generally dislike it when writers write books about writing and literary circles. It strikes me as masturbatory and ultimately uninteresting. But this book handles that beautifully. Partly this is because Bulgakov doesn’t reify or romanticize the act of writing. The writers in Moscow are no better, no wiser or more insightful, than anyone else in Moscow. Partly this is because he needed to nest the Pilate narratives within the larger book and bringing them in diagetically as a novel written by one of the characters is a brilliant way to do that. The use of narrative throughout, the way narratives split and are reinterpreted and rewritten, the way some narratives are twisted into unrecognizability while others retain a core idea, has to be a commentary on the way actual people’s lives were written and rewritten by Stalinist Russia via disappearances, visits from secret police and so forth.
The second theme which emerged and developed over the course of the book was a moral grayness. At the end of the book, the devil and Jesus together decide the Master and Margarita’s shared fates. It’s a fast and simple thing; there is no negotiation, and they both come to the same conclusion. They wind up at the same decision, these beings who canonically are supposed to be forever at extreme poles. And the devil has moments where he is kind or appreciates kindness in others right alongside his propensity to incite madness and violence in the Muscovites. Everything, Bulgakov seems to say, is so complex, so shaded and counterintuitive, that ultimately very little makes sense. Right and wrong are, perhaps, not the correct lenses through which to view human behavior. Good and evil are false dichotomies.
A note on the translation: I read Pevear and Volokhonsky’s version, which I cannot recommend highly enough. Given that much of the book is a commentary on Stalinist Russia, and given that much of the book is also Bulgakov’s way of talking smack about other Soviet writers and the literary circles he traveled in and was ousted from, my reading of the book was deeply enriched by the context this translation provided. Pevear’s introduction, which contextualizes when and why Bulgakov wrote the book and the effect it had when it was (eventually) published, combined with the footnotes, helped to clarify how it must have read to Russians.
*It’s possible that reading something as earnest and hopeful and sweetly captivated with humanity as Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday literally right before this book made it hard, at first, to engage with Bulgakov’s bitterness.