(2012)#57 review: The Master And Margarita

Master And Margarita

The Master And Margarita



Translated from the Russian
by Diana BURGIN
and Katherine TIERNAN O’CONNOR

372 pages

First published in 1966

This book counts for the following Reading Challenges:




Rating system

As I explain below, I chose to read The Master And Margarita because of Matt’s ravings.

I also chose this edition and translation, recommended by him. It was helpful with its numerous notes to try to delve into the depth of this rather hermetic novel. And this is essential if you are planning to read this book.

I found the style excellent, the descriptions captivating, and the plot good enough to keep me reading, though I had a hard time understanding really what was going on.

I should actually have prepared before launching into it, as there are so many layers in this work. I am sure I missed most of it, with its criticizing of the the Soviet regime.

I was also totally unprepared to the character of Margarita, and all the religious aspects of the book.

So I was not able to appreciate it at its full value, and when I finished it, I sensed I should read more background, and read it again! So may be one day.

I suggest then if you plan to read it, to read all of Matt’s posts on it (here is the result of a search on his blog), and also this excellent presentation/analysis by Kris,  a Goodreads reader.


No synopsis, either from Goodreads nor from the publisher themselves, satisfies me, so I will share with you Matt’s words (@ A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook). Matt, who keeps raving about this book, has read numerous translations of it, and has written 5 reviews plus other posts on what he considers the best book  ever, is largely responsible for my reading this book. It is then all natural that I should quote him:

Set in the iron curtain of a society that is Soviet Union in 1930s, The Master and Margarita, banned in Bulgakov’s lifetime, is his response to this fear-struck, panic-stricken era. Despite the atmosphere of terror that deepened all through the years he was working on the novel, the book takes on a surprisingly light tone, one of multifaceted humor, without compromising its philosophical depth. It is Bulgakov’s embittered and sarcastic response (and indictment) to his era’s denial of imagination and its wish to strip the world of divine qualities.


Mikhail BulgakovMikhail Bulgakov (Russian: Михаил Булгаков) was the first of six children in the family of a theology professor. His family belonged to the intellectual elite of Kiev. Bulgakov and his brothers took part in the demonstration commemorating the death of Leo Tolstoy. Bulgakov later graduated with honors from the Medical School of Kiev University in 1915. He married his classmate Tatiana Lappa, who became his assistant at surgeries and in his doctor’s office. He practiced medicine, specializing in venereal and other infectious diseases, from 1915 to 1919 (he later wrote about the experience in “Notes of a Young Doctor.”)

He joined the anti-communist White Army during the Russian Civil War. After the Civil War, he tried (unsuccesfully) to emigrate from Russia to reunite with his brother in Paris. Several times he was almost killed by opposing forces on both sides of the Russian Civil War, but soldiers needed doctors, so Bulgakov was left alive. He provided medical help to the Chehchens, Caucasians, Cossacs, Russians, the Whites, and the Reds.

In 1921, Bulgakov moved to Moscow. There he became a writer and became friends with Valentin Katayev, Yuri Olesha, Ilya Ilf, Yevgeni Petrov, and Konstantin Paustovsky. Later, he met Mikhail Zoschenko, Anna Akhmatova, Viktor Ardov, Sergei Mikhalkov, and Kornei Chukovsky. Bulgakov’s plays at the Moscow Art Theatre were directed by Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko.

Bugakov’s own way of life and his witty criticism of the ugly realities of life in the Soviet Union caused him much trouble. His story “Heart of a Dog” (1925) is a bitter satire about the loss of civilized values in Russia under the Soviet system. Soon after, Bulgakov was interrogated by the Soviet secret service, OGPU. After interrogations, his personal diary and several unfinished works were confiscated by the secret service. His plays were banned in all theaters, which terminated his income. Destitute, he wrote to his brother in Paris about his terrible life and poverty in Moscow. Bulgakov distanced himself from the Proletariat Writer’s Union because he refused to write about the peasants and proletariat. He adapted “Dead Souls” by Nikolai Gogol for the stage; it became a success but was soon banned.

He took a risk and wrote a letter to Joseph Stalin with an ultimatum: “Let me out of the Soviet Union, or restore my work at the theaters.” On the 18th of April of 1930, Bulgakov received a telephone call from Joseph Stalin. The dictator told the writer to fill an employment application at the Moscow Art Theater. Gradually, Bulgakov’s plays were back in the repertoire of the Moscow Art Theatre. But most other theatres were in fear and did not stage any of the Bulgakov’s plays for many years. At that time, the repressions, known as the “Great Terror” were started by an increasingly paranoid Joseph Stalin. Many of Bulgakov’s friends and colleagues, like Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Mandelstam, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Anna Akhmatova, Mikhail Zoschenko and many others were censored, banned, prosecuted, exiled, imprisoned, executed, found dead, or just disappeared without a trace.

Mikhail Bulgakov died as a result of kidney failure. [Goodreads]

A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook