Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Master and Margarita

My love for 19th Century Russian literature has been well established, but for some reason I only recently became aware of the 20th Century's preeminent Russian novel, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. It is a haunting work of art, a scathing critique of Stalin's regime, and one of the very best books I have ever read.

Bulgakov, heavily influenced by Russian greats Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Gogol, was a well known and prolific playwright. He began writing The Master and Margarita in the late 1920s, but because of the political themes it could not be published until more than a quarter century after his death in 1940.

The novel contains three distinct stories which don't appear necessarily to fit together at first glance. The first is of the devil (named Woland) and his henchmen, a couple of disfigured men, an enormous cat with a penchant for handguns and a naked witch, who spend a few days wreaking havoc on Moscow's literary elite. The second story is about the love between Margarita and the master, more specifically of Margarita's courage and devotion. And the third is the master's novel, a story of Pontius Pilate that takes place in the days around Christ's crucifixion in ancient Jerusalem.

These disparate stories, combined with the intricate tapestry of themes, make a plot summary difficult. Woland and his retinue arrive in decidedly atheistic 1930s Moscow where their first encounter is with Berlioz, an educated member of the literati, who tries to convince the devil of his own non-existence. This works out poorly for Berlioz, and poorly for everyone else in Berlioz's circle, since those who are not killed are generally driven insane. It is through Margarita, a woman so devoted to the master and his brilliant writing that she'd willingly sell her soul to secure his freedom, that Bulgakov illustrates the counterpoint to the homogenized Communist society. Cowardice is an unforgivable sin, and Margarita's bravery is ultimately rewarded.

This book easily ranks among my top 10, and I would recommend it without reservation. I've been noodling on it since I finished it, and I expect it will remain on my mind for quite some time.

Next up: Siddhartha by Herman Hesse.


Ashley Rossi said...

You have me convinced. I'm off to buy this!!

Angie said...

@Ashley - Please let me know what you think... I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!