Nathan "N.R." Gaddis's Reviews > The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
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Sep 18, 12

bookshelves: russian
Read from August 29 to September 17, 2012

The Master and Margarita is required reading for students of Soviet era fiction, required also for students of Russian literature. I believe in books which, in the words of Frank Zappa, may be "good for you in the long run."

I will chalk myself up as the rare reader carrying a middling opinion of this novel of the fantastic. It is a good novel, well constructed, meaningful. I submit to its required status, happily. It did, however, bore the heebee-geebees out of me. For its noveling of the fantastical I would prefer a good go again with Gogol. For its Sovietness I would rather have begun a relationship with Daniil Kharms, some of his writing having been recently published in a volume charmingly entitle Today I Wrote Nothing.

I would like to comment upon the difficulty of late capitalist liberal readers understanding and interpreting Bulgakov's farce upon Stalinist Russia. But I'm not well enough studied to do so. I do have my suspicions, however, of liberal readers projecting ill-founded anti-communist fantasies upon this novel, perhaps not even hearing whatever it is that Bulgakov's satire is saying. Not that context is all, but rather that reading it as an allegory will always sell it short. As a novel, it would seem to succeed independent of its birth. But its critical-satiric nature may well be lost upon us, so many years after the demise of Stalinism, an historical disaster I'm sure scarcely understood. Perhaps only Orwell has been so terribly misunderstood by his liberal readers, blinded as they were by their rabid anti-communism.

I read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation.
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Reading Progress

09/02/2012 page 104
25.0%
09/10/2012 page 217
52.0% "Part One wrapped up. An automobile wreck, piled up, it is."
09/14/2012 page 217
52.0% "Maybe I can get this finished in a few days so I can return to all that nonsensical elitist plotlesscharacterless junkcrap I usually read. Evan Dara anyone?"
09/15/2012 page 276
66.0% "Chapters 19-23 were unbelievably boring. [wait, did he just say that?]"
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Comments (showing 1-23 of 23) (23 new)

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message 1: by Stephen (new) - added it

Stephen P let's hear it for, nonsensical elitist plotlesscharacterless(PCL?) junkcrap. it's what scratches at the mind and makes the blood flow. obviously i have the same addiction and haven't found a 12 step program yet to break it.


Nathan "N.R." Gaddis One may spend one's whole life seeking that perfected distillate of PCL junkcrap. I suspect that for the Soviets the angel's share would be found sooner among Daniil Kharms than Bulgakov.


message 3: by Stephen (new) - added it

Stephen P beautifully worded. i'm hoping to spend my life seeking that perfect distillate. i am truly grateful for your Kharms recommendation. anyone expelled from school for lack of social activity, needing to spend time with himself, then devoting himself to literature is a full blooded brethren. i would never have found him so this opens another new world. any one of his works you would recommend in particular? thanks again.


Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Stephen wrote: "beautifully worded. i'm hoping to spend my life seeking that perfect distillate. i am truly grateful for your Kharms recommendation. anyone expelled from school for lack of social activity, need..."

{sheepishly} Kharms went onto my to-read list years ago but I've not ever even yet gotten around to reading him. Shortly after falling in love with the title Today I Wrote Nothing, my literary urges went maximalist. I have recently allowed him to reascend to my reading list. So, by the impression I've created for myself regarding Kharms, I do think he's worth perhaps more than a look-see. I'll look into it soon, too.


Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Stephen wrote: " anyone expelled from school for lack of social activity"

That's great. I remember being chastised by the recess-duty teacher once for discoursing with a fellow student about the nature of the universe rather than playing some silly ball game. 3rd or 4th grade, that.


message 6: by Stephen (new) - added it

Stephen P i was a decent athlete but a devout loner and would have much preferred a discourse about the nature of the universe. couldn't find anyone. possibly others there but no one giving a sign. i too am tempted by the title, Today I Wrote Nothing. It implies a great deal.


message 7: by Ali (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ali Not so good? Sometimes I feel the same way. I *am* liking it, and it's good enough for me to be okay with reading it three or four times to compare translations, but I'm not as utterly blown away as others have been, because there are stretches when it's, for lack of a better phrase, too much, and the boredom content goes up without justifying itself. Estimated rating: 4 stars. I'd give it something like 3.9 if Goodreads would let me.


Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Ali wrote: "reading it three or four times to compare translations,"

I'm not impressed that his linguistic acrobatics are interesting enough to warrant multiple translation readings. After all, he's not Dante! ; )


Declan You are being more than a tad patronising when you say that:
I would like to comment upon the difficulty of late capitalist liberal readers understanding and interpreting Bulgakov's farce upon Stalinist Russia" and you are being quite ridiculous when you say: "I do have my suspicions, however, of liberal readers projecting ill-founded anti-communist fantasies upon this novel, perhaps not even hearing whatever it is that Bulgakov's satire is saying".
Ill founded fantasies? Was it for such easy dismissals that Osip Mandelstam died?

Apart from the fact that some of us have read a lot of books about this era of soviet history, it is also the case that, as the novel develops, Bulgakov departs from any direct satire of Stalinism (the logic of such a viewpoint can not be sustained in any reading of the book) and begins to simply enjoy the madness and wildness of the world he has created.


Nate D Ali, tell me more about this translation comparison? I sort of did one between the four major translations I could lay hands on, but I only leapt about to a few key parts and looked them up in each.


Nate D Oh also, N.R., I gave this three stars as well when I read the translation you've just read, so, much as I like this (enough to compare), I can fully understand and agree with your boredom.


message 12: by Ali (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ali Nate wrote: "Ali, tell me more about this translation comparison? I sort of did one between the four major translations I could lay hands on, but I only leapt about to a few key parts and looked them up in each."

That's basically what I did. After finishing The Tunnel, I'm going to complete reading the B&O translation, and then read the P&V, Ginsberg, and maybe Glenny in the next few months to get a more complete feel for all the differences. As you mentioned on that Loosed in Translation thread from a year ago, I don't know that there is one particular edition in English we can call "definitive" or "ideal", since all of them have issues that could reck the experience of reading them, and there are even disagreements among the translators as to which version of the original Russian text to use, which wouldn't be remarkable, except for there being significant differences in the versions of the book. In general, based on what research I've done and excerpts I've read, I think Ginsberg is the best for getting the full humour and tone of the book if you don't care about having some sections excised, P&V for technical accuracy, and B&O for a nice mix of both of those if you want the "unabridged" edition. I don't know where to put Glenny. He's a weird one.


Nate D Agreed on all assessments. I'd file Glenny under: first out of the gates, maybe a little prematurely but how can you fault someone for putting this into print in English at last, but also prone to British-isms that don't make a lot of sense in context.


message 14: by Ali (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ali "bum-freezer made of air" is the funniest Glennyism, but yeah, his version is filled with that sort of nonsense. in another passage near the beginning of the book, there is a character described as wearing "chewed" trousers. The word is supposed to be "wrinkled", but since the Russian words for wrinkled and chewed are the same, I guess he didn't pay any attention to context and wrote down the first definition that came to mind. He reminds me of the H.T. Low-Porter translations of Thomas Mann, or to an extent the Garnett translations of all those Russians, because I'll give him full credit for bringing Bulgakov to the English speaking world and in the process influencing a lot of writers who may never have released anything if not for his partial influence, but the time for his translation of Bulgakov has passed. Also like Low-Porter and Garnett, if you don't feel like getting or can't find the newer translations, feel free to give him a try anyway, because you may like his translation. I've seen several reviews from people who have read more than one version, but like Glenny the best.


message 15: by Traveller (last edited Sep 18, 2012 02:04PM) (new) - added it

Traveller Declan wrote: "as the novel develops, Bulgakov departs from any direct satire of Stalinism..."

...but wasn't this partly due to the fact that he simply didn't dare to? Or do you think he could have done it but simply just hid it well enough to plead innocence if accused of it, if he really wanted to (and would he have gotten away with it)?


Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Traveller wrote: "...but wasn't this partly due to the fact that he simply didn't dare to? Or do you think he could have done it but simply just hid it well enough to plead innocence if accused of it, if he really wanted to (and would he have gotten away with it)? "

I very much doubt it, when the novel is preaching a "cowardice is the worst vice" platitude. I think he was writing a novel and not merely anti-Stalinist propaganda.


Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Declan wrote: "You are being more than a tad patronising"

No doubt.

you are being quite ridiculous when you say

Quite possibly.

Ill founded fantasies?

As a citizen of the USofA I may indeed say that there do exist ill-founded fantasies. We are drenched in them.

Apart from the fact that some of us have read a lot of books about this era of soviet history,

Most certainly. And thus my mere statement of a bland question and a formulation of an interpretative concern. I don’t believe I said very much very strongly.

it is also the case that, as the novel develops, Bulgakov departs from any direct satire of Stalinism (the logic of such a viewpoint can not be sustained in any reading of the book) and begins to simply enjoy the madness and wildness of the world he has created.

Most likely. Er, I would like to insist that this is the case.

I'm not capable, given the low level of my engagement with the novel, to say too much more. That is, I believe I did say that it's a good enough novel to be read as more than a mere allegory. It is satire, but how exactly that satire is directed is not so easily accessible to us locked in our ideology of late-capitalism. A satire of our once official enemy? I offer only a caution and suggest not too much more than yourself. If the novel works as a novel, it does indeed need to be read as more than simplistic anti-Soviet propaganda.

I do leave the novel’s interpretation to others. I wasn’t fascinated with it. But I reserve the right, as one must, to reject ideologically loaded interpretations.


Declan Traveller, I think that at a certain point the novel took over, and the concerns of his characters led the author in directions he could not entirely control! Also, as Richard Pevear says, "The Master and Margarita is true to the broader sense of the novel as a freely developing form embodied in the works of Dostoevsky and Gogol, of Swift and Sterne, of Cervantes Rabelais and Apuleius"

Nathan, thanks for your reply. Believe me, I am as appalled by the neo-liberal consensus as you are, but just because people we didn't like constructed the Soviet block as an enemy, doesn't mean that it was any better than we know it to have been. For me the most interesting novelists to have written about those times are the disillusioned idealists such as Andrey Platonov and Victor Serge. Their work is a long way from propaganda for either side.


Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Declan wrote: "embodied in the works of Dostoevsky and Gogol, of Swift and Sterne, of Cervantes Rabelais and Apuleius""

That is part of what disappointed me in M&M--it didn't fly as mightily as those guys did. But I do think it is the literary tradition from which he was writing.

doesn't mean that it was any better than we know it to have been.

From the point of view of my concern, it's a matter of distinguishing between critique from inside and critique from outside. Critique from outside is almost always merely condemnation. What was Bulgakov saying from inside? But this is rather far afield. My only concern is that an interpretation listen to Bulgakov's voice and not merely find itself reflected back at itself.

I'll hit you up when I get nashing for some Soviet/Russian literature. It's not been on my map lately, but it will return one day.


message 20: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Klappenskoff I don't see why, when the novel embraces fantasy, it should cease to be a satire. As I attempted to argue in my own excellent review (which I commend to everyone who hasn't liked it yet), the only safe and sensible response to the Soviet State was to flee it, if necessary by growing wings. This type of flight is no less satirical than digging a tunnel to escape a prison camp.


Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Ian wrote: "I don't see why, when the novel embraces fantasy, it should cease to be a satire."

I don't either. But I would say that M&M is fantastical, not fantasy. The fantasy I refer to in my review is on the side of the reader, an interpretative wish-fulfillment, finding merely what one desires to find.


Steve Did you know that there is a statue of Frank Zappa in Vilnius, Lithuania? Evidently he was quite the cult figure in Eastern Europe during the Soviet era. It was erected about the same time that the famous Lithuanian Olympic basketball team showed up at the medal ceremony in Grateful Dead t-shirts. Those new freedoms rocked.


Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Steve wrote: "Did you know that there is a statue of Frank Zappa in Vilnius, Lithuania? Evidently he was quite the cult figure in Eastern Europe during the Soviet era. It was erected about the same time that t..."

Sounds about right. Frank fans over yonder were much better Zappa-ists than we ever could be here, what with all that Rolling Stones (magazine) moralizing.

http://fineartamerica.com/featured/mo...

I think I may have seen a picture of it previously.


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