Madeleine's Reviews > The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
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(ETA, 9 October 2013: This is another one of those books that stuck with me long after I finished it. I needed a little bit of hindsight to realize how deeply this book resonated with my religious beliefs, or lack thereof, and echoed my preexisting opinions regarding the interplay between humanity's better angels and lesser qualities. The more I think about this novel, the more I realize how madly I love it and how badly I want to find time to revisit it.)



The Devil went down to Georgia
He was lookin’ for a soul to steal --


Er, no. Different story. Sorry. The Prince of Darkness in this tale is not an egomaniacal fiddler but a ringleader whose retinue (and, let’s be honest here, good ol’ garden-variety greed, pride and other stone-inscribed sins peculiar to human beans) wreak havoc on an unsuspecting Muscovite population one hot spring. The ensuing chaos and its key players had me wondering how Bulgakov was yet another writer (like Milton before him and Duncan many years later) who made His Dark Majesty less hateful to me than, say, the gargantuan manchild stumbling through “Confederacy of Dunces.”

I had to build a bookshelf to remove this novel from my line of sight so I’d not be tempted to dig into it before my first group-read adventure kicked off. After doing a little bit of background research to stave off the mounting excitement, I finally dug into the first few chapters of TM&M and... uh, was less than immediately smitten. I started wondering what I’d gotten myself into: What in the sweet hell is going on with these names? Why a cat? And what, exactly, does Pontius Pilate have to do with Russia in the 1930s, anyway? Thankfully, my (sometimes awkwardly worded) translation had a commentary at the end to demystify some of the more obscure and alien references that would have eluded me otherwise, which absolutely helped me get through the initial lukewarm feelings I had for this book while offering up some of the richest symbolism I've ever had the delight to roll around in.

Once I gave myself over to the bountiful allusions, veiled jabs at outdated and oppressive institutions, dark and downright vaudevillian humor, and surprising warmth (and not always of the hellfire variety) weaving through the story, I started looking for any excuse to return to this book. Once the titular characters arrived nearly halfway through the novel, I had as much success resisting this book as one does fighting the inevitable future, as their tale combined with the thoroughly modern concerns and warnings within TM&M positively dazzled me.

As much as I deeply enjoyed The Master and Margarita’s story and eventual reunion, it was the push-and-pull of duality -- and, ultimately the realization that one polar extreme can neither exist nor possess meaning without an exact opposite -- that charmed me the most, especially in the religious sense. Any sense of spirituality I’ve ever had has been mutable for years (I do believe in a higher power of some sort but lack the pride and presumption to assume that I'm right and everyone else is damned, which is one of the reasons I align myself with the Gnostic way of thought more than anything else) so what springs to mind when I'm confronted with the Judeo-Christian "God" ideal is not a fag-hating, insecure Old Testament bully who's got armfuls of lightning bolts at the ready for prompt smiting in hypocritical negation of the free will with which He Himself has blessed His earthly children: The God (-ish figure) I choose to accept has bigger problems than picking sides in American political affairs. He has, like, the rest of the universe that isn't a country in its infancy to worry about. I also embrace a hands-off perception of God, an all-knowing and relatively benign entity who rarely interferes with our dealings because He sees the bigger picture and how each thread has its place in the greater tapestry of human existence.

Similarly, I believe that whatever counterforce exists has about as much immediate effect on all of us meat puppets shuffling around the mortal coil and relies on basic human failings to influence an individual's hellward saunter, which was embodied beautifully here. The lone magic show that Woland performed was rendered scandalous simply because he placed temptation within his audience's grasp and let them do what came naturally to them -- that is, acting out on the greedy desire for better things and free money (because that's all that matters, right?) fueling their belief that they deserved the opportunity to get something more for the price of admission. Woland's motives aside, his part in reuniting the tortured Master and his beloved Margarita only reinforced my belief that he's equally as just as his heavenly equivalent -- c'mon, the guy let Margarita ask for a second favor after her selfless first demand. Does that sound at all like modern Christianity's cloven-hooved demon?

As for Lady M.... the Devil's Ball was clearly not the best of times for her but she kept her eyes on the prize because she could imagine no greater suffering than life without her beloved Master. The redemptive power of love was an unexpected undercurrent rushing through the latter half of this book, as was the message that it is an unpardonable sin to let one's nigh unequaled skills as a writer fester as self-doubt and defeat consume the human vessel in which these conflicting forces reside. The Master earning peace without light hit me like a speeding trolley: Love may be the greatest salvation of all but denying one's place in the world as dictated by immense talent is a special kind of damnation.

The narrative leaves Russian matters with select locations going up in flames, echoing God's promise to never again annihilate life with a flood; as such, the Devil below ensures that the story (and, for some, their world) ends in flame. Fire in Moscow: Run, boys, run.
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Reading Progress

08/31/2012 "BANG A GONG GET IT ON." 5 comments
09/02/2012 page 24
6.0% "Tiny type (!) and a surprisingly social weekend make for unimpressive reading progress." 5 comments
09/05/2012 page 68
18.0% "Turns out it's pretty tasty even without an accompanying margarita."
09/06/2012 page 88
24.0% "Trains and being in Russian novels don't mix." 1 comment
09/07/2012 page 114
31.0% "Aaaaaand I just realized that I'll actually be sad when this one's over. It took a while to find my stride with TM&M but it's grown on me something relentless these past few days." 1 comment
09/09/2012 page 144
40.0% "I'm torn between wanting to take my time with this and what it's doing to me to realize how many books I would like to read soon. I demand more vacation."
09/10/2012 page 185
51.0% "In a scene with a maliciously 'befouling' sparrow, it was actually the existence of the Bureau of Leeches that caught me off guard the most."
09/10/2012 page 212
58.0% "Does wearing the shirt of the book you're reading fall under the domain of being That Guy?" 2 comments
09/12/2012 page 251
69.0% ""She had a passion for anyone who could do anything really well."" 8 comments

Comments (showing 1-27 of 27) (27 new)

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message 1: by Garima (new)

Garima This weekend may be! ;)


Madeleine I dunno, the couch isn't going to sit around on itself.... ;D

There's just so much I want to say that I don't even know where to start! I guess leaving it as "Been there, read that, bought the T-shirt" would be considered a cop-out review, huh?


message 3: by Garima (new)

Garima you were already excused for Cloud Atlas review, don't take your review readers for granted now!


Madeleine Hahahaha! I was half-assedly planning on a drunk review for TM&M. I've got some cheap red wine that's been waiting for such an opportunity....


message 5: by Garima (new)

Garima Employ any sort of means you want to Madeleine...flow in the wine down your throat and words out of your mind or heart ;)


Madeleine Oh man oh man, you do not have to tell me twice! In wine there is truth, in me there is wine....


message 7: by s.penkevich (last edited Sep 14, 2012 10:31AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

s.penkevich Behemoth says:
[image error]
You must review, citizen!

Peer pressure makes the goodreads go 'round.


Madeleine Ha! I should've known that'd come back to get me.

In Soviet Russia, cat owns you.


s.penkevich Ha, that could be the whole review, because in Soviet Russia, review writes you!


Madeleine Hehe, I like it. This could get dangerous.

In Soviet Russia, comment leaves you.


s.penkevich Yes!

I'm so glad that was the first image that popped up. I swear I'm not a crazy cat lady masquerading as s.penkevich on Goodreads....or am I...


Madeleine .... or are you one of Satan's minions masquerading as a bipedal, vodka-swilling cat?


message 13: by Madeleine (last edited Sep 14, 2012 12:36PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Madeleine (Also, that image has me cracking up. You read that kitty, Citizen Book!)


s.penkevich Isn't it ace? Perfect commentary for this book!


s.penkevich Madeleine wrote: ".... or are you one of Satan's minions masquerading as a bipedal, vodka-swilling cat?"

...shhh!


Madeleine Er.... uh, clearly, I was thinking about someone else....

But get off the chandelier before the place burns down, wouldja?


Nataliya so what springs to mind when I'm confronted with the Judeo-Christian "God" ideal is not a fag-hating, insecure Old Testament bully who's got armfuls of lightning bolts at the ready for prompt smiting in hypocritical negation of the free will with which He Himself has blessed his earthly children; the God I choose to accept has bigger problems than picking sides in American political affairs. He has, like, the rest of the universe that isn't a country in its infancy to worry about.

I love this so much. Is that wrong that I want this printed on a T-shirt? Because realizing this would SO benefit people in this country.


s.penkevich You did it! And an outstanding review at that!
'the realization that one polar extreme can neither exist nor possess meaning without an exact opposite', great point. That really sums this novel up brilliantly in a way I had never thought about. I agree with Nataliya above, that should be on a t-shirt. Along with Behemoth. Bravo, I dare say I might have enjoyed this review more than the book, which I loved too.


message 19: by Madeleine (last edited Sep 21, 2012 10:28AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Madeleine Nataliya and Penk, you guys are too, too generous with your compliments -- thank you both so much for sending such kindness my way! Can you hear that? That's the sound of my head swelling.

Nataliya wrote: "I love this so much. Is that wrong that I want this printed on a T-shirt? Because realizing this would SO benefit people in this country."
You sure know how to brighten a mopey day! Thank you thank you thank you!

I hate sounding self-righteous but.... yeah, I wish more people would allow for the possibility that maaaaaaybe clinging blindly, stubbornly and illogically to beliefs gleaned from an ancient document that has been translated over and over again over so many centuries into countless languages isn't the best idea. I feel that as different languages serve different populations, different religious beliefs are just as valid. I am so glad that there are people like you out there -- and NOT just because you agree with me.

s.penkevich wrote: "Bravo, I dare say I might have enjoyed this review more than the book, which I loved too."
I'm struck dumb here (not that your entire comment didn't make me feel loads better in the face of a rather crummy day). Just.... wow. That's more than I ever hope to accomplish with a review (especially one where I was under the influence of not-sobriety), so thank you so, so much.

That really sums this novel up brilliantly in a way I had never thought about.
Ha, I'm so glad it works! I wasn't sure if it was a significance that I was imposing on the novel without there being any real basis for it (which happens more often than it should).

Speaking of Bohemoth, I decided about halfway through the book that he's what this year's Halloween costume will be. Because I will never, ever be too old to dress up once a year.


s.penkevich Best costume idea ever! And it gives you an excuse to be always drinking - gotta stay in character ha.
Nah, that seems to be the best explanation for why the devil character is seen as almost a protagonist in this story. In a way it also shows how the obdurate society is even more sinister when Hell itself loathes it. I really dug your point about how the Master's self-defeating nature is sinful as well. Great stuff! Hope your day brightens up and is less crummy! It's friday at least.


Steve That is one hell of a good review! I was nodding in agreement throughout. Not that I would have thought of these things myself, but: there is a vaudevillian aspect to this retinue, no on in the League of Evil is as bad as Ignatius J. Reilly, and "denying one's place in the world as dictated by immense talent is a special kind of damnation."


message 22: by Derek (new) - added it

Derek I like David Cross's interpretation of the Bible:

"The Bible was written, and then rewritten, and then edited, and then re-edited, and then translated from dead languages, then re-re-translated, then re-edited, then re-re-re-edited, and then re-translated, then given to kings for them to take their favorite parts out, then re-edited, then re-translated, and then re-edited, then given to the pope for him to approve, then re-re-translated, then then re-re-written, then re-written, re-edited, re-translated, re-edited again, all based on stories that were told orally thirty to ninety years after they happened to people who didn’t know how to write. So I guess what I’m saying is the bible is literally the world’s oldest game of telephone."


Jean-marcel Hah, I love Behemoth! Especially his vodka-swilling antics.

And I'm one of those who was captured right away by the beginning of the novel. I am glad the first part was basically concentrated mayhem and strangeness; the shift in tone once the Master was introduced actually threw me at first but eventually i came to see how everything fit together so beautifully...

Great review.


message 24: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim This is an awesome review, Madeleine! I loved all of your insights, and agree with Penk that you really nailed the concept of polar opposites that can't exist or have meaning without each other. Fabulous job all around!


message 25: by Nina (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nina Smith "The Devil went down to Georgia
He was lookin’ for a soul to steal -- "
what do those words mean?


message 26: by Ian (last edited Jun 29, 2013 12:25AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Cantankeroo-Gazan Wow. You sure know how to rosin up your bow and play your fiddle hard.


message 27: by Sue (new) - added it

Sue Wonderful review. I'm glad it resurfaced so I could read it and I'm certain to read it again when I finally get to read this book.


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