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The Master and Margarita
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1001 Monthly Group Read > October {2017} Discussion -- THE MASTER AND MARGARITA by Mikhail Bulgakov

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Charity (charityross) Time to discuss


Bryan--The Bee’s Knees (theindefatigablebertmcguinn) | 629 comments I just finished this a few days ago. I have to admit that I was disappointed. I know this book gets all kind of rave reviews, but although I thought the very beginning was interesting, where Woland first meets Berlioz and Homeless, the rest of the scenes set in Moscow seemed kind of silly. On the other hand, I thought the interludes with Pontius Pilate were extremely captivating.

It seemed to me that Bulgakov was sticking his finger in the eye of the Moscow literary crowd, which may have been a well-deserved poke, and it may have added a lot to the book to know the personalities he was lampooning. But even allowing for that, I didn't really respond to the satire.

Since I know that Bulgakov was still revising up to the time of his death, I don't mind some of the slapdash feeling to the overall narrative--how it doesn't really cohere--but even making allowances for that, I thought there would be a lot more to this novel.

But, I've been so critical about almost everything I've read just recently, it's probably me and my mood. Unfortunately, this wasn't the novel to pull me out of it.


Izunia | 3 comments Bryan wrote: "I just finished this a few days ago. I have to admit that I was disappointed. I know this book gets all kind of rave reviews, but although I thought the very beginning was interesting, where Woland..."

Bryan, in what language did you read it? The Master and Margarita is my favourite book. I read it 6 times, and every time I discover something new to it. I read it originally in Polish, and then I read it in English for school. I was so surprised, so many things got lost in translation. The book had a completely different feeling, ambience. I don't think the translation was bad or anything like that. But somehow the language changed the book. It is hard to explain.


Bryan--The Bee’s Knees (theindefatigablebertmcguinn) | 629 comments Izunia wrote: "Bryan, in what language did you read it?..."


English. Translated by Mirra Ginsburg

You could be right--I've read that some think Ginsburg's translation was the poorest of those in English.


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Christopher (Donut) | 28 comments General question:

Doesn't this book rely on the reader's familiarity with Goethe's FAUST?


message 6: by Izunia (last edited Oct 20, 2017 11:37PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Izunia | 3 comments Christopher wrote: "General question:

Doesn't this book rely on the reader's familiarity with Goethe's FAUST?"


I hadn't read Faust before reading it. Even though, I think it can give more context.


Wendy (wendyneedsbooks) | 153 comments I just finished Master & Margarita last night. I really enjoyed the first half—the cinematic romp around Moscow worked well for me—and I find the story behind the writing of this book just as interesting. Bulgakov worked on it until his death knowing it could never be published in his lifetime for political reasons, and hadn’t finished editing the second half when he died. It took 26 years for the manuscript to see the light of day, and the first edition was serialized in a Russian periodical, with lots of politically sensitive parts cut out. The fact that it’s read today and can be enjoyed out of context with the era that produced it is...rather astounding, I think. I did find the second half a bit wearisome to get through, but I liked my translation (Burgin and O’Connor), plus all the footnotes. It was interesting to learn that Bulgakov purposely planted a lot of Soviet detail in his Pilate sections, biblical allusions in his Moscow settings, with the result that the Pilate story feels real and grounded but the Moscow bits feel off-the-wall fantastical and unreal.


Wendy (wendyneedsbooks) | 153 comments Christopher, to answer your question, you don’t need a familiarity with Goethe’s Faust to enjoy the book. There are allusions to it, but it won’t really matter if you recognize them or not. My edition had end notes that pointed out the Faust references, but this story is really its own original take on “the devil “.


message 9: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 3 comments Bryan wrote: "Izunia wrote: "Bryan, in what language did you read it?..."


English. Translated by Mirra Ginsburg

You could be right--I've read that some think Ginsburg's translation was the poorest of those in..."


This was once a fairly hot topic on the original, long-gone, Amazon Discussion Board (run by Delphi) -- ahh, memories.

Ginsburg's translation was from an "official" Soviet version of the text, i.e., cut, and without much critical thought applied to the messy state of the original.

I greatly enjoyed Michael Glenny's version, which came out at the same time in 1967 (to the day, I think -- the publishers may have been racing for priority in the English-language version -- and avoiding Soviet efforts to suppress unauthorized translations through Western copyright laws). I was in High School at the time.

According to one contemporary reviewer, the Ginsburg version revealed ongoing Soviet anxieties about mentioning both shortages of consumer goods and that people have underwear...... I never got far enough into Ginsburg's translation to check that for myself.

However, Wikipedia lists seven English versions, six of which have been published. Of them, I am only familiar with Peaver & Volokhonsky (for Penguin, 1997), which I found a little flat after Glenny, but clearer in some passages -- very likely due to the state of the text Glenny was working with, thirty years before.

The P&V translation was highly praised by some, but also had severe critics. Those most heavily engaged in the controversy seemed to be able to read the Russian for themselves, whereas I can barely remember the Cyrillic alphabet from my High School Russian class, so I won't attempt to judge it as an accurate translation.

Oh, about the connection with" Faust" -- Goethe's version holds the key to some otherwise puzzling scenes and characters, but probably isn't essential to enjoying the book, since I wasn't familiar with it in 1968, when Glenny appeared in paperback.

On the other hand, I went back and re-read "Master" some years later, after a graduate seminar course on the Faust tradition in literature (in English translations), in which we spent a lot of time with Goethe, and I was surprised at how much more sense I found in *some* of the scenes. (Gounod's version -- which I think is known as "Gretchen" in Germany -- covers only a little of what Bulgakov found useful.)


Bryan--The Bee’s Knees (theindefatigablebertmcguinn) | 629 comments Thanks for the comments, Ian--this tells me that I'll need to give it another try someday.


message 11: by Christopher (new) - added it

Christopher (Donut) | 28 comments I just checked.. I have the Burgin/ O'Connor translation (which may not have come up yet).

I will give it a try.


message 12: by Emy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Emy (emyleest) | 19 comments I’m struggling to finish this. It’s just way too weird for me.


message 13: by George P. (last edited Oct 28, 2017 06:02PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

George P. | 1025 comments Mod
I read this four years ago, so my memory of it isn't fresh. I don't know which translation to English it was- probably either the Burgin/O'Connor or Pevear/ Volokhonsky as those are what my library has. I'm not a reader of fantasy as a rule, and the weird fantasy elements were not to my taste. I've not read any Goethe, perhaps that would have helped according to some comments here. My edition didn't have any notes just a short preface I think. Some parts which were less fantastic were appealing to me, and I put it down as a 3.5 stars in my notes. Hopefully we'll get some more comments that enlighten me as to what went over my head.


message 14: by Phil (new) - rated it 3 stars

Phil Jensen | 9 comments Bryan wrote: "the rest of the scenes set in Moscow seemed kind of silly. On the other hand, I thought the interludes with Pontius Pilate were extremely captivating."

I also prefer the Pilate chapters, but I think you and I are alone in that.

My review:
https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

My memory tells me that the Faust bits are drawn more from the opera than directly from Goethe's version.


message 15: by Jacques (last edited Nov 08, 2017 03:48AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jacques (sequel) | 1 comments My opinion about the book shifted a lot while reading it:

I was fascinated by the description before I started reading it. In the first few chapters, I thought it was well on its way to becoming my favourite book, especially the Pilate chapter and the interaction with the Woland on the bench. After the first magic performance at the theatre (around the middle), it all became a repetition of crazy unrelated events. Random people falling from thin air into a room and flying out of a window 2 pages later. Just about everyone interacting with Woland/crew ends up at an asylum. Vague puzzlement from officials. Crowds of naked anonymous women and chapters of naked female protagonists, probably mostly for Bulgakov's spankbank rather than to further the plot. The few Pilate chapters and Pilate references in Moscow were consistently interesting, with little else to keep me reading.

I would have given up on the book if not for the strength of the first chapters. Then by the end, it kinda came together again, with all the threads being addressed, resolved or with lives changed for the better.

My rating for the book went from a strong 5 to a 2, then ended up at a 3.5. On balance, a good read, if you can get through the 50% to 90% mark.

Is it an absurdist book and meant to read like a long list of non-sequiturs? (Don't know.) Is it better in other translations? (Don't know.) Is it better if you know more about the era? Probably - his books were prohibited from being published till decades after his death, because he refused to censor his work.


Amanda Dawn | 135 comments I Loved this book so much: the initial few chapters with meeting the "professor", the beheading, the first Pilate chapter, had me hooked. And it just kept getting weirder and and more whimsical, and yeah I can agree with the comment above that it seemed to be non-sequitur randomness for a while, but yeah I also agree that it all tied together again at the end, and I was thoroughly entertained.

It wasn't just kooky fun though: I love how Bulgakov used this book to criticize the obligatorily anti-theist literati during the Stalinist era (I'm not surprised at all that he was censored and banned for a while). I mean, I'm an atheist, but I hate how this homogeneous viewpoint was forced upon the writing world in the Soviet Union, especially to the extent that so much humanity even from a secular perspective is taken out of art. To me, the story of "Yeshua" in the book isn't just about the acknowledgement of the divine, but of the complex nature of humanity that is lost in the party line of the regime.

I love how complex morality plays out in the book: and how it toys with the idea that there is always good in the badness of people and vice versa. I particularly loved the fact that the master and margarita go to limbo at the end instead of hell, and how Margarita frees the rape victim from her torture.


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