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The Master and Margarita
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Member ChallengeTracking 2016-20 > Theresa Reads Master & Margarita, finally

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message 1: by Theresa (last edited Oct 07, 2020 08:12AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Theresa | 7595 comments I did it again. I succumbed to a Center For Fiction Discussion Group, the same place that guided me through Proust. This time, it is much shorter, in every way. It has been on my reading bucket list only a short time, this group lasts only 6 weeks starting October 6th, 2020. Reading is far lighter and easier..the 50 pages or so for tonight took only a couple hours. And a friend is taking the discussion class too. Ellen is in fact the person who encouraged me to read what she considers the funniest book she has ever read.

We are reading the Pevear/Volokhonsky transalation, the 50th Anniversary edition.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, a mere 412 page satire first published in a highly censored Russian edition in 1965, but written in Stalinist Russia in the 1930s and suppressed.

Is it similar to Proust? Let's see...author kept tweaking the unpublished manuscript until his death...like Proust... leaving what is the definitive version in question ... same as Proust's last 3 books making up Remembrance of Things Past. There are quite a few translations, each with its passionate supporters. There are a whole slew of footnotes.

So bear with me as I wander through a hot summer in Moscow during Stalin's reign, following the Master and his henchmen, including a very large black cat who walks on his hind legs. We are off to a good start because the literary agent named Berlioz has just had a terrible tram accident when he slipped on an oily section of street and lost his head, bumping down the street in homage to Symphonie Fantastic.

I did mention this is satire and funny.


Theresa | 7595 comments Before I read the next section for Tuesday's discussion, I thought I'd drop some thoughts about last week's inaugural meet. Unlike Proust, this group meets weekly for 6 weeks.

Mike, the leader, was quite good - very different style than Damien who led Proust and I think it suits me a bit better. We'll see. This is of course a very different book.

The group is ginormous. It took half an hour for all to introduce themselves briefly. A few have read Bulgakov before and are ecstatic to find others to talk to about it. Others are first time readers like me, some have long had it as a bucket read, some have been to Russia and discovered it that way. And others had seen a noted theater adaptation in London which led to their now reading the source material (London Production was the Theatre Complicite which is quite a noted experimental theater). Some are very geeky, others earnest, others silent. I fully expect half those who attended last week to drop out - we already had a few who had not read the pages - and we only had to read 40 pages! At least 2 pairs of us were friends who were encouraged by one of the pair to take it with them because they had always wanted to discuss it with someone. Yes - I'm one of those pairs.

One had only the book's introduction (which was NOT part of the reading -- I deliberately did not read the introduction because they usually give away too much info and opinions that inform your own experience too much). Then she proceedded to read sections from the introduction in answer to the questions Mike posed to trigger discussion. Excuse me????? She pulled that a couple more times before finally subsiding.

Some of the discussion was a bit out there but most of it was quite interesting. We did not get through the entire section -- all those introductions -- but pretty much got the gist. Unfortunately my friend Ellen during the discussion of why Wotan/Satan was so interested in Berlioz' apartment spoke up and disclosed a bunch of spoilers in order to make her point that there was no subtext to it but Bulgakov was basically satirizing the chronic housing shortages and communal housing under the Soviets.

Much time was of course spent on the religious aspects. It opens with the literary establishment represented by Berlioz telling the young poet Ivan that Jesus Christ is a myth, there is no truth or fact to his legend and that's what he needs to be writing, not proving that he did live. Because of course, the Soviet party line is atheism. Wotan appears and begins rebuting this, taking us into the long second chapter -- a retelling of Pontius Pilate and his meeting with a criminal named Yehovah, all told from Pilate's perspective. It's an outrageous retelling in many ways, and in fact is the 2nd plot line of the book in some ways. Bulgakov was from a very deeply involved in the church family, counting bishops in his ancestry. Thus he has something to say about whether the state can dictate what people believe.

There are certainly some similarities to our present times here.

I of course enjoy all the musical references. They don't seem to be there for any deep purpose but it is quite funny that the Berlioz character (view spoiler)

I'm still a bit on the fence about how much I will actually get out of these classes. It did push me to look up the symbolic meaning and folklore about rose oil and the scent of roses (not roses themselves) because Pilate has an aversion to the scent and gets migraines from them and also a sense of forboding and ill-will. I found some interesting things here: https://scentsciences.wordpress.com/2...

One last comment about Pilate for now -- I'd never in all my catholic education realised that he was a procurator for Rome in Jerusalem - essentially the local magistrate empowered to administer the law in the absence of the Roman courts. And there were lots of backroom politicking going on when Yehovah came before him for judgment, just as happens in any court. I found that all so entertaining.

As were the following chapters where Ivan races around Moscow looking for Wotan after Berlioz' accident. In a few brief pages, we get quite a picture of Moscow in the 30s.


message 3: by Theresa (last edited Nov 28, 2020 07:25AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Theresa | 7595 comments The discussion group ended at least 2 weeks ago and I've not exactly raced to update my thoughts here. I've also not yet read the introduction to the edition I have, something I still plan to do.

Soooooo, the discussion as a whole was just ok. I certainly contributed, but I seemed to be on a different tangent than most of those actively discussing. Too many were caught up on the parallels in the story to Bulgakov's own life. I disagree as that being the purpose of the satire - in fact it seems the antithesis of satire to me. Of course the author is reflected in the work but that's not the point of the work. Tyrion is the alterego of GRRM but that doesn't mean GOT is about GRRM.

It's really a retelling of Faust against Stalinist Russia, and in particular the arts under Stalin and the Soviets.

I will also confess that the timing of the discussion group was not good for me. I often was still working during the first half hour and I'd be twitchy, needing to move around long before the 1.5 hour was up because I'd been sitting in my chair at the computer all day and just had reached my limit.

But also, reading this book, which isn't particularly long or difficult, over a period of 6 weeks in chunks was not good. I should have just read the whole thing at the beginning, then just skimmed back over pages before each class. But I was busy and in the final weeks of reading for Poll Tally....

I was not wowwed by this. I don't even think it is the most brilliant satire I've ever read. I do feel the legend surrounding it, how long it was suppressed and what happened to Bulgakov under Stalin, etc. has enhanced the reactions to reading it.

I did not dislike it, just don't actually see it as some incredible masterpiece, or the funniest book ever, or anywhere close to a favorite book. Which is how it is lauded.

I will read another translation at some point. I'd also like to read Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus before reading this again. And probably even Goethe's Faust as the book opens with a quote from Faust, and that story is clearly important to the story. Maybe reading it all of a piece, without a discussion group and stress from work interfering will have me enjoying it more.

I also suspect that my experience reading Proust earlier in the year and at the end of last year, and the discussion group with it, colored my reaction here, negatively.


message 4: by Amy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Amy | 8954 comments And I still haven't yet picked it up.....


Theresa | 7595 comments @Amy- I hope you do. There is a lot to enjoy in it. One tip: just let the book happen. Read as a humorous satire and let it roll over you.


message 6: by Theresa (last edited Nov 28, 2020 07:37AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Theresa | 7595 comments Here is my actual review of the book, written shortly after reading it.

Woland a/k/a Satan has come to Moscow in the 1930s, when Stalin rules the land. It's summer, and very hot, and he's brought his entourage with him that includes a giant black cat who walks on his hind legs named Behemoth. His stated purpose is to see how Muscovites are coping internally, whatever that means, and also to hold his annual ball. There is much mystery and confusion about what exactly his purpose is, especially as instantly on arrival, Woland falls in with the Literary Agent Berlioz and a young poet named Ivan who is writing the life of Pontius Pilate. I should mention that this is a two-time period story with the other being Jerusalem at the time of Christ's arrest and crucifixtion told from Pontius Pilates perspective. Woland of course was present at the crucifixtion, or so he says when he starts telling Ivan and Berlioz the story.

Are you confused yet? You should be. This is a satire and a story written in a way where juxtaposed events are not necessarily supposed to make sense or relate to each other, an actual literary style that had great popularity in early 20th Century Europe. At heart, this seems to be a satire about Stalinism and Literature with a heavy dose of analysis of the role of religion or its lack in life and art thrown in. It is confusing.

It's also a very funny book. The nonsense that goes on around securing an apartment (housing shortages under the Soviets were notorious) gave this NYC coop/condo general counsel great amusement as it is not unlike what happens today. Pontius Pilate is very disatisfied with his posting to Jerusalem and doesn't mind letting everyone know it. Skulduggery is rampant. Yet somehow, as a whole, the book does not awe me, or seem like the funniest book I've ever read (which is how a friend has always referenced it). It is brilliant, has layers to it but also can just be read as an entertainment. I suspect it will reward a second reading. Is it the masterpiece that it is acclaimed to be? I suspect it is but I need more time with it to decide for sure.

There is also the backstory to this book that inevitably colors everyone's perceptions as they go to read it. In short, Bulgakov was prevented from publishing it during his lifetime by Russian (first Stalin) censorship. He started writing it in 1928, finished it more or less around 1940 or so the notes say, and it was the 1970s before a heavily censored version was published in Russian, and quickly translated into English (Ginsburg Translation - green cover). Eventually less censored versions were published - and contintue to be published - in Russia and various transalations appear shortly after. There are a lot of opinions on which translations capture the real spirit of the original Russian. I read the most recent updated 50th anniversary translation into English which may or may not be the most preferred.

I personally believe it has the most enticing cover and quality printing. Love it!

And did I mention that Bulgakov's own story relating to the publication of this book is mirrored in one of the plotlines, and led to a statement that is well-known still today: Manuscripts cannot be burned.


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