I’ve finished my simultaneous readings of Bulgakov’s great novel (to my wife in English, on my own in Russian), and having read two different translations and now the original, I’m not sure what I can add to the reams that have been written about one of the most widely loved novels of the last century. One thing that struck me this time around was the great difference between the two halves of the book; my wife grew restive during the first half, with its heavy dose of Stalin-era satire, but got hooked when the book took flight (quite literally) in the second. It’s surprising how long it takes for the title characters to show up and take over, especially considering that the popularity of the book outside of Russia is (I have little doubt) almost entirely due to them, enjoyable as the devil’s magic tricks are. There are really at least two very different books crammed uneasily together: a wildly romantic story of love and madness, and an Ilf-and-Petrov-style comedy of social relations in 1930s Moscow, with a heavy emphasis on the stupid and corrupt cultural bureaucracy that caused Bulgakov himself so much trouble. And then of course there are the scenes set in the Jerusalem of two millennia ago, which have the reportorial sobriety one might expect rather in the modern sections—and in which the grim realities of Stalinist Russia, from denunciations to arrest by the secret service to torture and execution, are much more openly present (in the modern sections they are hinted at allusively). I’m not sure I can explain how it manages to hang together, but I feel it does. And it’s full of quotable nuggets, from the второй свежести (“of second freshness”) of the hapless and ill-fated bartender/buffet manager to the wonderful line “Вино какой страны вы предпочитаете в это время дня?” (“The wine of which country would you prefer at this time of day?”), which I once had occasion to quote in the Pálffy Palác restaurant in Prague to a woman besotted with Bulgakov and Mandelstam. I expect to read it again one day.