THE MASTER AND MARGARITA.

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.

Comments

  1. Well-observed! The bien-pensant Russian view is that the Ilf-and-Petrov/Jerusalem/Voland business is the much better part of the book, and the other part is embarrasingly autobiographical and trite. I’d generally agree with that, but it’s good that someone discerning sees the merits in the second part too.

  2. Dmitry Rubinstein says:

    > And then of course there are the scenes set in the Jerusalem of two centuries ago
    Two millennia?

  3. The book literally took flight in the second half? What happened, did your wife fling it across the room?

  4. Two millennia?
    Now, that’s really weird; I remember thinking “two millennia” when I was composing the sentence in my head, and then I must have somehow typed “centuries.” The brain is a strange thing. Anyway, thanks, I’ve fixed it.
    The book literally took flight in the second half? What happened, did your wife fling it across the room?
    See how frisky he gets once he passes his orals?

  5. popularity of the book outside of Russia is (I have little doubt) almost entirely due to them
    Are you sure? I have long thought that it is the ‘Devil-tells-the-story-of-Christ’ that gets people hooked in the first place – it’s in the opening scene. Back in Wales a few years ago I was friends with a cultured young Englishman, run the local MOMA, who, I discovered, hadn’t heard of Bulgakov. I gave him a copy of M&M for Christmas and the first thing he said when we met after the holidays was that – biblical story mixed with modern dilemmas.
    Is Valentin Katayev’s The Diamond Crown of Mine (Алмазный мой венец) translated into English? There is a lot about Bulgakov and Mandelstam. Katayev was in love with Bulgakov’s sister, they were to get married, but B. stopped that from happening.
    Please don’t read the following if you don’t want to spoil the novel for yourself.
    I’ve recently read a study which says that Woland is based on Stalin and the word Master comes from the telephone conversation between Stalin and Pasternak, when Stalin repeatedly asked Pasternak if he thought that the arrested Mandelstam was truly a master, meaning a worthy poet. Bulgakov knew about that conversation and the article claims that it was after he learned about it the name Master appeared in drafts of the novel. The strange relationship between Stalin and Bulgakov is known. Stalin personally intervened to protect him from attacks of the ‘proletarian’ writers.

  6. John Emerson says:

    Bulgakov’s book is reputed to be the inspiration for the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”, and people read it for that reason.

  7. Are you sure? I have long thought that it is the ‘Devil-tells-the-story-of-Christ’ that gets people hooked in the first place – it’s in the opening scene. Back in Wales a few years ago I was friends with a cultured young Englishman, run the local MOMA, who, I discovered, hadn’t heard of Bulgakov. I gave him a copy of M&M for Christmas and the first thing he said when we met after the holidays was that – biblical story mixed with modern dilemmas.
    All I can say is that I’ve known a number of non-Russians who have loved this novel, and all of them loved it for the Master/Margarita plot (not that they weren’t interested in the other stuff, just that it wasn’t what drew them back to the book). If it had to depend on cultured young people interested in a biblical story mixed with modern dilemmas, it wouldn’t have anywhere near the popularity it does.
    people read it for that reason
    Some do, no doubt, but again, if it had to depend on Stones-obsessed readers, it would be very much a niche novel.

  8. Bulgakov’s book is reputed to be the inspiration for the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”, and people read it for that reason.
    Nice try, but a little far-fetched when you listen to the lyrics. It’s more likely that Begemot inspired “Stray Cat Blues.”
    I had no idea Bulgakov was popular in the English speaking world. With whom exactly? The only non-Russian friends I have who have read M&M are Americans who studied Russian at some point. And they primarily seem to enjoy it for the “Ilf and Petrov” bits. It’s nice to know that there are Americans out there somewhere reading Bulgakov.
    My Russian literature professor in college actually forbade any of us from reading M&M, saying we “weren’t ready yet”, and implying it was full of pure Russian truths that no callow American undergrad could ever appreciate. We had to read Zamyatin’s “My” instead.

  9. I have long thought that it is the ‘Devil-tells-the-story-of-Christ’ that gets people hooked in the first place – it’s in the opening scene.
    I agree, Sashura. Voland and the apartment are my favorite elements of the book, so I particularly enjoy Satan’s ball.

  10. John Emerson says:

    Novels adapted for pop songs are treated the same way as novels adapted as movies, i.e. very badly.

  11. Mick himself claims he was inspired by Baudelaire, but maybe he thought that sounded cooler.
    Speaking of adaptations – has anyone seen the Russian made-for-TV miniseries of Master & Margarita?

  12. but John, where did you get the Stones link from? Maybe you’re thinking of The Balls of Rock? (The Fateful Eggs)
    We had to read Zamyatin’s “My” instead.
    oh, he can be more dangerous to virgin minds than B. – ‘pink tickets’, glass walls etc.!
    Lisa, thanks, do you get any comments from your students on this?
    re.Master and Margarita appeal, I think it’s also in the ‘quest element’ in it. While reading I looked up the the ‘standard’ names in the New Testament story and re-read Goethe and looked up the stories behind the guests at the ball. And when I went to Kaliningrad/Königsberg the year after M and M was finally published in Russia, the first thing I did was to go and see Kant’s grave there. I’m sure if a Kate Mosse publisher took it up today it would be twice as thick – with maps, lists, indexes and notes, questions and recommended topics for Readers Groups, grrh.

  13. miniseries of Master & Margarita?
    I did, it’s generally true to the book, wonderful music score, strong acting by star cast, didn’t like too much computer generated stuff and thought that for this day and age timid at dealing with nudity – they retouched ‘naughty bits’ and at the ball dressed Margarita in weird metal armour and witches in sparkling Moulin Rouge-style bikini bottoms, but then, there must have been TV considerations. I also didn’t like director’s (Bortko, who brilliantly did The Heart of a Dog) interpretation – low-key Yeshua, extended scenes at Lubyanka and a whole ‘denunciation’ lecture at the Moscow Planetarium. Otherwise I can recommend it if you love the novel. It’s out on DVD on Amazon.

  14. You’ve read two different translations and the original: any recommendation on which translation a Russianless reader should read?
    Also, I don’t suppose there’s any connection between the plots of Bulgakov’s novel and Eça de Queiróz’ The Relic (1887), in which the narrator and a German professor spend the middle of the book somehow transported back to the time of the Crucifixion? As I recall, they’re already in Jerusalem, but it’s not at all clear whether this is supposed to be some sort of elabroate dream or actual time-travel. The religious subplot is also – this is what made me think of it in connection with Bulgakov – sandwiched into a rather profane main plot.

  15. Lisa, thanks, do you get any comments from your students on this?
    Yes, Sashura, many of my students have read and enjoyed M&M, and quite a few read it before ever taking Russian classes. When I made a presentation about Russian literature at my local library last year, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that several people had read it. And someone gladly took the library copy to read. Like Vanya, I had always thought that most of M&M’s readers here were Russian majors, but I’ve found the book’s appeal and reach is much broader.

  16. michael farris says:

    Okay, I’ve only read it once (in Polish). But I didn’t perceive the two halves as the contemporary comedy of manners and a wild romantic love story.
    If anything, I perceived the two parts as the single modern story (about the figures of Woland, the Master and Margarita and those surrounding them) and the retelling of the Passion. I found the whole modern story very interesting. Although I found the Master to be a little boring, Woland and Margarita make up for that.
    I’m embarassed to admit I couldn’t really get into the Jesus part very much.

  17. Sashura, I realized I didn’t answer your question: you wanted to know what interested non-Russian readers most. I’m not sure/don’t remember, but I can say this: one of my friends loves the book but isn’t big on love stories, so I’m almost certain it’s not the romance she enjoyed! She also loves Ilf and Petrov. (This friend was an English major, not a Russian major, and she’s read a lot of Russian literature in translation.)

  18. J. W. Brewer says:

    The claim that M+M directly influenced Sympathy for the Devil is fairly old and widespread among the sorts of people who would be interested in source material for Stones songs, so in a sense it doesn’t matter if it comports with Jagger’s own account – it’s still likely to influence some subset of people to check the book out. Can’t recall if it influenced me specifically, but, embarrassing as it seems in hindsight, I did, um, first read the poetry of Blake back at age 15 because of his supposed influence on, um, the Doors. And certainly if the echo between the opening of M+M and “Please allow me to introduce myself” is sheer coincidence, it’s a remarkable one, unless someone has a Baudelaire quote that fits equally well.

  19. Lisa, thanks for both comments, whatever readers find most interesting, they confirm what Hat says, that it’s one of the most widely loved novels of the last century.

  20. I had no idea Bulgakov was popular in the English speaking world. With whom exactly?
    What do you mean “exactly”? Lots of people; otherwise it wouldn’t be continuously in print and available in at least half a dozen translations. Trust me, there aren’t enough Russian majors to do the trick.
    The only non-Russian friends I have who have read M&M are Americans who studied Russian at some point. And they primarily seem to enjoy it for the “Ilf and Petrov” bits.
    As I would expect. But Ilf/Petrov are not even close to Bulgakov in popularity in America. The appeal of M&M is universal and does not require immersion in the history and culture of its country of origin to appreciate.
    any recommendation on which translation a Russianless reader should read?
    Wikipedia lists the following translations:
      * Mirra Ginsburg, New York: Grove Press, 1967.
      * Michael Glenny, New York: Harper & Row, 1967; London: Harvill, 1967; with introduction by Simon Franklin, New York: Knopf, 1992; London: Everyman’s Library, 1992.
      * Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor, annotations and afterword by Ellendea Proffer, Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1993, 1995; New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
      * Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, London: Penguin, 1997.
      * Michael Karpelson, Lulu Press, 2006.
      * Hugh Aplin, One World Classics, 2008.
    Of these, I have read Ginsburg’s (which, as Wikipedia says, “was from a censored Soviet text and is therefore incomplete”) and the Burgin/Tiernan O’Connor, which is quite well done (with excellent notes) and which I would certainly recommend above the Ginsburg, though I have no idea how it compares to the others. I would not recommend Pevear/Volokhonsky simply because they annoy me, but that is obviously not a factor anyone else need take into account.

  21. John Emerson says:

    Well, I never said that M&M really was the inspiration for SYmpathy With the Devil, and still less that Jagger did a good job of it. I just mentioned the legend, which is widespread.
    Google tells us that M&M was a gift from Marianne Faithful, who was trying to educate Jagger. The claim that M&M was the inspiration was made by Marianne Faithful herself, who said in her autobiography that Jagger read the book in one sitting after she gave it to him, and then wrote SFTD. So whatever argument you have is with Marianne.

  22. I read We in translation along with 1984 and Brave New World, and liked it best (or at least that’s my memory from a few decades ago; I’ve read both of the others since). Per contra, M & M is one of the tiny handful of books I have begun but not finished; I found it dreary and intractable. (Because I read extraordinarily fast, it’s less of a time investment for me to read a book in full than for most people who read a lot.)

  23. I just recently saw the Synetic Theater’s adaptation, and they stuck pretty closely to the second half of the book, though they did have the magic show and the decapitation-by-tram, of course. I wasn’t totally convinced everyone in the audience knew Behemoth (that they translated but not Bezdomny!) was meant to be a cat, he looked more like a heavy-metal/punk elf. But the audience did enjoy it.
    I then reread it in the Pevear and Volkhonsky, and found it went quickly and was funny in the right way, even though the translation was often a bit Russian-awkward-English… Karpelson does much better with The Fatal Eggs, I think…

  24. Ok…since everyone is giving personal anecdotes about this novel, I’ll give mine.
    Some years ago, I was familiar with the names of most of all the great Russian novelists. But, unlike Hat, nothing about Russia interested me much. Especially since the Russians had for decades occupied my mother’s country. Why read anything by those fucking bastards?
    That all changed when I found myself with an absolutely stunning Russian babe at a luxurious FKK in Frankfurt, Germany. As we were relaxing in bed after a delicious romp, our conversation turned to literature, of all things. After some slightly contentious discussion, with her criticizing Goethe and Grass, I asked her: “All right, so what Russian novel is your favorite? What would you recommend?” Tanned beauty replied proudly: “Der Meister und Margarita, von Bulgakow.”
    The next day I rushed to the Hugendubel on the Hauptwache and bought the book and read it. And I would be hard put to say which was more stunning—her or the novel. In any case, I learned that one can never guess where one might learn about the highlights of literature. Might be at a prestigious university or might be at a brothel.

  25. which translation a Russianless reader should read?
    I’ve read Michael Glenny’s translation which I thought was good. I don’t agree with some of his choices for non-native and archaic words. He translates the nickname of Mark, the centurion friend of Pilate, into Latin as Muribellum, but in the original it’s Krysoboi – the Ratkiller, which I would have translated as English, not Latin. When Pontius appears, he wears ‘white cloak lined with blood-red’, but ‘lining’ in Russian is the archaic ‘podboi’, not the standard ‘podkladka’. I trust his instinct, but still think little details like this take away some of the solemn poetic rhythm of the Pilate-Yeshua part, very different from the ‘Ilf-Petrov’ chapters.

  26. I agree that Muribellum is a bad choice, but I don’t know how else you’d translate podboi—in cases like that, you just have to compensate with an archaism elsewhere.

  27. I would not recommend Pevear/Volokhonsky simply because they annoy me, but that is obviously not a factor anyone else need take into account.
    Blimey, after what you & mab had to say I wouldn’t touch them with a bargepole.

  28. Victor Sonkin says:

    I liked P&V’s translation, but I was a bit apprehensive about its style; Ridger, could you elaborate on your impression?

  29. Decent Interval says:

    I bought M&M in the mid-1960s when I was a teenager because I thought the gun-toting cat on the cover was so cool. (This was the Glenny translation.) I LOVED that book.
    I haven’t read it since then, but it was the first book that made a lump in my throat (at or near the end). I don’t remember the details, but it was something about the “madman” and the woman who loved him.
    (The lump returned 2 years later when I read about the Count of Monte Cristo sailing away as Mercedes watches on the dock.)

  30. Muribellum is an awful translation of Ratkiller. I’m a Latinist, and would never have guessed the intended meaning. It would most obviously mean ‘war of the wall’ (genitive of murus + nominative of bellum), but that would not be an appropriate name for a character, since it’s neuter. I suppose the translator meant muri for the dative of mus (‘war for a mouse’) or just the stem of mus with a connecting i (‘mouse-war’). Still not a good name.
    One big problem is that the Greeks and Romans don’t seem to have distinguished mice and rats. If Wikipedia can be trusted, genus Rattus didn’t arrive in Europe until the 1st century A.D.
    There is a classical Greek name for ‘mouse-killer’: muoktónos, found in (where else?) the Pseudo-Homeric Batrachomyomachia, ‘Battle of the Frogs and Mice’ and Nicander’s Alexipharmaca, a lovely didactic poem on poisons and their antidotes.
    Is there a Latin equivalent to muoktónos? I suppose if a human-slayer is a homicida, a mouse-slayer could be a muricida. I can’t come up with anything better for Ratkiller, and that doesn’t look much like a Roman name. Better to have given the name in English. Readers would have easily assumed it was translated from some appropriate Greco-Roman name.
    (I hope this is coherent: between strep throat and a drug whose name gets me caught in the spam filter, I’m not cohering very well at the moment.)

  31. Dr Weevil, are you sure they lumped rats and mice together? They aren’t really very similar creatures, not as similar as rats & squirrels, for example, or mice and voles.

  32. Apparently they didn’t have rats. Lucky them.

  33. Was “Master & Margarita” widely read in the English speaking world in the 1960s? Maybe that’s why I’m surprised to hear the book referred to as “popular”. I never had the impression it was widely known in the US – but maybe it’s just that my Gen X peers don’t really know it.

  34. I must confess that I don’t have the same admiration for M&M novel as I used to have – not after re-reading it several times at different ages (that I did thus re-read it would testify to the strength of the original admiration). I think that many of those who read it as Soviet adolescents will never forget the stunning first impression it all – the satire, the devil, the romance – had made on them, especially by contrast with what one usually read and saw at the time. That, and the language – best words in best order.
    What turns me away now is mostly the Voland/Margarita line (so very diabolic: the dead villains having a ball, bathing in champaign, and naked witches, no less) that has started to annoy me at some point. And, to think that, in Stalin’s Moscow, of all places, the Devil himself would find nothing more interesting by way of evil than a bunch of petty thieves and literary sycophants… As for the Jerusalem story, for me it was just like the rest of it: stunning first impression that, over the years, changed to slight annoyance from what I saw as the arbitrariness of it all.
    Then again, there is that study that Sashura has mentioned, proving that Bulgakov was thinking about his conversation with Stalin when writing at least some of the exchanges between Voland and Margarita. There is something narrow and self-centred about all that, and I think it rubs off on the rest of the novel somehow. A nervous, broken man, just like the Master, never fully recovered from the bloody chaos of the Civil War, seeking a Power – any Power – that would protect him, that he could serve in exchange for peace, and maybe a Power that would end up understanding and rewarding him, and, yes, punishing his enemies.
    As for the recent TV series, I think it is quite good, and, I believe, true to the text to the point of actually having just what I see as the shortcomings of the novel itself.

  35. aquilluqaaq says:

    they lumped rats and mice together?
    Yes, along with martens, ermines, sables, and others. When they needed to distinguish mice and rats, they used mus for the larger species and the diminutive musculus for the smaller. A weasel was a mustela. Some of the other related species were distinguished with epithets, e.g. mus araneus for ‘shrew’, a.k.a. saurex (or sorex), mus Ponticus for ‘stoat’, or mus odoratus for ‘muskrat’. A dormouse was a glis.

  36. How interesting! Thank you. I’ll never look at the Romans in quite the same way again, I wonder what they would have made of a capybara.

  37. Dr Weeler, thanks for that excursus, very interesting.
    Whether Romans had rats or not, is not really relevant, I think. The name Ratkiller (or Ratswatter) is just to describe him as a giant, strong military man towering over the rest.
    re.Woland or Voland. I think it should be Germanic Woland, because, among other reasons, W is an inverted (upside down) M for Margarita – and the Master. The M design you can see on the Paris and Moscow metro stations. She embroiders M on a cap she gives to the Master.
    please don’t read the following if you don’t want to spoil the novel for yourself
    There is another study, in Russian which claims that Pilate is based on Lenin and Mark on Trotsky, not that far-fetched as it may seem today. But start deconstructing the novel like that and you lose all enjoyment of the brilliant writing.

  38. M – W: or Metropolitan Opera

  39. Well, I’m almost twice the age I was when I tried it before: perhaps I’ll try again.
    But I still don’t like Middlemarch, or most of Wordsworth’s poetry, to say nothing of Pound’s (other abandonees of mine).

  40. another word that made me wince in Glenny’s translation is ‘hegemon’. Mark tells Yeshua that Pilate is to be addressed with it.
    The problem is that hegemon, in Russian – гегемон (gegemon), is a strongly loaded word with marxist-communist connotations: ‘proletariat is the hegemon of the world revolution’. Bulgakov’s original uses ‘ygemon’, a variant of the same word with proletarian link removed, maybe even derided. I suppose it’s another of those unavoidable little things?
    podboi – lining
    I agree, it’s probably the only way to deal with it. I vaguely remember that Daphne du Maurier uses an old English word for lining in The House on the Strand, but can’t bring it back.

  41. I’m pretty sure it was the inspiration for Van Halen’s Running with the Devil, too.

  42. I read it in Thomas Reschke’s German translation; Hegemon there worked fine in that sense, it didn’t read as Marxist-Leninist to me, rather as a bit of biblical scholars’ jargon that was clear enough in its relation to hegemony. Maybe an East German would have had the Marxist-Leninist associations, I’m not sure.

  43. The problem is that hegemon, in Russian – гегемон (gegemon), is a strongly loaded word with marxist-communist connotations
    But not in English, so the problem does not arise. (In fact, it’s very rarely used in English; it’s quite possible that many readers of Bulgakov will never have encountered it before. “Hegemonic” is common in a limited circle of political analysis, but rare outside of it.)

  44. thanks for reassuring me. Still, I can’t help feeling the same frustration that Susan Sontag felt (The World as India).
    Have you come across the satirical use of гегемон, verbal form гегемонить – corresponding to le droite cassoulet which is the opposite of caviar gauche/champagne socialist? Droite cassoulet was invented, I think, by Anne Roumanoff, who was voted the most popular French stand-up comedian last year.

  45. J.W. Brewer says:

    FWIW, this Anglophone first learned the word hegemony, if not hegemon, in a Marxist agitprop context. But my experience may have been idiosyncratic. This is when I was living in Japan as a boy in the mid-1970′s, and would frequently read in the English-language Tokyo newspapers about Sino-Soviet tension. Some or all of “hegemon/-y/-ic” were, IIRC, staples of the Chicom rhetoric against the Soviets, as rendered into English. So those words still have a little bit of a “running dogs of imperialism” kind of vibe for me.

  46. michael farris says:

    Me too.

  47. oh, I forgot about those – yes, Chinese communist rhetoric was a wonderful source of comclich. ‘Soviet revisionists’ we were.

  48. and ‘capputists’ – capitalist roaders.

  49. FWIW, this Anglophone first learned the word hegemony, if not hegemon, in a Marxist agitprop context. But my experience may have been idiosyncratic.
    No, that’s quite normal; it’s what I meant by “a limited circle of political analysis.” (Ah, for those college days when we scrawled competing Leninist, Trotskyist, and Maoist slogans on the blackboards!)

  50. Readers of Orson Scott Card’s Ender series are quite familiar with Hegemon as the title of the ruler of Earth’s unified government during the B*gger War.

  51. John Emerson says:

    “Hegemon” is the standard English translation of the Chinese word “ba”, the name of the regional leaders who kept the powerless Eastern Zhou dynasty from collapsing entirely during its early centuries.

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