11 April 2011

The Master & Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov)

I'm so in love with WORD's Classics Book Group, you guys. To wit: dragged myself the three-mile roundtrip up and down Greenpoint last Saturday--despite battling nigh Week Two of a too-sick-for-a-cold, not-sick-enough-for-the-flu ailment (I think I'm finally OK now. Thanks for asking!)--because I wanted to talk about The Master and Margarita SO BAD. And it was worth it, despite the truly ferocious exhaustion that ensued.

Stephanie had sold this book pretty endlessly and noted that everyone who bought it seemed to be getting a copy as a present for a friend. Since it's a very particular kind of book that's propagated like this--one can love a book and even urge people to read it without taking the step to put it in their hands--her curiosity was piqued. Generalizing hastily: I think it's a book that's either beloved or culturally important; Master and Margarita is both. It's also surreal, thought-provoking, funny, tender, and subversive. AND THERE IS A CAT THAT DRINKS VODKA. (Awww, man, I just wasted several minutes trying to find a LOLcat pic of him. I mean, there's a LOLcat "The Waste Land"...my faith in the Internet is shaken.) (UPDATE: THERE, I FIXED IT.. YOU'RE WELCOME, UNIVERSE.)

The novel is, in unranked order, 1) a satire of Stalinist Russia; 2) a retelling of the trial and death of Christ centering on Pontius Pilate; and 3) a love story. You can haz explication:
  1. It's that peculiar kind of satire bred by terror and oppression, where you laugh and then gasp in horror...the devil and his minions come to 1930s Moscow and wreak trickster-god havoc, but they're not at all the evil at work in the city. Dreams and magic stand in for the surreality of an "ordinary life" marked by survival-instinct-bred mistrust and constant disappearances. The book itself wasn't published contemporaneously, of course--apparently its publication (albeit still in censored form) in 1966-7 represented a huge step forward in literary freedom in the Soviet Union, and it's a favorite of many Russians who lived through the Communist era, faithfully and obliquely detailing what it was like to do so. Without being, you know, The Gulag Archipelago (an obviously amazing and important work, but one of the worst birthday presents I can think of).
  2. Interspersed with the Satanic antics--starting as a tale told by the devil himself and following through in dream and novel-within-a-novel--is an absolutely beautiful (though unorthodox) version of the prosecution and condemnation of Jesus by Pilate. (Sidebar: I was amazed that there was more than one person in the group who had to look up who Pilate was!! Cultural currency varies so much.) For me (and for Bulgakov, I think), Pilate is a crucial figure in Christianity because he represents the challenge of living in the world, the impossibility of always doing the right thing, that faces every human being. He had to sentence Christ to death. Muscovites had to protect themselves and their families while their neighbors were denounced and executed. There are always saints, yes--but one can be a good person without being a saint. One can be a good person and have done bad things.
  3. AND there's also the Master and Margarita! And they are about love, and art, and loving an artist, and what love and art can and cannot do. And selfless deals with the devil.
So: yes, you should read this book, and then give it to your friends. Next up is Dead Souls, Gogol's only novel. Hooray!

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