I was aware that The Master and Margarita was a seminal piece of work for Mikhail Bulgakov, but not much else. Several people, unbeknownst to the each other, recommended I read it. Fate sealed it as I perused a book store in Hyde Park and found it waiting there for me. I was barely looking for it and it manifested itself to me, which sounds quite spooky, I know. I read the Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor translation for Picador. It became apparent to me that the further I delved into this story, the more useful reading it in Russian would be. Bulgakov does employ word play and the meaning of Russian names makes identifying the book as a satire much easier. Sadly, I discovered all the annotations––written by Ellendrea Proffer––for the novel about halfway through and didn't get the full effect until past the climax. If you read a translated version, I highly suggested checking for annotations/footnotes/end notes to accompany it. I would not have appreciated the depth of work without it.
The book has several story threads, which run throughout the novel at various levels. The primary story is that of Woland, the black magician that visits contemporary Moscow, along with his bandits: the fat, black cat Behemoth; the fanged and menacing Azazello; the "ex-choirmaster" Fagot/Korovyov; a briefly appearing Abaddonna; and the red haired woman called Hella. Woland's first moments in the chapter reveal that he is in fact the devil, which the head of the literary bureaucracy (Berlioz) and one of its poets (Bezdomny), refuse to believe. Woland, in an effort to allude to his true identity, tells the story of Pontius Pilate and Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus of Nazareth). This chapter takes place in 1st century Jerusalem and details the meeting between these two men. This thread continues soon after Woland's prediction of Berlioz's death comes true and Bezdomny chases after Woland, only to appear insane in front of the entire bureaucracy. This puts Bezdomny in an asylum, where he meets The Master.
The Master listens to Bezdomny's rambling tale and agrees that Woland is the devil. Soon it becomes apparent that The Master is tortured by his novel on Pontius Pilate, the very story Woland told the unbelieving bureaucratic head and writer. The rejection of The Master's novel brought him anguish, but that piece of work drew Margarita, his true love, to him. In his suffering, he burns the manuscript and absconds himself to the asylum. Then Woland and his band terrorize the Variety Theater and its administrators and patrons with his show of black magic. Women who took the clothes offered on stage suddenly appear stark naked in the streets after the performance and the ten ruble bills the audience received turn into worthless items. After this episode, the story briefly returns to Yeshua's execution before The Master's lover, Margarita, is introduced and her story takes center stage. Her deep love for The Master causes her to enter a deal with the Devil: she will be the hostess of Satan's Ball and following a good performance, receive what her heart desires. After a grueling evening at Satan's Ball, she asks for one woman's punishment to be spared, which is granted, and she is still given a wish for herself. She reunites with The Master and they begin to live happily ever after in their basement apartment. The final chapters of Pilate come forward in the novel as Margarita happily reads them through the night with the manuscript Woland brought back into existence. The book concludes with the granting of peace to the souls of The Master and Margarita, who do not deserve hell, but have not earned heaven.
There is a great deal of detail I did not include, but that makes reading the book more of a surprise. Faust themes were overwhelmingly present, which I only picked up at very obvious points (i.e. deal with the devil), but had lots of subtle ones I would not know (because I am the worst German-speaking person and haven't read the entire thing), like poodles, the play on Behemoth's name, Margarita is Gretchen's real name, etc. There is also a great deal of satire, primarily accomplished through Woland and his gang. The famous line, "Second-grade fresh––that's absurd! Freshness only comes in one grade––first-grade and that's it! And if the sturgeon's second-grade fresh, then it's rotten!", while witty and hilarious, actually coined the term "second-grade fresh", which was used in Russia as a result. While it's satirical, it also has more serious themes of religion and devotion, as well as authority. The Yeshua story takes on nuances in meaning when the reader learns that much like The Master and his Pontius Pilate manuscript, Bulgakov burned his first manuscript of The Master and Margarita; he did not see a future as a Soviet writer. It brings to mind Andrei Platonov's The Pit because it was published during the Communist era, but was roundly hated by Stalin––which was the case for Bulgakov. Given the time period in which the piece was written, a number of passages are thinly veiled criticisms of Soviet practices, like random interrogation and arrests. Pontius Pilate's cowardice and ultimate devotion to Yeshua illuminates the "living in truth" problem that Václav Havel has made so famous while the greed, vanity, and gullibility of the new rich is put on display in Woland's black magic act. The Master draws numerous parallels to Bulgakov and Margarita to his several wives.
The Master and Margarita is a great "literary canon" type of book. It's Bulgakov's seminal work and brings in classical themes of Faust with satirical elements of Communism, all while remaining a compelling book that doesn't feel forced by its own themes, which I felt was the case in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Without the historical context and Bulgakov's biography, it still stands as a book to be reckoned with, though the background makes it a more compelling read and certainly gives the reader a back-door introduction to a tumultuous time in Russia's history. There's never a dull plot point and it kept me flipping back to the annotations for more understanding on the depth of the book. Reading it in Russian would be advisable for picking up on the subtle word play and shades of meaning that are so vital in satire, but with annotations, the English translation did not disappoint. I am happy to say I was pleased with this book and can check off another important Russian author off my list.