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Mikhail Bulgakov — The Master and Margarita

Probably in my top five books, ever. Partially because it’s hilarious, partially because it’s amazing how many different levels of story Bulgakov manages to shove into it. On the one level there is a satire of 30s Soviet Moscow and its literary establishment. There’s the idea of that establishment of atheists forced to deal with the fact that the devil’s in town. There’s a Faust story turned on its head. And then there’s the Master’s novel, which may have actually happened, at some point in history, the story of Pontius Pilate and a vagrant wanderer condemned to death. All of these stories interweave seamlessly, in a novel that is at once hilarious, poignant, and satisfying.

While it does help to have some prior knowledge of the time period and especially of literary figures, the edition that I own has a series of extensive end notes that explain and add context to certain names, areas of the city, and context of the time. I am always torn with whether to keep flipping back and forth or just to check at the end, but with this, a book that I re-read often, I end up just reading through it the first time and then going back and flipping around the second or third.

I don’t actually have a whole lot to say about this book other than that it is wonderful and you should read it. Bulgakov’s dry and ridiculous humor is a great embroidery for both the ridiculous goings-on of insane poets confined to mental institutions, the greed of the new rich, confronted with the devil, and the touching love story of the devoted Margarita as she tries to save the Master from ruin.

Margarita is an enigmatic figure but a touching one. In a subversion of the traditional Faust tale it is she who bargains for the Master, she who is at the risk of losing everything. But because she is too proud to ask for anything, and so purely devoted to him, and kind to those who need mercy, things turn out differently than one might expect. She is a fantastic heroine, and the scene where she is forced to act as the hostess to Woland’s ball is one of the most fascinating ones in the entire book.

(I lied when I said I didn’t have much to say about this, I guess!)

Anyway, Bulgakov should be read more often, and especially this book.


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