Book Review: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Most of the books I read are recommendations from friends and family. I’ve found that this is a nice way of introducing variety into my reading list. It was my sister who helped me find Americanah, for example, and my friend Scott who lent me a copy of Tenth of December. The book I’ll cover in this review, Mikhail Bulgakov’s Russian novel The Master and Margarita, appeared on my desk after my friend Ishita called it “her absolute favorite book.”

Ishita, you’re in good company. Skimming the praise on the book’s back cover, I found that one reader had a similar sentiment: “It’s now my favorite novel. It’s just the greatest explosion of imagination, craziness, satire, humor, and heart.” Those words, courtesy of renowned literary critic Daniel Radcliffe.

So, with Ishita and Harry Potter as my docents, I dove in.

First and foremost, The Master and Margarita is a love story.

In circa-1930 Soviet Moscow, a man known only as “the Master” goes for a walk. He encounters a sad woman holding a bunch of yellow flowers, and the two begin strolling side-by-side down the lane. Their attraction is intense and immediate. She is the first to speak:

“Do you like my flowers?”

“No.”

“Do you dislike flowers generally?”

“No, I like flowers, but not these.”

“And what flowers do you like?”

“I like roses.”

She throws her flowers into the gutter; the Master picks them up and carries them for her. In the Master’s words,

“Love caught us suddenly, leaped at us like a murderer appearing from out of nowhere in an alley, and struck us both down at once. Like lightning, like a Finnish knife!”

They carry on their relationship in secret, for she is currently seeing someone else. They spend their evenings in the Master’s basement apartment, him writing a novel about Pontius Pilate, her knitting and spurring him on. At her encouragement, the Master brings his novel to an editor. The editor shoots him down and maliciously shares the novel with the publishing community. Soon the Master is called out in several newspaper articles as a Christ apologist. (Religious freedom suffered immensely in Soviet Russia. Stalin’s regime campaigned vehemently against religion, disseminating atheism and crippling the Russian Orthodox Church.) Critics warn of the dangers of “Pilatism”; the Master is labeled a “Militant Old Believer.” Ruined, the Master falls into despair. Margarita tells him that she will stay with him no matter what — “I will perish with you,” she declares — and runs off to break up with her other lover. When she returns to the Master’s apartment in the morning, he is gone.

This all happened four months ago. The Master has been living in a mental institute since the night Margarita left. Margarita, despondent and unable to find the Master, has tried to move on by marrying someone else.

Meanwhile, an unexpected visitor arrives in Moscow: the devil himself. Aided by an absurd crew of assistants, he playfully wreaks havoc everywhere he goes. In the opening scene he introduces himself to a pair of men sitting in a park. After their conversation, one of the men slips on the streetcar tracks on his way to a meeting and gets beheaded by an oncoming streetcar. The other winds up in a mental institute — the very same one as the Master.

In another crazy episode, the devil tricks the manager of the Variety Theatre into letting him perform a “Black Magic” routine for a packed house. During the show the devil makes money rain from the ceiling and the audience members pocket it without a care. It turns out that the notes are cursed, transforming into live bees and bits of string upon being spent. Likewise, the ladies in the audience are welcomed onstage to pick out beautiful new dresses for free. The only cost, they later realize, is that the dresses vanish when worn. In another trick, the master of ceremonies has a nasty encounter with one of the devil’s assistants, Behemoth. A giant tomcat who talks fast and drinks vodka like a gentleman, Behemoth leaps onto the man’s shoulders, rips his head off, and plays with it awhile before putting it back.

These seemingly unrelated plot lines intertwine on the night before the devil’s annual “spring ball of the full moon.” Naturally, this gala calls for a woman named Margarita to perform the duties of hostess. Of all the women named “Margarita” in Moscow — there are exactly 121 of them — the devil’s ensemble finds our love-stricken Margarita to be the only suitable match. Margarita therefore makes a deal with the devil: she will host his gala, and in return, he will reunite her with the Master.

Between these primary chapters are excerpts from the Master’s novel about Pontius Pilate. Far from his depiction in the Bible, we come to know Pilate as a pitiful man plagued by a bad job and a searing headache. All he wants to do is lie down next to his loyal dog Banga, but his encounter with Jesus ensures that he will get no rest.

These, anyway, are the elements of The Master and Margarita. What they produce is a lot less straightforward. In her introduction translator Mirra Ginsburg offers some context on why the novel eschews elucidation:

Bulgakov worked on the novel from 1928 to his death in 1940, continuing even in his final illness to dictate revisions to his wife. Although he did not live to prepare a final version for publication, and the novel is thus still, in a sense, a work in progress, with some threads and details not yet completely resolved, it stands, both thematically and stylistically, as a masterpiece of extraordinary richness and complexity.

Explicating The Master and Margarita is a scholar’s task and then some, but we can still appreciate some of the novel’s “richness and complexity.” I’ll spend the rest of this review highlighting a non-obvious feature of the novel, one that I would not have grasped if not for Ginsburg’s introduction: its autobiographical nature. It is easy to miss that beneath the “craziness” and “satire” — to borrow again from Radcliffe — is an author struggling to live, a writer whose creative freedom has been suppressed. When we consider Bulgakov’s novel in the context of his life, this sad truth becomes all too clear.

To this end, let us return to the novel’s opening scene, in which the devil visits a pair of men in a park. The scene’s conclusion — a man getting beheaded by a streetcar — appears outlandish and slapstick. We may get the sense that it is irrelevant, for the character who dies is hardly an important one. Yet there is a lot going on behind this little episode. To understand, we must look to the political climate in post-revolutionary Soviet Russia and how it came to impact Bulgakov’s life.

Ginsburg focuses much of her introduction on this subject. She writes,

[T]he end of the New Economic Policy and the introduction of the Five-Year Plans in the late 1920s brought about a tightening of the reins in literature and the arts as well. The party’s instrument of pressure and coercion at that time was RAPP (Russian Association of Proletarian Writers) under the leadership of the narrow and intolerant zealot Leopold Averbakh. And the persecution and pressures applied to writers to force them into the requisite mold succeeded in destroying all but a very small minority which resisted to the end.

Bulgakov was one of that very small minority; that he should open The Master and Margarita with a beheading is therefore not random at all. The man who loses his head is named Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, and he is the chairman of a made-up writer’s association called “MASSOLIT.” MASSOLIT is an obvious allusion to RAPP, which for Bulgakov surely signified the suppression of creative expression and authorial independence. How better to start an anti-censorship novel than with the beheading of someone who symbolizes oversight? There are other jabs at RAPP elsewhere in the novel, such as the burning down of the MASSOLIT house.

Bulgakov mourned the regime’s effect on writers but he also criticized their impact on society at large. He wrote a novel called The White Guard about a pair of brothers who joined the anti-Bolshevik movement of the same name. In the novel as in reality, the White Guard fell to the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution, resulting in the formation of the Soviet Union and later Stalin’s empowerment. Unlike other novels about the revolution, The White Guard “did not portray any Communist heroes” and instead empathized with anti-communist fighters, portraying them as “impotent and doomed,” according to Ginsburg. The novel suffered harsh criticism and was not published during Bulgakov’s lifetime. It did get adapted into a play, although that, too, was banned in most theatres. Critics destroyed his reputation and, with it, his ability to publish anything. A novella and several plays by Bulgakov were rejected by censors. A publisher commissioned him to write a biography of Molière and then refused to publish it. Ginsburg summarizes the author’s struggle well: “Bulgakov did not see a single line of his work published during his last thirteen years.”

Bulgakov’s grievance with the government stemmed from a moral disagreement with Stalin’s regime, namely that of creative freedom versus censorship. But when his plays got cancelled and his books got rejected, the matter become one of survival. Writing was Bulgakov’s life but it was also his livelihood. Despondent, he begged the government to send him and his wife abroad so he could find work. They ignored him. As a last resort he wrote a long, impassioned letter to Stalin himself, stating

It is my duty as a writer to fight against censorship, whatever its forms and under whatever government it exists, and to call for freedom of the press. […] Alas, I have become a satirist precisely at a time when true satire (a satire that penetrates into forbidden areas) is absolutely impossible in the USSR.

Bulgakov concluded his letter with a request. If he could not write freely or work in a theatre, then he hoped that the government would

[D]o with me as it sees fit, but do something, because I, the author of five plays, known in the USSR and abroad, am faced at present with poverty, the street, the end.

Oddly, Stalin was not anti-Bulgakov despite being anti-expression. It is said that he saw the play version of The White Guard fifteen times. He also took a liking to another of Bulgakov’s plays, The Days of The Turbins. And so, upon receiving Bulgakov’s letter, Stalin arranged for the author to work in a theatre as an assistant director. The theatre became his refuge but it also became his cage. There he found himself restricted to putting on plays by others. Only in rare circumstances could his own plays be performed, and then only by the grace of Stalin.

So, how does Bulgakov enact his revenge on the theatre, a place that both gave and took life, in the novel? With the chaotic scene described earlier: cursed money, vanishing dresses, and a tomcat that rips a man’s head off. As before, the victim is an obvious symbol of oversight. One of the devil’s assistants decides that the master of ceremonies “[k]eeps sticking his nose where he’s not asked, keeps spoiling the act with his false comments” — and so, off with his head. Perhaps the master of ceremonies is a stand-in for Bulgakov’s critics, who surely uttered “false comments” of their own and “spoiled” almost everything for the author.

Bulgakov’s life and his opinions on Stalin’s regime pervade the novel. The militia and authority in general are continually lampooned. The instrument of this ridicule is the devil himself, a character who some believe is based on Stalin — at least in looks — but is a kindred spirit to Bulgakov nonetheless. It’s thanks to him, after all, that the Master gets reunited with Margarita and is finally able to finish his novel, and the Master is Bulgakov in character form. Both authors have had their reputation destroyed by critics, and both know what it’s like to pour your life into something only to have it rejected for political reasons.

Moreover, Bulgakov and the Master respond to the rejection of their work in the same way: by burning their manuscripts. In his letter to Stalin Bulgakov wrote, “I personally, with my own hands, threw into the stove the draft of my novel about the devil.” In that very novel, the Master does the same thing with his novel about Pontius Pilate, back when he was dating Margarita:

Then came the final thing. I took the heavy copies of the novel and the first drafts from the desk drawer and began to burn them. This is extremely difficult to do; paper covered with writing burns very reluctantly. Breaking my nails, I tore the copybooks and slipped the sheets vertically between the logs. I ruffled and beat them with the poker. At times the ashes almost choked the flame, but I fought them, and the novel was dying despite its stubborn resistance.

Margarita gets back to his apartment moments after the Master has tossed his manuscripts into the stove, and she tries to rescue them. But the damage has been done; she succeeds only in rescuing a few scattered pages. Much later, after Margarita has hosted the devil’s ball and the couple has been reunited, the devil presents them with a fresh copy of the novel. “Manuscripts don’t burn,” he explains.

The restoration of the Master’s novel is another parallel to Bulgakov’s life, although one he did not control. The novels and plays that Bulgakov failed to publish during his lifetime were rescued from oblivion by his wife. Ginsburg writes,

In ordinary, political reality, it was only thanks to the total dedication of his widow that a great and splendid legacy of Bulgakov’s works was preserved for decades, until a relative shift in state policy made possible for their gradual, and yet to be completed, release for publication.

Ginsburg’s introduction and the translation that follows it were published in 1987. Today, 30 years later and 77 years after the author’s death, all of Bulgakov’s works can be read freely. Many thanks are owed to Bulgakov’s wife and to the translators who have brought Bulgakov the audience he deserves.

There is something triumphant in the eventual publication of Bulgakov’s writing. It proves what the devil said: manuscripts don’t burn. Free speech cannot be suppressed forever. The Master and Margarita has risen from the literal ashes to become one of the world’s most important novels.

And yet, there is something deeply sad in this story. Perhaps free speech cannot be suppressed, but it can certainly be delayed. This is exactly what Stalin’s regime succeeded in doing. One has to think that Bulgakov’s writing, so important today, would have been even more essential in the time and place it was written.

I wish to take nothing away from Radcliffe’s review of The Master and Margarita. I merely want to add to it. The Master and Margarita is indeed “the greatest explosion of imagination, craziness, satire, humor, and heart,” but it is decidedly more. A time capsule containing its author’s life and a glimpse into Soviet society, The Master and Margarita is a moving reminder that creative freedom is something to be cherished.