21 April 2009

April Classic: The Master and Margarita

There are those readers out there who don't like to give the classics a go. (There are also those readers out there who don't like to read. Go here.)

I present to you a book (a classic no less) that EVERYONE should find enjoyable, accessible, hilarious and downright moving... Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita.

This is hailed as one of the greatest Russian satires to have ever been written. It attacks, with increasingly dark humour, the Soviet Union and the lack of revolution and true, unfettered thought under a ferocious, authoritative state. One fine spring day, the devil arrives in Moscow, chatting up two prominent Russian thinkers of the time: the poet Berlioz and the journalist known as 'Homeless'. The novel then proceeds to switch back and forth between Jerusalem during the time of Jesus' trial and crucifixion and 1920s Russia, where widespread atheism is the accepted spiritual frame of mind to be in.

The devil's machinations send Homeless into a lunatic asylum where he meets the Master, an author who was driven by despair into the asylum when his manuscript for the alternate story of Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ failed to get published. He has burned his manuscript and refuses to live in the real world, thus also turning his back on his mistress... Margarita. From this scene comes the most famous line in the book, uttered by the devil: "Manuscripts don't burn". This part of the story would appear to be autobiographical- Bulgakov began writing his first version of The Master and Margarita in 1928 and then burnt the original manuscript. He began writing it again a few years later with the help of his (I imagine long-suffering and incredibly patient) wife.

I don't know enough about Russian history to understand all the subtle nuances of satire and irony that Bulgakov employs (although Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's excellent translation and notes help somewhat), but this doesn't matter, as Bulgakov writes with such simplicity yet force that the reader cannot help but be swept up into this tale.

The thing that surprised me most about this read was how funny it actually was, it seemed a bit indecent actually. Russian novels are supposed to be unrelenting in their depressing nature. You're supposed to feel as though you'll never be happy again after reading a russian classic. Thus, the devil mincing around in disguise, bickering over warm apricot soda and a cat who packs some serious heat are all welcome diversions. This is a visceral read, you'll feel enlivened, outraged... and seriously, seriously amused.

Rating: 10/10.

N.B. I HAVE read another of Bulgakov's works, thus justifying the Author Love tag. It was A Dog's Heart, wherein a stray dog takes on human form. He then proceeds to become head of cat control. Brilliant.
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