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J.A.A. Purves

The Master and Margarita (1967)

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I finally just started reading this and it seems very much like an "Arts & Faith" type novel.  At least it is a story of the sort that we do seem to often discuss around here.  Who else has read it?  What's your opinion on it?


Becky Crook, “Mystery and Mayhem: Reading Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita While Dating an Atheist in Seattle,” The Other Journal, May 5, 2008:
... Eliminating mystery from our cultural vocabulary allows us only to talk about half of what is real—the observable half. The other elements of our lives, hearts, world, spirit, and community become unspeakable and therefore also unrecognizable, for an idea is only actively meaningful inasmuch as it can be expressed and shared (through language, music, art, for example).

The amputation of mystery from our language and conversations leaves a vacuum, a notable void, and our words of science and reason—which should rightly be used in tandem to enhance and to challenge fruitfully the discourse of those mysterious and unknowable things—are left instead trying to fill a space that science has neither the capacity nor the purpose to fill. Using science to describe the spiritual realm is like “dancing about architecture.” Such attempts (known as “scientism”) to inhabit the sphere of mystery and wonder with fact and logic, result in empty, plaster words ....

Clearly, in Bulgakov’s topsy-turvy narrative, no one is less in control than those who think they have it all figured out—these unfortunate characters are met with beheadings, transfigurations, unreasonable instantaneous transportations, frauds, scams, disappearances, beatings, jailings, and the quite-popular admittance to the insane asylum. Woland seems intent to disrupt every notion of order.

Yet in a strange paradox of the novel, all of the Devil’s attempts to stir up evil and disbelief somehow have the opposite effect, creating instead magic, beauty, and redemption. The reader, if she is a spiritual person, is left to wonder about her own certainty that it is in fact the Devil who has appeared in Moscow, or whether it is some kind of mischievous manifestation of God—a sheep in wolf’s clothing in a pen whose shepherds don’t believe in the existence of sheep or wolves—who delights in turning all of our notions on their head. Or, alternatively, is Bulgakov remarking upon the ability of the divine ultimately to fashion hope and goodness from disbelief and evil? God only knows! ...

Laura D. Weeks, The Master & Margarita: A Critical Companion, 1996:
... The writing of the Master and Margarita was a long and tortuous process that occupied Bulgakov for roughly twelve years, from 1928 until his death in March 1940.  The process began very simply: Proffer records a remark Bulgakov made to his close friend Popov sometime in 1926, that if his mother served as the impetus for the creation of the novel The White Guard, the figure of his father would be the starting point for another work he now had in mind.  His friend Pavel Markov records a comment Bulgakov made in a different context, namely, that he was obsessed with the enigma of the Passion story.  By 1928 he had put down in a notebook fifteen chapters that followed more or less the sequence of events in the novel as we now know it.  A poet and an editor meet at Patriarchs’ Ponds to discuss the former’s antireligious poema, or long narrative poem.  They are joined by a mysterious stranger, who gives his own version of the Passion story ... The poet tries to warn his brothers-in-literature that the devil has appeared in Moscow, for which he is promptly sequestered in a psychiatric clinic.  The mysterious stranger proceeds to give a performance at the Variety Theater, where he wreaks havoc among both audience and staff ...

When The Master and Margarita first appeared in print, critics were at a loss to define it in terms of genre.  Here, it seemed, was something of a completely new and unrealized form, not cut from whole cloth but pieced together from a variety of familiar genres - satire, romance, fantastic realism in the manner of E.T.A. Hoffmann, fragments of a conventional historical novel.  One solution, which was suggested by the carnival atmosphere of the Moscow chapters, was to characterize the novel as a carnival, using the definition worked out by the Russian formalist critic Mikhail Bakhtin.  The genesis for his definition was the medieval mystery plays given on church feast days and invariably accompanied by an atmosphere of horseplay, crude humor, farce, and revelry.  The collision of the eternal (the Passion story, often presented in starkly realistic detail) and the ephemeral allowed carnival goers to air their social and economic grievances and, most important, to set the prevailing social and moral order on its head.  The analogy between this ritual and Bulgakov’s novel, where the Passion story is set off by the antics of Korov’ev and Behemoth, hardly needs to be spelled out ...

Each of the main protagonists bears an enormous semantic load of Christian iconography, much of it derived from the Russian Orthodox tradition.  This is especially true for Margarita.  To begin with the purely Russian context, she is a classic example of the strong woman from Russian ninteenth-century literature.  The strong woman is a heroine like Turgenev’s Elena (On the Eve) or Tolstoy’s Natasha (War and Peace) - a woman stronger than the man she loves, a woman dominated by emotion, full of purpose and direction, and characterized by a quality of wholeness ... Russian Orthodox iconography never concentrated on the aesthetic appeal of the adolescent Virgin Mary, but rather on Mary’s celestial role as Queen of the Universe and her more compassionate role as Mother of God.  These are, in fact, the roles Margarita is called on to fill.  She is Queen Margot to Woland and Company (an oblique allusion to her being a descendent of Queen Marguerite de Valois, wife of Henry IV of France ... Bezodomny is also a parody of the Russian tradition of “iurodivy” or “fools in Christ.”  These “holy fools,” as they are sometimes called, are traditionally homeless “half-wits” who dress poorly and survive on charity.  Symbolically, they represent man at his furthest remove from God (man having renounced reason of his own free will) and at his closest to Christ (man having taken on the humiliation and suffering that falls to such vagrants).  In Russian literature, such fools have often been a marvelous medium for speaking the truth ...


News reports from 2011 say that Caroline Thompson (scriptwriter for Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride) was writing a screenplay adaptation of this, but I haven't found any recent news on whether it was ever finished.

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I read this years ago. Like Tyler, I have trouble remembering much that happened--there's a cat and some flying and Pilate and Jesus--but I liked it a lot. One of these days, I'll revisit it.

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Boris Fishman, The New York Times, May 27, 2016:
“‘The Master and Margarita’ is one of those novels that, even in translation, make you feel that not one word could have been written differently.  I’ve read it half a dozen times now, in three translations and in the original, and its mystery has only increased.  It’s like those 10-ruble notes that Woland rains down on his audience at the Variety - they change into bottle labels the next day.  You try to hold the novel’s face, and it turns away once again.

With his plays mostly banned, Bulgakov used every freedom inside the covers of ‘Margarita,’ and its pages bristle with a deeply informed indifference to every dogma, whether historical, religious, political or artistic. - Bulgakov’s earthbound Christ ignores the mythology of the Gospels and Soviet atheism both, as does a Satan figure who is munificent and majestic rather than petty and evil.  The Pilate narrative is equally dark on the rules: It migrates from one teller to another, from speech to novel inside a novel to dream.  Few novels have incorporated fantastical elements into straight realism, the absurd into the sane, as hilariously and boldly as this one.  (Long before there was Latin American magic realism, there was Soviet magic realism.  It was a lot funnier.)"

Peter J. Leithart, First Things, June 3, 2016:
“One wonders. That's not the only way to read the Pilate episodes in the book. The novel opens with an encounter between Woland and two Russian intellectuals, the literary editor Berlioz (not the composer, as Bulgakov and his characters frequently mention) and the young poet Ivan Ponyryov, who writes under the name ‘Bezdomny,’ ‘Homeless.’ Bezdomny has just written an article on Jesus for Berlioz's magazine, but the editor is dissatisfied because the story makes Jesus too real. Sophisticated thinkers that they are, the editor and the poet need no arguments to prove that Jesus is pure fiction. Interrupting their conversation, Woland disabuses them of their theory by telling them that he knew Pontius Pilate personally, that he was there on the balcony during the trial of Yeshua. Woland is a witness to existence of Jesus. The satirical edge here isn't pointed at dogma, but at the dogmatic undogma of Russian intellectuals. Satan turns the world upside, but the world he disrupts is a skeptical one.

Edward Ericson argues in his Apocalyptic Vision of Mikhail Bulgakov that the novel is rooted in orthodox Christian eschatology: ‘all of the essential elements of the Christian world view are to be found in the novel: the creation of man in the image of God, human depravity, a moral universe in which beliefs and actions have their inevitable consequences, divine providence, a personal God who intervenes in human history, a personal Devil who does likewise, the intimate relation between the supernatural and the natural realms, the centrality of the Incarnation (God taking on human form), the vicarious atonement by Christ through his death and resurrection, Christ's descent into hell, Christ's intercession for sinful man, the forgiveness of sin, the judgment of evil, the resurrection of the body, the life everlasting, heaven and hell. This list is virtually a summary of the venerable Apostles' Creed, which antedates the split between the Eastern and the Western Churches.’”

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Angus Smith, “Playing with the Devil: The Comic Morality of Mikhail Bulgakov,” The Montreal Review, June 2016:
“... As a physician, a scientist, Bulgakov was a trained and unflinching observer, with a keen eye for pathology in all of its manifestations. As an ‘haute bourgeois,’ – born in 1891 into an eminent family of physicians and theologians – he was no ‘Soviet Man,’ but a committed Orthodox believer. He was appalled by the manner in which he saw both science and faith being distorted in the quest to create a society based on purely materialist principles; and the stark choices that sometimes forced even good people to bend to those principles. And as an artist, well-versed in Russian and European culture, both high and low, he could blend the realistic and the fantastical to build wonderful stories around instantly recognizable archetypes.

All of these qualities come together in ‘The Master and Margarita’, his final masterpiece. In it, the Devil and his entourage appear in 1930s Moscow, where they find endless opportunities for mischief and comic mayhem. Meanwhile, a ‘novel within a novel,’ narrated partly by Satan and partly by the titular Master, is an astonishing retelling of the encounter between Christ and Pontius Pilate.

In its delirious mashup of Faust, The Three Stooges, and the Christian Gospels, The Master and Margarita addresses itself to hypocrisy, especially the hypocrisy and fundamental emptiness of the Soviet experiment; to the nature of good and evil and the sometimes blurry line between them; to power; and to the possibility of redemption. With its themes of deprivation, paranoia, disappearance, and its injunction “Don’t talk to strangers”; it evokes the moral and spiritual void that lay at the heart of the Stalin era ...

So too, like many Russian artists writers before him – Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Pyotr Tchaikovsky – Bulgakov appears to be heavily influenced by the 18th German fantasist, Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann. A master of horror and the grotesque, Hoffmann is best known as the author of The Nutcracker (the Tchaikovsky connection), far creepier in its original version than in the ballet that we all know and love.

Hoffmann’s horror is distinguished by two features. It is always leavened by dark humor. The pompous literary bureaucrat Berlioz losing his head after slipping beneath a streetcar on some spilled cooking oil is pure Hoffmann. And for Hoffman, to say nothing of Pushkin, Gogol and Bulgakov, the grotesque and the supernatural serve as tests of moral fiber in which mortals are almost always found lacking. Either that or the appearance of ghosts and monsters serves as a sort of pathetic fallacy, mirroring some mental or emotional crisis ...

The “true” story of Pilate and Yeshua challenges the very premise of Soviet atheism as does the existence of Satan/Woland. Woland first appears to Berlioz and Bezdomny at Patriarch’s Pond when Berlioz repudiates G-d and invokes the name of an Aztec deity.  He regales the astonished pair of intellectuals with Kant’s “proofs” of the existence of G-d, inviting them to join him in his apostasy-in-reverse: “…this guy Kant ought to get three years in Solovki for proofs like that…” protests a terrified Bezdomny. And even more astonishingly, he claims to have been a direct witness to the “true” events of the Gospels and is the original conduit through which we, the reader, learn of those events. Finally, Bulgakov the Christian seems to be saying that if Satan exists - and clearly he does, wandering the streets of Moscow with his retinue for all to see – then surely it follows that G-d must exist as well.”

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I added this to my reading pile.

I researched which translation to read, and while it seems no definitive English version exists, the Burgin/Tiernan is the best of the available complete editions.

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