The current Vintage trade edition of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita (Ма стер и Маргари та)

  • Author:  Mikhail Bulgakov  (1891 – 1940)
  • Rank:  #84
  • Published:  1966-67
    • completed in 1940, first published in a censored version in 1966-67 in Moscow magazine, first English translation in 1967 by Mirra Ginsburg from the censored version
  • Publisher:  Posev  (first English translation by Grove Press)
  • Pages:  372  (Vintage trade)
  • First Line:  “One hot spring evening, just as the sun was going down, two men appeared at Patriarch’s Ponds.”
  • Last Lines:  “The next morning he wakes up silent, but completely calm and well.  His ravaged memory quiets down, and no one will trouble the professor until the next full moon: neither the noseless murderer of Gestas, nor the cruel fifth procurator of Judea, the knight Pontius Pilate.”
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Film:  1972 – ***  (dir. Aleksandar Petrovic)
  • Read:  Summer 2000

The Novel: This was the first book that I ever read on Veronica’s suggestion.  I knew absolutely nothing about it, with all of my knowledge on Russian literature pretty much confined at that point to the 19th century authors.  But I was swept up and overwhelmed by this amazing novel, this fantastical journey through the depths of hell, with Moscow playing the part of hell, complete with the presence of Satan and even Pontius Pilate.  And that was reading the old Mirra Ginsburg translation, which had been based on the censored version first printed in Moscow magazine.  It would be a few more years before I would read the more complete translation by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor (I know I read that one in June, 2004, because I have a distinct memory of sitting next to a very pregnant Veronica in line for opening night of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban while reading it and flipping through it just now found the second ultrasound picture of Thomas taken on June 9, 2004, the day we found out we were having a boy).

That this novel ever made it to the U.S. at all is almost a miracle.  Bulgakov worked on the novel for 12 years, completing a fourth draft just before he died of nephrosclerosis.  It was read underground for decades before his widow finally got it published in Moscow in 1966.  But that version had been censored by the Soviet authorities, and while it was quickly translated and moved Bulgakov into the circle of Soviet literary giants, it would be a while yet before we would see a more complete version, the Burgin / O’Connor translation from 1995 which is where all my quotes come from.

I won’t begin to describe the plot; it is really more of a labyrinth that you must find yourself lost in.  But the language, the way Bulgakov writes, is so magnificent: “At a time when no one, it seemed, had the strength to breathe, when the sun had left Moscow scorched to a crisp and was collapsing in a dry haze somewhere behind the Sadovoye Ring, no one came out to walk under the lindens, or to sit down on a bench, and the path was deserted.”  This is the Moscow that we are introduced to on the first page, a Moscow full of literary types who are brutally satirized by Bulgakov.  The most sane writer seems to be the Master, who is stuck in an asylum.  Berlioz, head of the literary bureaucracy, is told of his death, brushes it off, only to have his severed head “bouncing over the cobblestones of Bronnaya Street.”

Then we are introduced to the Master himself and the story takes a more interesting turn: “He put the cap on and modeled it for Ivan in profile and full face, in order to prove that he was the Master.”  The Master begins to weave his tale of Margarita: “Yes, love struck us instantly.  I knew it that very day, an hour later, when we lost track of where we were and found ourselves on the embankment by the Kremlin wall.”

I can’t really say more other than that you should read this; to discover how Bulgakov is the heir of Dostoevsky and Gogol and Tolstoy.  Wind yourself around his language and through his story towards such poetic lines as these: “Thus spoke Margarita as she walked with the Master toward their eternal home, and it seemed to the Master that Margarita’s words flowed like the stream they had left behind, flowed and whispered, and the Master’s anxious, needle-pricked memory began to fade.”

Aleksandar Petrovic’s 1972 film version – The Master and Margaret (Il maestro e Margherita)

The Film: I was hesitant about this film.  It was an Italian – Yugoslav production made in the early seventies.  I only happened to see it because I stumbled across it on Netflix last year and decided to see if it was worth watching.  And nothing about the first few minutes was changing my mind.

But then came the Berlioz death scene.  He stumbles on the ice and there he is in front of the trolley.  And there his head is, bouncing over the cobblestones.  And then suddenly it disappears and I suddenly was swept up in the film.

It’s not a great film by any means and it does take liberties with the novel, but there’s really nothing that could be made from this novel that didn’t take liberties.  But it is a good film, well written, well made, especially given the limitations at the time and it actually manages to bring about a coherent film where none should have been expected.  So many great novels have been badly filmed and so many have never been filmed at all, to have any kind of film version that is readily available means you should check it out.  It’s definitely worth that.