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Title: The Master and Margarita
Author: Mikhail Bulgakov
Rating: 1.5 of 5 Stars
Genre: Modern Classic
The novel has two settings. The first is Moscow during the 1930s, where Satan appears at Patriarch’s Ponds as Professor Woland. He is accompanied by Koroviev, a grotesquely-dressed valet; Behemoth, a black cat; Azazello, a hitman; and Hella, a female vampire. They target the literary elite and Massolit, their trade union,[note 1] whose headquarters is Griboyedov House. Massolit consists of corrupt social climbers and their women, bureaucrats, profiteers, and cynics. The second setting is the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate: Pilate’s trial of Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus of Nazareth), his recognition of an affinity with (and spiritual need for) Yeshua, and his reluctant acquiescence to Yeshua’s execution.
Part one opens with a confrontation between Berlioz (the head of Massolit) and Woland, who prophesizes that Berlioz will die later that evening. Although Berlioz dismisses the prophecy as insane raving, he dies as the professor predicted. His death prophecy is witnessed by Ivan Nikolaevich Ponyrev, a young, enthusiastic, modern poet who uses the pen name Bezdomny (“homeless”). His nom de plume alludes to Maxim Gorky (Maxim the Bitter), Demyan Bedny (Demyan the Poor), and Michail Golodny (Michail the Hungry). His futile attempts to capture the “gang” (Woland and his entourage) and his warnings about their evil nature land Ivan in a lunatic asylum, where he is introduced to the Master, an embittered author. The rejection of his novel about Pontius Pilate and Christ led the Master to burn his manuscript in despair and turn his back on Margarita, his devoted lover.
The novel’s first part includes satirical depictions of Massolit and Griboyedov House; Satan’s magic show at a variety theatre, satirizing the vanity, greed, and gullibility of the new elite; and Woland and his retinue appropriating Berlioz’s apartment after his death. (Apartments – scarce in Moscow – were controlled by the state, and Bulgakov based the novel’s apartment on his own.)
Part two introduces Margarita, the Master’s mistress, who refuses to despair of her lover and his work. Azazello gives her a magical skin ointment and invites her to the Devil’s midnight Good Friday ball, where Woland gives her the chance to become a witch.
Margarita enters the realm of night and learns to fly and control her unleashed passions. Natasha, her maid, accompanies her as they fly over the Soviet Union’s deep forests and rivers. Margarita bathes and returns to Moscow with Azazello as the hostess of Satan’s spring ball. At Azazell’s side, she welcomes dark historical figures as they arrive from Hell.
Margarita survives the ordeal, and Satan offers to grant her deepest wish: to free a woman she met at the ball from eternal punishment. The woman, who had been raped, murdered the child; her punishment was to wake each morning next to the handkerchief she used to smother it. Satan tells Margarita that she liberated the woman, and still has a wish to claim from him. She asks for the Master to be delivered to her and he appears, dazed and thinking he is still in the lunatic asylum. They are returned to the basement apartment which had been their love nest.
Matthew Levi delivers the verdict to Woland: the reunited couple will be sent to the afterlife. Azazello brings them a gift from Woland: a bottle of Pontius Pilate’s (poisoned) wine. The Master and Margarita die; Azazello brings their souls to Satan and his retinue (awaiting them on horseback on a Moscow rooftop), and they fly away into the unknown, as cupolas and windows burn in the setting sun, leaving Earth behind and traveling into dark cosmic space. The Master and Margarita will spend eternity together in a shady, pleasant region resembling Dante Alighieri’s Limbo, in a house under flowering cherry trees.
Woland and his retinue, including the Master and Margarita, become pure spirits. Moscow’s authorities attribute its strange events to hysteria and mass hypnosis. In the final chapter, Woland orders Margarita to supply the missing end of the Master’s story about Pontius Pilate – condemned by cowardice to limbo for eternity. “You are free!” she cries; Pontius Pilate is freed, walking and talking with the Yeshua whose spirit and philosophy he had secretly admired. Moscow is now peaceful, although some experience great disquiet every May full moon.
My biggest take away from this book is that I do not like 20th Century classics. They are almost all full of crap and are not even worthy of being toilet paper. With this astounding revelation, I am creating a new tag and genre, Modern Classics, that I shall give to all “classics” written from 1900 and on. I will suspect them of being nothing but bushwa until they prove otherwise to me.
Now, this book.
I had enjoyable times reading it. The devils sidekicks doing all sorts of immature and childish pranks and tricks and even serious ones, had me quite amused. The devil on the other hand, well, he was a real party pooper. I’m not exactly the devil’s biggest fan but even still, where was the being that defied God Himself? This devil in the book was practically a drunk, melancholic russian peasant. I kept expecting him to burst into tears and go “boo hoo”. The antics were amusing. Which is why this got as high a rating as it did.
What brought this down though, was the inclusion of the “Historical Jesus” heresy. The quick and dirty explanation of that is that Jesus was real, but that he was just a man, who said some nice things and that what he was and what he said have been distorted and manipulated to form this new religion called Christianity. It is nothing less than an attack on the Godhood of Jesus and the veracity of the Bible. Needless to say, the parts of the book about Pontius Pilate and the story told were anathema to me.
Thankfully, I had been forewarned by Earnestly Eccentic’s Review, so I didn’t walk into the situation and take a baseball bat to the side of my literary head. I wore a helmet so a light *Ka-Thunk* was all I felt. I don’t know what else Bulgakov might have written, but I won’t be bothering.