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Mikhail Bulgakov: Мастер и Маргарита (The Master and Margarita)

Russia has produced two absolutely twentieth century brilliant novels which are outside the main canon. Bely’s Petersburg is the other but this one is definitely up there. Any novel that has Satan as a main character probably has something going for it but this novel manages a whole host of strange unearthly characters trotting round Moscow. There is a plot, disjointed as it is. Bear in mind that Bulgakov never finished the book.

The Master of the title has written a book about Christ and Pontius Pilate but it has been rejected for publication. The Master is so upset that he burned the manuscript. He has now turned his back on Margarita, his faithful lover and, indeed, on the rest of the world. Unknown to him, Satan, in the form of Woland, has visited Moscow with some of his strange otherworldly companions. They cause havoc, particularly to the literary elite (headed by a man called Berlioz), who are responsible for the rejection of the Master’s manuscript. As well as the Master, we also follow the story of Ivan Bezdomny (meaning homeless), a modern poet, who chases after Woland and his cronies, but ends up badly. Margarita, however, is determined to help her lover and accepts Woland’s offer to become a witch, flies around Russia (naked), helps defeats the Master’s enemies and joins in a celebratory ball. Along with this, is the Master’s novel and the story of Jerusalem, which is clearly paralleled with Moscow and where Pontius Pilate comes out a bit better than he does in the Bible.

Recounting the plot only gives a tiny hint of what this novel is about. Firstly, it is about spiritual values but that means, according to Bulgakov, accepting that there is a dark side. This is the role of Margarita. Secondly, Bulgakov gives us many splendid scenes, particularly when he is skewering the literary establishment, who come off very badly in this novel. Thirdly, like many good novels, it can be read on many levels, whether as an important philosophical treatise or as a good old-fashioned slapstick satire, be it on the Soviet system or modern values. Fourthly, the role of the artist is a key theme. Clearly for Bulgakov, the artist has been ignored, particularly by the literary establishment and, equally clearly, for Bulgakov, the artist has an important role to play, including that of upholding spiritual values in a post-religious world. However you read it, you will recognise this as one of the most important novels of the twentieth century.

Publishing history

First published 1967 by Posev, Frankfurt (note that a cut version was published in Moscow magazine and in samizdat in 1966/67; first complete version published in 1973 by Khudozhestvennaya Literatura)
First published 1967 in English by Grove Press
Translated by Michael Glenny (Grove Press/Vintage); Michael Glenny (J M Dent/Harper & Row);Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Penguin); Diana Burgin & Katherine Tiernan O’Connor (Picador/Macmillan); Hugh A Aplin (Alma)