Book: It’s Definitely More Than Soviet Satire

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita, trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky.

The first thing to say is how glorious the magic is. Just when you think Master has gone mad enough, Bulgakov manages to take it firing off into greater insanity. I loved the chaos and creativity than runs in and around it.

As I say in the title, it’s easy enough to identify the satire of Soviet life implicit in Master. Maybe the most unsettling of this actually comes quite early, and is one of the least magical, least immediately striking scenes. Chapter 8, “The Combat between the Professor and the Poet,” was a perfect example of the kind of banal terror Bulgakov so masterfully captures. Doctor Stravinsky comes to examine Ivan Nikolaevich, and despite the fact that we know very well that Ivan is telling the truth, the doctor even manages to convince the reader that Ivan is insane. It’s a gorgeous and nasty bit of gaslighting. How exactly Bulgakov pulled it off continues to amaze me.

The other themes I’m still unsure about. I felt very alive to Bulgakov’s truth, magic, and the ease with which reason or good sense bend to totalitarianism. Perhaps those are just interests of mine. Courage and love, for example, which are described as central by the blurb and notes, are things I would have to pay more attention to in a second read, which I may well do sometime in the future. The novel is certainly rereadable. There are a host of characters and it can be hard to keep track (when I read War and Peace, there was a helpful character list at the front). In addition, Bulgakov drops tiny hints and intratexts throughout, and it can be very hard to keep track of them.

The business with Pontius Pilate also deserves a reread. Bulgakov understood his religious thematics far better than I do. I’ve never actually fully read through the New Testament (I’ve managed most of the Old), so I can’t even say much about the Biblical account of Pilate. I’ve also never read Josephus and haven’t read Tacitus and forever. Bulgakov was clearly familiar with Roman Judea, which I know almost nothing about.

At any rate, well worth the read. I’ll likely read it again one day. I hope maybe even in Russian, but we’ll see.

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