A Devilish Question: «Ма́стер и Маргари́та»

For September’s meme over at the Classics Club, I thought I’d read up on other bloggers’ thoughts about Bulgakov’s daring and delightful masterpiece, The Master and Margarita. It’s one of those books I’ve always been fascinated by, but never gotten round to reading. From what I know of it, though, this 20th century Russian classic seems to be surrounded by a cloud of allure and everlasting charm, and it seems worthy of its cultural status as a so-called ‘cult classic’.

Certainly, such novels can just as easily become an object of hate, but I think that’s just the polarizing nature of books as powerful as The Master and Margarita. You either love it, or you detest it – either way, you’re spellbound.

Tolstoy is my Cat uses extremely strong language to try and capture how mesmerizing it really is: ‘surrealist and fantastical’, ‘one of the profoundest and most exciting dangerous messages of any book I’ve ever read’. When readers say things like this:

I will struggle to do any justice at all to the richness and dark, savage humour of this book. Reading it feels a little like sacrilege, a little like glimpsing Russia for the first time.

it’s a tell-tale sign of a book worth reading. (Michael Kitto over at Literary Exploration writes similarly,

I’m going to be honest; I have no idea how to review a book like The Master and Margarita. I was looking forward to reading another Russian classic but I don’t think anyone can be fully prepared for a book like this.)

I love it! ‘Struggle to do any justice at all‘ – as though what Bulgakov has woven with his words is simply indescribable. I also sympathized when she wrote that

Whilst reading it, I felt that it was a bit of a shame (and wholly NOT a shame) that I will never understand all the nuances and meanings and small hints about characters that would have meant so much to people in 1920s/1930s Russia, and to people there after its publication in the 1960s.

Beloved classics like The Master and Margarita will continue to be read through the decades, and perhaps centuries. I’ve often wondered how much of Haruki Murakami‘s (undeniably one of our contemporary world’s cult-status writers) cultural allusions will be understood by future readers. Some, perhaps, will be familiar references that may even continue to be prominent in future societies – the Beatles, Mozart, Coca Cola – but others? Probably not.

And I realise it’s inevitable, without swamping every second sentence with extensive footnotes, but it makes me somewhat sad to know that I’ll only ever experience a partial, superficial fraction of the rich, detailed whole. I’m also somewhat split because I think a novel which truly resounds with audiences should be a stand-alone thing; there should be something at the heart of it which speaks to readers regardless of context and finicky historical details. That’s what really makes a book a classic, isn’t it?

All in all, very excited to be reading this book soon, and my only hope is that it will exceed my expectations, not fall flat because of them!


8 thoughts on “A Devilish Question: «Ма́стер и Маргари́та»

    1. Hello Michael, thanks for dropping by! Like I said, I feel that usually when it’s hard to pin down or capture a book in words, it’s more a testament to how wonderful/complex the book is : )

      1. Well, I will agree with that, because I always have a terrible time coming up with words to describe the books I really think are amazing. I read this book earlier this year, and I couldn’t think of a thing to say that wouldn’t sound idiotic. Hope you enjoy it as much too! :)

        1. I’m glad you agree jeanlp! Just read your post – it’s so fascinating how he went to the extremes of writing it, then burning the manuscripts for fear of arrest!

  1. I’ve been wanting to read this, paired with Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Hope that, when I do get around to it, it’ll exceed my expectations as well, just like you hope.

    1. That would be great, to read those two side by side. I haven’t gone back to Rushdie since ‘Enchantress of Florence’ and that was three years ago now! I really really need to read Midnight’s Children soon :)

    1. Hello Karlo! I agree, that’s what draws people to novels – that evocation of a certain time and place, but with a timelessness that can’t be explained! ;)

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