Friday, July 8, 2011

The Master and Margarita

Bulgakov's Master and Margarita is, at least according to a few sources I've looked at, considered one of the highlights on 20th century Russian literature.  Even granting the truth of that statement, I'm not sure how interesting it is to, say, an American in the 21st century.

Master and Margarita is, most obviously, a satire on Stalinist Russia.  Satan comes to Moscow and wreaks havoc; his mischief ends up getting some higher-ups picked up by the secret police or taken to psychiatric institutions.  This section of the novel is mildly amusing (although I felt like it dragged a bit by the end), but I can imagine it being much funnier to people living under the regime.

In a second strand, Bulgakov tells the story of Jesus and Pilate, but in a version with a number of variations from the Gospel account.  There are only 4 chapters of this, but they're spread out through the novel, and they're clearly important to the theme, with Jerusalem as a Moscow-analog.

Lastly, the eponymous master and Margarita take center stage for a while (but less than half the book).  The master has written a book about Jesus which has gotten him placed in a psychiatric institution.  Margarita uses Satan's power to help free him, as well as taking revenge on a few folks (this seems to be a bit of vicarious vengeance on Bulgakov's part -- some of Margarita's targets are people who tormented him in real life).

I liked the end of this third strand a lot, and I liked the Pilate sections -- they're interestingly ambivalent.  On the other hand, Satan's antics in Moscow largely left me cold.  The humor is sort of like reading, say, Art Buckwald columns from 1950; every so often, some of it will be trenchant because he happens to have hit on something that's still true today (like the way some people try to take up the same hobby as their boss), but a lot of it is only funny in its historical context.

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