The Master and Margarita

The Master and MargaritaThe Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Publisher: YMCA Press
Released: January 1, 1967
Pages: 402
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Suppressed in the Soviet Union for twenty-six years, Mikhail Bulgakov's masterpiece is an ironic parable on power and its corruption, on good and evil, and on human frailty and the strength of love. Featuring Satan, accompanied by a retinue that includes the large, fast-talking vodka-drinking black tom cat Behemoth, the beautiful Margarita, her beloved - a distraught writer known only as the Master - Pontius Pilate, and Jesus Christ, The Master and Margarita combines fable, fantasy, political satire, and slapstick comedy into a wildly entertaining and unforgettable tale that is commonly considered one of the greatest novels ever to come out of the Soviet Union.

I didn’t get this book.
It has been described as one of the best books of the century it was written in, a brilliant piece of biting satire, and a lot of other things which makes me quite sure that there was definitely something there to get… but I just didn’t. I think I understood what makes it brilliant, I understood what makes it great, but my admiration for it didn’t translate to me liking it. And I’m sure that is entirely my own fault.

At times the book really did feel brilliant. At times it made me laugh out loud, at times it felt like P. G. Wodehouse was writing short stories inspired by Kafka, but most of the time it didn’t feel like anything at all. Even the parts I liked didn’t properly grip me. The only time I really felt remotely engaged was early on during a parallel story in which Pontius Pilate struggles with his conscience, and this parallel story (which is a story written by one of the characters featuring in the main story) became an occasional relief for me as I read the book. I was too stupid to appreciate the main story, but at least I appreciated the story written by one of the main characters. So there was that.

The book as a whole felt very disjointed, both stylistically and narratively, and I had a hard time keeping up with what was actually going on. Again, this might be, and probably is, my problem rather than that of the book, but in my defence I’m usually quite good at getting my mind around complicated stories. This one had me quite literally losing the plot more than a couple of times to the point where I had to re-read certain parts to understand what was going on.
It’s not even a case of the language being hard to parse: the book is well written and easy to read. There are just too many threads in the narrative, and not enough assistance in figuring out which threads are worth grabbing on to for later.

I think true enjoyment of this book is probably predicated on an understanding and appreciation of certain caricatures and cultural references that I just don’t have at the moment. I think this is a book I would probably have liked much more if I read it with the intent of studying and understanding it rather than as a piece of fiction. I appreciated some of it, but I could feel a lot of it just going right over my head. At some point I’ll probably revisit it, and hopefully then I’ll be able to appreciate it more, but as a piece of fiction randomly picked off the shelf, this book just didn’t work for me.

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