Monday, 24 June 2013

Review: 'The Master & Margarita' by Mikhail Bulgakov

I once promised myself I'd read 'War and Peace', but since it's such a massive book I figured it would be better for me to start of with some different Russian fiction before throwing myself at Tolstoy's gigantic work. I put 'The Master & Margarita' on my '100 Classics' list for The Classics Club after repeatedly hearing it was an amazing book and I am certainly glad I picked it up.

Moscow, 1929: a city that has lost its way amid corruption and fear, inhabited by people who have abandoned their morals and forsaken spirituality. But when a mysterious stranger arrives in town with a bizarre entourage that includes a giant talking cat and a fanged assassin, all hell breaks loose. Among those caught up in the strange and inexplicable events that transpire in the capital are the Master, a writer whose life has been destroyed by Soviet repression, and his beloved Margarita. Their adventures reveal a story that began two thousand years ago in ancient Jerusalem - and its resolution will decide their fate. 
Initially, I was slightly scared at the prospect of this book. I had read the introduction that made a very big deal of the two different narratives, the one set in Jerusalem and the actual plot surrounding the Master, Margarita and Woland. But I found that both stories go very well together and work into each other beautifully. The latter is clearly the biggest and most important, yet the first has a beautiful descriptive quality to it, especially when describing the storm that follows Christ's crucifixion. Yet this writing style seems intrinsic to Bulgakov, who has an incredible eye for detail that makes his scenes come to live. The characters are realistic which means that the dreamlike quality of the novel is enhanced, rather than put aside. What happens seems absurd, but the responses are so comical and natural that I found myself accepting them rather than questioning them. What happens in Moscow is absurd, yes, but that is the exact point of them. They are ridiculous, hilarious even, but that is where their danger lies. With a few tricks, Woland is able to completely destabilize the mental health of an entire city. Bulgakov shows how thin the layer of of pretense confidence is with which we protect ourselves against ridicule from others. As soon as someone shakes up the control we believe we hold over ourselves, chaos erupts.

One of the things I loved most about this novel was the relationship between the Master and Margarita. Their love is the ground upon which Bulgakov's writing flourishes most, in my eyes. Consider the lines below:
Love leaped out in front of us like a murderer in an alley leaping out of nowhere, and struck us both at once. As lightning strikes, as a Finnish knife strikes! 
This might be one of the most beautiful descriptions of falling in love I have ever read. For once, love isn't this beautiful sensation that makes the sun shine brighter and everything happy with rainbows. It is a sharp pain that appears suddenly and there is nothing either the Master or Margarita can do about it. I, personally, think that is stunning writing. Their love is incredibly dedicated to each other and desperately passionate and in many ways the driving force of the novel.

One of the main themes of the novel, that stuck out to me, was the theme of cowardice. As Bulgakov wrote:
'Cowardice is the most terrible of vices.'
He himself was heavily burdened by his own fear and perceived cowardice. Writing during the repressing Stalin-years, he saw no future for himself as a free writer, which caused him to despair so much he burned the first manuscript of this novel in 1930. He felt like a coward and I believe he poured these fears into the Master, whose novel is the downfall of his sanity and standing and seems to abandon it. This is a shame that Bulgakov felt, which I can relate to on a simpler level. As an aspirational writer, I occasionally feel like I need to write and that I am betraying my own passion when I neglect my writing. In burning his manuscript, Bulgakov burned and denied a part of himself, which must have hurt incredibly. Perhaps the most famous line from the novel is:
'Manuscripts don't burn.'
Despite the dangers associated with writing, Bulgakov couldn't let his ideas and believes go and needed to express them, the same way that the Master's manuscript cannot be burned and destroyed but continues to exist. But unlike Bulgakov himself, the Master has an unconditional support at his back in the form of Margarita. She is not only a woman who loves him, she also represents the people willing to die for the freedom that freedom of speech and writing procures.

Apart from the Master and Margarita, my favourite characters were most definitely the satanic ones, especially Behemoth. Perhaps it's the fact that he's a cat and people keep trying to kill him and I don't like cats, but he genuinely made me laugh. Together with Koroviev, he provides some comical relief and helps Woland sink Moscow further into despair. Woland himself is strangely sympathetic, being Satan and all, but I rather enjoyed his character. I am not quite certain on what I think about him except that Bulgakov did very well in not stereotyping his behaviour as extremely evil or, well, satanic. Woland, at times, seems the most sane of all people.

I give this novel...

5 UNIVERSES!

Overall, I massively enjoyed reading this novel. It was not only passionate, but also funny. Despite the fact that all the Russian names were quite hard to keep a track of at times, each character had their own tell tale characteristics and was described in such detail that they almost seemed to spring off the page. I recommend it to everyone who isn't scared off by the 'Russian novel' tag, but also to those who have been starved for amazing prose. Seriously, Bulgakov could write.

3 comments:

  1. I think it's the best review of the novel I've ever seen. I'm so glad it appeals to people internationally, in spite even of the names :) It is my favourite, too, and I remember that in high school even those who never liked anything "classic" read it with interest, because it appeals to everybody and it is so well written!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm glad you enjoyed this book so much :)
    It's on my classics club list too, I'm really looking forward to starting it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I have been wanting to read this one for a while now but you really convinced me to make it a priority. Great review. :)

    ReplyDelete