The Master and Margarita Book Review—Lunchtime Lit With Mel Carriere

Updated on April 19, 2019
Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere does not speak Russian. Mel Carriere does not read Russian. Here is another Russian review to add to his futile collection.

The verdict for The Master and Margarita, second time around? Older and supposedly wiser that I am almost 40 years later...I am embarrassed to report that I still don't get it.
The verdict for The Master and Margarita, second time around? Older and supposedly wiser that I am almost 40 years later...I am embarrassed to report that I still don't get it. | Source

Better, Though Still Buttless, The Second Time Around?

When I was in High School, there was an intelligent and pretty young lady I used to hang around with. There was nothing romantic about our relationship, not because of lack of willingness on my part, but because she thought, to use her own words, that I was a buttless wonder. Though true that I am a bit lacking in the gluteus maximus area, I have other endearing qualities that let me rebound from this early rejection, eventually get married, then reproduce, completely against the odds.

Despite being spurned as her love interest, I still fondly remember the time we spent together in her room, laying on the bed, listening to her Abba and Elton John records, reading Monty Python's Big Red Book, and freely discussing various topics that young ladies her age typically shy away from. Precisely because I am a buttless wonder, her parents found me completely harmless and allowed us to hang out unchaperoned in her boudoir, with the door closed. Being pathetically awkward and shy, I never thought about betraying this trust.

This young lady had a big sister who positively adored me, recognizing my adorableness even with my lack of a pleasing posterior. A Russian major, she had introduced Little Sis to a variety of Russian authors and their works. One of the titles the sisters raved to me about was The Master and Magarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. Inspired by their enthusiasm for the book I took it home and gave it a whirl, but I confess that it was completely over my head. I gave it up after a couple of chapters, or maybe paragraphs, my attention span not being then what it is now.

At any rate, through the intervening years I simply assumed I was too immature for The Master and Margarita at age 17, and fully intended to give it another shot someday. Fast forward to 2017, when I found the tale I abandoned decades ago floating on top of my son's substantial literary library. Since he still lives in my home, in my own mind I exercise certain proprietary rights to his belongings. Therefore, I grabbed the novel, tiptoed out of his room without waking him, and absconded it off to work with me, where I read it as part of my Lunchtime Lit book review series.

The verdict for The Master and Margarita, second time around, older and supposedly wiser that I am almost 40 years later? Although I did get to the end this time, I am embarrassed to report that I still don't get it.

In The Master and Margarita the devil does not go down to Georgia to participate in a fiddling contest, as celebrated in the Charlie Daniel's song, but rears his dapper, rather articulate head 5,400 miles away in Moscow, USSR
In The Master and Margarita the devil does not go down to Georgia to participate in a fiddling contest, as celebrated in the Charlie Daniel's song, but rears his dapper, rather articulate head 5,400 miles away in Moscow, USSR | Source

Lunchtime Lit Rules

Lunchtime Lit books are read strictly on Mel's half hour postal lunch break, not to be stolen away after work, to be secretly perused in ladies boudoirs where he has no business being. Although still a buttless wonder, Mel is no longer as sweet and innocent as he once was, and tends to get a little grabby in close quarters.

Lunchtime Lit One Year Recap to Date * ** ***

Book
Pages
Word Count
Date Started
Date Finished
Lunchtimes Consumed
The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy
783
295,940
8/3/2016
10/15/2016
38
Kafka on The Shore
465
173,100
10/17/2016
11/25/2016
22
Life And Fate
848
309,960
11/26/2016
2/15/2017
49
The Mountain Shadow
838
285,650
2/17/2017
4/28/2017
37
A Confederacy of Dunces
392
124,470
4/29/2017
6/5/2017
17
The Martian
369
104,588
6/7/2017
6/29/2017
16
The Slynx
295
106,250
7/3/2017
7/25/2017
16
The Master And Margarita
394
140,350
7/26/2017
9/1/2017
20

* Eight other titles, with a total estimated word count of 1,993,200 and 266 lunchtimes consumed, have been reviewed under the guidelines of this series.

**Word counts are estimated by hand-counting a statistically significant 23 pages, then extrapolating this average page count across the entire book. When the book is available on a word count website, I rely on that total.

***If the dates are lagging, it is because I am still slogging along, trying to catch up after a prolonged sabbatical from reviewing. Barring another one of life's train wrecks this list may someday be current, but don't hold your breath.

The Master and Margarita Mysterious Meanings

Although the Master and Margarita is populated by fantastical, other-wordly characters that appear to be hybrids between some warped children's book and a horror movie, I don't think they are intended to be taken literally. Rather, they exist as part of some crazy allegorical artist's rendering of life under the Soviet regime. The depiction makes perfect sense and is quite hilarious to those who lived it, but is somewhat of a head-scratcher to those who did not.

In this novel the devil does not go down to Georgia to participate in a fiddling contest, as celebrated in the Charlie Daniel's song, but rears his dapper, rather articulate head 5,400 miles away in Moscow, USSR. Magicians, talking black cats, naked flying witches and a host of other oddities are part of the retinue that make the journey to the capital city of the Soviet Empire, where they shake up and expose the city's corrupt, godless, self-serving bureaucracy.

A parallel tale involves the love affair between the tragic Margarita and The Master, the author of a novel about Pontius Pilate who has confined himself to an insane asylum out of despair for his book's rejection. Portions of the interactions between Christ and Pilate, as depicted in The Master's novel, are scattered throughout the work. These somewhat break the surreal flow of Satan and crew's bizarre antics.

There are competing interpretations of what the novel means. Obviously, talking black cats as big as hogs that walk on two legs are not part of the real world's landscape, so there must be some symbolic meaning behind the impossibly freakish entourage that accompanies the devil on his Moscow trip.

One such interpretation is that the figures from Jewish demonology used by author Mikhail Bulgakov are a response to atheistic propaganda prevalent in the Soviet Union during his time. Another school of thought is that by having Satan, in the guise of Woland the magician, actually defend the existence of Christ, the author is speaking for the balance of good and evil in humans. A third view is that Bulgakov was a practitioner of esoteric rites, because some see the novel as lousy with freemasonry symbols. As usual, we have to sell some copies to the George Noory, Alex Jones disciples, so let's drag the Masons into it.

Perhaps any one of these interpretations is correct, or maybe they are all present, to varying degrees, in the pages of The Master and Margarita. What do I know? I can't read Russian.


The novel’s galling play was to propose that, in a place like the U.S.S.R., justice was with the dark forces: the gospel according to the Devil.

— Boris Fishman, New York Times, May 27, 2016
In this atmosphere of suspicion, distrust, and fear that the next idea spinning around in his head might be the last one, Bulgakov penned The Master and Margarita in secret.
In this atmosphere of suspicion, distrust, and fear that the next idea spinning around in his head might be the last one, Bulgakov penned The Master and Margarita in secret. | Source

Margarita's Arduous Odyssey

It seems that I have reviewed a lot of novels on Lunchtime Lit that did not deliver a happy ending for those that wrote them. Too many authors sampled here met an unhappy demise before their work could be recognized. As an aspiring author myself, I find this trend deeply disturbing. A Confederacy of Dunces and Life And Fate are recent examples of novels, reviewed by yours truly, that were post mortem hits for the people that penned them. Now I add The Master and Margarita to this collection.

The most engaging thing to me about this novel is the saga of its publication. Although he was not necessarily a critic of the Soviet regime, many of Margarita author Mikhail Bulgakov's works ended up being "banned" or "officially denounced." Sucking up to the powers-that-be did not reduce the suppression of his art. A stage play Bulgakov wrote about the life of Stalin never made it into production either, even though the Soviet leader was reportedly a big fan of the writer and attended stagings of his plays.

Frustrated by his inability to make a living off of his work, Bulgakov wrote to Stalin personally to ask permission to emigrate. His request was denied via a direct phone call from the leader himself. Such was the dictator's fondness for the artist, however, that Stalin threw him a bone, giving Bulgakov a theater director's position to support himself with. In those risky times, in which dissidence meant the horrors of Lubyanka prison or exile to the gulag, Stalin's treatment of this free-speaking writer seems uncharacteristically tolerant.

In this atmosphere of suspicion, distrust, and fear that the next idea spinning around in his head might be the last one, Bulgakov penned The Master and Margarita in secret. Beginning the novel in 1928, he turned skittish and burned it in 1930. But as the devil replies to the Master after being told about the fiery fate of his work on Pontius Pilate - This cannot be. Manuscripts don't burn. Prophetically, as it were, neither would Bulgakov's book stay burned. He finished a second draft in 1936, and was still tweaking through new drafts when he died young, in 1940.

Bulgakov's wife dutifully hid the book after her husband's death, so it was not until 1966 that it somehow slipped through Brezhnev's censors by accident, to be published in a magazine, albeit in highly censored form. An uncensored version was smuggled out of the country to be printed abroad, and Bulgakov's posthumous fame finally took flight.

"Manuscripts don't burn." - Mikhail Bulgakov
"Manuscripts don't burn." - Mikhail Bulgakov | Source

Still Buttless After All These Years

Five decades after its delayed launch, The Master and Margarita now receives glowing praise from just about everybody, which leads to the question - What is wrong with me? What the hell, Mel?

On my half hour postal lunch break through the years, I have probably read at least a half-dozen books by Russian authors. Quite honestly, without trying to strut about like some snooty, pipe-smoking pseudo-intellectual, I have enjoyed most of them. But discussions with actual Russians who, unlike myself, have read these books in their original tongue, reveal that the Russian books I like aren't the same ones they do. For instance, Russians seem to be extremely fond of Dostoyevsky, while being lukewarm on Tolstoy. I, on the other hand, get a big kick out of Tolstoy, considering War And Peace to be in the top five of my all time faves, but I failed to get much out of Dostoyevsky's most celebrated novel, Crime and Punishment.

Evidently, something is lost in translation, and here is the crux of the matter. Unless you are fluent in Ancient Hebrew and Greek can you really understand The Bible, and unless you are fluent in Russian, can you really understand what Russian authors are trying to say? Furthermore, if you didn't grow up as a citizen of Moscow under the Soviets, can you wrap your head around Bulgakov's satire of that system?

So in light of my inability to comprehend the subtleties written between the lines by those great bearded masters from beyond the Dnieper, should I just give up trying to read Russian novels altogether? This is no critique of The Master and Margarita's contribution to literature - if I didn't partake of the deep belly laughs that are supposed to be the book's by-product, I can only look in the mirror to place the blame. If I could read Cyrillic I might be privy to the nuance of Russian idiom but alas, I cannot.

As for those readers who have slogged through the English version and still come away highly entertained, I congratulate them. I am sure Bulgakov is bleeping brilliant, but buttless Mel continues to miss the point, even after two tries.

Questions & Answers

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      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        3 months ago from San Diego California

        I wonder Lawrence if Stalin had a cultured, intellectual side that really appreciated the arts. Perhaps he truly believed that murder and torture were what the proletariat needed to advance, and it was nothing personal against his victims. Or maybe he was just plain psycho. Fascinating historical personality, at any rate. Thanks for dropping in.

      • lawrence01 profile image

        Lawrence Hebb 

        3 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

        Mel

        And I'm sure that 99% of us would miss the point, especially when reading about Stalin's Russia!

        I was surprised to read that Stalin actually enjoyed Bulgakov's work, he wasn't exactly known for tolerating criticism! I think I'll give this book a miss though.

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        4 months ago from San Diego California

        Thank you Rochelle. I appreciate you dropping by.

      • rdsparrowriter profile image

        Rochelle Ann De Zoysa 

        4 months ago from Moratuwa, Sri Lanka

        It's interesting to read :) Have a blessed day!

      • Kaili Bisson profile image

        Kaili Bisson 

        4 months ago from Canada

        I love these articles and I especially enjoy your humor. When I was in my 20s, I was partial to and read a few books by Solzhenitsyn. Also slogged through Dostoyevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov" at some point. My reading pile continues to grow, and I will return to these when I retire. In the meantime, I will now at least be able to chat--somewhat intelligently--about M&M at the next cocktail party I am invited to ;-)

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        4 months ago from San Diego California

        Bill it is surprising how many books you can slog through at half an hour a day. My lunch is really my only reading time, but I've tackled a lot of daunting books during it. Thanks for dropping in.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        4 months ago from Olympia, WA

        Your series is as close to reading as I have come in a year, so thanks for at least that exposure.l

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        4 months ago from San Diego California

        Linda I guess part of what has made the book popular is its weirdness, but to my corn-fed American mind it just seemed weirdness for the sake of weirdness. I really appreciate you dropping in!

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        4 months ago from San Diego California

        Jodah I am pleased to find another buttless wonder, from down under no less! The good thing about our type is we are not distracted by salacious whistling when our backs our turned, and embarrassment over our disappointing posteriors means we always keep our handsome faces directed at the world. Thanks for dropping in, my friend.

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        4 months ago from San Diego California

        Mills I think you make a great point about Bulgakov trying to confuse the censors by making the story somewhat cryptic, except that he was already a quarter century in the tomb when it finally snuck past them. I'm not sure Bulgakov ever would have published it, had he lived. Dead men tell no takes, I guess we'll never know. Thanks for dropping in.

      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 

        4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        The book sounds very strange. Congratulations on writing a creative and interesting article about a book that you didn't understand! I think the points that you've raised in the last section of the article are important. A lot of meaning probably is lost in the translation and in not living in a particular culture.

      • Jodah profile image

        John Hansen 

        4 months ago from Queensland Australia

        Thanks for sharing another Lunchtime Lit Book Review with us Mel. The background to this was certainly interesting especially Stalin offering Bulgakov the teacher director’s position after refusing his request to emigrate.

        I’m with you, I like Tolstoy (especially his short stories) and I too am buttless (at least so my wife tells me) so I think I will take your advice and probably give this book a miss. Cheers.

      • profile image

        Pat Mills 

        4 months ago from East Chicago, Indiana

        It sounds as though Bulgakov wrote something that was over the heads of the Soviet censors, but forgot to give many readers points with which to connect. This work, on the other hand, simply might not have aged well. I know that T. S. Eliot and Henry James are considered challenging reads, but at least they're rewarding. I guess your reward was surviving this read, and living to tell about it.

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        4 months ago from San Diego California

        Thanks Pamela that's very sweet, but nobody ever was attracted to me because of my swimmer's body. Even today, my wife makes cracks about the lack of geographical features on my back forty.

        I am glad you enjoyed this review. It sent me back to simpler times, when all I had to worry about was unrequited puppy love.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        4 months ago from Sunny Florida

        I really enjoyed this article about 'The Master and Margarita'. I haven't read too many Russian novels, and I can see where something could be lost in the translation. I did like 'War and Peace', but read that many years ago.

        As for teen years, I think everyone gets a heartbreak or two. Calling you Butless Mel is not very kind to say the least as your other attributes are apparent. LOL

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