I'm a heavy reader but bad at reviews. All I can say is read this one. One of the best books I've ever read and that was clear to me before I finished it.
There was lots and lots of "Woland is obviously not the devil, unlike everyone assumed" and much lofty discussion that I couldn't follow at all.
I'd strongly advise to leave that out, but read a more conventional commentary like the web site linked somewhere in this thread.
"It is extraordinary that Bulgakov managed to write a novel that is so full of humor and wit and lightness of tone when he was living through this period", writes Groskop. I guess she missed the point.
Luckily, the footnotes point out the tiny clues in the text that tell the whole story: that tenant had denounced all of his flatmates to the secret police so he could keep the whole place for himself.
“This was at dusk, in mid-October. And she left. [...] A quarter of an hour after she left me, there came a knock at my window [...] Yes, and so in mid-January, at night, in the same coat but with the buttons torn off, I was huddled with cold in my little yard.”
Just like that, three months have vanished. Those missing buttons are the only indication of where he spent those lost months: it was customary to remove belts, shoelaces and buttons from those held for questioning by the secret police.
That's a wonderful example and no, they aren't. To a contemporary Soviet reader (or a modern one with a bit more context), it's crystal clear who the 'they' knocking on the window in the middle of the night are. In fact, such readers would have a pretty good idea where things are headed the moment the new 'friend' Mogarich appears and is described. And after the knock but before the buttons, our knowingly winking omniscient narrator suddenly disappears, stops being omniscient and refuses to tell us what happened! The buttons are a nice detail at the tail end on which to hang an explanatory footnote, perhaps, but not some hidden clue, left in there for readers to suddenly slap their forehead and say 'Aha!'.
It's a multilayered work and, stylistically, Bulgakov is often a circumspect narrator. But the repression bits are not some particularly deeply hidden layer at all. You're barely a few pages in when Ivan suggests Kant be sent to the Solovki, one of the OG Gulags. The very title of the first chapter is a reference to the paranoia and legitimate fears of the period.
"vanish one after the other as if by magic"
When the narrator suddenly feigns ignorance, is vague, evokes unclear, possibly supernatural forces at play - he's generally talking about things like the state terror or other entirely humanly-wrought events and matters.
When he talks about the actual supernatural - the devil and his retinue - he has no trouble at all following them around and describing their actions and their consequences precisely.
I couldn't understand the first page of Crime and Punishment even with a dictionary. Dostoevsky has a very eloquent way of writing with very long sentences and complicated grammar, but it's very hard for a non-native speaker to understand.
So, I went to a Russian colleague of mine, who recommended that I try to read "The Master and the Margarita" instead of Crime and Punishment. I found that I could read and mostly understand it, but the plot made no sense.
I told this experience to my Russian teacher, and she laughed uncontrollably. She said that it's true that the grammar in The Master in the Margarita is easier, but you'll never really understand the plot without having lived in the Soviet Union. She said that every element in the story is a jab at some aspect of life or politics from that era.
I continued to stick with short stories by Chekhov and Gogol after that.
Joyce is an apt comparison - he’s similarly a painter with words - I feel like I’ve visited 19th century Dublin having read his works, although he does make Dostoyevsky look sedate and restrained.
I would think it's hard to appreciate it completely, but I don't see why the plot makes no sense - I think even if you ignore all the references and the background, it has pretty good basic plot. Which part didn't work for you specifically?
> She said that every element in the story is a jab at some aspect of life or politics from that era.
This is a common thing for many literary works. Swift surely meant a lot of contemporary references in his Gulliver's Travels, most of which are lost on modern reader without special background, and Shakespeare was no stranger to contemporary matters either. And so on, and so forth. But we can choose to enjoy their works both with and without the background. If the literary work is good enough - and I think most of Bulgakov work is - it can be enjoyed even on the surface layer, without going in too deep.
But if you don't like Dostoyevsky (I do not and feel no shame about it - it's just not my cup of tea) or Bulgakov - by all means Chekhov and Gogol have enough good stuff for anybody.
If that's your fallback position on difficulties with Dostoevsky and Bulgakov, you're pretty much killing it at learning Russian. And it's not like those guys are going anywhere either.
It's disappointing because the book currently has a 4.2+ rating on Goodreads, but if you had to ask me, I'd find it hard to give it anything greater than a 3/5. Literally struggling to get through it, purely as a sunk cost of having read (total - 80) pages of it.
I've read my fair share of old school classic literature and enjoyed a lot of it, but Russian literature (or maybe just Bulgakov) may just not be my cup of tea.
At some point I was really into Russian and Polish fantasy/sci-fi and I especially liked the social aspects of some of the stories.
I first picked up Lem not long after, and got the same feeling. I wonder if the "literary vs. genre" dichotomy is less engrained outside of English writing - or perhaps I was just mislead by our stereotypes about the weight of "Russian Literature".
But it's obviously not true; reducing Russian-language literature to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Solzhenitsyn is insulting crude. (And even Dostoevsky can be funny!) Bulgakov and Pasternak are at least recognized, but reduced to one work each. Zamyatin ought to be taught next to Orwell and Huxley, but he and a great many others are basically unknown. And all of that's before the conflation of Russian, Soviet, and Eastern Bloc work. Lem, Čapek, and so on aren't even Russian writers but get subsumed in the same category of thought.
It's a frustrating gap in American-read canon all around, and as a particular fan of sci-fi I think the focus on Russian 'literary' over 'genre' work has left a major hole in our perception of SF.
To provide an alternative view: I did not like "Master and Margarita", especially compared to "Heart of the Dog" and what I consider Bulgakov's best novel "The White Guard". Part of this has to do that with the fact that author chose religion and mysticism as literary vehicles and I am not a big fan of either. The whole book felt rather frivolous. I warmed up to this type of novel after reading several works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez though much later.
"The White Guard" on the other hand left much deeper impression on me. The novel does a great job showing helplessness of people in front of their old life crumbling down, caught in a whirlwind of turbulent times.
On a related-unlrelated note, it has been too many years since I was in country. Which is all for the best. If I hear another ekskursovod quote two more out-of-context lines from Velikiy Pushkin, it's SIZO and Siberia for me. Out of offense for poor, dead A.S., more than anything...
I was already a prolific reader though; perhaps I had good teachers (I don't remember them as such, not bad, but not great).
That's also how I got to read Crime and Punishment twice: in Russian, when I was in school in Ukraine, and then in English, at a high school in Brooklyn the very next year. Had a blast both times, really.
Our AP English teacher that quarter was a six-foot-something metalhead whose name I, unfortunately, forgot. But his class is one of my warmest memories of those years. One time he took the whole class to a Russian restaurant (as an optional excursion, we paid for ourselves) just to give the kids a better immersion into the Russian culture (the school was right next to a Russian-speaking neighborhood anyway). Even for me, it was something that created a real-life context for the fictional work, and of course made it more exciting.
So I'd say - assigned reading is not necessarily the death knell for a work of art. It really does depend on the teacher. However, statistically, it probably kills it for most people, so in the very least, there's no point in having a nationwide standard.
Which brings me back to OP's point: the problem isn't just that there's assigned reading in ex-USSR countries, it's that everyone has the same assigned reading. That has a devastating effect, I think. At least in the US, even if a book is destroyed in the classroom, there are decent chances that most of the students won't be affected because they'll have different assigned reading.
Sounds like a great way to inoculate the new generation against Bulgakov. Nothing against White Guard, it is just the current pendulum swing and cultivation of kind of nostalgia and tragical romantization of the White movement makes it for relatively safe reading for young/unprepared.
>The novel does a great job showing helplessness of people in front of their old life crumbling down, caught in a whirlwind of turbulent times.
I think it is the opposite. While people can't change their historical context, their ultimate fate is mostly defined by themselves - i see that in the Master and in the Guard.
Another Bulgakov book I loved was “A Country Doctor’s Notebook”, which reflects both the hope and the privations of the early USSR.
Finally, if you like Bulgakov, I really recommend Andrei Kurkov and Victor Pelevin - they explore similar themes in a similar fashion.
My girlfriend is Russian, and she said she enjoyed the book when she read it as a child.
A humbling moment.
That being said, do read this book a few times! If not reading in Russian, read different translations. If too young (or unaware of Russian history) to get many references, reading "Дети Арбата" beforehand will help slightly.
in case anyone has the same issues I did finding it.
I myself gonna humblebrag, one of my mods for Skyrim is named "Never Talk To NPCs" after the first chapter of the book. Of course it's only rehashing a few selected tropes, not an adaptation in the strict sense.
So is "The Master and Margarita" really for people who feel low in their lifes? My activity once led me to reading a thread on 4chan about "The Master and Margarita", where the OP-anon insisted there's no point in a book where there is magic and "the protaganist [i.e., Woland] can do everything". Not sure if it was genuine trolling or some poor soul forced to read in for a class assignment, but there's a grain of good question in that observation.
SPOILER if Woland frees the Master only after Margarita wished to free other person, maybe Woland wasn't in power to free the Master without that happening? we'll never know in the book, but I shall imply that the whole thing was set up precisely for that accomplishment END SPOILER.
The thing that struck me the most is that many trivial observations they made about US in the same ones I made when I immigrated in the 90's. I'm talking mostly about everyday things: giant parking lots, drug stores that sell mostly not drugs, trucks that hold multiple new cars, fast food, etc. Amazing how little has changed and how old the modern everyday American way of life is.
The movie is also great. Shot in black and white, it adds to the solemnity amid the humor.
Especially the line "The final joke of the book is that maybe Satan is not the bad guy after all"
I am adding it to my reading list. Thanks!
I think I would get a lot more out of it as part of a structured class or group discussion that could explain some of the cultural references and symbology, as you say.
The annotations are also on the «Master and Margarita» website https://www.masterandmargarita.eu/en/02themas/aantekeningen....
I've only ventured slightly into Russian litarature (English translations thereof) with "The death of Ivan Ilych" and "the dream of a rediculous man". I consider the former to be one of the best books I have read this year, and would like to give TMaM a try but always have trouble deciding on a translation.
The Master and Margarita Paperback – March 19, 1996
by Mikhail Bulgakov (Author), Diana Burgin (Translator), Katherine Tiernan O'Connor (Translator)
Of course, Amazon will provide reviews for all translations in one big bucket so it's hard to know which one gets the best review.
You can go to sub reddit: https://www.reddit.com/r/books/comments/1lngmm/which_the_mas...
I found the notes in the Annotated Lolita  very helpful, unfortunately I haven't really found an annotated version of M&M (beyond what's in ).
and Amazon US
However I can't tell which is the 'best' version - some classics have appeared on Kindle full of typos or can be translated badly so you have to look for a good one.
Most people will describe a book that makes them laugh out loud as "fun", regardless of whether they observe the darker undertones.
"Fun" also doesn't need to be funny - there are many scenes of spectacular awe and wonder (like in the final chapter!) that are extremely fun.
You have witches, the devil, a talking cat, magic performances where people end up running around naked like headless chickens, a ball in hell etc... That's entertaining regardless of the morale of the story. I think that's one of the reasons this book is so very well liked, it combines fantasy with a very strong message. The Lord of the Rings is fun but it's not exactly known for its very strong political message and criticism of an authoritarian regime from within. Karl Marx's Das Capital is politically and historically very interesting but about as fun as reading the phone book. Master and Margarita manages to do both at the same time.
Of course if you only focus on the "fun" stuff then you're missing a lot that the book has to offer but if you want to get people to read the book you'll probably have a better chance if you talk about those fantasy elements than if you describe it as a bleak criticism of the soviet union with bits of the crucifixion of Jesus spliced in between.
(However I never liked this motive of 'Ich bin ein Teil von jener Kraft, Die stets das Böse will und stets das Gute schafft' - never got that.)
Volokhonsky and Peavar do the best but one still needs those hundreds of pages of footnotes which are just not there. Reading TMAM pretty much requires jumping off the TMAM train every few paragraphs and venturing into Literaturnaya Gazeta, history of KPSS, lore of the MGU, etc just to realize the mood of those paragraphs.
In hindsight I only regret starting with an English translation instead of a French one as I suspect that Russian maps better (although obviously still very imperfectly) with French grammar.
Now if you want signaling of intellectualism I've also seen Simon McBurney's adaptation of the novel as a play at Avignon's theater festival a few years ago and it was absolutely magnificent.
I have a hunch you do not discuss The Master and Margarita at parties.
Edit: The downvotes on this is the exact reason why McDuff is popular - it is intellectual masturbation. The one mocked by Russian writers. One, of course, should read it in Russian on in V&P translation to notice this plot twist. It is always fun to watch.
What's your point exactly? Do you think that Master and Margarita is overrated or do you think people like it for the wrong reasons?
For the same reason why you would not be discussing "Confucius, Philosopher of the Chinese" -- wrong audience.
> Do you think that Master and Margarita is overrated or do you think people like it for the wrong reasons?
I gave the answer above - fawning over TMAM among the western population is signaling of intellectualism targeting their friends. TMAM actually addresses it.
Complaining without providing alternatives is not especially productive.
Yes, then re-read both, as well as the entire catalog of Dostoevsky, the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, The Illiad, and The Odyssey, and by then Rothfuss might actually be finished with the third book in the trilogy...
Life has got me down a bit at the moment, and I wasn't aware of this book -- so thank you for the pointer.
With that said, I highly recommend reading Master and Margarita as it is my favorite novel. It is a work however that is deeply rooted in its time and place, so looking at annotations that explain the subtlety is very useful.
This comment was based on my previous two comments here.
(Location/time: early days of Soviet Russia, old and young doctor talking at dinner)
"If you care about your digestion, my advice - do not discuss bolshevism and medicine at dinner. And, god be with you, never read soviet newspapers before dinner."
"But... there are no any other."
"So, don't read any. You know, I performed 30 experiments at my clinic. And you know? Patients, that don't read newspapers, feel great. I forced others to read "Pravda" on purpose, they lost weight."
The official Lenfilm YouTube account has it also, but for some reason only with French subtitles. It looks like less of their catalogue there is English subbed, compared to Mosfilm, which has English subs for basically everything.
To each according to their need etc.
E.g. they used half of a plane hull with construction foam on top of it.
Now years later, I do data analysis to show how media can give us a skewed view of the world — and can be used to manipulate our beliefs:
How Media Fuels our Fear of Western Terrorism
Today’s biggest threat to democracy isn’t fake news—it’s selective facts
And write a media literacy guide on Github:
Hack the Media
Definitely true for tribal politics though.
But more importantly, we don't want to be living in a country in a downward, inward decline. Brexit isn't going to solve the problems that disaffected leavers voted for, and I think it's going to get worse - Britain may get even more virulent demagogues. If we have children, we don't want them to grow up in an illiberal society, or be educated in this kind of a system.
Things aren't great elsewhere either, for sure. That's why it's so fascinating.
Great you say, more jobs for the English. But now the businesses have to pay a higher wager and/or increase their costs which are passed down to us. Now we have to pay more, but we aren't getting any extra money and due to austerity it's even worse.
Sure, there have been quite a few unfortunate and well-publicised outlier cases of people situationally caught between bureaucratic cracks, but as someone who lives in London, I assure you that thousands of long-since immigrated grandparents aren't getting booted out to satisfy some arbitrary ‘anti-immigration’ whim.
It's a mess for sure, but I'm not sure it's as you appear to be trying to paint.
Even worse, hackernews gives these organizations favorable treatment and privileges where they can get away with it. Can you imagine what would happen if foxnews spammed HN everyday?
The only saving grace for HN is that HN is so small that it is an afterthought for these spammers. The real problem is in reddit, facebook, twitter or larger social media. That's why those platforms are so toxic. It's overrun with news media employees and spammed content.
4Chan isn't exactly overrun with spammers and it's the same toxic cespool that Reddit is (granted Reddit has better manners and at least pretends to emulate civil conversation). I don't think the news sites spamming their articles is more than a minor contributing factor.
Apparently we're not allowed to say 'that one chick from the alien films' or 'miss/ms' enternamehere without deeply offending some of the population to the point of being yelled at. There are many other examples of this I'm sure, but I don't get out much.
Isn't it also ironic that there's a group of people on a site called hackernews saying not to read the news? This is my only source, and it depresses me to no end. But how else do you keep up in a very quickly evolving world like ours?
I've never heard of "Ms." being an issue, though, since it explicitly doesn't make assumptions about marital status like Miss and Mrs. do. I'd guess that someone didn't actually know what it meant.
In the past I've cut out the news and felt much better fairly quickly. However, it gets to a point where there's something that happens that I should be aware of - like the annual budget speech, or something related to my industry that's hit a headline.
I guess I need a means of separating the 99% outrage-inducing, unactionable mainstay from the 1% of things that I genuinely need to know about.
First, I started by stopping reading daily news; stopping refreshing the headlines every time I had a few minutes; stopping getting alerts; avoiding 'news 24/7' channels like the plague.
Then I stopped reading weekly news - what was the point? Whilst it's less of a burden that daily/hourly/minutely news, it's still unactionable for me - it has no utility, as you say.
But then it's been months and things have happened that I should know about, and the only option I have is to go back to getting alerts and 'triaging' my interest in them - except that this means that I have to process each headline again, and I'm basically back where I started.
Newspapers with a certain quality, a long-term perspective and in printed form is fine though if limited to weekends.
I remember when I first consciously decided to stop reading mainstream news. I was in high school then; I had my Firefox configured to put RSS feed from national newspapers as a drawer of bookmarks under the address bar (oh, the days you could do that in a browser...). Took me a while to realize the reason why I feel so sick in my stomach on mornings and evenings was that just looking at the headlines disturbed and depressed me. I unsubscribed from the feeds, killed the bookmark drawers, and after a short period of FOMO, I started to feel better.
The "Newspapers with a certain quality, a long-term perspective and in printed form" are few and far between. If you can find those, by all means, stick to them.
For long term money planning, where to put your money, which areas of the world have problems, the news are important. You can skip your local gossip, but knowing what happens in the world is important for long term planning.
Not daily news.
I largely agree with the statement, but as naive it might sound I still consider being aware and forming an opinion of what is happening in the world and my country as a civic duty, as unpleasant as it is.
Most people can safely give up reading and watching the news and still be aware and informed through their normal daily interactions and lives of the world around them.
we don't have to go very far back in our history until we find that all the information that reached us was relevant to us and therefore anything that happened, any news, whether it was about something that's actually happened to us, in the next house, or in the next village, within the boundary or within our horizon, it happened in our world and if we reacted to it the world reacted back. It was all relevant to us, so for example, if somebody had a terrible accident we could crowd round and really help. Nowadays, because of the plethora of one-to-many communication we have, if a plane crashes in India we may get terribly anxious about it but our anxiety doesn't have any impact. We're not very well able to distinguish between a terrible emergency that's happened to somebody a world away and something that's happened to someone round the corner. We can't really distinguish between them any more, which is why we get terribly upset by something that has happened to somebody in a soap opera that comes out of Hollywood and maybe less concerned when it's happened to our sister. We've all become twisted and disconnected and it's not surprising that we feel very stressed and alienated in the world because the world impacts on us but we don't impact the world.
From the most brilliant stream of consciousness I have ever read: http://www.biota.org/people/douglasadams
Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. Either is in such a predicament as the man who was earnest to be introduced to a distinguished deaf woman, but when he was presented, and one end of her ear trumpet was put into his hand, had nothing to say. As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough. After all, the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages; he is not an evangelist, nor does he come round eating locusts and wild honey. I doubt if Flying Childers ever carried a peck of corn to mill.
Although even if you accept that claim, you could argue that being aware of the world made you a better person even if it makes you unhappy - a sort of Socratic argument that "escaping the cave" is inherently good. In that case you'd have to justify (only to yourself, of course) that "news" is the right kind of knowledge to accomplish Goodness.