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Life Got You Down? Time to Read The Master and Margarita (lithub.com)
534 points by wyndham on Oct 17, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 177 comments

The Master and Margarita is indeed a fantastic read, but there’s a dark subtext. For example, the supernatural happenings and bumps in the night from the neighboring apartment are likely Bulgakov making commentary on the purges. Bulgakov layered things. On the surface, lightheartedness. Underneath, a very bleak and tortured soul.

I read a version with enough footnotes to help me understand that underneath a funny and beautiful book is an attempt to use satire to say something serious about the regime that Bulgakov lived under. Part of what makes this book so great is how it is effective at this goal but also just fantastic literature.

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.

So, this is a bit of a shameless plug, but also relevant. My wife won an award for her fictionalized/fantasy account of the writing of TMaM, and it illuminates the context for the work. You might enjoy it.


I've read/skimmed two academic books commenting on The Master and Margarita and it lessened my enjoyment.

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.

I agree! I highly recommend against reading academic interpretations/critiques of any book. I graduated summa cum laude with a degree in creative writing. Much of my college study was focused on literary criticisms and theory. As someone trained in the art, I believe taking a perfectly good novel and blowing it through the enema of Marxist, Postmodernist, or Feminist activism, for instance, is the best way to shit all over an author's work.

I see how you graduated summa cum laude in creative writing.

Fair enough... But please explain why.

I read the book without any annotations and, while I could understand that there were references to other things, I missed those references and the general cultural context, which led me to not really like the book very much.

Do you have an ISBN or link to that version?

... that already realized there's nothing it can do to stop the terror machine. When you're robbed of everything, and things get worse every day, gallows humor is the only freedom you can enjoy. End even that only in private.

"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.

Yep, there are many scenes where you have to know the zeitgeist to understand the gravity of situation. Like when NKVD finds 400 dollars in the janitor's apartment. It's set up like a sitcom scene but the guy's going to die.

Not just him, but his family, possibly colleagues and friends would suffer.

There is a point where most the inhabitants of a shared flat vanish one after the other as if by magic, leaving only one of them behind.

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.

They're not really 'tiny clues' - this thread makes it sound like this stuff is some set of subtle veiled hints and allusions. It's certainly possible to miss if one is unfamiliar with the historical context and it's worth getting a well-annotated edition but it's hardly the intent of the author - there are lots of places where it's quite explicit and overt. The book itself could not be published when it was written and when it was originally published, many of the more obvious references to repression were edited out.

I happen to be reading the novel at the moment, so it was easy to find an example. In this fragment, the master recounts the last time that he saw his loved one. The sentences are spread over 3-4 pages:

“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.

Those missing buttons are the only indication

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.

Yes, I agree that they were not intentionally hidden by Bulgakov. Maybe instead of "clues" it would be more accurate to describe them as things that a modern non-Russian reader might not pick up unless some additional context is provided.

It occurs to me that you hit on one of Bulgakov's juxtapositions right in your first comment which can be a handy cue when there isn't a footnote -

"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.

When I was living in the United States and studying Russian, I started to read some Russian literature. After reading some short stories by Chekhov, I decided to delve into something harder: Dostoevsky.

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.

Dostoyevsky is a hard read even for native speakers of Russian. I would not characterize him as eloquent, more like raw and rough around the edges. I can definitely imagine how hard it is for a non-native speaker to understand his writing, with his archaic words, words for things that do not exist anymore, references to Russian folk tales, or cultural context of the 19th century Russia, on top of all the things that you mentioned. In a way, Dostoyevsky is somewhat watered down Russian precursor of James Joyce.

But Dostoyevsky is brilliant, his impenetrable style notwithstanding - in Crime and Punishment he paints such vivid scenes that I can still in my mind’s eye see Raskolnikov’s crappy apartment, the widow slumping to the floor, axe in her head, the markets of St Petersburg, the reeking drunks by the stables... it builds into something glittering, always, even when painted only in dun and ochre.

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.

> but the plot made no sense.

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.

I continued to stick with short stories by Chekhov and Gogol after that.

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.

There is an android app Live Pages https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.samsung.li... that has character guides, maps and timelines for select books (the only translated one is War and Peace)

As someone who's struggling to complete "The Master and the Margarita" (I still have about 80 pages to go), I completely agree with this comment. The book is a light read, but the plot is basically gibberish unless you understand the subtext, which the book doesn't really bother to explain in any way. I find myself constantly going to chapter breakdowns online to figure out what a certain chapter even means.

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.

I attended a Russian poetry event by accident a couple of days ago. I didn't understand a thing but this made my whole experience of it even more beautiful. I could literally feel what the artists were talking about and the reactions of the crowd. I guess it had to do a little with the fact that they were expats and the Russian poetry probably reminded them at home, but the energy in the room was so intense. Later i spoke with one of the attendees and he explained that poetry (or literature in this case) is a way of connecting similair perspectives to life to people divided by the enormous distances in Russia. Thats why the people attending the event - even though they didnt know each other, had a great feeling of connection and were prone to expressing their patriotic emotions. To quote him: "I felt Russian for the first time in a long time tonight."And this is a great quote: "Literature can be a catalyst for change. But it can also be a safety valve for a release of tension and one that results in paralysis"

Master and Margarita is one of my favorite books. First time I've read it when I was 17 or 18, then around 22 and then around 25. Each time I've read it I took something else from it and was surprised that it's the same book. Probably it has something to do with growing up.

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 picked it up at about the same time for some English class, and I remember being a bit shocked that something so obviously Deep and Literary could be quite so much fun. It's not the only example, of course, but for me it still occupies a special intersection between "flip through it when I'm not up to anything heavy" and "reread it carefully to see something new".

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".

Or perhaps "Russian literature" is a concept as vast as the country, and some of it transcends easy labels. Like Bulgakov, Dostoevsky was capable to write at various different levels.

Yes, certainly. I wasn't very clear, but my meaning was that there's a certain Western/American concept of "Russian Literature" as being exclusively long, philosophical, realistic, and depressing - as though The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina are the prototype for everything else.

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.

For a context: Russian, read several Bulgakov's works as a teenager, as it was part of a school program.

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.

There should be a law in Russia that if a novel is considered great enough, it should never be assigned involuntarily to schoolchildren ever again. Making 15-year-olds read a novel is a wonderful way to ensure they will not really appreciate anything in it or related to it until at least age 35, if indeed they still read by then.

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 believe many of us will say that such a law should also be passed in our own countries. It's just sad how the school system destroys great works, just by virtue of making them assigned reading.

Seems I'm in the minority but I loved the literature we read in school - still remember Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, The Merchant of Venice, ... with great affection many years later.

I was already a prolific reader though; perhaps I had good teachers (I don't remember them as such, not bad, but not great).

Same here - and on both sides of the Atlantic.

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.

I am 45 and I still can't stand anything written by Jane Austen.

>teenager ... part of a school program

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.

Likewise loved The White Guard - and unlike a sibling reply I agree with you that it reflects helplessness - I certainly didn’t see any of the protagonists “controlling their destiny” - I saw them being washed up on and dashed against the shores of time like so much flotsam and jetsam, making ultimately meaningless decisions against a backdrop of inevitability.

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.

British mini-TV series is pretty decent as well:


Huh! I have no idea how this passed me by. Shall have to have a watch, thanks!

Brothers Strugatsky were influenced by Bulgakov a lot as well. "Limping fate" novel actually copies the layout of Master and Margarita. And Bulgakov himself makes an appearance (without being named).

I like this genre - Marquez, Murkami, Allende, Wolfe are some of my favorite authors, yet I didn’t really enjoy Master and Margarita that much. I may try another of his based on this comment though.

Master and Margarita is high school material here as well and most did not even like it, let alone consider it special.

I read TMaM when I was 25, after being given a copy for Christmas from my father. He's Polish, and studied Russian in school. I put off reading it for two years, because I don't read much. Among my English friends, there's an air of sophistication to being able to say you're reading a Russian novel.

My girlfriend is Russian, and she said she enjoyed the book when she read it as a child.

A humbling moment.

I love the book as much as the next Russian, and have read it the requisite three times, but this article is nonsense. It gets even the basic facts wrong (Margarita flies around before the ball, Woland is not in any way unhappy about her asking for the Master to be freed, etc)

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.

For people who have read it, what translation do you recommend?

Richard Pevear/Larissa Volokhonsky, a husband and wife team who have been translating Russian novels for close to 30 years. Having read most of Dostoevsky's works, some their translations, some others, I highly recommend their translations when available.

Those two are fantastic, largely because they don't translate. Rather they re-write the works in the target language that both of them speak extremely well.

amazon (no ref): https://www.amazon.com/dp/0143108271

in case anyone has the same issues I did finding it.

Say, how are things with adaptations of "The Master and Margarita" into other media? There was some Hollywood movie undergoing, or wasn't it? Pretty sure I didn't mistake it with the Fantastic Beasts franchise...

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.

Life Got You Down? Time to read Ilf and Petrov (The Twelve Chairs, The Little Golden Calf, One-storied America)

One-Storied America, unlike the other two books which are (humorous) fiction, is a travelogue of Soviet writers visiting the USA in the 30's. It's a fascinating account, and some editions include the photographs taken by one of the authors.

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.

It is very often overlooked, but "The Little Golden Calf" is awesome. It is an amazingly fun read yet it is full of deep insights into pre-war Soviet Union's everyday life. The character is basically a superhero who goes through this society as a hot knife through butter. Yet it is much more serious than "Twelve Chairs" which is basically a sitcom.

Wouldn't call "The Little Golden Calf" overlooked (not by Russian speakers, at least); and yes, after reading it, I wondered how it ever passed censorship back in the days.

The movie[1] is also great. Shot in black and white, it adds to the solemnity amid the humor.


The movie is also awesome and I think I saw the movie first.

Hell yes!

Any book that features a tommy gun toting tomcat is worth a read, regardless of whether life got you down. It's one of my favourite books, and it's one that can reread multiple times, each time revealing new insights and references.

I have never heard of this book before, but the description made me think of the Robert Heinlein novel 'Job: A Comedy of Justice'.

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've read a great deal of Russian literature old and modern, but I didn't much like this book. It was like an unplanned Salmon Rushdie novel, where the metaphors don't seem to add up to anything - very likely there was a lot of cultural reference in the symbology that went over my head - but still, just didn't get much pleasure from reading it.

I felt the same way. My wife and I each got copies of the book so we could read it together and were excited about it, given the rave reviews, but neither of us could get into it.

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.

Slight digression, but I’m trying to expand my productions of Russian literature for Standard Ebooks: I’ve produced some Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Garshin and Sologub so far. Was considering a Bunin or Leskov compliation next, but is there anyone slightly off the beaten path that I’m missing with a decent public domain translation?

You can now read «The Master and Margarita» and understand its satire through a free smartphone app with annotations per chapter.

iPhone https://itunes.apple.com/app/id770608895 Android https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.app.p9370G...

The annotations are also on the «Master and Margarita» website https://www.masterandmargarita.eu/en/02themas/aantekeningen....

I was not expecting much from the book when I started reading it. Yet it is one of the few I could not put down before it was 9am and I had read it all. The wit and all the layers! A true surprise for me, in a positive way.

Since I don't understand Russian, is there any English translation that you'd recommend over another?

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.

I read that one and I was happy with it:

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...

Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky. Since they get so much praise, anything russian I have read was translated by them.

And they did the Penguin 50 yr anniversary edition [1]. It has some useful notes at the end, too.

I found the notes in the Annotated Lolita [2] very helpful, unfortunately I haven't really found an annotated version of M&M (beyond what's in [1]).

[1] https://www.amazon.com/dp/0143108271

[2] https://www.amazon.com/Annotated-Lolita-Revised-Updated/dp/0...

They have many critics also who refuse to buy into the Pevear-Volokhknsky hype, even considering their translations as 'disastrous':


Disappointed to find out that there is no Kindle version. I actually find that uncommon lately so it is a surprise when there isn't one.

I was able to find multiple Kindle editions on Amazon UK:



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.

Apparently I was searching wrong- no clue how, possibly as a result of following a Google link into Amazon. Thank-you for the links.

From a UK account, I find many Kindle versions of it. A specific translation may not have one.

I always wonder why non-Russian speakers perceive books like "The Master and Margarita" as "fun". I guess the reason is that the spirit of the novel gets lost in translation. In Russian all humorous elements sum up as a dark depressing feeling towards the end of the novel. That what makes it a Russian classic.

Hah! I'm not a Russian speaker and I had the same thought upon seeing the headline. The Master and Margarita is good, but deeply depressing and pessimistic about human society and the world. This obviously reflects the conditions in which it was written, but I wouldn't recommend it as a pick-me-up!

There is an obvious attempt by the author to make the novel fun. It works - it is impossible for me to read this novel without guffawing multiple times.

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.

"Fun" is such a broad word that it's hard to really draw a conclusion IMO. It's not exactly the first word that would come to mind when I describe the book but I suppose that it is, in fact, pretty fun even though the story being told is extremely bleak.

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.

English-native speakers have a strong affinity for irony in humor, so any sharp combination of that with bleak hopelessness is 'black humor,' aka 'gallows humor,' and will be quite popular with those who enjoy that flavor in their laughter.

i read it as the psychedelic version of Faust. (it turns out that Bulgakov was addicted to morphine)

(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.)

It is just signaling of intellectualism. Most of English translations of classic Russian lit suck -- for example one is highly unlikely to get by reading English translation of "The Master and Margarita" that it is satire even if one gets hundreds of pages of foot notes.

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.

That's pointless projection. I read The Master and Margarita a long time ago because I read somewhere that it was one inspiration for the Rolling Stone's Sympathy for the Devil, so I wasn't exactly driven by pretentious intellectualism. It still managed to become one of my favorite novels and I even started learning Russian because of it (still working on that actually). I hope someday I'll be able to read it in the original language.

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.

IIRC the English translation of Master & Margarita was first published in 1968. Marianne Faithful pass her copy to Mick Jagger, who read it in one sitting, overnight, then write Sympathy for the Devil. What Jagger wrote was a long way from the final recorded version [1]. When Jean Luc Godard filmed the Stones recording in 68 for his One Plus One movie he was lucky enough to capture the evolution of the song in the studio: the tempo was cranked up, samba drums and woo-woo vocals added, and Keef did the bass and guitar parts.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IEtM576c8Ik

> I read The Master and Margarita a long time ago because I read somewhere that it was one inspiration for the Rolling Stone's Sympathy for the Devil, so I wasn't exactly driven by pretentious intellectualism.

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.

The downvotes are because you keep making a non-sequitur strawmen instead of contributing anything of value to the discussion. Why wouldn't I be talking about it at parties?

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?

> Why wouldn't I be talking about it at parties?

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.

Volokhonsky and Peavar translations are a meme carried out to sell more books. There are other translations that are better and truer to the original text.

Such as?

Complaining without providing alternatives is not especially productive.

David McDuff

This is one of my favorite books ever. I've read it in Russian and English. I have the DVDs of the TV series made in Russia about 10 years ago. Is there a Russian audiobook version anywhere?

Just finished The Name of The Wind and time to read this ;)

You should check out the sequel to The Name of the Wind, A Wise Man's Fear.

You should check out the sequel to The Name of the Wind, A Wise Man's Fear.

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...

I kinda lost interest after the second book, it was pretty bad tbh...

Is it any good?

The Russian language version on Audible is one of the best narrated books I’ve listened to, with the other being The Sympathizer. I recommend it.

I found it just now using the iOS app Libby which links to my local library card and allows me to check it out for two weeks.

Great book! When I borrowed it the librarian said she envied me the experience of reading it for the first time

Thanks for this.

Life has got me down a bit at the moment, and I wasn't aware of this book -- so thank you for the pointer.

I'm just a random, anonymous, internet person, but I hope that you feel better Pete. Remember that the way you feel now is just a snapshot in time, and that things will almost certainly get better from here.

Thank you, that made me smile. I really appreciate your words.

One of the best books I have read.

I'd like to offer a supplementary medicine for falling of the gravy train of life.


I love this novel, but I wonder if it's possible to really appreciate it without knowing the realities of the time it was written about (the 1930th is Russia, the time of the Big Terror) and the personal situation of Bulgakov himself (he was intending for Stalin to read the novel and expected it would make him change Bulgakov's very problematic stance with literary and theatrical establishment). And of course I am not sure how it is possible to translate Bulgakov's rich and masterful language. But do try it anyway, still worth it.

there was a great radio 4 adaptation of this from the 90s, but I can only find references to a 2015 version.

Life got you down? Take a piece of advice from another of Bulgakov's (author of Master and Margarita) novels and stop reading the news. There is nothing actionable in the news; next to no utility. News is simply a time sink that depress your spirit. So take the good doctor's words from Heart of a Dog: "If you care about your digestion, my advice is [sic] never read soviet newspapers before dinner" and generalize it to the sources of outrage in your life that are getting you down.

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[1] that explain the subtlety is very useful.

This comment was based on my previous two comments here[2][3].

[1] http://www.masterandmargarita.eu/en/

[2] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14282358

[3] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14870327

Full quote is a bit better:

(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."

This is from the amazing book A Dog's Heart (Собачье сердце). There is an equally amazing movie (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whHySar4EoY), but I am not sure if there is a version with English subtitles. For me it's one of the best Soviet movies. To be fair it was created near the end of the USSR—in 1988. The novel itself was officially published for the first time only in 1987.

Prime Video has it with English subtitles: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B071PF4WCM

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.

In fact it's readily available with English subtitles:

https://sovietmoviesonline.com/comedy/87-sobache-serdce.html or https://www.reelhouse.org/vintagefilmclub/the-heart-of-a-dog...

To each according to their need etc.

You'd think Youtube would put auto-translated subtitles everywhere by now, the technology is here. They have automatic text-to-speech for some videos too, which isn't perfect but if there's good French subtitles there's no reason to not use that for other languages. If only to get the gist of it.

When it comes to Russian->English translation, the technology is most definitely not here.

I have not seen many Soviet movies but https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0091341/?ref_=nv_sr_1 is amazing in many ways. Also I can't help but wonder how it could be made. I find the last decade of the Soviet union incredibly interesting, probably because I was a child at the time.

There's an autobiography book by Danelia (the director) where he explains how some of the things in that movie were filmed. I doubt it was translated, tho.

E.g. they used half of a plane hull with construction foam on top of it.

This is so cool: that exact movie is an another one in my short "amazing Soviet movies" list. I still remember the first time I saw it. I was a teenager, it was a summer. I was on my way out, but the movie started and I decided to see what it's about. I don't think I moved for the entire duration of it. It was so different and so captivating.

It was on the list of anti-Soviet literature for a long long time before that, and possessing it could get you into real trouble.

I took a Master in Margarita class in college during my study abroad, with each class physically exploring a key Moscow scene from the novel. Our first class started at Патриаршие пруды (Patriarch's Pond), near where Anushka drops the oil:


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 https://www.nemil.com/s/part2-terrorism.html

Today’s biggest threat to democracy isn’t fake news—it’s selective facts https://qz.com/1130094/todays-biggest-threat-to-democracy-is...

And write a media literacy guide on Github:

Hack the Media https://github.com/nemild/hack-the-media/blob/master/README....

There's nothing actionable, except for longer term investments like where to live and how to plan your spending vs saving. Brexit is horribly fascinating in this respect, as the outcome controls whether I'll need do leave.

Definitely true for tribal politics though.

In my view, these kind of actionable news you can get from reading the news once a month or (my favourite) from The Economist every weekend.

Actually, this would be an amazing news service. "Actionable news", where the high-frequency scare-stories weren't reported on.

The Economist bought hook-line-and-sinker into Brazilian partisan politics a few weeks back. They were fooled by cultural affinity: party A speaks the language of liberal centrism but is actually much more iliberal (illiberal?) than party B. What's worse -- The Economist knew this in 2010-16...

What you are getting from The Economist is their opinions on the news, together with the news.

This is what I viewed as a balanced approach. No headlines websites or whatever but I read economist weekly

I doubt anyone will be made to leave. Suffer through paperwork sure.

I'm Irish and my gf is German. I'll be fine from the paperwork perspective in all probability, but my gf doesn't want to be in a situation where she needs to avoid living outside UK to retain right to return to UK - we have a house here. And neither of us has any interest in switching citizenship.

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.

People aren't being made to leave but a lot of them are leaving because it's too much hassle to stay. They have to pay money to get a visa to stay and so they are saying they will leave instead as too much hassle. This is the general viewpoint of EU workers in general.

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.

Seeing what happened to the "Windrush generation", I wouldn't be so sure. This is a government with anti-immigration targets.

You make it sound like everyone who immigrated from the Windies from the 50s to the 70s has been specifically and vindictively booted out when ... well, nothing like that has happened at all.

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.

As an honest question, how well does this apply to Hackernews? I know that BBC News is bad for my health and does nothing for my career. Holistically I'm not sure about hn.

To be brutally honest, a lot of the negativity on HN probably isn't the best influence on your mental health. It's a trade-off between that and career benefits.

The problem with hacker news and social media in general is that "real" news is targeting it for clicks and views. Bloomberg, nytimes, washingtonpost and almost everyone else have social media teams dedicated to spreading their articles on social media. If anyone else was doing it, we'd call it spam.

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.

>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.

HN is so dour and moody at times, many positive articles' top comment is someone expressing cynicism or dragging creators down. Jokes and levity are mostly banned (though looking at reddit I can understand why). The insightful/thoughtful conversations you can have are good, but the atmosphere is not the best 9/10 times.

On HN, generally avoid reading the comments. Some very interesting things occasionally come up in the comments, true, but its just not worth the time sink and the effect on your psyche to dig through the dross and find them. Let this be the last HN comment you ever read...

Keep writing them though -- it's still a great outlet for one's own negativity and psychoses...

What could he learn from the news that would influence his actions or even opinions? If the answer is "nothing", what's the downside for this guy?

In my case I've been publicly shamed once or twice because I'm not up on what the latest generation finds offensive. Maybe that's just what getting old is though.

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?

Calling women "chick" has been iffy at best for at least 30 years. That's not new.

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.

I've always considered chick the exact same as dude. It's just a synonym for girl/lady. If used improperly it can be offensive, but then I'd argue any sentence you can think of where it's used improperly you could replace "chick" with pretty much any synonym for girl/lady and it'd still be offensive.

What part of the above is offensive? I'm afraid to talk to young people or Americans these days lest someone get mad at me. Were we the same with our parents I wonder?

Apparently with 'chick' it dehumanizes women, and with ms/miss it's something to do with the fact that you're implying they're young and/or a mistress? I honestly have no idea where people come up with this stuff. It's absurd.

How do you keep up? The point is that you don't.

I agree, but struggle slightly:

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.

it's a hard problem. I keep on HN because I want to keep an eye out for technology that interests me, and to check out people's cool side projects. But then that's maybe 1/20 posts and in other posts I end up just getting drawn in and dragged down by petty emotions and conflict. If there were a way to filter the latest posts down to just things I'm interested in and get that in a newsletter I might do it, but then how do I accurately describe what I'm interested in without seeing it first? I think it just requires the self-discipline to ignore and move past posts you know won't bring any benefit.

In today's world, we should change it to "... never read reddit/youtube/twitter/newspaper comments before dinner". Most of it is just digestion-disturbing outrage and a repetition of the same narratives over and over and over and over.

Newspapers with a certain quality, a long-term perspective and in printed form is fine though if limited to weekends.

I think GP really meant newspapers, not newspaper comments. If they didn't, then I believe they should have.

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.

> There is nothing actionable in the news; next to no utility

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.

I disagree strongly that reading the news is necessary for investing successfully. Do you have evidence or arguments? Since your position contradicts research by Nobel prize winner Gene Fama, I'd be curious to see the evidence for the other side of the argument.

> the news are important

Not daily news.

"There is nothing actionable in the news; next to no utility. News is simply a time sink that depress your spirit."

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.

Look for a slower news source in your region. The 24 hour news cycle produces mostly low-quality content, where you want to be more aware of the big things that happen that have more impact.

Unless they are Hacker News, which are sometimes actionable and lift my spirit every morning.

Agreed; the modern slogan of "Think globally, act locally" is pretty much guaranteed to result in frustration and disappointment.

What are the long-term effects of being unaware and uninformed on ones health?

This assumes that you would be not around people who will tell you in normal conversation important things that you should know. That would be the unhealthy thing.

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.

Well I think not having news might be better than watching Tv news or something, I’m not sure if choosing this is actually good in comparison to reading a reasonably good news source that’s not freaking out about trivialities all the time. And I say this as someone who is fairly out of the loop with many day current events / headlines and relies on other people to hear about like eg upcoming weather events or something

There's nothing actionable in the news if you live in Russia. But if you live in a democracy, I hope you'll take your responsibility as a citizen seriously enough to pay attention to what's going on, from time to time, lest your community meet the same fate.

Here's the thing: following the news is not the most effective way of paying attention to what's going on. For that, a citizen needs to seek out some more information about what's happening around them; the news is just a constant feed of overt ads, hidden ads, and outrage-inducing reports on current trends in tribal politics.

Which Russian news sources don't contain anything actionable in your opinion? I've been following the recent schism in the Orthodox church and the land conflict between Chechnya and Ingushetia on meduza.io (popular independent media website), and I feel that it is quite decent.

Well, meduza.io is not strictly Russian. That's why they can raise a lot of hot topics without fear to be silenced by Kremlin.

On news being not actionable, this is what Douglas Adams had to say

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

An observation also made by Thoreau, in 1850mumble:

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.

>>tunnel under the Atlantic

If only...

That was great. Thanks.

Its my favourite text! I must have quoted from it a huge ndres times. The bit about Balinese agriculture is particularly great. Such an observant mind.

Someone here in hn said luxury of not reading news reeks of privilege.

Take the blue pill or the red pill ? Not reading the news will make you happier. Reading the news will make your life miserable. Still, I don't want to be the person that lives in a bubble without understanding how the world is moving and become part of the problem.

This would be true if what you call "news" was objectively valuable information. To me it appears more strongly curated to misinform and create irrational emotional responses for the benefit of some (mostly political leaders and large businesses) to the detriment of the audience.

Agree that that is BIG assumption. I just didn't want to bring all the misinformation issue in to the discussion. IMHO, It is better to be uninformed than misinformed.

also: you may have choices to make in a mind free of the trappings of the news that the constancy of the news is likely to undermine

It's that last bit that needs justification - that being ignorant contributes to the problem. The claim is that your knowledge or ignorance, peace or anxiety, affect only you.

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.

9/10 of all news is read for one's entertainment.

> I have a friend who married her husband almost exclusively because he told her he had read it.

So believable.

... and now he wishes he hadn't.

Novel for Stalin. Noticed that this book is loved by the all security/intelligence services like KGB-FSB -> don’t like it more https://ru-bykov.livejournal.com/2015279.html

This book is not for Stalin and not against Stalin. This book is about bad people, good people and faith in fairness. And this is just a good fiction.

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