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Reflections of a working writer and reader



The Master and Margarita

“I’ll tell you a story,” Margarita began, and lay a heated hand on his closely cropped head. “There was once a lady. And she had no children, and generally had no happiness either. And so at first she cried for a long time, and then she became wicked . . .”

Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita was finished in its present form by the middle of 1938. The author died in 1940 and the novel was effectively suppressed until 1973.

It is a strange, surreal narrative, heavily influenced by Gogol, which traces the events let loose when the Devil himself alights on Moscow.

The depiction of the Devil is rich and complex, and that of the fearless Margarita even more so.

But the central fascination for me in the novel were the excerpts from the testimony of the man who assumed the role of judging Jesus Christ:

In a white cloak with a blood-red lining, with the shuffling gait of a cavalryman, early in the morning of the fourteenth day of the spring month of Nisan, there emerged into the covered colonnade between the two wings of the palace of Herod the Great the Procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate.

More than anything else on earth the Procurator hated the smell of attar of roses, and everything now betokened a bad day ahead, for that smell had been haunting the Procurator since dawn. It seemed to the Procurator that the smell of roses was being emitted by the cypresses and palms in the garden, and that mingling with the smell of his escort’s leather accoutrements and sweat was an accursed waft of roses. From the wings at the rear of the palace that quartered the Twelfth Lightening Legion’s First Cohort, which had come to Yershalaim (Jerusalem) with the Procurator, a puff of smoke carried across the upper court of the garden into the colonnade, and with this rather acrid smoke, which testified to the fact that the cooks in the centuries had started preparing dinner, was mingling still that same heavy odour of roses.

“O gods, gods, why do you punish me?… No, there’s no doubt, this is it, it again, the invincible, terrible sickness… hemicrania, when half my head is aching… there are no remedies for it, no salvation whatsoever… I’ll try keeping my head still…”

On the mosaic floor by the fountain an armchair had already been prepared, and the Procurator sat down in it without looking at anyone and reached a hand out to one side. Into that hand his secretary deferentially placed a piece of parchment. Unable to refrain from a grimace of pain, the Procurator took a cursory sidelong look through what was written, returned the parchment to the secretary and said with difficulty:

“The man under investigation is from Galilee, is he? Was the case sent to the Tetrarch?”

“Yes, Procurator,” replied the secretary.

“And he did what?”

“He refused to give a decision on the case and sent the Sanhedrin’s death sentence for your ratification,” explained the secretary.

The Procurator pulled at his cheek and said quietly:
“Bring the accused here.”

The Devil works with magic, he beheads people, he undresses women and makes them walk nude in the street, he drives people insane, he disappears others and tortures many. The references to Stalin’s repressive Soviet Union suggest themselves time and time again.

But the book, the work itself, surpasses all of the tricks of the Devil. It has so many layers and depths, is so fascinating, serious, and bizarrely funny, that I had the distinct impression I was reading several novels at the same time.

And far from distracting me, I found myself even more intrigued.

Perhaps this is one to read again? Or, if you haven’t yet read it the first time, put it on the list.

The review copy of the book was supplied to me by One World Classics Ltd, the publishers.

5 Responses to “The Master and Margarita”

  1. Caroline says:

    One of my all time favourite novels. I must read it again!

    jb says: Hi Caroline. I was tempted to read it again straight away but managed to tuck it back into the shelf for a while.

  2. Jim Murdoch says:

    Although I didn’t list this in my recent blog where I talk about the influences on my ‘Jonathan and Truth’ novels I would in all fairness have to throw this into the mix. I read it years ago and loved it then. And I couldn’t help but feel for Pilate and his headaches. Yeah, I would read this one again.

    jb says: Hi Jim, I know this is a new translation, but I’ve no idea how it stands up against several others that are still available.

  3. Ollie says:

    I have to say I’ve not read the whole blog, but what I’ve seen so far, I’ll be back to read more.

  4. Biblibio says:

    I’ve read one version of “The Master and Margarita” and it quickly rose to the rarely contested slot no. 1 for Amazing Books (slot no. 1 is shared by quite a few different books, obviously…). I have another translation (in another language, too) waiting for me and I hope to get around to reading as many different versions of this as I can. It’s just so brilliant.

  5. Wren says:

    You inspired me to read “The Master and Margarita,” John, and I’ve ordered it. I do love your book reviews!

    jb says: Well, let us know what you think, Wren.