Mikhail Bulgakov, 1940 (published 1967)
the twenty-third book in the visitor recommendation series;
suggested by Laura Temko
I wasn't too surprised to receive a recommendation for a Russian novel from this particular visitor, because she has spent a fair amount of time in Russia and speaks the language. But she's also not the first person to recommend this book to me, and my understanding is that this book is actually widely beloved. Which seems kind of weird, given that it was written and set in the early USSR — how is Bulgakov connecting with people across such a gulf of time, space, and culture? I can't offer a personal testimonial, since this book didn't really connect with me at all, but here is what I've gathered from reading some reviews by other people.
The basic story of The Master and Margarita is that the devil and his entourage come to interwar Moscow and unleash some mischief. They torment a few members of the privileged literati, embarrass a theater audience with magic tricks playing on the members' greed and vanity, and go on a spree that leaves a fair amount of property damage in their wake. A lot of people seem to get a kick out of this mayhem, but so far as I could tell it was just so much "kill wealthy dowager". The character of Behemoth seems to have proven a particular favorite, judging from the way he appears on the cover of almost every edition — he's a sarcastic, gun-toting cat, and the fact that he is a cat is the joke the book keeps hammering. He wears a bow tie! And he's a CAT! And he gets on a train! And he buys a ticket! And he's a CAT! The Master and Margarita has been repeatedly adapted into other media — plays, movies, graphic novels — and in those versions, the fact that Behemoth is a cat presumably doesn't need to be harped upon quite so much, given that the audience is actually seeing him in all his catness in every scene he's in. It's an interesting case study in how text works in serial rather than parallel. But I didn't find it particularly funny.
There's more to The Master and Margarita than just "Satan and friends run wild in Moscow"; interwoven with the Moscow story is a retelling of the encounter between Pontius Pilate and Jesus of Nazareth, portrayed here as a humble itinerant philosopher stalked by a crazed acolyte named Matthew Levi. I gather that this hits a sweet spot for a lot of people: Christians have hailed the novel for laying into the official atheism of the USSR, while those of a more secular bent have applauded Bulgakov's humanistic rendering of the Biblical episode. But for me, this was a perfect example of Pattern 17 — regardless of what position the author may take, Christian themes are of less than zero interest to me. (And as Satan is part of the whole Abrahamic religious complex, Pattern 17 applies to the Moscow sections of the novel as well.)
Then there's Margarita. The central set piece of the novel is a party for the damned, for which the devil requires a hostess, and he selects the mistress of a man who wrote a novel about Pontius Pilate and then went mad upon being rebuffed by the literary establishment. Margarita agrees to be transformed into a witch, and destroys the building where a hostile critic lives before continuing onward to the party, where she acquits herself reasonably well, and selects as her reward that her lover be freed from the mental hospital and returned to her side. This is enough for many modern reviewers to declare Margarita a "kickass heroine", which seems to be one of the things a lot of people are looking for in their littachur. For instance, as regular visitors to this site are well aware, I recently rewrote my novel Ready, Okay!, and so far, readers seem to agree with me that the new edition is orders of magnitude better than the original. But there is one small complaint I have heard from a few readers, which is this. Both editions feature a character named Echo. In the original, she initially comes off as icy and hostile, and then as we get to know her we learn that she's actually very fragile. At no stage is she particularly plausible, which didn't trouble me at the time the book was originally published, because a satire inhabited by caricatures was precisely what I'd had in mind. But this time around I was aiming for a lot more realism, so the new Echo's characterization is informed by my interactions with actual people who have been through the sorts of things she's been through. That means she's more withdrawn and defensive, muttering her sarcastic asides under her breath instead of saying them to people's faces. And I have heard from a handful of readers who acknowledged that, yes, the old Echo's confidence was inconsistent with her backstory… but who said that they still missed it. The old, "tough" Echo had been an aspirational figure to them when they were younger, they said, and while the new one might be a better character, she was less of a "kickass heroine", and therefore disappointing.
To someone more inclined to read for theme than for aspirational characters, this is less of a concern. Nor am I altogether convinced that Margarita's role in this story is anything to aspire to. I mean, as feminist icons go, you can probably do better than someone who carefully does the bidding of a patriarch of evil in exchange for a temporary gift of power, which she uses to lash out at someone on behalf of a man (destroying the homes of innocents and traumatizing children in the process), then also uses the patriarch's second gift on behalf of that man — who, it is worth noting, is a Russian writer whose work was suppressed by the establishment, created by an actual Russian writer whose work was suppressed by the establishment. Don't get me wrong — I'm not saying that The Master and Margarita is merely the product of a guy writing a story in which he has a cool girlfriend who lashes out at his enemies and solves all his problems. But that does seem to be an element of it, and the other elements weren't really my cup of tea (or apricot soda) either.