Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Cannonball Read #18: The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

A while back, some evil person linked me to an Exhaustive Set of Great Literary Works Through History. Not the big Encyclopedia Britannica leatherbound set that people buy to put in their offices in order to look smart, but an "affordable" - which in context means about $3,000 - version in paperback. I hate this person, and I wish I could remember who it was so I could invite them to...get a really bad rash or something, because this whole thing happened about two years ago and I STILL idly engage in complex Justification Gymnastics about how three large isn't really SO bad for being able to touch and read and enjoy and think about and smell the greatest uses of the printing press ever. This normally only happens with shoes. Because I do not have 3,000 spare dollars, however, I must instead chip away at the shelves of Great Literature piece by piece and on my own. My current focus (by which I mean, "perpetually over the course of the past five years") has been working through the annals of Russian literature, guided by Fellow Russophile Celia. For about a year, she's been all, "oh my god, Master and Margarita, Bulgakov, translation with the black cat in silhouette on the cover, DROP EVERYTHING AND EXECUTE," and I'm always like, "I know I know, but work school hockey crazy, wedding, more crazy, stuuuuuuuff, I'll do it next week," and then my calendar was all "duuude, it's 2009. And also February."

I have been picking at this one for a little actually attended the Inauguration with me, zipped into my coat for the duration after I realized that to turn pages, I would need to expose my fingers, and that doing so for more than about two seconds would make said fingers turn black and fall off. So that wasn't so productive. But I did manage to get cranking on it while riding Metro and such, so finally, I have finished it up (well, about 3 weeks ago), and wow, what a reward!

There is so much going on in this book that it's somewhat hard to describe. Apparently, its portrayal of Soviet Muscovian life was so accurate - and so cutting - that it was banned from publication for many years before finally seeing the light of Russian day, and after that, was only really translated poorly up until now. At this point, I find it fairly easy to tell between good and bad Russian translations, and I would like to pass along this knowledge. First, check and see if the book you're holding is Barnes & Noble's cheapie classics version of Anna Karenina. If so, put that shit down and go find the one translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky that Oprah put her Book Club stamp on. Second, and more univerally, if the writing presents in short, chunky sentences and rely on the same...let's say 20-35 verbs consistently throughout the first chapter or so, scrap it, find a new one. I know that sounds overly simplistic, but almost every crappy Russian translation I've ever read has followed that pattern. Stop doing that, Russian translators of the world! In any case, the general consensus, amongst both Celia and the larger reading world, is that this is an excellent translation, and I am inclined to believe it, because Bulgakov's voice comes through clearly and distinctively.

It's a little bit hard to describe precisely what Master and Margarita is about simply because the story is so rich. The overarching story is about the Devil's visit to Moscow and the havoc wrought therein, with secondary plotlines involving the relationship of the titular Master and Margarita and the development of a book the Master has produced about Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate. Incidentally, this plotline trinity is cushioned by the Devil's entourage of a giant black, vodka-drinking, chess-playing, gun-slinging cat, a perpetually naked witch named Hella, a hitman and someone with some kind of death glare, insane asylums, a midnight ball for the dead, feminism, social satire on Soviet Russia, magic, literary snarkitude in spades and musical references by the truckload, all smoothed over with Faustian references throughout. That's the Cliff Notes.

Quite honestly, it's a book you won't get as much out of if you try to read it in a vacuum. This translation has a pretty good appendix summarizing the major references and plot points, but you don't want to wait until the end to get all the references nor do you want to be constantly flipping back and forth. Read Faust, familiarize yourself with the social structure of Soviet Russia, check out some Russian folklore, and get a decent grip on major composers and musicians. You should be doing this to improve yourself as a human anyway, but if this book provides the impetus for it, so be it. We're not always challenged in our standard experiences with literature to read things that have so much to delve in to and the reward to be had from taking on this book and the corresponding homework is immense.

384 pages


  1. And in case it wasn't clear, the Volokhonsky translation is NOT the way to go for this book (though it's definitely the best for Anna Karenina). Do not buy any copy but the one with the black cat on the front, like Josie said.

    Jos- I'm SO glad you were finally able to get to Master and Margarita! Yay!

  2. Ahh, good call...I didn't check to see if there was a Volokhonsky translation of M&M!

    Dude, so worth it.

  3. "Ahh, good call...I didn't check to see if there was a Volokhonsky translation of M&M!"

    Yeah, there is.. and sadly it's crap. Many, if not most, of the jokes are completely lost in translation, and the flow is really awkward.

  4. Josie,

    I realize you made this post more than two years ago and I think in bloggerland its a bit of a faux pas for me to comment. But I totally should have been reading your blog all along!

    About a month after you were here for inauguration, this damn book changed my life!

    This just tears it: you are my brain twin. I think you sing, too? and play hockey? Someday I'll show you the scars on my ankle and then we can pretend to be tenors and sing Au Fond du Temple Saint together. And then we can watch the Rachel Maddow show together.

    You are so awesome...