14 July 2010

The Master & Margarita

Illustration by Christopher Conn.

Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita is surely one of the most neglected masterpieces of the twentieth century. Russians, of course, know and love the book; it's not so well-known here. It has everything: Jesus, Pilate, Faust, black humor, love, gangsters, Stalinist Russia, witches, literary rivalry, the works. It manages to be funny, in ways sardonic, slapstick and ironic, as well as deeply moving. What

Bulgakov's other works are all well worth reading. His biography of Moliere, a kindred spirit of his, is more along the impressionistic Euro-essai end of the scale instead of the American academic timeline, but I learned a great deal from it. His satire, The Heart of a Dog, is savage and very dark. He also makes fun of Stanislavski in A Dead Man's Memoir -- apparently, Bulgakov's experience with the Moscow Art Theatre was not a happy one, and he took his revenge the best way a writer can.

A few film versions of the novel have been made, including mini-series in several Eastern European countries. Roman Polanski was rumored to have a script of it ready and would have filmed it if he could have found the financing -- that would have been a potentially great marriage of sensibilities. (But now I can make the damn film without his blocking my way, ha ha). It's also been adapted for the stage and performed in the US, Britain as well as Russia and the other Slavic nations.

The Master and Margarita, beyond its literary qualities, is one of those books that inspires cult-like devotion: it can take over your life and your imagination. If you meet someone else who's read it, it's as if you're sharing a passport to the same kingdom (or People's Republic).

It's available what I'm told is a fine translation by the dynamic duo of Pevear and Volokhonsky -- try to buy it from your local bookstore.

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