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Clarissa's Blog

An academic's opinions on feminism, politics, literature, philosophy, teaching, academia, and a lot more.

Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita: A Review, Part II

Bulgakov wasn’t Stalin’s favorite writer for nothing. His Master and Margarita is a paean to Stalin. The Devil is the benevolent protagonist of the novel. He wreaks havoc but always ends up punishing the bad guys and rewarding the good ones. There seems to be a lot of criticism of the Soviet reality in the novel. What many people fail to realize, though, is that it’s the kind of criticism that was not only allowed but also encouraged by the regime.

When we watched a Soviet movie and saw a character wearing glasses, we immediately knew that he was the villain of the film. People of intellectual professions were vilified during Stalin’s era. This was a very simple and effective manner of channeling popular resentments at acceptable targets. At the time when Bulgakov was writing his novel, the word “engineer” was synonymous with the Enemy of the People. One thing that was worse was being a literary critic. If engineers were imprisoned and forced to work for the state, literary critics were simply exterminated. (Bakhtin saved his life by writing egregiously stupid Communist explanations of classic works of literature.)

And who were the evildoers in Bulgakov’s novel? Right you are, the chi-chi fru-fru literary critics. And the bureaucrats, of course. Stalin created the huge class of bureaucrats and then pretended like they had appeared from nowhere and every problem in the Soviet society was caused by them.

The novel is also both anti-Semitic and anti-Christian. As pretty much every single Russian writer, Bulgakov was an anti-Semite. The Jews in his novel are the ones guilty of murdering Christ in spite of Pontius Pilate’s attempts to resist them and save Jesus.

Jesus, however, is also an extremely unattractive character. He is weak, pathetic, and pretty stupid, too. And he is a lot less powerful than the Devil. At the end of the novel, Jesus has to beg the Devil to humor him and do what he wants. The Devil agrees but only because he wants the same thing to happen. Bulgakov’s Biblical episodes are the most effective anti-religious propaganda anybody could have come up with.

There can be no doubt that even though Stalin never officially accepted this novel, he appreciated Bulgakov’s efforts. Bulgakov was invited to be present during the torture of his fellow writers by the secret police. In his diaries, his wife described how much fun the writer had had as he observed the degradation of other writers at the hands of torturers. (My advice is: never read anything about the lives of your favorite writers. You are bound to find information that will put you off them forever.)

Now, let’s talk about gender. The 1930ies were an amazing moment for Soviet women. They were encouraged to get higher education, they all worked, had brilliant careers, were as active as men in the public life. The image of a strong, resourceful, intelligent woman appeared in all of the movies and novels. Just all of them. Damsels in distress, silent sexual objects, pathetic victims were gone. Stalin’s own wife suffered because people ridiculed her for being just a housewife. And even Stalin himself couldn’t (and wouldn’t) do anything about it.

In Master and Margarita, however, the image of a useless, helpless, silent woman reappeared. Margarita has no profession, no friends, no interests, no life. She is a wife of a rich man whom she doesn’t love. She cheats on him but never leaves him because she needs him to keep her in style. The poor sucker works all day and all night long to maintain a woman who spends her time with a lover.

Margarita is passionately in love with Master, a talented writer. She doesn’t leave her husband for him, though. Remember, this is a society where nobody frowns on divorce (yet) and leaving a rich husband to follow your heart is celebrated (I have oodles of proof, if you don’t believe me). Margarita stays with her rich husband waiting until her lover publishes his novel and becomes rich and famous. Then, she will finally come to live with him permanently. Love is a great thing but she needs for somebody to buy her expensive clothes and perfume. I mean, this is a woman who has a servant whose role is to ensure that Margarita never even has to pick up her own underwear that she scatters around her room. Love or no love, she can’t live with a poor man.

In the novel’s culminating scene, Margarita strips naked to please the Devil and to welcome his guests at his annual ball. She spends hours completely silent, being ogled and kissed by hundreds of guests. Then, the Devil helps her reunite with her lover and she follows him into eternity.

All I can say is that if I had grown up being constantly offered Margarita-like images of women in books and movies, I would be a very different person today. Instead of writing this review, I’d probably be crying somewhere in a corner because my husband hasn’t noticed how I diced the carrots for the soup in an inventive new way.

So you can just imagine me interrogating poor N. during week 2 of our relationship at 4 o’clock in the morning, “So you are saying you admire this Margarita person? This is the kind of woman you are looking for? ‘Cause let me tell you, buddy, I ain’t it! I have a career. I have friends. I have hobbies.”

Master and Margarita is a great novel. Let’s not, however, make it into some subversive piece of writing because it definitely was not. If you want subversion from Bulgakov, read his brilliant Heart of a Dog. It was published in 1925, long before Bulgakov started kissing Stalin’s ass. It’s just 72 pages, too. Of course, it’s still anti-Semitic but that’s Russian literature for you.

OK, this wasn’t that painful, was it? The geek out is over now.

P.S. Fair warning: if you are planning to plagiarize this review and hand it in as a book report or an essay, your teacher will eviscerate you. This is not the accepted opinion about this novel. Just read it yourself, it’s really good.

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30 thoughts on “Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita: A Review, Part II

  1. I actually criticized a lot of books my teachers/professors held up as golden beacons of literature, such as The Tale of Genji, Snow Country, and First Love, but got top marks for it, because my professors said that I argued my points well and didn’t say the novels were “bad”, just that these elements stood out unfavourably. 🙂
    Now I am going to read M&M again, because I think I’ll gain something new and different from it thanks to your review.

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  2. Isabel on said:

    “In his diaries, his wife described how much fun the writer had had as he observed the degradation of other writers at the hands of torturers.”

    Wow, that is disturbing.

    “Instead of writing this review, I’d probably be crying somewhere in a corner because my husband hasn’t noticed how I diced the carrots for the soup in an inventive new way.”

    Haha. I read the book years ago – didn’t the devil (or one of his messengers) give her a special cream that gradually made her look younger also?

    Thanks for your perspective.

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    • Somebody on said:

      For anyone who happens upon this blog and takes the above interpretation as gospel: something to keep in mind when reading that diary is its larger context, he is a prominent intellectual mired in totalitarian socialist society in which everyone is being instructed all day long from every corner of life to be thinking and acting in favor of the revolution, the people, the workers, for the common collective cause of goodness, what have you. Stalin was a paranoid narcissistic madman whose allegiances were perpetually shifting, and Bulgakov’s colleagues were periodically disappearing. That diary could have been seized and read at any moment, perhaps it was, multiple times. The mere act of keeping a personal diary in that society could easily have been regarded as counterrevolutionary, subversive and “selfish” (selfishness being a criminal attitude as far as the party is concerned), never mind if it contained forbidden thoughts.

      With this in mind, how much can you really trust that Bulgakov, who died long before Stalin did, is describing his true feelings? Or just might he simply have wanted to jot down a record of these old colleagues of his and the barbaric violence to which Russian intellectuals were being subjected, before the these events got expunged from history forever by the Party? And the Party did change history regularly. In this same period, for instance, Lev Termin (a.k.a., Leon Theremin), a Russian electrical engineer and inventor of synthesizers, was kidnapped from his home in New York City, sent to prison. A false story of his death was published though he lived past the year 2000.

      What if some of these writers were people Bulgakov knew, loved, respected admired, whatever, and he found the whole business of the dictatorship immensely painful? He knew his own feelings about these people, he knew that if he wrote sympathetically about anyone the party was purging he would be in personal jeopardy. Maybe a clever person stuck in such a circumstance might conclude that logging down words which claim the opposite of his feelings would cleverly allow him to bookmark the event while masking its subversiveness. Maybe he thought he would outlive the whole thing and be able to tell the tale?

      It’s very easy for a person immersed in all the liberty of the blogosphere to mouth off about “kissing Stalin’s ass”. But Bulgakov wasn’t living in this kind of a society. Maybe he lied in his diary because he didn’t possess unlimited courage. Who exactly is it who does?

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      • Bulgakov’s literary production is also imbued by a profound sense of admiration for Stalin. It isn’t accidental that Stalin was going to commission him to write his biography. The diary, in this sense, simply repeats what Bulgakov said in his novel, play, etc.

        Now, the question is: if he lied in his diary, lied in his literature, lied to everybody he knew, aren’t all these “lies” the real him? Nobody can know today what he thought. But we can see the literary legacy he left. It’s great literature but it’s deeply Stalinist. And what can offer a greater truth about an author’s life than his work?

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        • Somebody on said:

          I understand the question you posed here, that if one publishes only lies, don’t the lies define the person? It’s interesting, and you can believe whatever makes sense to you. For myself I guess I don’t agree with it in this situation. I’d ask what you or I would do if stuck in the same miserable predicament Bulgakov was.

          There are many cases of literature in societies lacking today’s intellectual freedom that can be read just as easily or more easily as being encrypted messages, possessing different intent than that which was overtly stated, but which are believed to be deadly serious statements of truth. John of Patmos wrote a tirade against Nero and Rome in a sufficiently cryptic and unreadable way, that it is still revered by unread religious people as a “Book of Revelation”. Macchiavelli wrote “the Prince” addressed to a member of the Medici court on the pretense of a job application, although he was a defeated opponent of theirs, effectively exiled to the countryside. One can just as easily read what he writes not as celebration but a denunciation of their cynical brand of politics. And Thomas More presents Utopia not as his own vision but as an account of a foreign subject, visiting, describing the strange customs of some foreign land, and only at the end of it does More hint that maybe their language is related to Greek, so that the clever reader might decode that none of these places he describes exist. Gallileo refused to back down, in his situation, and paid the consequences. So he was defined in the end by his truth I suppose, and maybe the others were all liars.

          We live in a different world, and here perhaps one enjoys the luxury of playing the game of unreliable narrator just for sh**s and giggles. It hasn’t always been like that.

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  3. ” I read the book years ago – didn’t the devil (or one of his messengers) give her a special cream that gradually made her look younger also?”

    – Oh yes, I forgot that one! The cream makes all of her wrinkles disappear because who needs a woman past her first youth?

    ““In his diaries, his wife described how much fun the writer had had as he observed the degradation of other writers at the hands of torturers.”
    Wow, that is disturbing.”

    – There are also endless statements like “Today our friend A and his wife were arrested. We had a picnic and laughed for hours. Those vile Mr. and Mrs. A must have certainly deserved whatever they got.” It’s just painful to read.

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  4. Can you recommend a good English translation of this? because the one I tried wasn’t really that great.

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    • I’m sorry, I never read it in English.

      Maybe somebody else can help?

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      • Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

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      • Pevear and Volohonsky are current critics’ darlings but from what I understand of of their process I’d be hesitant to recommend their work (nb I can’t read Russian and have never read any of their translations).

        IINM she (not a native speaker of English) does a first draft and then he (not very fluent in Russian) edits it. It seems to me to be a recipe for disaster and almost designed to prevent any mistakes in her initial translation from being found.

        Most interviews with them stress that their method preserves the clunkiness and awkwardness of the originals that is often cleaned up in translation (apparently awkward phrasing is a virtue in the Russian tradition).

        I can’t recommend a different translation though as I didn’t read it in English but in Polish.

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  5. thanks! This is not the one I read. which is good, because it’ll probably be better.

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  6. I’m afraid you have a rather shallow view of the Heroine Margarita. Case in point: When, after fulfilling her duties as Queen of Satan’s Grand Ball, she is offered her reward she selflessly gives away her chance to reunite with her one true love in order to free the eternally wronged and tortured Freda. Her act is completely selfless and in my eyes heroic.

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  7. Thank you for the explanation. I loved this book, but there were things about it that confused me, like Margarita’s general uselessness. I am kind of disappointed that Bulgakov was such a sycophant. I will have to re-read it in light of this new information. The copy I have is translated by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor. The first copy I read was better, but my sister stole it, so I don’t know who the translator was. Ah, sisters. Anyway, this version has text commentary at the end, which is interesting, although I’m no longer sure it is accurate!

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  8. It’s amazing how well-read, intelligent and profound my readers are.

    Thank you for existing, folks.

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  9. By the way, one of my favourite authors, Lemony Snicket, was offering love “advice” to people on twitter, and one of his Q&As reminded me of this thread:

    “Q:”How do I pick up someone in a book store?”
    A: Pick up The Master And Margarita and wait.”

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  10. Mark Kessel on said:

    It is one thing to have self esteem for oneself, but it is another to attack a novel in the name of insecurity. I’m no fan of feminists, chauvinists or any other ists for that matter, sans scientists; I’m only interested in the author’s “truth.” That is what counts. Anti semitism my butt. Anti Christian the same. Bulgakov is dealing with a state of cognitive disassociation, and he goes after it on some days, one way, and the next with the other. But what’s important is his genuine hunger for answering his own personal and spiritual quandaries. If you ever read 1984, you might remember Winston’s torture and threats to be tortured. So many years of that will make any wolf second guess there clothing in a political/tactile capacity. What it appears he (Mikhail) was doing was persevering through his quest in literature, and not letting the “light” go out. I believe he had a heavy touch of Libra, because as far as I can see, his satire always found a way to discriminate against everyone on the scene (balance): take the piss out of them, as the British would say. Let’s stop sending up the flag of “hey, look at me, I can revere some artist and negatively criticize them at the same time” just to keep my platform going. I’m not sure if you’re one of those fans who think Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” (insert “The Master” here) is a lesser work because it has violent leanings and more fanfare than the genuine stripped down idealism of “Obscured by Clouds” (insert “Heart of A Dog”), which is an untainted artistic masterpiece in light of its anti-commercial (insert anti-communist) tapestry. Whatever the case, it’s a masterpiece (The Master) and you won’t ever write anything like it with your anti-this and femi-that attitudes. If an author can’t express the world around her for what it is at that time, let’s just surrender to the Jose Cuervo Nation (insert Stalin) and forget it all.

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    • OK, this is getting bizarre. I’ve encountered 4 completely unhinged men online today. They are different people because the IP addresses don’t match.

      What’s happening? I haven’t seen this number of unstable people of the male variety in the entire time this blog has existed. And then they all crop up on one day. Is it the heat that is melting their heads?

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    • stella de bode on said:

      It’s a disturbing and bitter review, and so is the the author’s reply to one sane person who told her off. An academic who uses expressions like “kissing ass” describing a time when people were constantly scared for their lives is judgmental and, sorry, can never been a part of intelligentsia.

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  11. Margarita is not exactly empowered in any modern sense but she’s a fascinating dynamo of a character compared to the drippy, droopy, boring Master who has no personality traits whatsoever and does nothing interesting either, one of the most insipid title characters ever.

    I’m also glad someone else admits to not liking the Jesus parts of the novel any more than I did, boring sections that drag everything to a screeching halt.

    Overall I enjoyed the novel but it didn’t shake my world or anything. I kind of think of it the same way I think of Pink Floyd and most reggae – comfortable non-conformism for conformists.

    “never read anything about the lives of your favorite writers. You are bound to find information that will put you off them forever”

    This is pretty much the rule for all artists (creative and performing) IME. Verdi is close to an exception, he had his flaws (who doesn’t?) but overall remarkably sane and decent (unless there’s a new scandalou biography I’m unaware of).

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  12. What a completely fatuous review. You may as well be crying in the corner because you couldn’t dice the carrots properly. You clearly are just as bad at book reviews as you as a carrot-dicer. Get a new hobby!

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  13. William Jack on said:

    I love the book, but some things in it disturb me. It’s like being madly in love with a person and so their shortcomings are either ignored or blown out of proportion. In this book, the Master is a pansy. All he does is sit (or stand occasionally) and warn everyone around how ill he is. The book presents awful views of the role of women, and of male superiority that allows them to treat their partners like **** Everyone knows the Devil’s quote: “Manuscripts don’t burn,” but here’s another pronouncement that seems to carry similar weight: “Never ask anyone for anything, especially if they are more powerful than you. They themselves will give what you want!” Huh?

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  14. I love that you are blogging about M&M, first and foremost. If I may, I wonder why Bulgakov is portrayed by you as Anti-Christian and pro-Stalinist. He was, after all, not on the side of the Reds and his father was a theologian. Bulgakov himself went to seminary and was a deeply religious dude who pokes fun at atheism and stalinism throughout the novel. As for Margarita, the entire book hinges on her impetus to change, fly, fight, endure, act, do and dare – things Bulgakov portrays the rest of Soviet society as incapable of. I revel in feminist criticism and use it for almost every text I encounter, but when the only two characters who embrace the supernatural and stare danger in the eye and say “Let’s do this!” are women (Margarita and Natasha) while all the men are stooges and empty suits and filled with fear, your analysis of the text does not ring true. Many of my female students look at the novel and say wow – the devil and the women are the only ones who GET it. And from what I’ve read about Bulgakov, this is precisely what he was hoping for. He worshipped his third wife, who pushed him to finish this novel, and hated Stalin, especially the play he wrote about Stalin’s boyhood because he wasn’t allowed to publish anything else, but was denied emigration by Stalin as well. Bulgakov criticizes everything about the Stalinist state he possibly can in this novel and argues for the necessity of art, the supernatural and mercy.

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  15. Thank you for this review Clarissa.
    If you are interested in knowing more about the author, check my 7 fact video about Bulgakov.

    Bye.

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