Updated: Jan 10
On the left is me with friends during intermission at the Chekhov International theater in Yuzhno Sakhalin. My first time seeing a live stage performance of The Master & Margarita in the early 2000’s. Click here or on the image to go directly to me sharing my relation to the modern Russian classic The Master & Margarita.
Many claim that Bulgakov’s Master & Margarita is one of the best books of the 20th century. Personally for me, it is one of the best books of the 21st century, for what it sparked in my world.
My love for Russia is by now apparent. Current politics and bloody history are mere background noise to the romantic vision I have of this vast county. Accordingly, I have shared with my beloved book club a few of my favorite Russian novels over the 13 years I have been a member. Most recently I waxed on about A Gentleman in Moscow.
My hands down favorite modern Russian title is The Master and Margarita. The single sentence most often used to describe this book is, “When the devil came to Moscow.” Concerning the complicated plot of this book, links to interesting and informative summaries and reviews are at the bottom of this post. I do not pretend to be a literary critic, I leave this for the experts who will tell you about Faust, Soviet rules, and biblical scholars. My intention is to speak to you about this book’s impact on my own life, and the joy of reading it on so many levels.
Everything about the story fascinates me. If read at face value, it is equally entertaining and informative. A Turkish friend of mine commented when we read it for book club, “I had to ask my husband (who is Swiss Italian), who is this Pontius Pilate guy and why is he so important?”. We laughed as we remarked on Bulgakov’s weave of two time periods and seemingly two stories, which even today provoke us to seek answers and information. Read at deeper levels, Master & Margarita gives insight into culture, politics, religion, and the human condition across time and space.
Bulgakov knew his story was provocative, in fact it was only published posthumously, so radical and ‘dangerous’ was it for the soviet state. He died in 1940 and the first light his book saw was in 1966 when a censored version was published in Moscow magazine in 1966–1967. The manuscript itself was not published as a book until 1967, in Paris. A samizdat version circulated that included parts cut out by official censors, and these were incorporated in a 1969 version published in Frankfurt. The novel has since been published in several languages and editions.
In English, in my opinion, the two best options are:
The first time I read The Master & Margarita in its entirety, I skimmed the top and enjoyed the story as a form of entertainment. The second time I read it, in preparation for leading our book club discussion, the complexity of it stirred me to action. In between I had seen two performances of the story live, one in Moscow and one in Yuzhno Sakhalin (see lead photo). Both were mind blowing. The music, the starkness of the scenery and the sheer force of both performances left their impressions upon me. In particular the soundtrack, Woland’s theme or Ball of Satan, which I used in my video, can lift me from any funk and fuel me to action. In particular, the stage version I attended in Yuzhno Sakhalin which coupled actors flying through the air and layered scenes including fire and dancing is still fresh in my mind after nearly 20 years. I was in the front row and I felt as if I was on the stage a part of the show. The air vibrated with excitement and magic.
The second time I read The Master & Margarita was in Lugano. This time the complexity of the story came to life for me. I researched every screen version produced. My favorite Russian mini-series is full of power and pomp and gives solid structure to the parallels between Pontius Pilate and 1930’s Stalinist Russia.
About a year after we discussed this book at book club there was an Italian stage production of The Master and Margarita at the LAC. “By chance”, I saw a theater sign in Lugano “The Master and Margarita performed live on stage by an Italian theater company, two nights only.” Swiftly I consulted my calendar and called Esra to see if she would like to join me that evening for the performance. As she shares my love of both the book and theater, I was hopeful to share the experience with her. Just like that, we found ourselves sitting in the darkened theater wondering how they would interpret the complex story. From the first moment we were riveted. The music and the actors were right on. When it came to the scene where Margarita lathers herself in magic body lotion, we were mesmerized. In a skin colored body stocking, Margarita appeared to be naked, just as she is described in the book. Once all the cream was applied, she stepped onto a large swing dangling from the ceiling and began to ‘fly’ over the front row of the audience. Back and forth she went on her swing, howling with laughter, screaming with delights only she could see and feel as she flew into the night. I had goose bumps all over, it was a spectacular performance. While we laughed and relaxed into the moment, conservative local faces could be seen aghast. When we described the scene to friends our wording was something like, “you could hear the bum holes of many an audience member tighten up to full closure”. Viewing my third live performance, I was transported to the magical days of my Russia life, and that midsummer evening in Yuzhno Sakhalin when I saw my first live stage performance of The Master and Margarita.
All of this sheds light to the many levels upon which I appreciate and adore Bulgakov’s Master & Margarita. However the most important factor is the joy it inspired in dear friends in my book club, in particular Eva. Well read, and highly spirited, Eva got this book immediately. Having two daughters who are deeply entranced by Russia, both speaking Russian and having visited there many times, Eva’s delights were surely nurtured by them too. With glee she read the book, watched the Russian mini-series, and participated in our book discussion. Two years on, Eva still gets a twinkle in her eye when this book comes up, still spellbound by its inherent magic.
Magic. This is what this book consistently returns me too. Yes, the obvious magic of the devils’ magic show in Moscow and his talking cat Behmouth. More subtly, the magic of life and what it means to share ideas and sensations. Whether one reads this book for fun, to learn more about the psyche of the period, or to deeply analyze the entire text and its concepts; The Master & Margarita sparks the imagination and invites the reader to be aware and alive to the pulse of life in each moment. Each time Eva’s eyes sparkle in reference to this book, I am returned to the magic of books. Their capacity to connect us with ourselves and others. To lather on our own magic body lotion and fly into the night.
Suggestions concerning reading, viewing, and listening to The Master & Margarita
Click this image to access the audio book in English.
Click this image of a black cat to go to the version in Russian with English subtitles. This is my preference as I love to hear the original language when watching any film.
Click this image of three men on a bench to go to the Russian version.
Summaries and Reviews