Friday, January 26, 2007

The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

A friend mentioned The Master and Margarita to me several years ago, and despite my love for the classic Russians, I somehow hadn’t gotten around to reading it until now.

My loss, it seems. This is a phenomenal book—compelling, surprising, endlessly inventive, frequently hilarious. (Every time I laughed, Maria would tell me again that I must be mistaken, because the Russians aren’t supposed to be funny.) Bulgakov wrote it during the Stalinist purges and show trials of the 1930s, knowing that he would never see it published in the repressive Soviet Union. It’s simultaneously a satire of Moscow life, a love story, and a philosophical fantasy, which begins when the devil (here named Woland) arrives in Moscow with a squabbling group of attendants and begins causing trouble. It’s set mostly in contemporary Moscow, but also follows in parallel the story of Pontius Pilate during the sentencing, execution, and aftermath Jesus’ crucifixion, a story variously told aloud by Woland, dreamed by a poet named Ivan Homeless, and read by the title character Margarita in a novel by the unnamed master, a story that converges toward the end with the main Moscow thread.

What makes it so funny is both the writing and twists the story takes, the way both are bound up in the characters and the setting, and how the episodes build on each other. I tried to find a brief one-off line I could quote by way of example, and finally realized that the humor is too elaborately woven into the story for that—giving an example required summarizing the scene and characters, then quoting from a few different paragraphs at least before arriving at the punch line, which even then probably wouldn’t seem as funny as it was in the book’s full context. It’s irreducible, and the more satisfying because of it. So you’ll just have to take my word on this.

The translation, incidentally, was the recent version by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, done before they became the most well-known translators in America following Anna Karenina’s appearance in Oprah’s Book Club in 2004. Obviously I haven’t read the other versions (evidently the one by Burgin and O’Connor is also excellent), but I certainly had no complaints with this one: the writing is marvelous. In great fiction the sentences have a physical weight to them—you can almost roll the words around in your palm like marbles—and this is great fiction. This has more to do with the alchemy of Bulgakov’s story than the translation, of course, but translation is a difficult and interesting art, and shouldn’t be overlooked; although I suspect Maria might think I’m insane for saying this, I’m looking forward to settling down with Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov with Pevear and Volokhonsky in one hand and the traditional Constance Garnett in the other.

They also provide a good introduction and a useful but not overwhelming set of endnotes. It’s helpful to know, for example, that Bulgakov was still revising when he died in 1940, and left it unfinished in certain ways—which explains why, for example, characters in the second half will sometimes leave a room by flying through a window, and then shortly after be seen walking down the stairs and out of the building. The endnotes, meanwhile, mostly identify real contemporary and historical figures that appear in the book, highlight allusions to other works (most notably to Faust), and explain aspects of Russian culture that Bulgakov and his Russian audience would have taken for granted. (This is particularly important for Bulgakov’s frequent subtle, sideways references to the Soviet secret police, which sometimes hinge on knowing something as specific as what they do with the coat buttons of someone held for questioning.)

But at any rate, this is a thoroughly entertaining classic, incorporating the irreverence and penchant for absurdity of a book like Catch-22 alongside the deep unreality and social critique of one like The Trial while creating its own inimitable world. It deserves to be as well known as both of those books, and can't be recommended enough.

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