Review: Bulgakov's 'The Master & Margarita' - the Novel and the Play

'The Master and Margarita', Bulgakov's riotuous, surrealist masterpiece, was pressed into my hand by my lovely friend Abi, already mentioned for her fabulous book taste, several months ago, and it sat on my TBR pile until a week or so ago, when I realised the showing of Complicite's stage version, at London's Barbican Theatre, for which we had tickets, was fast approaching, so down it came.

Having both read the book and seen the play this past week, the two are now inexorably linked in my mind, so I'll explore the both, albeit separately, in this one blog post.

First of all, The Novel:

'The Master & Margarita' is as surrealist and fantastical as any book you are ever likely to read, with one of the profoundest and most exciting dangerous messages of any book I've ever read.   

The story is based around a dual narrative, the first being the story of what happens when Satan and his retinue come to Stalinist Moscow, creating chaos and sparking a chain of events which ends with a good number of the characters being interned at the Stravinsky Clinic, regarded as mad for repeating the truth of what happened; the other is the realist exploration of the relationship between and the condemnation of Jesus Christ by Pontius Pilate, and the guilt and remorse that Pontius Pilate struggles with thereafter. The two stories mirror each other throughout the book, casting new light on the reader's perception of both, until we discover that the Pontius Pilate chapters are actually excerpts from the manuscript written by 'the Master' of the title, for which he is interned and subsequently, redeemed, by Margarita's willingness to go to any length to save him.

I will struggle to do any justice at all to the richness and dark, savage humour of this book. Reading it feels a little like sacrilege, a little like glimpsing Russia for the first time. The Devil's band of cohorts is made up of a demonic interpreter/assistant/ex-choirmaster called alternatively Koroviev and Faggott, the groovy hitman Azazello, a witch called Hella, and, my personal favourite, a foul-mouthed, gun-toting black cat called Behemoth, who steals entire scenes at a time and seems tailor-made for the cat-obsessed internet age. Satan himself appears as the mysterious Professor Woland, a sometimes-German black magician, who conducts a seance at the Variety Theatre after which, without giving too much away, the transcience and flippery of possessions and finance are revealed in rather a humourous manner. 

Without pause, the narrative flips from laughter at the bureaucracy of the Soviet regime to people quite literally losing their heads and wealth and minds because a Judas-figure decides that that is the fate for them, or a crowd demands it in a fit of hyped-up irresponsibility. It's quite breathless - the frantic and sensationalist pacing of it put me in mind of 'The Woman in White', making it the kind of book that you could devour in a few sittings if your mood is right and distractions are few. I raced through it, as the profundity and outrageousness of the text, which can be read on SO many different levels, grabbed me with its claws and refused to let me go.

Whilst reading it, I felt that it was a bit of a shame (and wholly NOT a shame) that I will never understand all the nuances and meanings and small hints about characters that would have meant so much to people in 1920s/1930s Russia, and to people there after its publication in the 1960s. Simon McBurney also says as much in the theatre programme. What is clear is that the Moscow which Bulgakov tries to communicate to us is one that was malevolently, disorientatingly chaotic, which was undercut by a profound lack of control over your own destiny, and by the most intense fear. The people that Bulgakov loathes are the cowards ('cowardice is the only sin' is much repeated throughout), the Judas' and the Aloysius' who report on others for gain; the heroes are the valiant, even when it is the Devil that they are prepared to bargain with, (i.e. Margarita) for the sake of those that they love. It was deeply interesting to me that in this text Satan and Jesus are relatively aligned, and presented as the light and dark sides of the same, and perhaps even of the individual, and that death, represented by the Devil's accomplice Abaddon, is completely unbiased, just wading in as and when humans start wars.

A most famous quote 'Didn't you know that mauscripts don't burn?', said by Woland to the Master as he hands him back his destoyed manuscript, quite took my breath away when I read it; looking into it further, it appears that it refers to both Bulgakov's burning of his own manuscript of this very book in 1930, hoping to rid himself of thoughts of it and also to keep it from the notice of the Russian authorities, and also to the ban on the Bible at that time, under the intensely atheistic Soviet regime.

 This novel vouches for the relevance of the Bible stories to both everyday life and also to conflicts between the oppressed and the oppressor, the freedom of the soul, the necessary belief in the goodness of people and the roles of sacrifice, self-sacrifice and guilt in behaving as one believes necessary for the good of their surrounds. At times, I was quite overwhelmed by what this book was saying to me, and I won't pretend I fully got my head around even the half of it, but I suppose that's what re-readings throughout one's life are for. It blows my mind that Bulgakov spent the best part of a decade on this book, knowing full well that it would never see the light of day in his own country, but I suppose he wasn't writing it so much for himself as for his friends and family, as well as the Russian people and other readers around the world.

The Play 

I finished the final chapters of this book on the train into London on Saturday morning, desperate not to experience the ending on stage before I experienced it in prose. I just made it, reading the last line a few hours before I took my seat, praying that my experience of the book would be wonderful as it moved into a different medium.

I wasn't disappointed. The play was excellent in every way, and had the delicious consequence of acting as a sort of re-reading, like turning, that same day, back to the first page, but with a different lens and a different perspective on it, which made some parts clearer and other parts blurrier and smaller in the overall narrative. What I particularly loved it for was the clever simultaneous layering of parallel scenes, which in the book are sequential, due to the restrictions of the art form; on stage, both Moscow and Jerusalem scenes could be played out at once, ducking and weaving around each other to demonstrate the links and similarities between characters and situations in a way that allowed much of it to click together in my head.  That was fabulous, and enhanced my understanding of the meaning of the book and what Bulgakov was trying to say immeasurably, and for that I am very grateful.

Sinead Matthews, who played Margarita onstage was perfect, I thought - there was something about her voice, which was excellently reminiscent of Bulgakov's description of it, made the entirity of the novel seem possible - it was guttural and deep and sexy, with an edge of desperation that made it seem entirely plausible that she would commit her soul to the Devil to reunite herself with the Master, her lover and writer of the aforementioned manuscript about Pontius Pilate. I also loved the actor who played Koroviev/Faggott - oddly, it's also his voice that has stuck with me, and Satan was so sinister as to serve the story perfectly. 

The staging, on a big, black, open stage was inspired, and made great sense of the various Moscow locations by projecting a street map of the city onto the stage and back wall, and then twisting and zooming in and out to show the movement between the relative locations. Once again, I was irritated that I cannot read Cyrillic, so that might become another short-term goal. The whole performance was on such a scale as to give one chills.

In Summary...

In summary, if I operated a star-scale, 'The Master & Margarita' would be given five stars. No question. It's immediately up there with the best books I've ever read; Simon McBurney, the Director of the stage version, mentions in the programme that he's lost count of the number of people who have told him that it is their favourite book, and to me that makes absolute and complete sense. I urge you to see the play at all costs. FYI, the lady sat next to me had obviously never read the book, but only required the odd explanation from her initiated friend, meaning that a prior reading is perhaps not absolutely essential, although it is something I'd advise.

I feel a bit like, this past week, having read the novel and seen the fabulous play, that I have been party to something quite life-changing, and have experienced something quite special, that once more speaks to me of the power of books and the timelessness of the best of them.

Title: The Master & Margarita
Author: Mikhail Bulgakov
Publisher: Penguin Red Classic
Publication Date: Original Russian 1966-67, this copy 2006
Format: Paperback, 564 pages, and I was given it as a gift.


  1. "Aesthetic" Soviets? All the right letters are there.

    But you're right. "Master & Margarita" is a wonderful book. For a long time I wouldn't read it, thinking nothing of value could have come out of a communist regime. When I finally, reluctantly read it, I was simultaneously charmed and awed.

    1. Ah, and I proof-read it and everything :)

      I'm glad you liked this book also - 'charmed and awed' is a very good description indeed.

    2. "nothing of value could come out of a communist regime". With respect, that is a remarkably close minded view. I could argue with equal weight that nothing of true value could come out of a capitalist/consumerist regime.

      Also, Stalinism is not true communism, rather communism bastardised into a dictatorship. And political and social oppression often leads to the greatest art - Master and Margarita as a case in point.

      Also, I'm pretty atheistic was the right word choice, not aesthetic. Aesthetic doesn't make sense in that context, and means something completely different.

      Enjoyable review though, of an incredible piece of literature (and theatre).

  2. That's funny, I was just thinking earlier in the week that I really need to read this one as soon as I get a chance as the premise sounds so good. I'm glad it lived up to your expectations!

    1. I would say it surpasses my expectations, so big smiles all round :)

      I look forward to seeing what you think, when you read this...keep me posted! It's not a book I hear discussed much, when seems a shame...

  3. I am almost through with this book and its like nothing I have ever read before...I don't think I will get to see the play in this part of the world :)
    Like your review.

    1. Thanks! I'm so glad that you like the book, and it's a shame that not everyone can get to London to see the play :)

      Have you read any other of Bulgakov's books?

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