Welcome to the group read of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita ( M&M).
I am neither an expert on Bulgakov nor a literary academic. Like most of you, I just enjoy a good book and I love spending my free time thinking over the lines of famous and infamous writers. I first read M&M in May this year and I went back to it several times since then. But that is the only advantage I might have and the sole reason I was allowed to co-lead this group.
From the first chapters of this marvellous book, you are dragged into a wild ride trough the Moscow of the thirties. It is therefore a good idea to take reading notes especially on the many different characters and locations. There are quite a few peripheral figures and it is important to keep track of them throughout the story in order not to get lost.
There are some excellent websites that can help, but they might give away too much and you better check them only after finishing your first reading.
What is M&M about? Let’s go straight to the essence. In his introduction to the book Richard Pevear mentions it briefly: It was the outrage at how Christ was portrayed in Soviet anti-religious propaganda that spurred Bulgakov to write M&M. As a reaction the writer reversed what was written in the atheist literature. He rewrote the “myth of Christ” as a reality and he scattered the “reality of Moscow life” by the intrusion of a mysterious and wicked stranger.
But of course this great book contains much, much more as you will find out!
There is Magic! There is Mystery! Romance is mingled with autobiographic elements and social critic. Philosophy, religion and history are served with a Russian sauce. It is often funny, sometimes spooky and occasionally even a bit erotic. There is, in short, enough for everybody.
Read it attentively. You might elucidate the mystery around the still unfound meaning behind the composer names Berlioz, Stravinsky and Rimsky. It has eluded critics since M&M first appeared in1966. Why, we could even make it our group objective!
Bulgakov wrote his book in the gloom of Stalinist terror and two “truths” appear in the lines of the book, two messages he wants to pass to his readers.
The first one is that “Cowardice is the most terrible of vices”. "Because all the rest comes from it", Bulgakov said to a friend. It is the cowardice of the people, as a group and as an individual, which is needed for dictatorial regimes to exist and to thrive. And the Soviet authorities apparently felt tackled by this quotation, because all references to this "worst of vices" were removed from the original magazine publication of The Master and Margarita.
The second one is “Manuscripts don’t burn”. Oppressive authorities cannot, will never, succeed in destroying the free mind. And if M&M has become that cult book that it is today, it is just because it is a proof of that truth. It is miracle that we are reading it, it was a miracle that it got printed, that it survived.
Today the fight is not over. People close to us are still exiled, imprisoned and assassinated just for their ideas and their writings. Still in Moscow some lunatics want to destroy the “Naughty apartment” where the Bulgakov museum is situated. Still at night secret gangs bleach the walls where admirers have expressed their love for the book. But still also, one shivers when, alone on the stairs of that dusky building at Sadovaya, a cold draft caresses your neck or whispers in your ear.
Enjoy the Magic!