Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Master and Margarita

As a Russophile, I'm embarrassed that I've not read Bulgakov's Master and Margarita until now.  Although I recognize that countless Russians believe that this book is the greatest Russian novel of the twentieth century, I never seemed to get very far with this book until now.  In fact, I only managed to finish the book by "reading" it on Hoopla, and unfortunately audio-books can be difficult to follow even with much simpler plot structures.  Notwithstanding the book's imposing reputation, or perhaps because of that imposing reputation, my impression of the book wasn't very positive.  I recognize that Bulgakov was one of the Soviet Union's most competent modernists.  I recognize that the imaginative elements of the book, including its rich cast of bizarre characters, deserve my appreciation.  I also recognize that Bulkagov deserves praise for producing such a creative work in the midst of Stalinist oppression.  However, Bulgakov's masterwork was a little too chaotic for my taste.

Someday I hope to re-read the book.  Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog, assigned to me in my first Russian history class at Georgetown University, was probably one of the first Russian books I ever read.  Like Master and Margarita, Heart of a Dog comes across as an absurdist fairy tale, a modernist version of Gogol's strange tales of walking noses and the like.  But Heart of a Dog's shortness seems to make its strange conceits more believable.  Master and Margarita's endless flights of fancy seem to lead nowhere and to distract the reader from any sustained sense of direction or purpose to the plot.  I recognize that this is a relatively shallow reading of a novel that no doubt contains complexity and richness.  I certainly can understand that the book is representative of a type of modernist prose that has been immensely influential in the last fifty or so years.  In fact, it did remind me another book of modernist fiction I liked much better:  Ralph Ellison's masterpiece, Invisible Man, which contains similar absurdist conceits but somehow seems to hang together as a unified tale of one man's intellectual and political journey through an absurdly racist America.  Perhaps the reason I prefer Invisible Man to Master and Margarita is because Ellison was able to tackle racism much more directly than Bulgakov was able to tack Stalinism.  In both cases, the author was courageously responding to a culture of systematic violence.  However, in the American case, Ellison could at least count on a black and liberal white audience to celebrate his rather overt depiction of American racist tropes.  In the Russian case, Bulgakov might have felt that even if he were "writing for the desk" he could not risk any direct reference to the terror that was overwhelming his countrymen.  Better perhaps to see Stalinism in the biblical allegory.

The Master and Margarita was clearly ahead of its time, and influential after it was finally published.  Yet when laid side by side with a Russian masterwork of the nineteenth century, it seemed lacking to me.  The author's inventiveness lacked purpose to my mind.  I do hope to learn more about the work, reread it, and post on this book again.  I also hope to hear from readers who are interested in explaining their enthusiasm for the book.  I will fully confess that my audio "reading" of this book distracted me from the plot.  I only post this incomplete analysis here to remind myself to return to book in the future with an open mind and enough time to read the book in print.

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