Before you dive into this review, know this. I''m a native Russian, and a writer, and I have just completed a feat of rereading the novel in Russian and reading first Ginsburg and then Pevear & Volokhonsky translations, back to back, to compare. And Ginsburg''s translation...
Before you dive into this review, know this. I''m a native Russian, and a writer, and I have just completed a feat of rereading the novel in Russian and reading first Ginsburg and then Pevear & Volokhonsky translations, back to back, to compare. And Ginsburg''s translation will give you the best feeling for the language, the culture, and the story. It''s the bomb. This translation left me in tatters, it didn''t speak to me as Bulgakov, it even impoverished his style for me. The rating you see is for the novel itself, which is the work of art. Now, to the review itself.
The first time I read The Master and Margarita in Russian, it was, out of all places, in Berlin. I was a teenager, and I lived in Berlin with my father and his new wife and my half-sister, because my father was a writer and a journalist and was sent by Soviet Union to Berlin to be the correspondent for a large Russian newspaper agency. I remember reading the book so vividly, that even today every detail is etched in my brain like a colorful photograph. The soft bright chair I sat in, with my back toward the window, the book in my lap, the pages rustling, and the image of Margarita, most importantly, of her knee, the knee that''s been kissed over and over and how it turned blue. And the cat, the black cat that could talk. That''s all I remember, plus the feeling of fascination I got. And now, over 20 years later, I have read it again, after becoming a writer myself 2 years ago, not knowing back in my teens that I would ever write, but being struck by the genius of Bulgakov. And, my, oh my, rereading it now I understood for the first time what the book was about. I sort of thought of it as a fairy tale back in my teens, I felt something underneath it, but couldn''t get it. I got it now, and I cried, I cried for Bulgakov, for his imprisonment as a writer in the country that oppressed him to the last of his days, and I cried because he refused to be broken, and because he has written a masterpiece, and I was holding it in my hands, reliving it like so many people, many many years after he died.
As to the story. It''s not just one story, and not even two, it''s four. A story of love, and of darkness, and of life and death. There are four narratives, the love between Master and Margarita, the strange visitors and Satan who come to Moscow, the story of Moscow life itself, the city, the people, and the story of Yeshua in the ancient walls of Yershalayim. Each has its own flavor, breathes its own air, and weaves into one book that tethers on that notion that no work of art can be destroyed, "manuscripts don''t burn", says Satan, and that''s Bulgakov''s pain, him against the system that wanted to crush him, and didn''t. He escaped. The irony of the book is that, in some sense, it''s autobiographical, and that makes it even more tragic. But the satire! Oh, the satire! I don''t know how many times I snorted coffee and tea out of my nose, because I have this habit of drinking hot drinks while reading, curled up on the couch. So many memories burst on the scene, so many authentic Russian quirks and habits and characters, the wealth of which I have nearly forgotten over my 16 years in US, and which dazzled my mind like fireworks, albeit of course, because I was reading it in Russian, and I''m about to start reading two translations in English, one by Mirra Ginsburg, and another by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Because, if there was ever a book worth reading 5, 10, 20 times in a row, it is The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov, his last book written over the course of 10 years, and not quite completed… he narrated changes to his wife right up to his death. No matter. It is perfect. Read it.