Books I Ought to Read: No. 2 – The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Image result for the master and margaritaI had this idea a while ago that I really ought to get around to those books I ought to read. You know the ones: the classic ones that you (by you I mean I) buy and then stick on the shelf and never get around to reading. But really the whole thing was about this book – The Master and Margarita – which has been accusing me from the shelf for a considerable length of time. I’ve tried to read it 3 times before. I’ve started it, read to varying points and given up. I dodged a bullet by reading Howards End first, but this book oppresses me with its presence –  it’s the reason for the list and I have to get around to it eventually – so I bite said bullet, pick it up and start reading. Now I could spend my time in this review describing to you what the book is about, all its twists and turns and interesting characters, pulling out some interesting quotes, but instead I have chosen to present to you The Master and Margarita the reading diary, as I think that will give you the finest illustration of how finally getting around to reading this book worked out. Here goes…

Diary Day 1

I opened the book this morning with a sense of optimism which was quickly defeated. 50 pages in and I am not yet beyond where I’ve got to previously and neither do I understand it any better. There are good parts, for sure. The opening scene is familiar – the two writers in the gardens, the apricot seltzer I remember, the appearance of the strange consultant and the odd, strangely life-like story about Pontius Pilate, these are all very entertaining. I remember the cat: Behemoth. The chapter with Pilate and Ha-Nozri is exceptional, and then it descends into some kind of farce with a character called ‘Homeless’ running pointlessly around town and a cast of a million and one characters whose names I can never remember. I make it to page 50 and gratefully give up. I’ve been reading on the train as I always do, but somehow it has been necessary to look up dresses on the Desigual website and check Twitter three times and usually I read straight through. Still, it is not terrible. I just feel terribly confused.

Diary Day 2

Today I read about 20 pages. It’s a Saturday, a busy day. I had shopping to do. I finger my borrowed copy of Living, Thinking, Looking by Siri Hustvedt and consider just reading the first few pages, but I know if I start reading something else I’ll never get back to the Master.

Diary Day 3

I wake up early Sunday morning and read up to page 105 before anyone else gets up. I’m still no further forward than I’ve read before and there’s still no sign of either the Master nor Margarita. I find myself thumbing to the end of the book and calculating what percentage I’ve read and how much more there is left. It’s a trick I picked up when I used to cycle longish distances – by breaking it down into fractions it made it easier to keep going. So I’m about ¼ of the way through, which makes it sound not too bad. Still, it is nice to break to make breakfast and let the bunnies out of their hutch.

In the car on the way to and from Tatton Park – a promised trip to a National Trust place, as requested by my daughter – I read up to page 150. If I close the book and consider my bookmark placement it looks like I’m half way through which makes me feel better even though I know I am less than half way through. The Master has appeared, finally, and I guess that the woman of which he speaks is Margarita but she has not yet made a named appearance. The Master names the wicked consultant – Woland – as Satan and this sounds plausible in a way nothing else is. There’s been a man exiled to Yalta by speed of thought, a terrible theatre show in which a man (an annoying man it has to be said) has had his head cut off and put back on again by the crazy cat, and various people have gone missing or been shopped to the police for some crime or other, and it’s all terribly farcical and I can’t help thinking I’m missing some essential cultural understanding that would turn the abject silliness into something more meaty. I’ve learned about Stalin and the purges, I know a little Russian history, but my depth of knowledge is too slight for this satirical piece. I wonder, vaguely, if I can get to page 200 by the end of the day and then perhaps I can finish the book in 2 more days and move on to something else. A voice whispering vaguely in the back of my mind reminds me that this is not how reading is supposed to be.

On Sunday evenings I like to have a long bath and read a little before bedtime. Usually this is relaxing. Today I approach it with trepidation. I manage a chapter before mental exhaustion kicks in. The whole thing was a terrible dream (I wish it was a terrible dream) involving currency and people in a theatre and lots of names I struggle to follow (because I am culturally naïve). I do not make it to the midway point, which means it will probably be another 3 days before I finish. The thought of another 3 days gets me thinking of the nice sanatorium that half the cast have found themselves in, but I sweep the thought away. I am determined to finish this time. Though I don’t make much progress, I am relieved to note that the next chapter shifts over to the Ha-Nozri storyline which is much easier to follow (and much less cracked). For some reason I finally notice that the cover is a shadow puppet picture of the cat, Behemoth, ripping the master of ceremony’s head off. Magic.

Diary Day 4

I’m working in London today which means a 6am train, allowing plenty of reading time though I have work to do and unusually it’s more appealing than reading. But, lo, result! Half way through and the legendary Margarita finally appears and she’s as cracked as the rest of them. The Ha-Nozri chapters continue to be the easiest part of the story to follow; all the rest flip and flop and tumble around willy-nilly in such a slapdash and chaotic fashion it’s practically impossible to follow. I leave Margarita flying off naked into the night because, frankly, what else would she be doing? Page 235. I’ve managed around 60 pages, which is no mean feat.

On the way home I take the book out of my bag and leave it on the seat adjacent to me. That’s where it remains and instead of reading I chat frustratingly through broken signal with my husband on Skype and watch a random episode of Pointless I downloaded on iPlayer the day before. When I reach my destination I consider ‘accidentally’ leaving the book on the seat, but I’d miss my lovely leather bookmark so I sigh and pick it up, thinking that if I’m really disciplined I could finish reading it in 2 more days.  I have a headache. Everything feels bleak and confusing. Doubtless I will dream about oppressively large cats at some point.

Diary Day 5

On the morning train and things seems to be settling a little, though Margarita flies here and there and bathes here and there and gets angry and smashes windows indiscriminately on account of a poor review of the Master’s book (which, in case I didn’t mention it, is the Ha-Nozri story which feathers throughout the book) whilst being invisible and flying naked on a broom because, well, why not? There’s a ball and it’s equally incomprehensible. I literally (in correct usage) have no idea what is going on. I start feeling like Ludo (age six) in school (from the Last Samurai) where he spends each day doing increasingly complex mathematics and enumerating all the things he could have done or read in the time he’s been sitting being utterly bored and purposeless in school. Yet it’s not boring, never boring. In many respects it’s entertaining and vivacious and there are times when I feel like I’m tumbling my way through a crazy dream where everything is slightly askew from the norm but I am safe and I can be shocked and horrified and amused in equal turns. But I don’t get it. I don’t. Begin to wonder if I am completely dumb.

On the way home I manage to sink myself through several chapters and hit page 310. I finally begin to believe I can finish, that it is going to work, that whatever the end result I will finally have finished this book. In the past few chapters things seem to have muted, the Master and Margarita have been reunited and the devil, Woland, is proving to be something of a decent sort though you never can trust the devil and I am sure there are surprises to come. Margarita has a copy of the Master’s manuscript, though the original had been burned in the fire, and now she’s reading and we’re back in Yerushalaim. Ha-Nozri is still dead, and his body has been claimed by the unfortunate Matthew Levi. I feel…settled, though I realise I have spent much of the time when I’ve been reading The Master and Margarita wishing that I wasn’t and now I’m so close to the end (3/4 of the way through, by my milestone reckoning) it’s unlikely that I’m going to end this feeling like it’s been a marvellous read. But I will finish, tomorrow, of that I am determined.

It is dark and rainy and stormy when I get home. I lock the bunnies safely in their hutch, eat dinner and read another chapter. Because I can. 330 pages in and tomorrow finishing is a certainty. Outside the thunder is rumbling and it feels ominous. Will I see a naked woman flying by on a broomstick? A man transformed into a giant pig? An enormous cat wearing a bowtie with gold slicked whiskers? Is the devil waiting in my dreams? Anything seems possible. Hey, perhaps I will even enjoy it?

Diary Day 6

I am assured that today will be my last day of reading The Master and Margarita. I might almost miss it (I won’t). The pace has definitely slowed, though it’s as bewildering and chaotic as it has been throughout. There’s a crazy shootout involving Behemoth and some Mauser carrying police officers, and lots of spontaneous fires. Something incomprehensible happens in a currency shop. The Master and Margarita are reunited, but peace and happiness remains elusive. As does mine. By the end of my morning train journey I’m 40 pages from the end. I could start the next chapter, but it makes more sense to listen to South Korean pop music so I do that instead.

I’m late coming home tonight; I’ve been to see A Streetcar Named Desire starring Maxine Peake (who is transcendent) at the Royal Exchange and I feel like I’ve been scooped out but there’s no way I’m still reading this book tomorrow so despite the emotional drainage, and despite the fact that I’m standing and I feel nothing at all like reading I plough on. All continues as before, slightly muted, and then I reach this line:

“[…]You don’t need to ask for him, Margarita, because the one he so yearns to talk to has already asked for him.”

And I look out of the window at the beautiful world, the soft autumnal light casting shades of gold on the reaped fields and I blink back tears and curse the devil that despite everything, the bewilderment, the chaos, the blundering uncertainty on every moment of every page, it can still destroy me like this. Pilate, the man in the red cloak who sent Yeshua Ha-Nozri to his death is saved from years of broken, sleepless sorrow. Whatever else happens, I can’t remember. I only remember this astonishing redemption and I realise that whilst I never want to read this book ever, ever, ever again that one moment will stay with me always.

(Postscript: so it turns out that I have the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation and I wonder, just a little, if that is part of my problem with this book. But I’m never, ever going to read it again so I will just have to wonder, I guess.)

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About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
This entry was posted in Books I Ought to Read, fiction, Penguin Books, translation. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Books I Ought to Read: No. 2 – The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

  1. Oh, Belinda! What a week, and thank goodness for that redemptive moment. Needless to say, I’ve never read it. Oddly, when I was a bookseller I noticed that it was a novel bought by far more men than women. Not sure if that sheds any light at all for you on your reading experience. Great post, by the way.

    • bookbii says:

      Thanks Susan. It was a hard weeks reading. I read something afterwards about the appeal of The Master & Margarita being its chaotic lack of story, which perhaps explains something. I am glad I read it, but oh it was a slog!

  2. What a great idea to write a diary of your reading of this book. It’s been on my to-read list for a while too, and I really enjoyed reading about your progress, or lack of it on any particular day. At least now I’ll have some idea of what I’m getting into.

    • bookbii says:

      Thanks Valorie. I’m not sure I could have made sense of it without the diary. I hope it’s a better reading experience for you when you do decide to get around to it.

  3. JacquiWine says:

    What a brilliant post! This strikes such a chord with me, not least because up until very recently there was an unread copy of this very novel on one of my own bookshelves at home. It had been sitting there gathering dust for the best part of five years – like you, I!d had a couple of false starts with it, never getting beyond the first 30 pages or so despite my best intentions at the time. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I decided to pass it on to one of the local charity shops in the hope that it might find its way to a better, more deserving reader. 🙂

    • bookbii says:

      I wish I’d had your foresight Jacqui! I think I’ll keep hold of mine, for sentiment’s sake, but I’m not sure I’ll ever read it again. Sometimes I’m just in the wrong mood to start something, but in this case I don’t think there’s a mood that’s encompassing enough for this book.

  4. 1streading says:

    I love the way you’ve written this – it captures that sense of what happens when you begin to find a book hard work very well.
    As I said to you, this is also on my list of books I should have read. I will now approach it with even more trepidation!

  5. Sarah says:

    It isn’t an easy book by any means, but I found it quite rewarding and stimulating when I read it a few years back. You are right with your postscript though, the translation is quite important and I’ve read that a few are a bit dodgy. Well done for persevering though!

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