Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Master and Margarita

I finished reading this last night, figured I ought to try to get something down about it. I only heard about this book fairly recently, when a professor told us about it in class. He said it was one of the five best books of the 20th century... I dunno about all that but I'm looking it up on Wikipedia right now and it does say "Many critics consider it to be one of the best novels of the 20th century" so idk sure.

It was very good, I enjoyed it very much. It satisfied me in a way that I think is pretty rare, where it lived it up to the sort of "mysterious hype" that I felt had begun to surround it. What I mean is that I had heard all this stuff about its publication history, about its author, about the controversy, etc. And like... often when I hear so much about a book, but so little about what the book actually contains, I'm actually sort of let down whenever I find out what the plot actually is. Sometimes I get some sort of idea in my head about what sort of aesthetic feel a work should have, suggested entirely by the title and a few little scarps of information. And it isn't so much that the actual plot of the work disappoints me, it's that any plot would disappoint me, because what I was actually somehow expecting was some sort of aesthetic abstract with no plot at all. Beyond that, it seems like these sort of books with really weighty reputations, especially controversial ones... it always seemed like I'd end up thinking the book is "just" about "whatever" as soon as I found out the actual plot. Again, it's probably more just that no plot could satisfy the sort of mystique it had built up.

Okay but that didn't happen this time, lol. The plot is like... completely bananas. There's no way I could say it's "just" about Satan appearing in contemporary Moscow and raising havoc with his crew because a) it's not "just" about that, both because i) it's basically a "roman a clef" through all the satire and allusion and ii) there's lots of other subplots, also b) it seems so wrong to say something is "just" about something as ridiculous as that. So that aspect was very satisfying... finally, something that doesn't underwhelm on the conceptual level.

But of course, on all those other occasions where I had hyped up the idea of a book but the actual concept underwhelmed, the actual content of the book I had no issue with and enjoyed just as much as I should. And here, too, it's the content that is really most important. The book struck me as an interesting variant of the much beloved Russian classics... a lot of the content revolves around argumentative conversation, for example: characters meet with goals that come at odd angles and try to convince each other through sheer reasoning. This has been super enthralling to me ever since I started reading Russian novels, and Bulgakov is a master of the technique. He doesn't play it "straight" too often - I think Ivan's conversation with the doctor when the latter convinces him not to pursue Woland any further that night is the only example of "pure" Russian argumentation I could find - but the same striving towards reason finds itself in even the most absurd conversations.

I think it's these that make the novel most fun, when the deranged logic of Satan's cohorts goes up against the stupefied beliefs of regular people. In many novels with this sort of "argument base", a difficult "foe" for our "heroes" is often the apparent agent of irrationality, the character who does not act in any consistent way or with any underlying beliefs. Usually some common string of interest in the evidently irrational mind is eventually discovered along which the argument can proceed. But not so here, you can't win that game against the devil.

I, alongside the other characters, spent much of the book looking for some goal or logic which would unite all of Woland and his friends' actions, but came up empty. But this was far from unsatisfying, it was a lot of fun! There was a great sense that anything could happen - when Woland was presented with a problem, he could use absolutely any means to solve it... teleportation, hypnosis, straight up violence... his guiding principle seemed to be to have fun, which made it fun for the reader, too. The rest of his crew were just as entertaining - each one having some abilities that let them do whatever they wanted, but also some limitations that made them beneath Woland. The sense you had of them all being very familiar with each other, the mixture of camaraderie and exhaustion that comes from that, it was very endearing, which isn't something I would have thought to say about Satan.

And then interspersed through all of this were really thrilling and breathtaking sequences... the Master's story, the show at the variety, Margarita's transformation into a witch, the ball, the final departure from Moscow, and especially any of the Master's novels. Bulgakov does a great job of imagining such amazing scenes that he only needs to describe them vividly to enthral you. Then, when he does indulge in a bit of poetic flourish, it's all the sweeter. I love scenes where the complexity and absurdity can become such that if you just stop and think through the situation, try to remember exactly everything that's going on, that in itself can be entertaining.

So yeah overall a great fun novel... uhh I don't think I want to try to talk about anything to do with what it means yet... I feel like so much of it requires like, allegorical decoding to get the full effect, and I don't want to start reading about that yet. Some stuff seemed obviously satirical, even if it's unclear what exactly it was satirizing. The fact that I enjoyed the book so much despite this lack of knowledge is a pretty good testament to its quality, I think.

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