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Betty Smartt Carter

"Everything Will Be Made Right"

Reading "The Master and Margarita" for the first time.

I had lunch recently with an old friend who defected from a Soviet Bloc country just before the end of the Cold War. While we were catching up, I happened to mention that I was reading Mikhail Bulgakov's posthumously published novel The Master and Margarita.[1]

"Greatest book ever written!" she said, and though I wasn't surprised, having read about the novel's enormous popularity in Russia, I still found myself at a loss. The greatest book? Not the funniest, not the most politically subversive, but the greatest?

At the time of our conversation, I was mired in a chapter where the lovely heroine, Margarita, rides a broom to a Walpurgis Night ball in Satan's apartment. Along the way she stops to vandalize the home of a literary critic who has prevented her lover, the Master, from publishing his sympathetic novel about Jesus Christ, a manuscript that Satan himself will rescue from oblivion just before he releases Pontius Pilate from … wait, what?

Even by magical-realist standards, The Master and Margarita is an odd book. Bulgakov fills the dreary streets of 1930s Moscow with Edward Gorey drawings come to life, comic demons dancing weightlessly over self-important bureaucrats (the demons include Behemoth, a pistol-wielding, card-playing cat the size of a hog). Meanwhile, Bulgakov's "Christ" narrative, set in ancient Jerusalem, pulses with real human feeling. To put it simply, this isn't Dr. Zhivago.

Still, Mikhail Bulgakov did have one thing in common with the author of that other Soviet-era masterpiece. Like Boris Pasternak, Bulgakov became a protégé of Joseph Stalin, who felt that the genius of his work put him beyond party politics. Or so he reportedly said—Stalin enjoyed a game of cat and mouse, and you rarely knew you were the mouse until that black curtain falling behind you turned out to be a well-waxed moustache. After Stalin became an unlikely fan of Bulgakov's pro-White play Days ...

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