Matt Forney
Spread the Word!

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Mark Twain once defined a classic as a book that everyone praises and nobody reads. I’ve pissed off so many people in the past by dissing so-called “classic” works—Wuthering HeightsThe Great Gatsby and everything by William Wordsworth, among others—for being poorly written, poorly plotted, or just flat-out fake. At best, some of these books were ideal for their time but have since been rendered irrelevant; at worst, the continued prominence of these “great” novels shows just how phony and idiotic most literary critics and educators are.

The Master and Margarita is one of these books.

To the middlebrow reader, Mikhail Bulgakov’s magnum opus is a moving love story that satirizes the atheistic idiocy of the Soviet Union. To anyone with a brain, it’s a bathetic piece of shit with a few decent moments. While Bulgakov’s satire shows flashes of genius from time to time, his over-dramatic prose, childlike moralizing and convoluted plotting make reading The Master and Margarita a dull chore. The only person who could possibly enjoy this book is a brain-dead conservative of the National Review school, the kind of person who enjoyed William Buckley’s Blackford Oakes thrillers and whines about Hollywood being too “lib-ruhl.”

Indeed, just about every aspect of The Master and Margarita reads like a poorly-done political polemic. Right-wingers who complain about the left-wing slant of the arts rarely consider that good artists, regardless of political orientation, don’t put their politics front and center. If a good work is leftist, it’s leftist by accident: the writer’s biases seep out like leaks in a bucket, not splashed on the reader like they’re getting hosed down in a concentration camp. When conservatives attempt to create ideological art, it fails for the same reason that all ideological art fails: nobody wants to be lectured to.

When you attempt to talk down to the reader, any enjoyment your book might provide is sucked out like a Thai single mother working overtime on Blow Row.

The Master and Margarita concerns its titular characters, an unnamed Russian author who has been tossed in a lunatic asylum after his novel about Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ was rejected by the atheistic communist literary establishment. We aren’t introduced to him or his despairing lover Margarita until halfway through the book, the first part focusing on the appearance of Woland (Satan’s avatar) in downtown Moscow, where he proceeds to wreak havoc everywhere he goes:

Trying to get hold of something, Berlioz fell backwards, the back of his head lightly striking the cobbles, and had time to see high up—but whether to right or left he no longer knew—the gold-tinged moon. He managed to turn on his side, at the same moment drawing his legs to his stomach in a frenzied movement, and, while turning, to make out the face, completely white with horror, and the crimson armband of the woman driver bearing down on him with irresistible force. Berlioz did not cry out, but around him the whole street screamed with desperate female voices.

I’m not sure whether this is a product of Bulgakov’s own writing or the ineptness of this translation, but The Master and Margarita’s tone rubbed me the wrong way right from the start. A book mocking the priggishness and parochialism of the 1930’s Moscow literati should be lighthearted and dismissive, but Bulgakov narrates like he’s transcribing The Epic of Gilgamesh, writing in a bombastic drama queen voice. Furthermore, the dialogue is written with the subtlety of a cannon shot, as Woland calmly walks up to Berlioz (the head of MASSOLIT, the Soviet writers’ guild) and his poet friend Ivan Homeless and argues with them about the existence of God.

These aren’t characters, they’re freaking right-wing ad libs.

Where the book really goes wrong is when its title characters enter the story. While I understand Bulgakov’s intentions—to depict a love so strong that not even the machinations of the State or the Devil can tear it apart—he goes about it all wrong. The relationship between the Master and Margarita is described in such florid, purple tones that I find it hard to believe that Bulgakov ever had sex in his life:

Follow me, reader! Who told you that there is no true, faithful, eternal love in this world! May the liar’s vile tongue be cut out!

Follow me, my reader, and me alone, and I will show you such a love!

No! The master was mistaken when with bitterness he told Ivanushka in the hospital, at that hour when the night was falling past midnight, that she had forgotten him. That could not be. She had, of course, not forgotten him.

Were it not for the awkward translation phrasing, I’d swear the love story in The Master and Margarita had been stolen from one of those silent film melodramas. “And then the evil blackguard tied the fair maiden to the railroad tracks! As she screamed and screamed for help, our hero raced as fast as he could so that he might save her…”

Interjected every so often is The Master and Margarita’s B-plot, a fictionalized narrative of the crucifixion of Jesus. You have to be pretty goddamn arrogant to think you can improve on the Bible, and as expected, Bulgakov’s depiction of Jesus’ Yeshua’s persecution falls flat on its face. It’s fairly obvious that Bulgakov is trying to draw a parallel between Pilate and Stalin, but his heavy-handed treatment of the story—like everything else in the book—ruins any dramatic tension that might have otherwise developed.

To put it simply, The Master and Margarita is the literary equivalent of the Creation Museum: an attempt to combat aggressive stupidity with aggressive stupidity. It’s sentimental, overwrought, tacky and probably should have stayed in samizdat. Feel free this skip this “classic.”

Click here to buy The Master and Margarita.

Read Next: This Malignant Mirage by Andy Nowicki