Matt Forney
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The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

master-and-margaritaMark 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

  • Samuel Russell

    It’s better in Russian. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s better.

  • Nataliya Kochergova

    I read this as a teenager. I gotta say Bulgakov’s language is quite funny, but it’s probably lost when it’s not in Russian. I liked the book, but not everything was appealing. What was good was the humor, and the adventures of satanic creatures. I mean, what’s not to like about satanic creatures fucking with people’s minds? Anyway, I didn’t understand the philosophical stuff that much. And the two titular characters were depressing.

  • rhasa1

    It’s a great story, written really poorly. Shame. And no, it’s not really the translation, I have 4 in two different languages. Bulgakov kept rewriting it until his death.

  • Spike Gomes


    Nah, just kidding. I kinda knew you’d hate the bulk of it, though I thought you’d get more of a kick out of Woland and his associates trolling the fuck outta Moscow than you did.

    Now I kind of want to see you tear into another favorite of mine someday, “A House for Mr. Biswas” or “Zorba the Greek”.

  • Laguna Beach Fogey

    Blackford Oakes. Haven’t heard that name in a while. What a fucking fraud Buckley was. lol

  • Alternative_Right

    Another book I couldn’t finish.

  • citizen49a

    Forney, Forney, Forney….

    Forney, you remind me a little of my younger more callow self at times. I can remember writing that Romeo and Juliet was “melodramatic” back then.

    Now I have to confess at the outset that I haven’t read this novel. Having said that, based on your description, I’d have to say it sounds very RUSSIAN.

    What I mean to say is, couldn’t your critique of this novel be applied to ANY of the classic Russian novelists?

    Aren’t you really critiquing Anna Karena, The Idiot, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov as well?

    I’ll go further than that.

    Aren’t you really critiquing about 50% of 19th century literature too? I mean, I can see you making the same criticism of Jane Eyre, or Lord Jim, or any of a dozen other Victorian novels.

    Is it all just trash, Forney, because it doesn’t conform to the API of version 2.0 of the quick cut, continuously stimulating, video game informed, disposable, digitally modulated, amoral present?

    There are a lot of people who would like us to think so, and more than a few can be found among the all-new trans-everything SJW, LBGT, #progressive4ever crowd.

    Now I’m just a simple STEM graduate. I’ve spent most of my life juggling numbers and running projects. So I have no claim to the artistic sensibility. And going by the form that seems to have taken in the universities these days, I’m actually quite happy with that.

    But is the past all just a bunch of tired, boring, tedious, over dramatized, crap? The SJW’s want to eviscerate, transmogrify, and transgender the past, so they can use it to redefine the present.

    Do you just want to throw it out because it sucks, it’s boring, it’s sentimental, too long winded, and throws up challenges to many of the more enjoyable aspects of the libertine present?

    These novels do challenge modern day sensibility. They’re not easy to read – at first – because they come from a time when PEOPLE THOUGHT DIFFERENTLY, and they weren’t written for mass consumption. Because there wasn’t a “mass” back then.

    You have to “get into them,” and that’s not always easy to do. Sometimes I sit down to read one of these novels and can’t finish it. If I had to say why I’d offer something resembling your criticism.

    They take time and effort, but they’re the only way to really explore the past. And they can be every bit as consuming as more contemporary fare, once you realize you’re literally entering a foreign country when you read them. You have to at least provisionally adopt the language and mores of the land if you want to be able to travel in it.

    Orwell wrote “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

    The SJWs and the LBGT trans-everything all the time, etc., etc. people get that. That’s why they spend so much time deconstructing and reframing the past.

    But many of those who would resist them seem to think none of that matters.

    It seems like they’ve all given up and decided to just “enjoy the decline.”

  • Henry Berry

    Do you like Joseph Conrad, Forney? I’d recommend ‘The Secret Agent’, it’s extraordinarily sober and to-the-point without losing any emotive or artistic quality, I’ve always thought the perfect late-Victorian novel.