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← Why should you read "The Master and Margarita"? - Alex Gendler

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Showing Revision 1 created 05/21/2019 by Tara Ahmadinejad.

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    The Devil has come to town.
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    But don’t worry – all he wants to do
    is stage a magic show.
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    This absurd premise forms the central plot
    of Mikhail Bulgakov’s masterpiece,
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    The Master and Margarita.
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    Written in Moscow during the 1930s,
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    this surreal blend of political satire,
    historical fiction, and occult mysticism
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    has earned a legacy as one of the 20th
    century’s greatest novels–
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    and one of its strangest.
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    The story begins when a meeting between
    two members of Moscow’s literary elite
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    is interrupted by a strange gentleman
    named Woland,
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    who presents himself as a foreign scholar
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    invited to give a presentation
    on black magic.
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    As the stranger engages the two companions
    in a philosophical debate
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    and makes ominous predictions
    about their fates,
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    the reader is suddenly transported
    to first-century Jerusalem.
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    There a tormented Pontius Pilate
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    reluctantly sentences Jesus of
    Nazareth to death.
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    With the narrative shifting between
    the two settings,
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    Woland and his entourage– Azazello,
    Koroviev, Hella,
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    and a giant cat named Behemoth–
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    are seen to have uncanny magical powers,
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    which they use to stage their performance
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    while leaving a trail of havoc
    and confusion in their wake.
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    Much of the novel’s dark humor comes
    not only from this demonic mischief,
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    but also the backdrop
    against which it occurs.
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    Bulgakov’s story takes place in the same
    setting where it was written–
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    the USSR at the height of the
    Stalinist period.
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    There, artists and authors worked
    under strict censorship,
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    subject to imprisonment, exile,
    or execution
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    if they were seen as undermining
    state ideology.
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    Even when approved, their work–
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    along with housing, travel,
    and everything else–
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    was governed by a convoluted bureaucracy.
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    In the novel, Woland manipulates this
    system along with the fabric of reality,
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    to hilarious results.
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    As heads are separated from bodies
    and money rains from the sky,
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    the citizens of Moscow react with
    petty-self interest,
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    illustrating how Soviet society bred greed
    and cynicism despite its ideals.
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    And the matter-of-fact narration
    deliberately blends
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    the strangeness of the supernatural
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    with the everyday absurdity
    of Soviet life.
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    So how did Bulgakov manage to publish
    such a subversive novel
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    under an oppressive regime?
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    Well… he didn’t.
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    He worked on The Master and Margarita
    for over ten years.
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    But while Stalin’s personal favor
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    may have kept Bulgakov safe
    from severe persecution,
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    many of his plays and writings
    were kept from production,
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    leaving him safe but effectively silenced.
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    Upon the author’s death in 1940,
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    the manuscript remained unpublished.
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    A censored version was eventually
    printed in the 1960s,
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    while copies of the unabridged manuscript
    continued to circulate
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    among underground literary circles.
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    The full text was only published in 1973,
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    over 30 years after its completion.
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    Bulgakov’s experiences with censorship
    and artistic frustration
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    lend an autobiographical air to the
    second part of the novel,
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    when we are finally introduced
    to its namesake.
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    ‘The Master’ is a nameless author who’s
    worked for years on a novel
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    but burned the manuscript
    after it was rejected by publishers–
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    just as Bulgakov had done
    with his own work.
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    Yet the true protagonist is the Master’s
    mistress Margarita.
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    Her devotion to her lover’s abandoned
    dream bears a strange connection
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    to the diabolical company’s escapades–
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    and carries the story to
    its surreal climax.
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    Despite its dark humor and
    complex structure,
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    The Master and Margarita is, at its heart,
    a meditation on art, love, and redemption
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    that never loses itself in cynicism.
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    And the book’s long overdue publication
    and survival against the odds
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    is a testament to what Woland tells the
    Master: “Manuscripts don’t burn.”
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    Bulgakov’s masterful Russian prose
    is often considered inimitable,
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    though many have tried.
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    Of the several English versions available,
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    Pevear and Volokhonsky’s is often cited
    as the most complete and accurate;
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    on the other hand, some consider Burgin
    and O’Connor’s earlier translation
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    more successful at capturing the author’s
    style and humor.