Posted by: Corri van de Stege | January 24, 2008

The first Russian

The Russian Reading Challenge: review of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Matt recommended this book, as part of the Challenge and so I picked it up as the first Russian to read this calendar year. The challenge lasts the whole of 2008 and I have given a list of the books I intend to read on the special page above.  Just as well I can take a whole year; it means that I can look forward to enjoying my time with some Russians when on holiday in Crete this summer!

I had not read any of Bulgakov’s books until I opened this one and discovered that I had really missed out on something.  His writing is fantastic in two sense of the word – not only is the writing great and masterly, it is also coming straight out of a very rich imagination.  The story is gothic, it’s magic realism, and it has enough historical events embroidered throughout to lose yourself completely in this alternative world.  It is a great experience.  I really don’t want to give away the plot(s) of the story, as it is best to come at it wit a completely open mind and simply enjoy the unravelling of events.

However, maybe I can just tantalise you a little in telling you that the eponymous characters of the book, the master and Margarita, only get their true entrance into the story somewhere half way through the book; until then it’s all scene setting and what a marvellous way of doing that.  Here is an omniscient narrator who flits from one character to another and from one scene to another, always there just in time to see what’s happening and relate it to us, the sole purpose seemingly the preparation for the full blast of what is at the heart of the unfolding events, a love story and eternal loyalty, literally, in which the devil and his entourage, as well as the story of Pontius Pilate, all play their own musical accompaniment.  It’s like one big orchestra, going through all the movements until the musicians can withdraw in the knowledge that they have kept all their listeners completely enthralled.  All you do at the end is heave a big sigh wishing it would go on, but knowing the inevitable has happened: it’s the end.

A great book and yes, I do remember now why I like the Russians so much. They’re just the best epic storytellers, giving the reader the satisfaction of discovering important and impressive messages on the way as well as providing us with sheer enjoyment of the wizardry with words, sentences and scene settings, and the evoking of real life characters.  Bulgakov is a genuine master.

So, thanks to Matt and the Russian Reading Challenge – I might not have stumbled across this book otherwise!



  1. A stellar review with lots of insights I have never considered before. The comparison to movements in an orchestra couldn’t be more appropriate. All the magic realism, the havoc, the magic show, the love affair are to prepare readers for the intersection of the two plotlines at the end, when the fate of master and Margarita is determined. It’s an intriguing read!

  2. I haven’t read the book but I coincide with Matthew in his appreciation of your criticism which is really outstanding.

    I’ll try and get the book here.

  3. Matt: yes and many thanks for pointing me in the direction! 🙂

    Jose: nice to see you again – don’t worry, I overstretch myself at times and would not want to urge others to do the same! I will be going at a more leisurely pace now, as work beckons. 🙂

  4. My students are reading Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, a book written in completely different voice. It’s narrated by a dog.

  5. Matt: does that mean I should put that one on my list as well? Not sure whether I can get into the heart of a dog?….

  6. It’s actually quite fun to read, very sarcastic. 🙂

  7. I’ll put it on my list – I trust your reviews completely!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: