Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a richly multilayered novel that includes elements of fantasy, historical fiction and social satire in one gorgeously wrought whole. A favorite of mine since early adolescence, it is a book I keep re-reading every few years in its original Russian, and recommend and often gift to all new friends who haven’t yet read it.
The Devil, with a retinue of imps and demons, visits 1930’s Moscow. He leaves mayhem, bureaucratic confusion, terror and comedy in his wake. He takes over a centrally located apartment by variously dispersing with its occupants via internment in a mental institution, instantaneous transport to a seaside resort, or death. He holds a magic show in a prestigious concert hall from which the distinguished audience members emerge shaken, ridiculed and mostly undressed. He is cruelly honest with the hypocrites, serious with the philosophers, he is playful, powerful, profound and complex, and so is the novel as a whole.
In parallel with the Devil’s story, runs the plotline of the Master – a talented and tormented writer working on a historical novel about Pontius Pilate and Christ. He meets and falls in love with Margarita, a beautiful and deeply unhappy wife of a wealthy official, and their affair enriches them both with happiness in the midst of a gray and dismal Soviet existence until the day the Master despairs, burns his manuscript and disappears from Margarita’s life.
For the sake of finding him again, and restoring his masterpiece from the ashes, Margarita accepts the Devil’s invitation to act the Queen at his side during the annual Satan’s gala ball of murderers, ghosts, witches, and all manner of tormented evil souls.
Margarita’s flight to this gathering is one of the most vivid scenes in the book. Alone in her large Moscow apartment, she is melancholy, apprehensive, and worn down by life when she begins to apply the ointment given to her by the Devil. As its magic infuses her skin, the worries of the everyday world start to fade away and a lightness and a feeling of freedom take over. Rejuvenated, awakened, nude, giddy and reckless, she flies on a floor brush out of the window of her building and into the warm spring night.
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