READALONG/DISCUSSION of The Master and Margarita, Week 1
Welcome to the first week of our readalong and discussion of Mikhail Bulgakov’s 20th century classic. As we said last week, we’ll be reading the book in four sections, and today we’ll talk about ch. 1-9.
Sunita: For the purposes of this conversation, I’m the total newbie. I’m not nearly as familiar as I’d like to be with the context, it’s my first reading of the novel ,and I’m only reading as much as we’re talking about each week. Sirius is the veteran; not only has she read it (more than once, right, Sirius?) but she’s read it in the original Russian as well as in translation, and she’s familiar with both the social and literary contexts in which the novel is set.
Sirius: When Sunita introduced this book in deals section of DA, I decided to send it to another American friend of mine who likes Russian literature but for various reasons I warned her that the book is weird and when I needed to specify what exactly did I mean, I stumbled. Paranormal is the best way I could find to explain the book’s “weirdness” even though of course it is not just paranormal. Sunita, now when you read several chapters do you find the book weird, or notreally ?
Sunita: I do find it weird, but entirely in a good way. I suppose it could fall into the “magical realism” category, but it is definitely its own thing. What strikes me the most about the opening chapters is that you really have to pay attention, because each sentence contains so much information. It’s not difficult to read in terms of its style or vocabulary or structure, but it’s unfamiliar AND there’s quite a bit going on. I reread paragraphs and sections, especially in the first two chapters, before I settled into the rhythm of the novel. It is also very funny: sometimes in a quiet, dry way and then other times more like a farce.(A note about the translations: I am switching between the Aplin and the Burgin and O’Connor versions.)
Sirius : In the translation by Volkhonsky and Pevear which I am reading (together with the original), the first chapter is called “Never talk to strangers. ”
It starts with: “At the Hour of hot spring sunset two citizens appeared at the Patriarch’s Ponds.” As we learn quickly, these two citizens were writers, or more specifically one was the editor of a”fat literary journal ” and chairman of one of the major Moscow literary associations, called MASSOLIT. His name was Michael Alexandrovich Berlioz and the other was a young poet who was trying to publish a poem about Jesus Christ in that journal.
Michail Alexandrovich is explaining to Ivan Nikolaevich that his poem needs to be improved/rewritten. Ivan Nikolaevich may have been a proper Soviet atheist in describing Jesus in a vastly negative light (you see, religion as opium for the masses is bad, communism as a substitute opium for the masses is awesome, but I digress), but it sounded to me as if he was being a good writer. Jesus sounded like a real person in his poem and according to the editor we just can’t have that.
Michail Alexandrovich is explaining to him that so many sons of god appeared in other religions before Christianity that Jesus just could not have been real. Even Joseph Flavius didn’t mention him – yay for being well read Michail Alexandrovich.
And then somebody else interferes in their conversation which takes decidedly bizarre turn form that part on.
What did you think of these two guys ? What was your first impression?
Sunita: The way Bulgakov describes them initially told me that the book was going to have a witty, not-always-serious tone. But then they immediately fall into a conversation about a poem about Jesus, with side discursions about the philosopher Immanuel Kant. On the one hand, this felt entirely Russian (sorry for the stereotyping), but on the other, a poem about Jesus in a Soviet literary journal? So I was very intrigued from the outset. Both Berlioz and Ivan felt like the kinds of scholars I used to know when I was younger; full of philosophical ideas, always ready to talk about them, and not very clued in to the everyday world. I found them quite endearing.
Sirius: With the qualifier that I don’t always remember my first impressions about the book, I do know that I was not surprised by the poem about Jesus which essentially sounded anti Jesus – as I am sure you know atheistic anti religious propaganda was always strong in the Soviet Union. Russian Orthodox Church was allowed to exist as part of the state pretty much but most other Christian (and not Christian of course) religions – not really. People who followed them were persecuted , etc . So poem of *that kind* about Jesus didn’t surprise me .
I think I felt bad for Ivan. I think but I’m not hundred percent sure whether I substituted my later impressions for the earlier ones – because I certainly pity him based on what is happening later in the story – quite soon actually.
And very soon after their initial conversation a certain citizen materializes in front of them out of thin air and the fun really begins.
And just at the moment when Mikhail Alexandrovich was telling the poet how the Aztecs used to fashion figurines of Vitzliputzli out of dough—the first man appeared in the walk.
Afterwards, when, frankly speaking, it was already too late, various institutions presented reports describing this man. A comparison of them cannot but cause amazement. Thus, the first of them said that the man was short, had gold teeth, and limped on his right leg. The second, that the man was enormously tall, had platinum crowns, and limped on his left leg. The third laconically averred that the man had no distinguishing marks. It must be acknowledged that none of these reports is of any value.
First of all, the man described did not limp on any leg, and was neither short nor enormous, but simply tall. As for his teeth, he had platinum crowns on the left side and gold on the right. He was wearing an expensive grey suit and imported shoes of a matching colour. His grey beret was cocked rakishly over one ear; under his arm he carried a stick with a black knob shaped like a poodle’s head. He looked to be a little over forty. Mouth somehow twisted. Clean-shaven. Dark-haired. Right eye black, left—for some reason—green. Dark eyebrows, but one higher than the other. In short, a foreigner.
Who is this mysterious citizen ? He is shocked, I am telling you, shocked that these two are doubting the existence of God in general and Jesus in particular. His talk ranges from philosophical debate to just pure mockery and well, some psychic predictions as to the immediate future of Michal Alexandrovich and Ivan Nikolaevich too (you will get the chance to ask professor what schizophrenia is) both of those predictions turn out to be entirely correct .
I don’t think it was hard to figure out by the end of the first chapter who Monsieur Voland was of course , but I think I want to know once again what did you think of him ? For me, I loved Voland and still do love him, he is one of my favorites if not the favorite character in the book.
Sunita: I thought he was a wonderful character, especially the polite way in which he argued with the other two. He was sending up their preconceptions and one-upping them, but they didn’t realize what was going on. Berlioz did know something was up (the needle in his chest), but he didn’t know what exactly.
Sirius: What did you think about the substance of his talk/speech? Putting aside his attempts to convince our friends Berlioz and Bezdomny that God exists did you think that he was hinting that Kant is in hell for example? Did you believe him when he told Berlioz how his life will be ending very soon ?
Sunita: Honestly, I wasn’t sure what was going on there. It did sound as if Kant was not in a good place (heh); and I guess I did believe him about Berlioz, because if someone materialized out of thin air in front of me and talked philosophy, I’d assume his superpowers extended that far. And in fact, in the third chapter, what he tells Berlioz will happen comes to pass. It’s brutal and very funny and it’s almost as bad for Ivan, because he has to deal with the aftermath, both practically and psychologically. But before we get to that point, we have Woland’s story about Pontius Pilate, which takes up all of ch. 2. What did you think of that chapter, Sirius?
Sirius: I thought it was brilliant on so many levels. I love stories where religion is an integral part of the story, but I especially love when a knowledgeable writer twists the familiar religious angle to a certain degree, and I thought Bulgakov certainly delivered here. Of course we recognize the prisoner whom Pontius Pilate is questioning, but I was amused as to how he dealt, for example, with the existence of Apostles and their later writings (checked his journal and nothing was right). There is also a reason why he lets us know that Berlioz was familiar with the writings of Flavius of course – Bulgakov seemed to be extremely well versed in what was happening in the ancient Jerusalem at the times and Flavius was one of the main ( if not the main) source. I know I am not telling you anything new about Flavius, I just thought it was amusing how he allowed Berlioz to have that knowledge.
In general my feeling about this chapter was always hoping against all hope that Pilate will do the right thing and let his prisoner go (even knowing what would happen instead).
Sunita: Oh, I see what you mean! I knew Bulgakov was playing with the narrative, but I wasn’t exactly sure how.
Poor Ivan’s adventures land him in a very difficult place, but his journey takes us to the headquarters of MASSOLIT, where Berlioz’s colleagues and friends learn what has transpired. I felt on familiar ground in these chapters, because although the setting is Soviet Moscow, it reminded me of pre-reform India. Apartments that were owned or regulated by the state, run-down but still sought-after workplaces with their own restaurants, open only to the chosen few with edible food at low prices. And everyone in everyone’s business. We meet people living with and around Berlioz by the last of our nine chapters. Is this basically the group we’ll follow for the rest of the book, or at least Book 1?
Sirius: Isn’t this interesting how the poor living conditions lead us to recognize familiar situations? The shortage of the apartments was a huge issue during the Soviet times (and even though now I am on a less familiar ground, not having lived there for over twenty years, I believe that if one does not have money it is still a big problem, and a lot of people are not rich at all). For that reason and many others Bulgakov’s satirical portrayal of Soviet Union realities rang true several decades later after the book was written.
Yes, we met most of the important players and we will follow them, except of course the two people mentioned in the title of the book and maybe one other but opinions may differ as to how important that person was.
Sunita: Is there anything we should be looking out for in the next section? Will we see more about Pontius Pilate? And what about the extremely polite, well-behaved black cat?
Sirius: Well, I am not sure if I should be answering the question about seeing more of Pontius Pilate, but I always think that Cat was and is hilarious. I find Bulgakov’s humor to be very dry, but it works for me perfectly. I always chuckle when I read about the conductor demanding from the Cat a payment for the train ride for example, and when Cat delivers some punishments that was funny too.
Sunita: That was a wonderful passage. Let’s end with Cat on the tram, where he finds himself a bit at a loss, but of course deals with it appropriately and elegantly:
Having lost one of his quarry, Ivan focused his attention on the cat and saw this strange cat go up to the footboard of an ‘A’ tram waiting at a stop, brazenly elbow aside a woman, who screamed, grab hold of the handrail, and even make an attempt to shove a ten-kopeck piece into the conductress’s hand through the window, open on account of the stuffiness.
Ivan was so struck by the cat’s behaviour that he froze motionless by the grocery store on the corner, and here he was struck for a second time, but much more strongly, by the conductress’s behaviour. As soon as she saw the cat getting into the tram-car, she shouted with a malice that even made her shake:
‘No cats allowed! Nobody with cats allowed! Scat! Get off, or I’ll call the police!’
Neither the conductress nor the passengers were struck by the essence of the matter: not just that a cat was boarding a tram-car, which would have been good enough, but that he was going to pay!
The cat turned out to be not only a solvent but also a disciplined animal. At the very first shout from the conductress, he halted his advance, got off the footboard, and sat down at the stop, rubbing his whiskers with the ten-kopeck piece. But as soon as the conductress yanked the cord and the tram-car started moving off, the cat acted like anyone who has been expelled from a tram-car but still needs a ride. Letting all three cars go by, the cat jumped on to the rear coupling-pin of the last one, wrapped its paws around some hose sticking out of the side, and rode off, thus saving himself ten kopecks.
If you’re reading along, or if you’ve read the book and we’ve jogged your memory about it, let us know in the comments!