READALONG/DISCUSSION of The Master and Margarita, Week 2
Welcome to the second week of our readalong/discussion of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Our introductory post is here and you can catch up with last week’s discussion here. We’re now halfway through our four-week project, at the end of Book 1.
I was frequently lost last week, reading Chapters 1 through 9, although I wasn’t terribly bothered by not always knowing what was going on. But this week the characters, themes, and storyline all fell into place and I fell completely in love with this book. I may even be a bit obsessed with it, if borrowing the unabridged audiobook version and listening to chapters I’ve already read and reread is anything to go by. The narration is by Julian Rhind-Tutt, who is a favorite of mine, and I really like his interpretation here. It’s a bit quirky (e.g., a Cockney accent for the drinks seller in Chapter 1), but I think it all works. I got the unabridged edition at Hoopla, and both the abridged and unabridged are available there and also at Overdrive (and at Audible if you want to burn a credit).
So what clicked for me? Well, there are still a lot of characters to keep straight, and the story is still very convoluted, but two things happened: first, some themes emerged clearly for me as I read, which deepened my understanding and enjoyment, and second, the sheer brilliance of some of the writing and set pieces blew me away.
When we left off at Chapter 9, Ivan was in the mental hospital, Woland had finagled a performance of his black magic act at the Variety theater, and multiple people were scrambling to appropriate Berlioz’s apartment. As we pick up the story, people keep disappearing, perhaps to Yalta, perhaps to a drinking establishment named Yalta, and in Chapter 12 Woland and his accomplices put on their black magic performance. Chapter 12 is an absolute tour-de-force. The audience and the theater folk are expecting some kind of magic show, which they definitely get, but they get so much more, including our favorite black cat. The master of ceremonies, Bengalsky, attempts to underplay the weirdness and is quickly exposed by Woland:
Bengalsky, who had moved to the side of the stage, began to look bewildered. He raised his eyebrows slightly and, taking advantage of the pause, said, “The foreign artiste is expressing his delight with Moscow, which has advanced technologically, and with its inhabitants as well.”
Here Bengalsky smiled twice, first at the orchestra, and then at the gallery.
Woland, Fagot, and the cat turned their heads toward the master of ceremonies.
“Did I really express delight?” the magician asked Fagot.
“No, indeed, Messire, you expressed no delight whatsoever,” was Fagot’s reply.
“So what is this man talking about?”
“He simply lied!” pronounced the assistant in checks, booming out his words to the entire theater, and turning to Bengalsky, he added, “My compliments, citizen, on your lies.”
And things get even weirder after Woland leaves the stage to Fagot and the cat, with ten-ruble notes appearing everywhere:
“Keep it as a souvenir!” yelled Fagot. “You weren’t kidding yesterday when you said at supper that if it weren’t for poker, your life in Moscow would be totally unbearable.”
“That’s an old trick,” shouted someone from the balcony. “The guy in the orchestra is part of the act.”
“You think so?” bellowed Fagot, narrowing his eyes at the balcony. “In that case, you’re part of the act too, because now the deck is in your pocket!”
There was a stir in the balcony, and a joyous voice rang out, “It’s true! He does have it! Here, here … but wait! They’re ten-ruble notes!”
The spectators in the orchestra turned their heads. In the balcony a perplexed citizen had found a packet of bills in his pocket, wrapped the way they are at the bank, with the words “One Thousand Rubles” written on top.
His neighbors descended upon him, while he, flabbergasted, picked at the wrapper with his nail, trying to ascertain whether the notes were real or make-believe.
“By God, they’re real! Ten-ruble notes!” came joyous shouts from the balcony.
“Play me a game with a pack like that,” said a fat man merrily, who was seated in the center of the orchestra.
“Avec plaisir!” replied Fagot, “but why just you? Everyone will take part!” And he gave a command, “Everybody look up please!” “One!” A pistol appeared in his hand. “Two,” he shouted. The pistol jerked upward. “Three!” he shouted. There was a flash, a bang, and suddenly white pieces of paper began to rain down onto the hall, falling from the dome ceiling, and diving in between the trapezes.
Barely has the audience recovered from this event when the focus turns to the women theatergoers, who are offered Parisian clothes, shoes, and lingerie in exchange for their drab Soviet wear. When Bengalsky tries to intervene, he is beheaded (with the crowd’s approval) and then his head is restored (with the crowd’s approval) and then HE winds up having to be carted off to the mental asylum.
I read this chapter over and over, marveling at how much Bulgakov was able to pack into a few pages. He spent much of his career in the theater, and he brings it alive in large and small particulars. Woland and Fagot (and of course Cat) are spellbinding, and I was as much in thrall as the audience. The themes of what it was like to be an artist and an ordinary person in 1920s and 1930s Soviet Moscow really come through in this chapter, from the thirst for fashionable clothes, to the resentment of unctuous official types as represented by Bengalsky, to the greedy enthusiasm (preceded by cynicism) of suddenly appearing money. Of course, some of these issues are universal, but Bulgakov roots them in the specificity of his experiences.
I am so pleased that you enjoyed this chapter so much. As I mentioned to you this is one of my favorite ones too! Not just that, but “My compliments, citizen, on your lies” ( the form of the Russian verb “lie” that Bulgakov uses here makes the Russian sentence so much more sarcastic) is something I said quite a few times when I wanted to comment on the lies of public officials and not only public officials but some regular citizen.
What caught my eye when I was rereading this chapter was that I was probably interpreting what Voland’s team was doing while giving Volland the chance to observe Moscovites incorrectly all this time. See, I thought that all big and small punishments that they so hilariously delivered were preordained and they knew exactly who deserves what and how this all is going to end. Right now I am thinking maybe it was true for some situations but not for all of them. Surely the “exposure” that Fagott delivers to Arkady Apollonovich for example took place first and foremost because Arkady Apollonovich persisted on getting it. Granted, he was thinking about the “exposure” of different kind, but you know what they say, be careful when bargaining with Voland and his kind ( I am deliberately being vague here Sunita, do you think we can already call him Satan?), you never know what you are going to get. Anyway, he wanted exposure, he surely got some.
And I think ladies clothes and lingerie store was of exactly same variety. I mean it was very sparkly , very theatrical ( as it should have been of course, being part of the theatre show), but we all know what was the final result for those women. I do not think it was meant to be a punishment of course, but I thought they wanted to have fun at their expense and they sure got it in spades.
And one could see that the stage was suddenly empty, and that hoodwinker Fagott, as well as the brazen tom-cat Behemoth, had melted into air, vanished as the magician had vanished earlier in his armchair with the faded upholstery.
And then, just when we’re recovering from Chapter 12, one of the titular characters shows up in Chapter 13: The Master, who is also an occupant of the mental hospital, sneaks into Ivan’s room and tells him his story. It helps to connect the Pontius Pilate and Yeshua chapters to the present-day story, and it introduces characters who are motivated primarily by love (of people and of art) rather than ambition, greed, or power.
Master. I have to say that where translation is concerned his chapter for me was one of the most disappointing ones and the worst thing is I cannot even explain why. Previously I mentioned to you that I thought humor was lost in some quotes I was sending to you, and the translators did a good job even with those parts, it was just something that was hard to translate from one language to another. In chapter 13 nothing was lost, and his meeting with Ivan was fine, but him remembering meeting Margarita for the first time just did not work for me. It was supposed to be a beginning of the love story for the ages, stuff of legend and fairy tale, but as I said I just was not too impressed with the translation and went back to the original and read with my heart in my throat again.
Love leaped out in front of us like a murderer in an alley leaping out of nowhere, and struck us both at once.
We follow the travails of the Variety theater staff in the following chapters, with an additional chapter in the Yeshua/Pilate story, through the rest of Book 1. Its final installment, Chapter 18, would have been the highlight for me if I hadn’t already read Chapter 12, because it returns to the housing theme and has some of the best quotes so far. Sirius sent me a couple of them before I’d read them and they didn’t entirely make sense to me out of context, but one made me LOL when I reached it, and the other is going immediately into my lexicon of euphemisms:
The artiste stretched out a hand sparkling with precious stones, as if to seal the bartender’s lips, and began speaking heatedly, “No, no, no! Not another word! Not in any circumstances, never! I wouldn’t put a thing from that buffet of yours into my mouth! I, most venerable sir, passed your counter yesterday, and I still can’t forget the sturgeon and the brynza cheese. My good man! Brynza isn’t supposed to be green, someone must have deceived you. It’s supposed to be white. And that tea? It’s dishwater! With my own eyes I saw some sloppy girl pour unboiled water out of a pail into your huge samovar, yet they continued pouring tea from it anyway. No, my dear fellow, that’s not the way to do things.”
“Excuse me,” began Andrei Fokich, stunned by this sudden attack, “but I didn’t come about that, the sturgeon’s not the issue.”
“How can it not be the issue if it’s spoiled?”
“They sent us sturgeon that’s second-grade fresh,” said the bartender.
“Dear fellow, that’s absurd!”
“Second-grade fresh—that’s absurd! Freshness comes in only one grade—first-grade, and that’s it. And if the sturgeon’s second-grade fresh, that means it’s rotten!”
“Excuse me,” the bartender said once again, not knowing how to escape the artiste’s tongue lashing.
“I cannot excuse you,” the latter said firmly.
Anyone, certainly anyone of a certain age, who has spent time in state-controlled systems will know EXACTLY what “second-grade fresh” means. Burgin and O’Connor note that “this oxymoronic phrase entered popular usage as soon as this novel was published,” and I only wish I’d known it when I was enduring government provisions during India’s License Raj era. How a country with such fabulous food traditions and opportunities could serve that stuff is beyond comprehension. But I digress.
In Chapter 18 we also find out a bit more about why Woland has come to Moscow, and we return to the recurring theme of hoarding money (both rubles and “foreign currency,” which is bitingly satirized in Chapter 17). Bring on Book 2!
It is still fascinating to me how we are discovering connection points between our experiences in the home countries. Yes, many people in the Soviet Union knew this quote very well and used it to describe the food often served in state controlled establishments. “Second grade fresh” is a perfect description. I told you that I even had (turned out to be false) recollection that cafes sometimes put out a warning about the products being “second fresh” :).
Chapter 18 once again made me think about whether Voland and company are all knowing , or just improvising as they come along. I mean we know that Voland was spot on about Berlioz’ fate, but even when he made that prediction he supposedly looks at the stars and planets and makes the prediction based on their movement so maybe he didn’t already know? And well, the telegram which Begemoth sent was of course sent after the fact, but did he have a plan or just figured it would be fun? I wonder.
As you said, bring on book two.