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Bulgakov was primarily known during his lifetime (1891-1940) as a dramatist-- he stars as the blacklisted playwright in that famous anecdote in which the blacklisted playwright, at the end of his rope, writes to Stalin and says 'give me useful work in my field or let me emigrate so my talents do not rot'... and Stalin, who had liked a previous play of his, gives him a theatre job. Despite this rather amazing incident, he suffered his entire career from lack of employment and political suspicion, and his great novel, The Master and Margarita, was never published in his lifetime. Unlike the work of another brilliant and revolutionary artist, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Bulgakov's novel did originally emerge from its obscurity in Russia and in Russian, and the translators of the version I read say that some of his prose has become standard idiom.

The Master and Margarita is a great novel; it may well even be a Great Novel. In 1930s Moscow, the Devil comes to call-- or rather, to take a gig performing at a variety show, so that he can see what the Muscovites are like. Madness follows in the wake of his entourage, who include a naked witch called Hella and a magnificent talking cat known as Behemoth. (At one point Behemoth causes utter and total chaos simply by politely paying his fare on the streetcar.) One of the running jokes of the book is the way in which just about everyone who interacts with any of the devils winds up in adjacent cells at the insane asylum. In the meantime, bureaucracy grinds on as usual, the forces of law and order try to figure out what is going on and who they can arrest (everybody), and a secondary thread depicts a deeply historically researched version of the crucifixion of Christ and the thought processes of Pontius Pilate surrounding that-- a story we eventually find out is the work of a young failed novelist who started the book already in the asylum, a novelist who has given up his name for his failure and is referred to only as the Master. But the Master and his true love, Margarita, do not appear until more than a third of the way through the book.

Nonetheless, Margarita makes a wonderful protagonist, and it says something about Bulgakov's genius that the protagonist is not mentioned until after the first third and does not do anything until the second half and yet the book never feels shapeless, wandering, or in any way slack. Margarita, very sensibly, becomes a witch to help her lover. I would place this novel second only to Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes among great witch-novels; and that one wasn't doing anything else (though, what it does do-- I recommend that book very highly to anyone). The Master and Margarita is a great witch novel and a great fantasy novel (and a good candidate for being the earliest urban fantasy novel I've seen), and also an impressive satire and portrait of its Moscow, and a surprisingly heartfelt meditation on history, and goodness, and the things that can be expected of art. And it does tie its ridiculous number of contradictory ironies and sprawling threads together into a climax that both grows organically from the rest of the book and, as all transcendent climaxes should, drops in from somewhere beautifully else entirely.

I quite liked the translation I read, by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor. The prose is distinctive, not pretty but very serviceable; the notes at the back of the book on things such as the geography of Moscow, the word-roots of everyone's names, and the allusions to other literature are (mirabile dictu) neither condescending nor lacking but actually useful; and the translators' afterword explains very clearly what they think is going on in the novel: but, and I think this is important, their translation communicated complexity of thought so successfully that I outright disagree with their afterword interpretation based entirely on internal textual evidence. When that is possible the translators have done something right. So often one gets a book that only means what the translator thought it did. This version gives the book room to breathe.

In short, this is spectacular, a novel still up to or ahead of the times (most urban fantasy only wishes it were like this), a book that made me think of Zamyatin, Thomas Malory, and George MacDonald in the same paragraph. It has some minor internal inconsistencies, as Bulgakov did not finish revising it before he died, but nothing to really mar. I highly recommend it.

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