Only The Devil Knows What This Story’s About: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita (cover)
Copyright © 1967 by The Estate of Mikhail Bulgakov.

Note: This review was written a while back on Goodreads, but I’m reprinting it here for my usual audience’s benefit.

Mikhail Bulgakov is not a Russian writer you’ve probably heard of, not like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.  But he is notable for being a Russian novelist whose main work, a magic realism story about the Devil wreaking havoc on the lives of ordinary Soviet citizens, was banned in the USSR.  And besides that, it’s a story that features a black tomcat who drinks vodka and plays tricks on people.

In all honesty, that second line might have had more of an influence on me than the first (I’m a sucker for cats these days).

The Master and Margarita is the story about a series of strange occurrences in Soviet Moscow, when a foreigner named Professor Woland and his retinue arrive to play tricks and sow chaos wherever they go.  This Woland, however, is no mere mortal, but Satan himself in disguise.  He seduces away a mortal woman named Margarita from her lover–a poor writer who later goes by “The Master”–and uses her to seduce others on his behalf and embarrass many respectable citizens with her charms and frequent nudity.  And yet it’s Margarita who proves to be essential to resolving the plot–her love for the Master is what saves her, as does her sympathy for other human beings.

Reading The Master and Margarita requires some mental gymnastics and more than a little patience for Western readers, but it isn’t a bad novel. I don’t think it’s the best thing ever, but it has some spirit if nothing else.  The key thing to remember is that this is a story that pokes fun at the way ordinary citizens and authority figures think when things go wrong. Its use of slapstick is pretty good, bringing sheer chaos and turning over assumptions in every corner of Moscow. It’s Bulgakov’s jab at Soviet discipline and rationalism, using a Satanic ensemble of tricksters to elude the authorities and turn everyone hysterical.

The central tension in this novel is the conflict between the materialism of everyday Russia and the supernatural intervention of the Devil and his assistants. While the State is trying to strip away religion and superstition, Bulgakov brings it back into vogue by making the Devil a main character and taking frequent “flashbacks” to Pontius Pilate and the last days of Christ. I actually like the passages that touch on this tension of faith versus rationalism. However, the story at times becomes an endurance contest of how many more demonic tricks and cons can be pulled before the end of the book. As good as the slapstick can get, it does get a little tiring and holds the plot back.

I’d recommend this story if you want to know a little more about 1930s Russia and enjoy some light Soviet satire. But if you’re not a patient reader, you might find yourself drifting away from the central theme.

The Master and Margarita is available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. You can also get the paperback edition from Book Soup, the largest independent bookstore chain in Hollywood.

Bibliography: Bulgakov, Mikhail.  The Master and Margarita.  Trans. Mirra Ginsburg.  New York: Grove Press, 1967 (1997 renewal).

It’s A Mod, A Rocker, And A Mocker: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

The film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is an adaptation of the graphic novel series Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley.  This movie was made by geeks for geeks, and thus it is wonderful.

Photo by Photo Credit: Universal Pictures – © Copyright:2010 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

I say it is for geeks only as a disclaimer for people who might find its style perplexing or who don’t get a lot of the pop culture jokes and geek-specific references.  If you are a fan of manga and anime, 8-bit video games, comic books, and indie rock, then you’re going to have a good time with this film.  If you aren’t, don’t be discouraged.  You just might have to be a little more patient or just go see something else.

The story is chock full of magic realism.  It follows the exploits of Scott Pilgrim, a bass player in a small band who’s smitten with a mysterious girl by the name of Ramona.  However, he discovers that, by some malicious twist of fate, he has to go through all seven of her “Evil Exes” in order to have a relationship with her.  Even worse, each Ex seems to have a supernatural ability of some sort, though reality’s already warped enough to allow Scott a chance to succeed once he gets his act together.

Two important points come to mind.  Firstly, if you know anything about video games, you’ll get the style of this film.  Each fight between Scott and one of Ramona’s Exes is set up like a boss battle in a video game, with different power levels and styles of attack.  Secondly, it’s got an element common to oh so many teen movies: the pain of relationships and growing up.  The neuroses of almost every major character comes into play throughout the story, and so the fights could just as easily be taken as beautifully visualized psychological struggles.

I had decided to review this film for three reasons.  First, I felt it deserved a review that highlighted its positive aspects, considering some of the critical backlash it’s received.  Second, while it might not be a “traditional” fantasy piece, it’s a good exercise in magic realism and I wanted to put a spotlight on that quality.  But more than anything else, this film is just cool.  It’s a video game-film mix-up that delivers subtle and sharp humor, some eye-catching action, and more than a few soul-touching moments.  It’s furious, fast-paced, and balls-to-the-wall fun.

Bibliography: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.  Directed by Edgar Wright.  Produced by Edgar Wright, Marc Platt, Eric Gitter, and Nira Park.  Perf. Michael Cera, Mary-Elizabeth Winstead, Ellen Wong, Kieran Culkin, Chris Evans, Anna Kendrick, Alison Pill, Brandon Routh, Jason Schwartzman.  Universal Pictures, 2010.