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Old 06-17-2011, 10:04 AM   #1
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Post The MobileRead Literary Book Club June 2011 Discussion: The Master And Margarita

Citizens! It is now time to discuss our inaugural June selection. Comrade toomanybooks has volunteered to lead the discussion, and the devil knows that any of you may post your thoughts at any time you like. Let us begin!
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Old 06-17-2011, 11:45 AM   #2
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Unhappy I just don't get it...

Hello, All.

I haven't posted during the reading time for June's selection, mostly because I've been "boocoo" busy with work and home and, trying to get through this month's selection.

I guess I'm just not a very "literature-minded" person when it comes to a "heavy" book like this one. I've got to admit, I just didn't "get it".

There were certainly entertaining parts but I just had trouble taking the whole read and putting it together in a way that made sense to me.

Maybe next month...
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Old 06-17-2011, 12:50 PM   #3
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Hello comrades,

A brief discursion into theory of reading before addressing the book on hand. It is my personal belief that the text of a book is created by the interaction between the reader and the text. If a reader engages with the book each individual reader will get something different out of the same text. It is the job of the author to write a text that draws the reader in and is worth the time they are allotting it.

A reader can benefit from reading a text by an emotional response, new intellectual response or by gaining a sense of time and place.

The last time I read this book I was in college. I personally found it worth rereading. I responded to a theme I hadn't even noticed the first time I read it, the theme that cowardice is the greatest sin. I also felt that I really got a sense of what Moscow was like in the thirties. I loved the small details like Berlioz and Ivan Homeless knowing that Woland was foreign because both his shoes were dyed the same color.

My main question to others is not whether you got the book, but whether the text drew you in and engaged in a rewarding way? If not, what did the author do or fail to do that kept you from being drawn into the text?

I hope this isn't too English majory.
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Old 06-17-2011, 02:34 PM   #4
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Let me preface what I have to say with some comments about how I approach any book, including this one. I feel that a book should stand on its own. It should not require reading additional material in order for the book to become comprehensible to the reader. Nor should it require reading the analysis of an “expert” for the reader to be informed of the book's merits or what the reader should get out of it. So my comments only reflect reading the text itself, including the the introduction [Pevear and Volokhonsky translation] and footnotes. The latter two helped provide insight into the book, but I did not look at any of the links suggested in this thread. So to begin . . .

Overall I found the writing alternating between brilliant (most often in the chapters pertaining to Pontius Pilate) and rather tedious (e.g. I feel most of Chapter 21 could have been removed with no loss), but the book not only had no plot, but no consistent narrative. What I took away over all was an absurd satire of life in the Soviet Union under Stalin, when ones life could be elevated or destroyed seemingly for no good cause, and Bulgakov's putting in writing his revenge fantasies against those who hindered his career.

Certainly the drawing in of the story of Goethe's Faust was obvious, but twisted around. Now it is Gretchen (Margarita) who makes a pact with Satan for the benefit of Faust (The Master). The Master is a rather passive figure thorough out, no? Not sure what I was supposed to make of all of that.

There were all sort of references in this book that I caught, but I guess I am just not literary minded enough to make sense of them. A couple of examples.

When Pontius Pilate is first introduced (Chapter 2) the point is made that he hates the smell of roses. Later when The Master first meets Margarita he tells her his favorite flower is the rose (Chapter 13) and still later in preparation for Satan's ball Margarita is doused with rose oil (Chapter 23). Meaning what if anything?

When Rimsky is threatened by zombies and vampires he is save not just by sunrise, but sunrise heralded by the cock crowing three times. An obvious reference to:

Quote:
“Before the cock crows you will have disowned me three times”. Matthew 26:30-35
But what is the significance?

Like I say, of a literary bent beyond me.

I don't know if anyone else thought this might be so, but when I read Chapter 25 I thought Pontius Pilate might have been in part an allegory for Stalin. But not the Stalin as seen from the Western point of view, but a morally ambivalent Stalin as in Bulgakov's eyes.
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Old 06-17-2011, 02:57 PM   #5
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I'll start with some reflections about the novel and then discuss one of my favourite parts of the first book.

With the exception of Chapter 2, the first 11 chapters didn’t really draw me in. I found the characters simply too flat and uninteresting. This was particularly true in the case of Homeless (at that point the principal human) who was unsympathetic and just didn’t act in a manner that was believable. For me, things livened up by chapter 12 and once the Master enters and the love for Margarita is developed I found that the novel came to life. And when Margarita takes over . . . . WOW!

Where did the text draw me in? Certainly in chapter 2 I found that the author engaged in a powerful dramatisation of the problem of corruption and power. Yeshua--in this chapter--is really only a focal point for a power struggle between Pilate and Kaifa--one which starts as a ritual and becomes transformed into a dialogue of naked hatred by the time the men finally part.

Another aspect of the essential injustice of power is seen when Pilate finally does condemn Yeshua. Pilate {and Rome} could tolerate a harmless idealist, but not one who shows an unwillingness to compromise ideals and identity to placate a power structure.

And what of that structure? The ultimate horror of it is dramatised in Pilate’s vision of the obscenity that Tiberius has become. In the image of the hideous emperor we see the ultimate ugliness of corruption stripped of its majesty.

Interestingly, Pilate has an odd infirmity “hemicrania” in which one side of his head is subjected to a terrible headache. This seems a reflection of the bilateral quality of Woland. One could possibly assume that the Procurator is one representative of the “Dark” --though in the end it isn’t really quite that simple.

The character of Pilate is vivid, believable, and engrossing. The brilliance of Chapter two kept me going through those earlier sections of Book 1 which I found less engrossing.

And it was worth it.

Last edited by fantasyfan; 06-17-2011 at 03:04 PM.
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Old 06-17-2011, 06:52 PM   #6
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Originally Posted by toomanybooks View Post
the theme that cowardice is the greatest sin.
My main question to others is not whether you got the book, but whether the text drew you in and engaged in a rewarding way? If not, what did the author do or fail to do that kept you from being drawn into the text?

I hope this isn't too English majory.
Excellent starting comment. Very interesting.

A little remark
cowardice is the greatest sin

It is stated a few times in the text. But more than that, the hero of the book among the humans, the winner, is indeed Marguerite, she is not coward, on the contrary she is the bravest of all, for reasons that might be interesting to discuss, true descendant of a queen. In the end she wins. The pirate, the director of the restaurant, is also not a coward, and he also goes unscathed with two prime sturgeons, wrapped in newspaper, under his arm.

Actually, all along the book, the real sin of the Muskovites and of Judas, the great sinner, is probably just greed. That is constantly the target of the author and of Woland's gang. Plus the drinking, the fornication, the corruption, and all the rest of frivolities.

As a corollary, I would like to ask: which are the noble characters in the story. I know whom I would put as first. His name starts with ... L. That is his real name.

whether the text drew you in and engaged in a rewarding way.

Yes it did. To enjoy it, I had to let myself go to the rhythms of the narrative, that matched the crazy exploits of Woland's gang. I read the first chapters slowly and savoring each word, but as soon as I felt almost stuck, I let myself go with the futuristic turbillon of the episodes. I read most of the book in two intense afternoons. Only when the story took me in Jerusalem, I relented the pace of my reading and followed the now slower spires of Bulgakhov tale. Or when the narrative went back to the main "human characters" : the poet and the Master. Actually, I felt impeded by the ebook and resorted to a printed version that allowed me to read much more effectively and faster. An orgy of reading.

To the second part of your question, I answer saying that the text is a jewel of literary perfection, a miracle. Bulgakov is a true Master. I did not perceive any shortcoming. Even the end, slightly sugary for our modern tastes, is absolutely perfect. After all the excitement, all the fabulous vaudeville adventures, the reader is landed in the space of dreams. Not in the darkness, of which we had some description, not in the light, of which we had just some reflected glimpse, but in the sleep, the repose. Great stuff. Ah, the cat, what a theatrical device.

Last edited by beppe; 06-18-2011 at 12:16 PM. Reason: Judas instead of Giuda, sorry
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Old 06-17-2011, 10:34 PM   #7
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Eeegads I wish I had seen the other thread sooner. I've read every translation and have a couple first US editions.

It's kinda late now, but imo you haven't fully experienced this book unless you read the Michael Glenny translation (or Russian). Those literary vampires Pevear and Volokhonsky suck the life out of Master and Margarita with their clinical hack-job; it's as if they ran it through Google Translate then added footnotes. Glenny captures the poetry and humor.

Quite frankly you shouldn't understand Master and Margarita; at least without a guide (which ruins a first reading). Even the original text had its meaning intentionally hidden in layers of veiled symbolism to avoid having its socio-political criticism easily spotted.

The beauty of this book is that you don't have to 'get it' to enjoy it; the charm and beauty of the story stands alone, and in prose it is beyond compare. Bulgakov spun pure gold from first sentence to last.

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To the second part of your question, I answer saying that the text is a jewel of literary perfection, a miracle. Bulgakov is a true Master. I did not perceive any shortcoming.
Indeed. The worst thing about finishing M&M for the first time is that the next book you pick up will invariably read like the scribblings of an imbecile by comparison. You have to lower your standards, back down to Earth.

Last edited by OtterBooks; 06-18-2011 at 04:31 AM.
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Old 06-18-2011, 05:36 AM   #8
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Eeegads I wish I had seen the other thread sooner. I've read every translation and have a couple first US editions.

It's kinda late now, but imo you haven't fully experienced this book unless you read the Michael Glenny translation (or Russian). Those literary vampires Pevear and Volokhonsky suck the life out of Master and Margarita with their clinical hack-job; it's as if they ran it through Google Translate then added footnotes. Glenny captures the poetry and humor.

Quite frankly you shouldn't understand Master and Margarita; at least without a guide (which ruins a first reading). Even the original text had its meaning intentionally hidden in layers of veiled symbolism to avoid having its socio-political criticism easily spotted.
Since I don't understand Russian I clearly cannot comment on the fidelity of the various translations to the original. In various reviews I noted that the P&V translation is generally considered more accurate than that by Glenny and many readers think it is very good. Further, I think the notes in the P&V version are often quite useful.

That said, speaking personally, I did find the P&V version very stilted and often tedious in sections. So, about a third of the way through, I got a copy of Glenny and found it to be more fluid, idiomatic and much less stilted but, apparently, it also takes more liberties with the text {and doesn't provide notes}. What I did was keep the notes to the P&V translation on hand for reference purposes and read Glenny's version. While this certainly slowed my progress through the novel, I found I enjoyed the book more. In the end, reading should be enjoyable and Glenny provided far more enjoyment.

Last edited by fantasyfan; 06-18-2011 at 10:10 AM.
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Old 06-18-2011, 11:50 AM   #9
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Since I don't understand Russian I clearly cannot comment on the fidelity of the various translations to the original. In various reviews I noted that the P&V translation is generally considered more accurate than that by Glenny and many readers think it is very good. Further, I think the notes in the P&V version are often quite useful.

That said, speaking personally, I did find the P&V version very stilted and often tedious in sections. So, about a third of the way through, I got a copy of Glenny and found it to be more fluid, idiomatic and much less stilted but, apparently, it also takes more liberties with the text {and doesn't provide notes}. What I did was keep the notes to the P&V translation on hand for reference purposes and read Glenny's version. While this certainly slowed my progress through the novel, I found I enjoyed the book more. In the end, reading should be enjoyable and Glenny provided far more enjoyment.
The P&V translation has its place. I think it's good choice for someone reading M&M for the second time. You're spot-on about Glenny: it's the idiom he seeks to retain, and imo the music of the text, the essence.

A little comparison between bits from the opening:

P&V..

One of them, approximately forty years old, dressed in a grey summer suit, was short, dark-haired, plump, bald, and carried his respectable fedora hat in his hand. His neatly shaven face was adorned with black horn-rimmed glasses of a supernatural size.

And Glenny..

The first of them--aged about forty, dressed in a grayish summer suit-- was short, dark haired, well fed and bald. He carried his decorous hat by the brim as though it were a cake, and his neatly shaven face was embelllished by black, horn-rimmed spectacles of preternatural dimensions.

Glenny's text is playful and vibrant, two of the most important qualities of Bulgakov's writing, and that excerpt is a good example of what you'll find throughout his translation (for anyone interested).

But not only is the text more fluid and fun (imo), the difference captures something important. The "well fed" and "cake" imagery was deliberate class commentary on Bulgakov's part. Anyhoo, just my 2p. It's a great book in any translation.
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Old 06-18-2011, 04:31 PM   #10
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What I'll probably do in the near future is re-read the entire novel using only the Glenny translation.

I think I would agree with Beppe that the bravest person in the novel is Margarita. But what of Yeshua? In the end he dies bravely true to his idealism--apparently with no bitterness, when a compromise could well have saved his life. And would this not also confirm his genuine nobility of soul?

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Old 06-18-2011, 05:18 PM   #11
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Going to have to find a copy of the Glenny translation. I did enjoy the P&V translation, but maybe I'm easy to please

I kept getting flavors of Alice in Wonderland from the book. The sentient chess pieces, little bits with Woland's three partners.

And I agree that Margarita was the character I enjoyed the most. Even the Master was a pretty thin character to me.
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Old 06-18-2011, 05:38 PM   #12
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The P&V translation has its place. I think it's good choice for someone reading M&M for the second time. You're spot-on about Glenny: it's the idiom he seeks to retain, and imo the music of the text, the essence.

A little comparison between bits from the opening:

P&V..

One of them, approximately forty years old, dressed in a grey summer suit, was short, dark-haired, plump, bald, and carried his respectable fedora hat in his hand. His neatly shaven face was adorned with black horn-rimmed glasses of a supernatural size.

And Glenny..

The first of them--aged about forty, dressed in a grayish summer suit-- was short, dark haired, well fed and bald. He carried his decorous hat by the brim as though it were a cake, and his neatly shaven face was embelllished by black, horn-rimmed spectacles of preternatural dimensions.

Glenny's text is playful and vibrant, two of the most important qualities of Bulgakov's writing, and that excerpt is a good example of what you'll find throughout his translation (for anyone interested).

But not only is the text more fluid and fun (imo), the difference captures something important. The "well fed" and "cake" imagery was deliberate class commentary on Bulgakov's part. Anyhoo, just my 2p. It's a great book in any translation.
I read some of the first part in English in the P&V translation, and the rest in Italian (judged excellent). Did not feel any difference whatsoever. It just flowed easy and funny when it was so, deeply touching where it mattered, and desperately lost in existential shadows in some very Russian passages. What a masterpiece.
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Old 06-18-2011, 08:32 PM   #13
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What I'll probably do in the near future is re-read the entire novel using only the Glenny translation.

I think I would agree with Beppe that the bravest person in the novel is Margarita. But what of Yeshua? In the end he dies bravely true to his idealism--apparently with no bitterness, when a compromise could well have saved his life. And would this not also confirm his genuine nobility of soul?
Yeshua is among the puppeteers, he should be considered out of the contest among the persons. Not only that, Yeshua is forced by his traditional role to be inside the frame of his cliche. Some how it is expected that he is how he is (marvelously) depicted. Godlike in his strength, and human in his weakness. Also Levy is out of the contest. As all of the Woland's gang. They play the tunes while the humans dance, fall, a couple of them burn, some fly over the clouds, one looks like he is trying to eat the wooden floor and few find themselves with only the underpants on when the show is over, one with holes in her sock.

One thing that Margarita has in common with Yeshua is the piety, that surprising motion that jumps Woland and put him out of sync. That one, I think, is one of the key passages of the story, even before the message of Levy.

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Old 06-19-2011, 03:08 PM   #14
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I think that I read the Glenny translation the first time I read this and the P&V translation this time. Perhaps I am not picky enough about my translations but both worked for me.

I agree about Margarita being the bravest and best character. She is my favorite character. I laugh at Ivan Homeless and the others characters do come off as puppets to be manipulated at times, but I truly care about what happens to Margarita. I have read most of Bulgakov's other work and I think it is well done but minor writing. In his last novel he managed to combine his style and sense of humour with a character I could truly connect to which makes this book his masterpiece.
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Old 06-19-2011, 03:10 PM   #15
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A brief note, one of Bulgakov's major influences was ETA Hoffman. If you want to see where some of his stylistic elements came from try reading Hoffman's short pieces.
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