This is avowedly my mother’s favorite book novel; also that of a surprising number of people on dating sites. “Surprising” because it’s a hard book to grapple with. It’s written in an unfamiliar context, which is the literary scene of Soviet Moscow in the 1930’s (the novel burned, rewritten, gradually released in less censored versions in the 1960s and 70s). It reads with overtones of satire but without the appropriate referent, we’re lost. Are specific people being mocked, specific works?
It doesn’t give you much of a sense of how to read it. It opens in Moscow where two literary chaps encounter someone who probably is the devil. But then he disappears, then we’re in biblical times - the court of Pontius Pilate - then we’re back in Moscow and some other devilish persons are around. Then we swap around following different characters around Moscow as they are variously murdered, harassed and pranked by supernatural beings. Some people are skewered for vanity, greed, hypocrisy; others seemingly just because they make for good sport. We don’t even meet the so-called Master until well past a hundred pages in.
The point is that it works. Something coheres. The sense of humor; the devil’s methods; the consistent greed, cravenness, haplessness of the literary mortals under scrutiny. The unflagging invention of the demonic visitors, we can’t entirely hate because the meanness of their tricks are only an extension of the system the mortals inflict on themselves - they could never work without it.
And it’s unpredictable. Halfway through Margarita becomes a witch, soars above Moscow, viciously punishes the critic who panned her beloved’s book, hosts the devil’s midnight ball. All of which is gloried but somehow neither endorsed nor condemned. Like the devils themselves - their humor and offhanded aggression.
There’s something about the descriptions of magic that work uncommonly well - the concreteness of it, the specificity, the daring.
'Purely for fun, I promise you, messire,' Koroviev assured him, hand on heart. He suddenly straightened up, seemed to stretch as though he were made of rubber, waved the fingers of his right hand, wound himself up like a spring and then, suddenly uncoiling, he whistled.
Margarita did not hear this whistle, but she felt it, as she and her horse were picked up and thrown twenty yards sideways. Beside her the bark was ripped off an oak tree and cracks opened in the ground as far as the river. The water in it boiled and heaved and a river steamer, with all its passengers unharmed, was grounded on the far bank by the blast. A jackdaw, killed by Fagot's whistle, fell at the feet of Margarita's snorting horse.
And it builds to something. Liberation, a kind of nobility. We’ve spent so much time in the encyclopedic cataloguing of fallen Moscow’s failings that when we’re lifted above it we see it anew; somehow it’s forgiven. As Pontius Pilate is when we finally meet him again. The farther from Earth we get, the more we realize we’ve seen a map of it, like the Sistine Chapel a view of everything’s rise and fall.