#AW80Books:’The Master and Margarita’ – Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Cats – The Sequel’?

There is so much hype around The Master and Margarita that I’ve put off reading it for a while now. However, the opportunity to explore 1930s Russia with Mikhail Bulgakov as my guide was the perfect fit for our ‘Around the World in 80 Books’ reading challenge. So, with my atlas open beside me, I finally joined the ‘M&M’ club.

Now I’ve finished, I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. I’ve certainly never read anything like it before. Begun in 1928, burned in despair by the author in 1930, and restarted in 1931, Bulgakov finished a second draft of the peculiar story in 1936, but only stopped editing the novel a few weeks before his death in 1940. The novel finally saw the light of day when a censored version was published in 1966 during a brief chink in the Stalinist armour of censorship.

The allegorical novel is a scathing satire on the Stalinism of 1930s Russia. Its dark comedy lurches from slapstick to the grotesque, fantasy to the surreal. Scenes from Moscow, featuring the devil and his cohorts creating havoc with their trickery contrast with scenes taken from the Master’s manuscript about Pontius Pilate condemning Yeshua Ha-Nozri (Jesus of Nazareth) to death, and the tender tale of the eponymous lovers.

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Hailed in polls as the favourite novel in Russia, it is easy to see its appeal, as it brilliantly parodies the Stalinist regime and its enforced atheism. The plot is extraordinary; filled with smoke and mirrors, magic and masks. Bleak realism sits side by side with surreal fantasy. I loved Behemoth the huge black talking cat who walks on his two hind legs and has a penchant for pickled mushrooms, and who doesn’t admire a cat who is not only au fait with public transport but carries the right bus fare? That said, whilst I particularly enjoyed the grand theatricality and vivid spectacle of the scenes in both the Variety Theatre and the Spring Ball, the overall effect of the novel left me disorientated and dizzy. After turning the last page, I felt stunned and not a little bewildered, and experienced the reading equivalent of feeling utterly stuffed after eating too much rich food.

Since its initial publication, Bulgakov’s masterpiece has been adapted for stage, made into numerous films, and has inspired homages in song, print, on stage and on screen. Funnily enough, my overriding impression when finishing the book was that the grand spectacle and strong carnivalesque elements would work well as musical theatre (if you know me, you’ll know that’s not really a compliment). It would seem, I wasn’t the only one. In 2006, Andrew Lloyd Webber announced his intention to turn the novel into a stage musical or an opera, but thankfully, only a year later he was quoted on The Stage website as having had to abandon the idea claiming it was ‘undo-able. It’s just too difficult for an audience to contemplate. It’s a very complicated novel’. The novel’s complexity might be perplexing at times, but undoubtedly, this has some advantages.

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