The Master and Margarita is one of the most famous Russian novels. Its editorial backstory resembles somewhat that of I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed). Like Alessandro Manzoni, Bulgakov continued to amend the novel throughout his life, but not in order to purify the language: Bulgakov feared government censorship. After burning the first manuscript, he kept working on it until his death; for this reason, the novel was completed by his third wife in 1941. However, more than twenty years had to pass for The Master and Margarita to be published: only in 1966-1967 a first, highly censored version was printed in Russia. Even if not in its full form, the book began to spread influence: “Sympathy for The Devil“, by The Rolling Stones, was written after Mick Jagger read the novel (thanks to Marianne Faithfull). In the USSR the first complete version was published only in 1973.
The novel’s editorial struggles are deeply interconnected with its content. Summarizing the plot of The Master and Margarita would be impossible, because of its complexity and the density of characters, themes, and references. Suffice it to say that it weaves together two different stories and timelines: that of the literary Moscow of the thirties, where Woland (Satan) suddenly appears, and the Jerusalem of Jesus and Pontius Pilate. Using black comedy, Bulgakov makes fun of the mediocrity of the literati, of their hypocrisy and affectation.
The novel is a sort of hallucinatory, messianic journey populated by unforgettable characters; the reader is lead through profound conversations about the concept of good and evil, the value of spirituality in an atheist society like Moscow’s, and the consequences of truth. But despite the highly complex themes, everything is told halfway between silliness and the absurd. Bulgakov managed to write a novel full of humor, originality, cynicism, and lightness even if he was continually under the threat of the Soviet authorities. There’s a scene, in the novel, when Margarita flies over Moscow on a broom, naked, and she destroys the house of one of the critics who ruined the life of the Master. To relive it, watch the video of a song by Franz Ferdinand, Love and Destroy.