Mikhail and Margarita
By: Julie Kestrom Himes
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
It is 1933 and Mikhail Bulgakov’s enviable career is on the brink of being dismantled. His friend and mentor, the poet Osip Mandelstam, has been arrested, tortured, and sent into exile. Meanwhile, a mysterious agent of the secret police has developed a growing obsession with exposing Bulgakov as an enemy of the state. To make matters worse, Bulgakov has fallen in love with the dangerously candid Margarita. Facing imminent arrest, and infatuated with Margarita, he is inspired to write his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, a scathing novel critical of both power and the powerful.
The Master and Margarita was never my favourite Soviet novel; I had read it twice and it just never struck me one way or the other. I do however appreciate why it was seen as a sharp appraisal of the Soviet regime and its lackeys and I was curious to read this book because it was looking at the author behind the book and the people he associated with.
On the plus side, it’s always interesting to read a book set during the height of Soviet censorship and reading how the author recreates that world. To say that it was a stressful time is a massive understatement; whilst writing and poetry is respected in the Soviet Union–something that is reiterated throughout the book–the fact is there are still censors at every turn, as well as the secret police monitoring for any suspicious and out of the norm behaviour, anything that could go against the official ideology, the official narrative, Socialist Realism in the arts. The early quarter of the novel about Mandelstam and the secret police was a good example of this and kept me glued to the page.
Having said all that, this book was…okay. I never really felt like I was in the story thought, with these characters. They touch on Bulgakov’s frustrations with his writing and writing his manuscript for The Master and Margarita but something seemed lacking about the references, like they’re there but sometimes it doesn’t register with the rest of the story. Bulgakov’s relationship with Margarita also seemed rather cold and clinical, perhaps in part because there’s a lot of time jumps in the narrative.
Overall Mikhail and Margarita was an okay read for me. The historical elements of the book about being a writer during the Stalinist period ringed true to the research I had done from this period. As a novel though it really lost me after the first quarter of the story; the characters never really came to life for me, the stops and starts in the timeline felt rather jarring, and I just never felt for the characters in the end.