Russia is a country of the written word. Its literature has influenced writers around the world. Russian literature flourished in the 19th century, but Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is not everything there is to it. Master and Margarita, completed in 1940 and published in 1966, is considered by many to be the best novel ever written and is an absolute classic of not only Russian but also world literature. The history of its composition is almost as interesting as the novel itself. Here are 7 things you need to know about it.
It took Bulgakov more than a decade to write Master and Margarita, and he made multiple changes to it in the process. Interestingly, Master, who eventually became one of the title characters, did not appear in the novel until the very end of its composition. Bulgakov kept re-writing and updating the novel until his very death in 1940.
The title kept changing alongside the plot of the novel. Some of Bulgakov’s initial title ideas included “An engineer’s hoof,” “A joggler with a hoof” and “Woland’s guest performances.” The novel got the title it is known by only in 1937, according to the journals of Bulgakov’s wife, Elena Shilovskaya.
One of Master and Margarita’s first and most recognisable scenes takes place in Patriarshie Ponds, a park in the centre of Moscow, which has since become a place of pilgrimages of all the Master and Margarita fans. In that scene, Annushka, a character who doesn’t appear in any other part of the novel, spills some oil on tram tracks. Berlioz, the head of the Moscow Association of Writers (Massolit), slips on that oil and gets his head cut off by the upcoming tram, which is followed by a chain of unexpected circumstances unfolding throughout the novel. Unfortunately, the tram line is no longer there, and nobody knows if it was ever there. Generations of researchers have tried to find some trace of the line’s existence to no effect.
Master appeared only in the later stages of the composition of the novel, but he is based heavily on a real-life character – Bulgakov himself. The pivotal point of Master’s fate was the moment when he burnt the manuscript of his novel. Bulgakov has done that to one of the initial manuscripts of Master and Margarita. Master’s fate in the novel is what Bulgakov believed he himself deserved. Margarita, on the other hand, is based on Bulgakov’s third wife, Elena Shilovskaya, his muse and greatest love.
Elena Shilovskaya and Bulgakov were not particularly popular in Moscow’s literary world of the 1930s. Their fellow writers were, in fact, somewhat afraid of them. The main reason for it was their suspicious lack of problems with the authorities. Bulgakov’s writing was far from socialist realism, the only appropriate style in the Soviet Union, and yet his life was relatively unobstructed by the interventions of the secret police. This was so unusual that the society was convinced that Bulgakov had a pact with an evil force of some kind or another. In reality, Bulgakov happened to be very lucky – Stalin himself was a fan of his plays about the Turbin family and hence had a soft spot for the writer.
Master and Margarita is a monumental novel of the 20th century. It was included in Le Monde’s “100 Books of the Century.” It is universally considered to be a classic of world literature. As such, it has influenced generations of Russian and international artists. Pearl Jam’s song “Pilate” has been inspired by the Jerusalem part of the novel. Mick Jagger could have been inspired by the Moscow plot of Master and Margarita while writing “Sympathy for the Devil.” Bulgakov’s message keeps resonating across cultures and genres.
The most quoted sentence from Master and Margarita states that manuscripts don’t burn – and so doesn’t the novel itself. It has not only inspired generations of artists, it has also been adapted to stage and film multiple times in many different forms. Master and Margarita now exists in many forms. From musicals to operas, from theatre plays to TV series, discovering different interpretations of the novel is almost as interesting as discovering the novel itself!