In Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, the editor of a highbrow literary magazine and a poet are meeting on a park bench in Moscow when they are approached by a mysterious foreigner who predicts their demise and tells them a story about Pontius Pilate, whom he says he knew. Within a short time, the editor is decapitated by a freak road accident and the poet is in a lunatic asylum.
Thus starts a novel which depicts a world full of magical happenings, deceit, punishment, banishment and madness, a capricious world where nothing is certain and fear is everywhere. It was written in Stalinist Russia in 1938; its author died in 1940, and the novel didn't appear in full till 1973.
It would be to oversimplify it to say that it is about the battle of good and evil, between the forces of repression and freedom. It is, like all good novels, about us, the human animal, with all our flaws and ambiguities. And though it's obviously a satire on Russian society (as relevant now, as then, I would say, from what little I know about Putin's Russia), like all great literature it transcends country and culture and speaks to us all.
I'm writing about it now even though I haven't finished it yet, and this post isn't really a review of the book. I've been thinking lately how books are mass produced and yet each one, over time weathers (as it were) into individuality. I think this is why I will never read e books. I like the physicality of the book too much.
The copy I have is a library copy (Lismore City Library), almost new (the Vintage Classics edition, shown above), and covered in plastic.
This is a pity, as I like to run my hands over the cover of a book from time to time while I think about what I've been reading, and the plastic spoils the cover feel. But what is nice about this almost new copy is that someone has spilled what I think must be red wine over the corner of the final 30 pages of the book.
See how the wine has bled to a curious yellow colour at the edges?
I have a feeling of affinity with the red wine spiller, as I've been enjoying this book in the evenings before dinner. It's dark outside and the wood stove is on and dinner is simmering on it, and I can't resist a wee glass while I'm reading.
What is so pleasurable about this book, in which, believe me, few of us come off well, is the sheer well-doneness of it. There is no sloppy writing here, and everything to be savoured.
The poet had wasted his night while others had spent it enjoying themselves and now he realised it was lost forever. He had only to lift his head up from the lamp and look at the sky to see that the night had gone beyond return. Waiters were hurriedly jerking the cloths off the tables. The cats pacing the verandah had a morning look about them. Day broke inexorably over the poet.
Cats with a morning look about them. Day breaking inexorably.
Best sipped in small appreciative doses. With red wine.