Pontius Pilate For Some Reason: The Master & Margarita Readalong

The time is now, my ducklings! After promising it to us for many moons, Alice of Reading Rambo has commenced her fall readalong of The Master and Margarita. Though no official word has yet been handed down, I am choosing to believe that this readalong is sponsored by M&Ms. You can agree or disagree with me as you see fit.

To my extreme shame, The M&M has been sitting on my shelf for six and a half years unread — and what makes it even worse is that my sister gave it to me for my birthday, so not only am I a slacker in reading classic Russian novels, but I am also a birthday ingrate.

In my defense, my sister gave me this book and then advised me to keep a running list of characters and all their various names, and that is — Imma be honest — not the greatest way to make a book seem unmissable. I believe I tried this out when I was living in New Haven and going to Blue State Coffee every morning, and then two things happened, viz.:

  1. My list consisted of two people and one of them immediately got decapitated right as I had figured out all four things the text was going to call him; and
  2. A really obnoxious Yale bro complimented me on my reading choice and I wanted to spite him by hating the book he loved.

So, super legit reasons for never continuing this book for nearly seven years. I guess I can forgive Bulgakov for promptly killing Berlioz / the editor / Mikhail Alexandrovich / Misha, given that he seems like the exact kind of dude who would get into a big argument with you about atheism when you’re just trying to scootch around him and get your hands on the half-and-half so you can go sit down with your damn coffee before you have to get into work.

always true
always true

Anyway, here’s a list of things that happen in the first eight chapters of The Master and Margarita. I kind of don’t know how to comment on any of this, given that so much of it caused me to say “the fuck?” rather than reach any sensible conclusion about what the book is trying to say.

  1. The two characters we meet right off the bat have names that begin with the same letter. God damn it, Bulgakov. They meet a scary guy who claims to be a professor of black magic and also professes to know the future and to have been present at the court of Pontius Pilate.
  2. One of them quickly goes under a bus and his head comes off, pop. Fine. Now I only have to remember one character whose name begins with B.
  3. This one apartment is cursed, but Styopa Likhodeyev, also known as Stepan Bogdanovich, chooses to live there anyway. The professor of black magic, whose name is Woland and who I presume is the devil, comes to stay there also, along with his very large black cat (Margarita, I presume?) and a skinny fellow with a pince-nez. Don’t live in cursed apartments, team.
  4. The poet Bezdomy, also known as Ivan Nikolaevich Ponyryov, tries to convince the town that Woland is a dangerous criminal. Unfortunately, he does not say the useful information that Woland predicted the exact manner of the dead guy’s death. Instead he fixates on this story Woland told them about Pontius Pilate. Like it wasn’t even that good a story. No wonder everyone thinks Bezdomy has lost his hold on reality.

So far, incredibly Russian. It is good I am reading this with a crowd because if I were reading it myself, I cannot promise I would continue this tremendously confusing and random novel.

Ha ha no, it doesn’t suck. It’s just extremely Russian. It’s very, very, very Russian but I can plow through it. Thanks to wonderful Alice for hosting! I’m going to understand this book some day!

no I mean I guess I get why people go to Russia, like maybe all the hostility and freezing cold weather is what they're craving
no I mean I guess I get why people go to Russia, like maybe all the hostility and freezing cold weather is what they’re craving
  • Alley

    If this is sponsored by M&Ms (which I’m TOTALLY behind), can we get some free product? That’d be swell.

    OMG I spent so much time trying to figure out everyone’s names. WHY do they have like 40 names? Also the Poet also has a name that starts with B?? I only remember Ivan and Homeless and “The Poet” so crap. I probably assumed there was another character floating around. Ugh, my head.

    • JeanPing

      Homeless = Bezdomy. I think it depends on your translation, whether you actually get the Bezdomy mentioned or whether it just shows up as Homeless every time.

      • Alley

        Ah that could be cos the name Bezdomy does not look familiar at all. Thinking mine leaves that name out.

        • JeanPing

          Mine leaves it out. It’s the P/V translation, Penguin.

          • Alley

            Yeah! That’s the one I have. ok PHEW I feel better. I thought I was either missing a whole name or new character.

          • JeanPing

            We’d probably better get used to that feeling…. 😀

  • Jeanne

    My son loves this book and loves Russia. He would tell you that the people are very friendly and that it’s better (at least in St. Petersburg) when things are iced over, because when they’re not it’s cold slush. Also he was a fan of the white nights in June, which do sound…exotic. He made us Russian food all summer. The best thing was a cold soup with potatoes, ham, egg, cucumber and a lot of dill, okroshka.
    But I did enjoy the book once I QUIT trying to keep track of everyone’s name and just eased into the confusing foolishness of it.

  • Alice

    I am like EIGHTY percent sure the disappeared people from the apt have to do with commentary on the Secret Police, etc.

  • JeanPing

    M&M always makes me want to eat M&Ms. I’m sorry about your Yale bro, that is gross. One problem with M&M is definitely that everybody thinks it’s Cool to have M&M as a favorite novel. Like Catcher in the Rye. Does anybody actually like Catcher in the Rye? We’ll never know, because every B-list celebrity knows that’s the novel to mention when asked about their favorite book.

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    M&M is on my perpetual TBR. Perhaps since you are reading it and doing such a fine job of reporting the most salient parts, I might be able to cross it off my list and not feel guilty about doing so. If M&Ms were vegan I would send you a whole bag for your good service

  • I’m 80 percent relieved I was too disorganized to participate in this readalong and 20 percent regretful, because I haven’t read any Russian novels and I know I NEED to. But also . . . they’re SO Russian. I’ll just read your readalong posts and call it a day, probably.

  • I will never read Russian literature because of the names. But I do love it when you read something I always feel like I should want to read. Go forth and read this for me! Thank you!

  • Chrisbookarama

    I immediately forgot everyone’s name. They have 100 names each! It’s as bad as Anna Karenina with all the Princesses of This and That.

  • This sounds like a book I would want to set on fire. I applaud your reading tenacity!

  • Maureen E

    Actual answer: Patronymics & diminutives! Russians have three names: given name, patronymic (their father’s name), and last name. But given names also have specific diminutive forms which are used by people you’re closer to (and there are varying degrees of that too). So that’s part of the confusion. Styopa is probably the diminutive form of Stepan. You may already know all this, but anyway!

  • Christy

    I was thinking about joining this readalong, but it turned out that I couldn’t easily and quickly get it from my library. Which is just as well, as I decided to join the Social Justice Book Club readalong this month, and probably M&M would have been sacrificed to the other readalong at some point anyway.

  • Katy

    What translation are you reading? I have VERY strong feelings about M&M translations, and I think Glenny is the best.

  • Oh boy, I do want to read this book. I do want to do this readalong. But I am already in the middle of another one which is slow-going. I guess I will read it through you!

  • I knew I’d forgotten something!

  • Care

    This sounds like the PERFECT book for a Jenny-share! I’m starting at the beginning and will say I read this book becaue I am 100% on board that your explanations will be better than me attempting. Thank you