The best legal and investigatory minds of Moscow are on the trail of Woland and his crew, and look, again, I am all about the bureaucratic details of organizations tasked with addressing supernatural issues. That’s what I wanted Agents of SHIELD to be, if you’ll recall: A workplace drama where the characters perhaps are taken hostage by supervillains occasionally but mostly are bickering over whose turn it is to make coffee and which budget codes to use for reimbursements when Thor hammer-smashes most of the furnishes in a 5th Avenue McDonald’s by accident.
So, very fun for me to have a chapter where the Moscow bureaucracy is trying to sort out the legal ramifications of all the shenanigans Woland and them have been pulling over the course of the book.
Next, Korovyov and the cat go burning down various bits of Moscow that I have to say don’t seem to deserve it. Behemoth (the cat) having previously burned down the apartment everyone wanted, he and Korovyov go to like a candy and meat store and burn it down, then go out for fancy dinner and burn the fancy restaurant down. My main question was why there was a story that sold both candy and meat, given that the Russia with which we have been presented does not seem friendly to fancy items of any kind. Here’s what my book’s endnotes have to say:
In its quest to extract all hard currency and valuables from both its citizens and foreign visitors, Russia had stores which specialized in offering in exchange generally unobtainable items, ranging from clothes to food and drink.
And then, gosh, the devil gets word from ?Jesus? that he should take care of the Master and Margarita, so he like takes them away from their banal lives to Jerusalem, where they see Pontius Pilate still waiting for a chance to explain himself to Jesus. And the Master tells Pontius Pilate he’s free now, and Pontius Pilate and his dog run away, and the Master and Margarita get to go live in a nice cottage? But is the cottage hell? I have no idea, and anyway, Woland flies away on his black horse.
My final verdict is that I did not understand this book, and maybe that’s okay! In any case, almost seven years after being given it as a gift, I have managed to read it, I am now a wiser woman (I guess?), and I appreciate the blogosphere for helping me get to this moment in my life.
Well, Satan’s Ball did not disappoint me in the slightest and in fact kind of reminded me of the balls in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Do you think this book was an influence on Susanna Clarke?
(Y’all, I think Susanna Clarke is going to never write another book. That’s honestly what I’ve come to believe. She wrote one incredible book, we were so lucky to have it, and that’s all we get from her. Thanks, Susanna Clarke. Thank you for this gift.)
Woland and his crew even kick around our old pal Berlioz’s head (remember that?) for old times’ sake — not to mention, of course, that they trot out all the greats for Margarita to meet. Unfortunately, she has some mysterious aches and pains, which I guess shouldn’t be wholly unexpected if you are presiding at a hell-sponsored event, but apart from that she mostly sort of meets people like Caligula and a woman who smothered her own baby. After a few hours this gets kind of boring for her and she starts wishing instead of hanging out with all the hordes of hell, she could meet, like, some new, not-shitty people.
However, she takes her duties as hostess seriously and continues with what she’s been doing, and the afterparty turns out to be awesome. (For her. I was more lukewarm on it.) In a fairy-tale-like turn of events, Woland waits to see if she’ll ask for payment for her night of labor, and since she doesn’t ask for anything, he tells her she can ask for, well, anything. These are her wishes, in order:
That the lady who smothered her baby can stop being given the handkerchief she used to smother the baby. Currently they give it to her afresh every night and it sucks. This is just straight really nice of Margarita.
To have her lover, The Master, back with her. (ugh)
To be returned to the basement apartment where she and the Master used to bang it out. And if you guessed that this becomes the occasion for more satire about the housing situation in Moscow, YOU ARE CORRECT.
Woland also unvampires Varenukha, like that was a thing we cared about. And frankly, at this point, I’m kind of starting to root for the Devil. He’s doing a lot of good in Moscow, like, I know he beheaded Berlioz for just basically being slightly pretentious, and he messed up that landlord’s life who barely did anything wrong. On the other hand, he’s also foiled several housing-related frauds, and now he’s done all this nice stuff for Margarita and the Master, including getting them all kinds of legal documentation that they need.
What I’m saying is that I’d be down for a sequel where Margarita joins Woland’s retinue and they go from town to town fucking shit up for people and foiling housing fraud.
But then guess what happens. Guess. It’s not housing-related satire. It’s the other thing that makes me want to punch Bulgakov in the nose.
YES YOU ARE CORRECT, we then get TWO GODDAMN CHAPTERS of the GODDAMN PONTIUS PILATE BOOK, like is that what anyone asked for, Bulgakov? Come on! I can accept that maybe contemporary Russians had an endless appetite for housing-related satire, but did literally anybody ever in the history of literature enjoy these Pontius Pilate chapters? I saw the next chapter was a Pontius Pilate one and this is some real footage of what came next.
THESE GOD DAMN PONTIUS PILATE CHAPTERS. I have never been so close to cheating on a readalong. There are two of them. Such, however, is my commitment to righteousness and truth — and also we had a short segment to read this week, almost as if some genius had planned the schedule that way on purpose because people get busy as the year draws to a close — that I read both of the damn chapters. In one of them, Pontius Pilate and his head spy try to figure out a way to protect Judas Iscariot from possibly being murdered. In the other, I feel like a dingbat for misunderstanding the previous chapter, because actually the plan all along was to kill Judas and cause a big scandal.
I guess these chapters are not as dull as the previous Pontius Pilate chapters. I GUESS. For your future reference, however, the correct ratio of Satan shenanigan chapters to Pontius Pilate chapters would have been — how many chapters are there total? — 33:0.
As always, thanks to Alice for hosting! Tune in next week on Halloween Day to experience with me the stunning conclusion of Bulgakov’s super-confusing classic, The Master and Margarita.
Look, either I have Stockholm Syndrome or the book has really kicked into high gear in this, the third section of our Master and Margarita Readalong. Have I eaten any M&Ms yet? NO, but only because I am boycotting Hershey, Mars, and Nestle until 2020 which is when they’ve pledged to go to all fair-trade chocolate suppliers. But we’re halfway through the book and I appear to have stopped caring if any of it makes sense. I guess that’s the point Bulgakov’s trying to make anyway, right? Community Russia makes NO DAMN SENSE.
Now. I will admit that I began this section in a state of outrage because there’s a new character who isn’t Styopa (Styopa is in Yalta, still, I think) but whose name contains “Stepan.” Is this kind and just, Bulgakov? I had just gotten used to seeing “Stepan” and translating it in my head to “Styopa,” and now you come at me with this clerk Vasily Stepanovich Lastochkin, who like Styopa works for the theater where Woland did his magic show, and who also like Styopa was not in attendance at this magic show. Confusing, no?
But fine. Fine. Doesn’t matter. This chapter is great because Woland’s sidekicks go around ruining lives in hilarious ways in it for all the people who work for the Moscow Entertainment Commission. First, the cat curses the head Entertainment Commission guy so that instead of being a person, he’s just an empty suit conducting important Entertainment Commission business. Obviously I am in favor of this because
And Koroviev goes to the branch office of the Entertainment Commission and puts a curse on everyone in the office such that they break out into beautifully timed and harmonized song every few minutes. That sounds — yes, okay, terrible for the people it’s happening to, but extremely pleasant for anyone out on the street! Everyone loves it when groups of people sing in beautiful harmonies! Right? It’s a fun curse!
In this section, we finally meet the eponymous Margarita! She still loves the Master (duh), and she encounters Azazello, another of Woland’s minions, out on the street. I expected her to quickly get decapitated, but y’all, it’s so much better than that, she becomes A WITCH. One of the chapters about her is called “Azazello’s Cream” and this is a paragraph that occurs in it:
“Oh, what a cream! What a cream!” cried Margarita, throwing herself into an armchair.
My sister (who I may remind you gave me this book as a gift almost seven years ago) is probably reading this post like “you’re the worst Jenny, you are the literally worst human being in the entire world.” I KNOW I KNOW but Margarita honestly is like jumping up and down shouting “What a cream!” and for a while I was reading a lot about like, porn production in Victorian London because I had questions after rereading Fingersmith, so I also read some of the produced porn from Victorian London? And ladies dashing around the place crying “What a cream! What a cream!” would not have been even slightly out of place.
(Also: Spanking. So. Much. Spanking.)
ANYWAY, so Margarita gets this cream from Azazello (I know) and rubs it all over her body (I KNOW) and then she leaves a note for her husband saying she’s leaving him to become a witch. This book is so much better than it was in the beginning, y’all. Margarita gets the call from Azazello and flies out of her house — that’s not a figure of speech, she actually can fly when she has this cream on her (look I know, okay?) — while screaming “I’m invisible! Invisible!”
Like that wasn’t awesome enough, she next goes to a dude’s house and destroys everything in it. Things get very Midsummer Night’s Dreamy towards the end of all this, and then someone calls a car for Margarita and she goes back to Moscow. These two chapters have been magical, yo. At some point in them Margarita says this, which I am going to have cross-stitched on a pillow, a thing I very often threaten to do but very rarely do do, and let’s be honest, I’m probably not going to break that record on this but nevertheless I find it very pleasing:
“Once upon a time there was a lady. . . . At first she cried for a long time, but then she became wicked.”
STORY OF MY LIFE FOR REAL.
Next week, the devil is going to throw a ball, and Margarita is going to be the hostess of it. I can’t tell you how excited I am for that to happen. Thanks to Alice, as always, for hosting!
Let’s pause for a moment and wish a very happy 154th birthday to my girl Ada Leverson! She was a friend of Oscar Wilde’s. He adored her and called her “darling Sphinx,” and when he went to jail and such, she stayed his faithful and stalwart friend. Which not that many people did. Wonderful Sphinx!
Anyway. Onward. This segment of the Master and Margarita readalong featured a magic show, so if you think that you are going to escape this post without plenty of Arrested Development gifs, you have seriously misunderstood who I am as a person.
First up, we get a bunch more of what I presume is satire relating to the housing situation in Soviet Moscow. It’s probably very cutting, I would have no way of knowing.1 Woland and his pince-nez-wearing friend use bribery and wickedness to gain access to the full apartment that previously belonged to Berlioz (now dead from decapitation) and Styopa (in Yalta), then shop the landlord to the authorities for receiving foreign currency. Non-devil-adjacent characters continue to be furious that the glass in the dude’s pince-nez is broken, and can I just say, I appreciate that. Sometimes in Russian novels characters will fixate on small details and FREAK THE FUCK OUT about them and I’m like “Jesus, chill out, it doesn’t matter,” but in this case I endorse the rage. You are the devil’s right hand-man, bro, replace your pince-nez.
Next, the theater where Styopa (in Yalta) was working wants to know where he is. They cannot find him. Once again, a character (Varenukha, the theater manager where Woland is going to do his magic show) finds that asking too many questions about what the devil is up to leads to heartache. The theater guy who does not ask too many questions (Rimsky) gets a satisfactory explanation for Styopa’s disappearance and a baller stage show, and the theater guy who does ask too many questions (again, Varenukha)2 passed out after encountering a slightly-on-fire-sounding naked chick.
Okay, she’s not that on fire. She just has, like, fiery eyes or something. I suspect her also of being a dementor, because the next time we see Varenukha he is dead behind the eyes and keeps repeating the devil’s lie about what happened to Styopa. Sorry, Varenukha! Sorry you got your soul sucked out by a naked lady with fire eyes! Shouldn’t have asked so many questions!
(Honestly, even if he hadn’t, he’d probably have come to a bad end. The landlord above barely did anything, and he still got taken up by the police and shipped off to the mental institution where Bezdomny/Homeless is spending his days.)
There’s also a chapter where Bezdomny/Homeless decides that the whole thing with Berlioz and Woland wasn’t even that big of a deal. He changes his mind almost instantly two chapters on, so I am not sure why we had to waste our time on this instead of getting to THE FIREWORKS FACTORY i.e., Chapter 12, in which Woland finally goddamn does something, i.e., puts on a magic show.
The magic show is basically just that he rains money down on the crowd and then has the ladies come up to the stage to pick out fancy new clothes and accessories. It’s not that exciting in a traditional magic show way where there are lots of different parts and spectacles, but I like fancy clothes and accessories and money, so I’m not super complaining. Afterward, an audience member stands up and demands to know what the trick is.
Number two, I am pretty sure that even in the most dire years of Stalinist Russia, attendees of magic shows had better manners than to demand that the performers show them how the illusion was accomplished.3 I’m kind of mad that of all the people whose lives Woland has ruined thus far, he ruins this audience member’s life the least. Surely this is worthy of decapitation! GAHD.
Anyway, then Varenukha comes back all dead-eyed, I covered that above, and THEN I flipped to the back of my books to glance over the notes for chapter 16 and DO YOU KNOW THE FUCK WHAT THE NOTES SAID?
Here Bulgakov underscores that he is aware how odd it is to have a major figure (whose name is used in the title) first appear more than a third of the way through the novel. Up to this point one could easily conclude that Woland or Ivan is the real hero.
With — because this bro is hella diffident for a bro who supposably is going to get Woland to quit hassling the intelligentsia of Moscow4 — a heaping side of
Well. Now I feel really stupid for thinking Ivan (i.e., Bezdomny/Homeless) or Woland was the main hero. Is the Master going to defeat Woland? With an assist from Margarita, his lovah? Or what? I have been told re: The Master that I should hang on to my hat, so that is what I will be doing heading into this readalong’s third section next week. WE’LL SEE.
I mean, I could look it up, but I am pretttttty lazy. ↩
I will never find it excessive to repeat and re-identify the characters in Russian novels. ↩
I am not sure of this. I don’t think there’s anything you could tell me about Russia and Russians that would defy belief — partly because I am credulous but mostly because I find Russia really confusing. ↩
my mum is reading this like STOP SAYING SUPPOSABLY ahahahaha NEVER ↩
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.:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Here it is mid-August, and we are midway through The New Jim Crow, and I’ve decided to take this opportunity to teach us all about asset forfeiture. Did you know about this? Did everyone know about this but me? Basically, if the police think that someone’s car or money or computer is being used in the commission of a crime, they can just TAKE it. And then they can just, like, KEEP it. Even if the person who owns the property doesn’t know or agree to their property being used in commission of a crime (Alexander uses the example of a woman whose boyfriend uses her car to go pick up drugs), the police can still take it. And keep it.
Which, naturally, disproportionately affects poor people, because loss of an asset like a car or a computer is much much more ruinous if you don’t have the means to dash out and acquire a new one to replace the one the cops took. Meanwhile, police departments have a specific financial stake in asset forfeiture, which means that they are incentivized to police in a way that maximizes their profit. When obvs we would like their motive to be just straight-up reduction of crime.
Anyway. Onward to my mid-book discussion of The New Jim Crow. Let it be stated that I rejoice in this book’s existence, and I believe it makes crucial arguments that are and will remain really important to any kind of criminal justice reform this country institutes.
1) Alexander writes in the introduction that she consciously chose to focus her writing on African American men–though she recognizes that the criminal justice system can have even harsher consequences for women (particular women of color) and Latinos.
Yeah, I — huh. This was a slightly weird moment for me. She says that this was a conscious decision but doesn’t get into why it’s the decision she made. Of course, it’s her book and her decision, but given that women of color and non-black POC are so frequently left out of the conversation, it was weird to have Alexander say this without supplying any further explanation. Throughout the book I felt like I was missing crucial context because of what she decided to leave out.
2) In Chapter 1: The Rebirth of Caste, Alexander writes “…eliminating ‘savages’ is less of a moral problem than eliminating human beings, and therefore American Indians came to be understood as a lesser race–uncivilized savages–thus providing a justification for the extermination of native peoples.” (23) How much, if at all, do you think this same explanation can apply to modern-day murders of black people, in which a victim’s criminal record, physical appearance, and/or attitude towards police officers is used as a “justification” of that person’s killing–both by police and by those defending them?
Oh, gosh. A lot. Really a lot. I think that we’ve reached a point, as a society, where the concept of being “tough on crime” has made it very difficult to convince people of the humanity of people who have been convicted of crimes. And this is a major rhetorical strategy used to defend police officers who shoot to kill when the situation seems not to have called for it.
Another major element in this, though, is that people like to find ways to separate themselves from victims of any kind of tragedy, so that they can feel sure that the bad thing that befell their neighbor will never befall them or anyone they care about. What was the rape victim wearing? Was the cancer patient a smoker? Did the man killed by police have a criminal record? Denying black humanity is a terrible tradition in our country; and denying the innocence of those faced with misfortune appears to be, like, endemic to humans.
3) Writing about the birth of Jim Crow, Alexander reminds us that it is difficult to remember that “alternate paths were not only available at one time, but nearly embraced.” (35) Does the same apply today? Are there alternate paths we could have embraced in recent history, and/or could embrace moving forward?
I’m afraid I can’t do this one right now. I am too scared of the alternate paths that might be about to happen to this country, which I am pretty sure are going to be, like, national downfall kind of alternate paths. We’ll talk again when the election’s over with.
4) On the opening pages of Chapter 2: The Lockdown, Alexander writes about the [mis]perception of the criminal justice system, as shaped by popular television shows and movies. The New Jim Crow was written in 2010, before Serial, Making a Murderer, Orange is the New Black… etc. Do you think representations of the criminal justice system in popular entertainment have changed in the last six years? Is that a good thing?
Wellllllllll. Sort of. I don’t think we’ve yet had a better indictment of the existing criminal justice system than the first and third seasons of The Wire, for instance, and that was all the way back in aught-two.1 Given that the sheer number of TV shows has increased dramatically in the last six years, I would say that sure, by volume, we have more shows that offer a nuanced vision of the criminal justice system.
On the other hand, we still have all the same old Laws and Orders we used to, all the same CSIs, and some of those franchises have grown, not shrunk. Likewise, there’s a near-infinite supply of buddy-cop-style shows, very few of which are endeavoring to complicate popular views of the criminal justice system as fundamentally, well, just. Even more than six years ago, we are inundated by choice, and the depictions of criminal justice that we choose to spend time on are probably reflective to a large extent of the beliefs we already hold.
Which is to say: The gay agenda on TV worked awesome. I’m skeptical for the moment that pop culture is going to be a similarly important ally in convincing America of the injustice of our national prison culture. Call me a cynic.
5) From the start, Alexander stated that she aimed to prove that disproportionate rates of incarceration [and/or criminal justice system control] of young black males is not a symptom of poverty, but “evidence of a new racial caste system at work.” Based on these first three chapters, do you think she’s done as much?
Again I say: Well, sort of. Alexander’s done a terrific job so far of proving the racial bias that happens at every level of the criminal justice system, and I already believed that the so-called War on Drugs was a measure of political posturing and racial control. So far so good on that one.
Without asking Michelle Alexander and this one book to be all things to all people, I will say that I think The New Jim Crow is an important piece of the criminal justice reform puzzle, but it’s not as comprehensive as maybe I wanted/expected it to be. Alexander is talking about a specific thing: the impact of drug policy on the lives of black men in America. That is important, an important conversation to have.
At the same time, there’s plenty that she’s not talking about: non-black people in the criminal justice system; violent crime of any description; women basically at all; the voices and roles of black policymakers; differing patterns of law enforcement in communities with different racial demographics; etc. Again, this is fine, and the elements that Alexander is discussing are really important. I just think that to say “this is systemic to the degree that Jim Crow laws were systemic,” while ignoring (by design) huge swathes of the system in question, is a dicey affair. It’s an eye-catching parallel, but not one that I’m confident (so far) Alexander’s arguments have justified.
I forgot to tell you, I’ve decided to say aught-two instead of oh-two because, well, mostly because I just want to. ↩
1. Where do you plan on discussing this book the most? Feel free to share links to your blog, social media channels, snap handles, etc.
Mostly on the blog! I’ll be answering mid-month and end-of-month discussion questions, and I’ll also probably be twittering about it at @readingtheend as I go along, with the hashtag #SJBookClub.
2. Why did you decide to join in on the reading and/or discussion of this book?
A couple of reasons, the most important being that I’ve been meaning to read The New Jim Crow practically since it came out — but in a rather heartening turn of events, it’s been checked out from my public library every time I’ve thought to look for it.
On a more macro level, one of the big things to come out of Book Blogger Appreciation Week this year is that I’m connecting more to other nonfiction enthusiasts around the blogosphere. There are more of us than I realized! So the Social Justice Book Club is a terrific way for us all to get together and chat about the greatness of nonfiction.
3. In the very first line of the introduction to the book, Michelle Alexander writes, “This book is not for everyone.” What do you make of that as a entree into The New Jim Crow?
Mm, radical honesty. Cynically, it’s a good way to make readers who are already receptive to Alexander’s ideas feel like virtuous mavericks of the book world. But equally, it’s just a statement of fact: Many people do not want to be forced to look at the racial injustice in our criminal justice system, because it upsets the feeling that one lives in a just universe, and it is pleasant to feel that one lives in a just universe.
4. What, if anything, are you most looking forward to about this book?
Learning more specifics about the ways the criminal justice system targets racial minorities. I already believe that to be true, but I’m looking forward to getting into some of the nitty-gritty details. I’ll be particularly interested to learn about some of the ways that historical racial segregation continues to impact laws and law enforcement w/r/t minority populations.
Thanks to Kerry for hosting. I can’t wait to dig into this book!