Master and Margarita

I’ve just finished this month’s book club book  — Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Wow. Wow. Wow. What an incredible book. I almost don’t know where to start; such was the impact it has made upon me.

I had left a lot of pages to read this week to hit book club deadline but Bulgakov took me on a breathless journey through the natural and supernatural, effortlessly mixing magical realism, horror, comedy, satire and social commentary. I don’t recall a book so bold in its ambition for quite some time. Here’s the thing: I certainly didn’t expect this journey from this book but it has so many facets and functions on a narrative level incredibly well – rolling along at a rollicking pace, twisting and turning.

First up, I absolutely loved the interplay between Stalin’s Moscow and biblical Judea – at first I thought this was just an enjoyably random flourish but as the story unfolded about the master’s book about Pontius Pilate, it was a touch of genius. The intimate portrait of Pilate and Yeshua (Jesus), the subsequent execution and beyond were powerfully written and provided a poignant counterpoint to the chaotic shenanigans going on in Moscow when Satan comes to town.

At first the Russian name thing – everyone is called Ivan – slowed me a little but as the story develops, but Bulgakov clearly identifies and describes each character so vividly that I found it really easy to remember who was who (which hasn’t always been the case with other Russian literature).

The translation and language used was fantastic. It captures a period language perfectly that really contributes to the overall experience and my version was from Penguin Books translated by Richard Povear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I particularly admired how they used odd words when they could have used more straightforward ones: in one place when describing how someone was ripped off by another instead of using conned or swindled (which in themselves are good slang options) they used ‘diddled’. This made me laugh and this happens all over the place. By contrast, another sublime example of language is where the soldier finally kills Christ on the cross, Bulgakov employs the incredibly economic and powerful ‘..he pricked his heart with a spear…’


The broad themes of greed, corruption, lust, desire, jealousy, envy, pride (smack bang in seven deadly sins territory) were all there to see and Bulgakov uses these to shine a light on atheistic communist Moscow of this time. I think he uses the allegory of the devil coming to Moscow as a way of describing how he felt evil has been visited upon the people in the form of Stalin’s oppression. The mysterious Woland (Satan) and his crew bring out the very worst of the people with pinpoint accuracy and deliver retribution in all manner of forms from turning Roubles into whimsical wine labels to dishing out instant death.

So what about Woland and his outlandish cohorts Behemoth, Azazillo and Koroviev? What a vividly drawn bunch of characters – at once spine chilling and hilarious. Quite apart from the fact they were meting out appalling justice all over the place, I liked them immensely. The dark world of this demonic retinue was beautifully drawn and allowed the reader to picture it in every detail. Stunning images were created like a desktop globe with real oceans and wars taking place on it to a live chess set with Kings swapping places with Bishops – delightful. Terry Gilliam sprung to mind.

The enigma of Woland, almost enticing us to empathise with him near the end, the dark comedy of Behemoth the black cat, the iciness of the assassin Azazello and the Beetlejuice-esque Koroviev…all wonderful.

And what of the eponymous Master and Margarita? Well for me it was all about Margarita, particularly in the second book. Her pure love for the master outlives her sensuous transition into the supernatural. The ointment rubbing, apartment smashing, broomstick flying, witch transformation is up there as one of the most exhilarating passages I’ve ever read. Satan’s spring ball where all manner of denizens of the underworld turn up was a virtuoso set piece too – I lapped up every macabre, fantastical detail.

So – a complex book, doing lots of things, all on different levels. As one of our number said, a book to be studied for sure.

Master and Margarita has a touching love story at the heart of it (with a satisfying, otherworldly happy ending) told against the backdrop of razor sharp social commentary. There is a series of sub plots play throughout highlighting the moral and spirituality dimension of life in a city that isn’t supposed to believe in Satan (or God for that matter).

Bulgakov doesn’t shy away from the big themes – redemption, retribution, responsibility and ultimately good versus evil. But he doesn’t just dish these up without charm or context – he wraps them in an engaging, entertaining and ultimately daring package.


Note: I scored it 10/10 – which doesn’t happen very often for me (Grapes of Wrath and Frankenstein being the only books to get full marks previously).


Middle Aged Moshing (aka Big Kids Should Know Better)

Photo Credit: Phil Dean

British Sea Power are well liked on this blog and have been watched many times up here in the North and Deano has blogged previously about heading down to Brighton to see one their resident Krankenhaus nights and Friday saw Phil, myself and Carl (from Milnersblog) head down to Krankenhaus 6 which promised much merriment and good tunes as BSP looked to bang out most of their singles.

Early start saw us down in Brighton for lunchtime where we pitched up at our digs for the night which was a room in seafront flat that had been organised through Air B&B , an interesting concept where you rent a night in someone’s house (effectively like posh couchsurfing).  Phil  had stayed at the same place previously and the owner seemed quite chilled about having us 3 lumps in the house.  It’s not something I’ve tried before but I’ll definitely be giving it a look again in the future.

Now I must admit I’m a huge Brighton fan (the scruffy Nice of Britain?) and have been many times but for Carl it was his first visit so there was plenty to soak up.  I think it has a great feel as a city, seems to have something going on no matter what your tastes and of course having a massive long promenade and beach aids the sort of ambling along stopping regularly for grazing that I like to do.  I also love the fact that they have left the hulk of the destroyed pier intact which for me perfectly illustrates that there is beauty in decay

Now my companions on the trip are very visual people and hot shot snappers but I feel that I humbly held my own with a couple of these  camera shots !  Although the weather was nowhere near the heat we have been having it was still comfortable to be sat outside, which we soon were with some lovely sea food and wine on one of the beachfront bars, it felt a long way from Leeds and in fact as we wandered around the city we all agreed that there was much that our home in the North could learn from the way that Brighton appears to be going about things.

We then headed off into around the Lanes and the Brighton Pavilion before a little bit more grazing

The final photo in the sequence was taken by Carl and you can see some more fantastic photos of the trip over on his blog here .  After heading back to the flat and nice chat with the owner the sun was setting so we headed out to the gig but I managed to capture another couple of shots along the front which I liked

The gig was at The Haunt which I liked as a venue, low slung ceilings that as you got nearer the stage opened up into a double height atrium which gave the band plenty of scope to add their idiosyncratic touches of decorations and the area was liberally festooned with branches and leaves.

Now I’ve done plenty of moshing (and the odd crowd surf) back in the day but I leave all that to the young ‘uns these days as I adopt my John Peel chin scratching pose on the sidelines and generally shuffle embarrassingly from side to side in classic dad dancing fashion.  However all 3 of us decided to bring some memories back and see if we could still cut it down the front and like riding a bike you don’t lose your skills as I quickly adjusted to the swaying, bouncing, colliding mass and managed to keep a watch above me for the crowd surfers ensuring that I didn’t suffer any boots to the face.  The band played an absolute corker of a gig and really seemed to be feeding off the energy of the crowd who likewise were loving the fun the band were clearly having.  I managed to stay front and centre the whole night which made for a tired walk back along the seafront although it was great to see all the people sat out chatting and chilling either waiting to go to the clubs or relaxing after their various nights out.

So I don’t think I’ll be heading back into the mosh anytime soon but it was great to feel that electric buzz again and connection with total strangers and friends alike who are joined together in those moments of enjoyment, thrill and belonging.  As well as the great shot at the top Phil also managed to capture these moments