The battle of competing translations, a new publishing phenomenon which began with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, now offers two rival American editions of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. Mirra Ginsburg's (Grove Press) version is pointedly grotesque: she delights in the sharp, spinning, impressionistic phrase. Her Bulgakov reminds one of the virtuoso effects encountered in Zamyatin and Babel, as yell as the early Pasternak's bizarre tale of Heine in Italy. Translator Michael Glenny, on the other hand, almost suggests Tolstoy. His (Harper & Row) version is simpler, softer, and more humane. The Bulgakov fantasy is less striking here, but less strident, too. Glenny: ""There was an oddness about that terrible day...It was the hour of the day when people feel too exhausted to breathe, when Moscow glows in a dry haze..."" Ginsburg: ""Oh, yes, we must take note of the first strange thing...At that hour, when it no longer seemed possible to breathe, when the sun was tumbling in a dry haze..."" In any case, The Master and Margarita, a product of intense labor from 1928 till Bulgakov's death in 1940, is a distinctive and fascinating work, undoubtedly a stylistic landmark in Soviet literature, both for its aesthetic subversion of ""socialist realism"" (like Zamyatin, Bulgakov apparently believed that true literature is created by visionaries and skeptics and madmen), and for the purity of its imagination. Essentially the anti-scientific, vaguely anti-Stalinist tale presents a resurrected Christ figure, a demonic, tricksy foreign professor, and a Party poet, the bewildered Ivan Homeless, plus a bevy of odd or romantic types, all engaged in socio-political exposures, historical debates, and supernatural turnabouts. A humorous, astonishing parable on power, duplicity, freedom, and love.
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Put this one aside for a while, but ended up loving it. It fulfills my final Read Harder Challenge category, “Read a book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location.” Whee! For extra credit, I'm watching the Russian miniseries version on YouTube. Bizarre and addictive.
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