by Ted Gioia

In a strange piece of advice to writers, Philip K. Dick
once suggested that God should never appear as a
character in a novel.  Few authors would feel limited
by such a rule—a prohibition that tells us more,

perhaps, about Mr. Dick (who, in his novel Valis,
came close to breaking his own commandment) than
about the craft of fiction.  On the other hand, many
writers would be unhappy if they couldn't bring the
Devil into their stories. Satan
himself, or one of his associate
demons, figures in a number
of novels, including works as
diverse as C.S. Lewis's The
Screwtape Letters, Thomas Mann's
Dr. Faustus, and Chuck Palahniuk's

But any short list of great
Luciferian novels must include
Mikhail Bulgakov's
The Master
and Margarita
, written between
1928 and 1940, but unpublished
until the late 1960s. Bulgakov builds his story around

a compelling idea, rife with both humor and pathos:  
namely, the Devil decides to visit the Soviet Union in
order to see firsthand whether human nature has
changed under communism. Has a new era of
collectivism eliminated covetousness, greed and all
those other familiar sins? Or have the old vices merely
found new outlets, under different names perhaps?
Of course, the new regime has not just abolished

capitalism and private ownership, but religion as well;
so the Devil is put in the ticklish situation of visiting a
place where he himself officially does not exist.

The Devil arrives in Moscow in the person of a Mr.

Woland, a practicing magician, specializing in the
black arts, who arranges to give a performance at the

local Variety Theater.  He is accompanied by several
subalterns, who include his assistant Korovyov, an

enormous talking cat named Behemoth, the fanged
and wall-eyed Azazello, and a scantily-clad maid Hella.
Together this unholy crew wreaks havoc with local
comrades, high and low.  The Devil takes particular

interest in the arts, and meddles incessantly with those
involved in literary or theatrical matters, but soon his
influence is felt everywhere—in taxis, retail stores,
government offices, restaurants and other locales.  

Woland's stay in the capital city last but a few days,
but before his team departs, their antics have caught the
attention of the Soviet police, and have spurred a

massive—albeit unsuccessful—manhunt.

This story line, brilliantly conceived and artfully executed,

is filled with diverse characters and fanciful incidents,
and could stand on its own as a complete, satisfying
novel.  But Bulgakov packages it with two related
but contrasting stories.  The first involves "the Master"
of the novel's title, a writer living in poverty who struggles
to complete a psychological novel about Pontius Pilate
—a angst-ridden work of Dostoevskian proportions—
only to find that such a book is far too controversial to
be published under the Soviet regime. The Master's
only loyal reader is his lover Margarita, the wife of a
wealthy man who longs to leave her husband and join
her fate with the unfortunate author. She is determined
to do whatever she can to help "the Master"—which is
her affectionate name for the writer—even if it means
dealing with the Devil.  The third plot line is a novel-

within-a-novel:  the fictionalized account of Pontius
Pilate, chapters of which are interspersed with the
other sections of The Master and Margarita.

The story of "the Master" draws on tragic elements

of Bulgakov's own life.  He too found it difficult to
publish his work under the Soviet regime. Bulgakov
even wrote a personal letter to Stalin in 1929, asking
for permission to emigrate if the government could
not find a productive use for his talents. Stalin, who

had admired Bulgakov's play The Days of the Turbins,
intervened on the author's behalf, and helped him

secure a position with the Art Theater.  Even so,
Bulgakov's most important work could not be published
in his lifetime, and he labored for years over The Master
and the Margarita—just like the Master in the story—
even though it was inevitable that such a novel would
be banned.  The book would not be published until
1966, a quarter century after Bulgakov's death, and
even then more than 10% of the work was eliminated
and other sections changed.  A complete version of
The Master and Margarita would not be made available
until 1973.

The emotional range of this work is as extravagant as

its plot.  Bulgakov shows great skill as a comic writer,
wresting wry, dark humor from the juxtaposition of

devilish cunning and communist ideology. His depiction
of Woland's magic show at the Variety Theater—a
public spectacle designed to evoke greed and crass
materialism from the comrades in attendance—ranks

among the most compelling scenes in modern fiction.  
Yet for all his comic genius, Bulgakov is even more
attuned to the tragic elements of his story. His characters
battle with an unforgiving destiny, and Fate (with a

capital F) looms large here—almost on the scale of
classical mythology or Attic drama.  The psychic toll is
heavy.   During the course of this novel, many of the
characters either appear to be mad, or veer toward

actual insanity.  In another book, this oppressive tone of
foreboding and mental collapse might seem excessive

or contrived, but takes on a far different quality here when
mixed with Bulgakov's comic touches, the toxic realities

of his socio-historical setting, and the surreal fantasy of
his story.   

The result is a masterpiece of the grotesque and

ludicrous.  Over time, this book has gradually
established its credentials as a classic of twentieth
century fiction, one of only a handful of counter-
culture novels from the Soviet years in Russia to

overcome the censorship of the period and achieve a
lasting impact on the global literary community.  But
don't let the renown of this work prevent you from
appreciating its essential strangeness.  
The Master and
is a haunted, troubling book, and the fact
that it is no longer prohibited by authorities does not

mean that it isn't still dangerous to read.

Publication Date: April 23, 2012

Ted Gioia's most recent book is Love Songs: The Hidden History, published
by Oxford University Press.
The Master and Margarita
by Mikhail Bulgakov
Click on image to purchase
The Year
(click here)
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice

Week 38:  Blindess by José

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to reviews)

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Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas
Camp Concentration

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Saramago, José

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute

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Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
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Jospeh Peschel
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