Book of a lifetime: The Master and Margarita, By Mikhail Bulgakov

 

"Manuscripts don't burn…" In my early teens, hating my school, hating pretty much everything, I was kicking around the rectory kitchen of an aunt who'd drawn the short straw of looking after me for half term when she sighed heavily and stubbed out her cigarette. In the few seconds that elapsed before she lit another, she stamped across to a small bookcase. Pulling a tatty paperback from a shelf, she said, "Stalin's favourite playwright. Don't let that put you off."

On the front, a wickedly grinning cat clutched an automatic in one paw. The cat might have been chomping a cigar or I might have made that up. I took Bulgakov's Master and Margarita out to a paddock at the back and sat under a tree. Within pages I was hooked by Behemoth, the cigar-chomping cat, Professor Woland, his master, and a droll decapitation of a civil servant. When the novel abruptly switched to ancient Palestine, Pontius Pilate appeared and Jesus wandered in, worrying about Pilate's migraines, I realised fiction didn't have to make sense. I could stop worrying. If fiction didn't have to make sense perhaps life didn't either. It was a revelation.

By the end of half term I'd finished the novel and started again. It had everything; Satan and a wise-cracking cat, Jesus as a wise simpleton, doomed love, hints of sex, blasphemy. I took the book back to school and it became my talisman. Years later, while approaching a London bridge with a group I barely knew, the person next to me mentioned that she was reading Master and Margarita. Apparently, I stopped dead in the middle of the street to expand on why Bulgakov was a genius. Despite my gaucheness we arranged to meet again, and stomped through Soho, discussing whether or not reading Russian or the 50-year gap between its writing and our reading proved the bigger block to interpreting it as Bulgakov would have wanted it.

Our evening was pretentious, glorious, and involved wandering Soho for hours before deciding that we needed a drink, and that not speaking Russian or living in 1940s Soviet Russia was no bar to recognising the novel as a masterpiece. That evening led to another and somewhere down the line we decided to get married. Every year, we try to find a new edition or a poster, a foreign edition or a first printing. A framed poster of the 1967 Signet paperback hangs on the wall outside our bedroom. We have the boxed set of the 2005 series Vladimir Bortko did for Russian television in the sitting room. It's a book that changed my life not once but twice.

Jonathan Grimwood's new novel 'The Last Banquet' is published by Canongate

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