Bulgakov spent more than a decade writing this novel that he knew would not be published in his lifetime. He was a physician, knew he was dying of the kidney disease that killed his father, and worked on the book up until a few months before his death. He was not yet fifty.
The book wasn't published until a quarter century after he died, and he is now one of the most beloved and well-known Russian writers of the twentieth century. But the times in which he lived were harsh and his work is certainly reflective of it. He was born into a monarchist family at the end of the 19th century and decided to become a doctor, volunteered with the Red Cross in WWI, fought with the White Army in the civil war, was forced to serve in the Ukrainian Nationalist Army. He gave up medicine for literature in the 1920s when choosing the wrong topic to write about was detrimental to your career; by the 1930s it could be detrimental to your life. It was during this time that he continued to work on The Master and Margarita knowing very well that it was not only un-publishable but dangerous.
He was not a Christian -- not religious in any orthodox sense -- but believed in God and believed that separating ethics from religion (as the Soviets insisted upon doing) was problematic -- and he watched as it led to the abuses we are familiar with in the Soviet era. He found work as a dramatist and his first play was his most famous; after that work was difficult and sporadic.
The book, the book...It is difficult to know how to describe this book. The basic story is that Satan comes to Stalinist Moscow and wreaks havoc. The Master (we never know his actual name) is an author who has written a novel about Pontius Pilate. Margarita is the woman who loves him. The novel is un-publishable (as far as the literary elite are concerned, Jesus officially never existed -- although the Jesus in this novel is not Jesus) and the response of the editors causes the Master to have a nervous breakdown. He is taken to an insane asylum and Margarita doesn't know what has happened to him -- is he alive? Did he leave her? She doesn't know.
The devil asks Margarita to be his mistress at a ball he's throwing and her reward is that she and the Master will be together forever. And Pilate is forgiven, too.
So. That's it in bare bones, but this novel is anything but bare bones. It's weird -- so weird. And just when you think it can't get any weirder -- it does. Bulgakov satirizes everything Soviet in this novel -- the culture, the oppression, the double-speak, the denial of the supernatural -- and the more I thought about it after I finished it the more sympathetic I became.
I'm the opposite of an expert on this -- both the writings of Bulgakov and the history of the period -- so I might have misunderstood a thing or three. There's a Manichean flavor to the book -- except I don't really think Satan was Satan or that Jesus was Jesus. I think Satan (called Woland in the book) is just a vehicle to allow Bulgakov to exaggerate so much that was wrong in 1930s Russia (Soviet Union), so while there is definite religious symbolism in the story it's at that level -- symbolic, not realistic.
I have done a terrible job explaining this book, but I think it cannot be explained. I don't really recommend it for itself. If you want to be educated with regard to Russian literature, if you are interested in having a better understanding of the impossibility of being an artist in the Soviet Union in the twentieth century (at least before glasnost), I think this novel is important. He is now one of Russia's most popular writers -- so knowing about him might be important for that reason, too. Or if you just want to read the weirdest book you'll ever come across you can read it for that reason. I am very glad to have read it; it's given me a lot to think about. But what I'm thinking about isn't the novel as a work in itself -- I am thinking about what it cost Bulgakov to write it. It makes me grateful, again, to live in the United States.
If you do decide to read the book, get the version shown above. It's the translation that Prof. Morson recommends and there are invaluable (INVALUABLE) notes in the back. I thought it was an easy read -- I had no trouble finishing it at all.