web analytics

The Visions of Begemot (Part 1)

It’s been a few months since Manchester bloggers met at The Hare and Hounds pub in Shudehill. And we’ll be meeting again this coming Monday, between 6 and 11pm at the Festival Pavilion outside Manchester Central (G-Mex). Read more at BBC Manchester Blog and leave a comment there if you want to come along.

And when I was at the memorable meet-up in April (when I saw a man in a yellow duckling suit, unzipped on the back), I was talking to Rob Baker, who happened to be having an on-and-off romance with The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Like most readers, he was fascinated with the cat Begemot (or Behemoth, if we opt for historical spelling). This cat is an adorable black gluttonous creature that walks on his back paws, speaks rather eloquently, and rides a tram. On occasion, he can also tear one’s head off and even fire a gun, but for that one needs to seriously enrage the cat.

As we know, artists see things differently not only from other people, but from other artists, as well. I wondered how many interpretations of Begemot in illustration I could possibly find, considering how popular Bulgakov’s novel is. The result can be seen below. I didn’t even think of making a complete list of all Begemot’s images that could be found online, but even those that I found make up for enjoyable and observant viewing. There are also so many of them that I will have to organize them in a few posts, otherwise there will be too much writing and too many images.

Book covers.

Type in “bulgakov” in Amazon.co.uk Search window, and in a matter of seconds you will be staring at the innumerable covers of editions of one of the best-known and loved books in world’s literature. And on almost all of them you’ll see Begemot. We may speculate endlessly, exactly what makes this character so appealing. It is generally appealing – as any tram-riding cat would be. It challenges our attitude to black cats – again, a black cat may be a symbol of bad luck, but Begemot appears to be a master of smooth-talking, and how can it then bring any bad luck? This creature is lovely, fluffy, magical in every sense of the word, and it’s a cat. I suppose one of the reasons why Begemot is so popular is because it seems easier to conceive of a cat’s, rather than human, face.

The covers of the first English-language editions showed a particular fascination with Begemot’s rascal and smart side. It is no wonder that Harper & Row 1967 cover (left) is liked by many: the illustrator has probably come closest to capturing the cat’s mischievous essence. The Grove Press edition of the same year takes more interest in Begemot’s “human” side, falling short of giving us an ultimate boxer-cat (right).

It is interesting to see how the same
publishing house – Penguin and Picador, on this occasion – can present two so different interpretations of Begemot. With Penguin, one illustrator opted for a carnival mask (thus highlighting the theatrical and the figurative in the novel) (left), whilst another chose to produce a caricature (right), not unlike those drawn to illustrate one of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s books (below).

Picador’s covers are no less peculiar: one shows you, well, a cat with cards (left); and on another the cat has got an extreme modernist makeover (right). Vintage Classics and
Avalon Travel Publishing both take
on the theme of all-pervasiveness of a devilish spirit, which Vintage makes slightly more figurative and political. On another Vintage cover we see Begemot in profile, and the angle of his head reminds me of a gargoyle at the Notre Dame de Paris. The Harvill Panther’s monochrome cover brings to mind politics, the black-and-white cinema and photos of 1930s, and the closeness of the Second World War (below, from left to right: Vintage, Avalon, Vintage and Harvill Panther covers; the gargoyle image is displayed on top). Finally, the cover of Fontana 1974 edition (further below, right) made me wonder if it had had any influence of the make-up artists who subsequently worked on The Cats musical.

(And please forgive me this little rant, but how could The Daily Telegraph reviewer back in 2004 ever allow themselves to write this phrase, which is now proudly cited on the book’s page on Amazon: “The Master and Margarita comes over like a grown-up and vastly superior version of Harry Potter”. OF COURSE, it is VASTLY SUPERIOR to Harry Potter and to the vast majority of other books out there. OF COURSE, it is incomparably thought-provoking, challenging and complex, which is why there hasn’t been and still isn’t any equally great adaptation of this novel in cinema or on stage. OF COURSE, The Daily Telegraph was reviewing one of the most influential books of the 20th c. I’ve got nothing against Harry Potter (or J K Rowling, for that matter), but to even compare it to Bulgakov’s novel is too much of an honour for the young wizard saga).

Russian cover artists also like Begemot, although the cat doesn’t feature prominently on the Russian covers. The covers of EKSMO-Press publishing house, as well as that of Molodaya Gvardiya (Youth Guard), present an unmistakably feline face of Behemoth. Personally, I like the Sovetskaya Literatura (Soviet Literature) cover better of the three, which partly has to do with the fact that it was this edition that I read myself more than ten years ago (below, from left to right: EKSMO, Molodaya Gvardiya, and Soviet Literature covers). Surprisingly, the only website I found which has got this edition listed is Kevin Moss’s comprehensive resource.

A Hungarian cover gives us a giant Behe-Cyclop, while two Italian covers give completely polar interpretations of Behemoth: one cat is arrogant; another reminds me of a rabbit (below, left to right). Yet another Italian cover looks familiar to the Vintage’s that you saw above. This profile view seems to be the most popular, as it is also replicated on a Portuguese cover (I didn’t include either in this post).

A Chinese book brings to mind those beautiful medieval Chinese paintings; German and Estonian covers have not at all been taken by Behemoth (at least those that I saw), and a Polish 2006 cover gives the cat a minimalist feel (below, left to right).

Master and Margarita, a resource created by Kevin Moss at Middlebury College. The site lists published texts of Bulgakov’s novel, translations and bibliography, as well as the list of illustrations and themes. Unfortunately, the list of links hasn’t been updated for some time, but otherwise it is a very useful website. In addition, Kevin has also created several other sites dedicated to the Russian choir at Middlebury, Russian literature and language, and Russian gay culture.

Master and Margarita, a very comprehensive resource from where I linked to many images here. The resource was created by Jan Vanhellemont from Belgium, and, as Jan tells us on the front page (written in quite good Russian, I should say!), he never heard about the novel until one summer night in 2003 in Paris, where he first heard about the book. A year later he finally got to read it and has been studying the Russian language since, in a hope to be able to read the book in its original language one day. I must admit, I’m very smitten by this story. Bulgakov’s novel has played a crucial part in my life, as well, but Jan’s is a very different experience. Judging by the site, he’s doing pretty well, and since I’m sure he’ll know about this post, I’m happy to provide some distant language tuition. The site contains articles, illustrations, film excerpts, music pieces, and many more, so is definitely worth a visit.


Most of book covers’ images were taken from Amazon.co.uk and Jan Vanhellemont’s site. Soviet Literature edition’s back cover image is on Kevin Moss’s site. The cover of Mayakovsky’s work is of the Krasnaya Nov’ (Red Novelty) edition displayed at Mayakovsky and His Circle site (some areas of the site are still in development). The gargoyle picture comes from this lady, WTS, at traveljournals.net. The Chinese painting is Plum Blossom and the Moon by Chen Lu (Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644) at http://www.xabusiness.com/china-resources/song-liao-jin-dynasties-paintings.htm. All images are linked to their original location.

2 thoughts on “The Visions of Begemot (Part 1)”

  1. Hi Julia,Hopefully, I’ll be able to make the Manchester blog meet tonight, but Mondays are always a trial!Great Bulgakov post! I must admit, however, that — huge fan of Russian literature that I am — The Master and Margarita leaves me cold … Allegory is always difficult to do, and I found this heavy-handed and over-played.

  2. Thanks Mark! It’s a shame you didn’t make it, but hopefully another time?? Yes, I see your point, but I can’t help but thinking that this may in part have to do with the translation. The post I wrote previously about Magritte’s Lovers and the relevance of the picture’s theme to the scene of meeting of the Master and Margarita included a citation from the novel, and I had to think really hard which translation to choose because neither in my opinion renders the style and emotion of Bulgakov’s text. It is one of those drawbacks of translation, alas.

Comments are closed.

error: Sorry, no copying !!