Living hell in the mind of a master
Mikhail Bulgakov: Diaries and Selected Letters
Edited and translated by Roger Cockrell Alma Classics, 276pp, $27.99 (HB)
THERE are authors known chiefly for the works written in one brief golden chapter of their careers; there are those whose reputation rests on a handful of books or interlinking stories that rise above the grey foothills of their remaining work; and then there is Soviet playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, whose multiplicit talents and eventful life are overshadowed, indeed rendered near invisible, by the fame of a single, matchless, uncompleted novel, published in full in his own country only decades after his death.
The Master and Margarita (1967) defines Bulgakov. It catches the mood of its time. It reflects the fears and doubts spawned by dictatorship. It offers up a wild, bitter humour. It foretells the later 20th century’s embrace of magical realism.
The book’s devotees are entranced by the mazy, interwoven narrative, which jumps between the tale of Jesus and Pilate, the doings of the persecuted, long-suffering ‘‘ master’’ — a writer in Moscow, loved by the appealing Margarita — and the visit to the Soviet capital of the charismatic Woland, who is none other than the Devil, accompanied by a large black talking cat and a naked witch.
Where did all this come from? Who was Bulgakov? Diaries and Selected Letters provides a life sketch of the man through his own words and seeks to trace the course of his career.
He was born in 1891 in Kiev, into the provincial high bourgeoisie and in due course trained as a doctor. In World War I, he did medical service on the eastern front; he was already writing stories, brief and dark.
When the revolution came and a civil conflict broke out in the Ukraine, his feelings lay with the establishment, the nationalists or Whites, rather than the eventual victors, the leftist Reds. Looking back a decade on, in an interrogation by the Soviet secret police, Bulgakov described his first steps in literature and his political leanings at that time with a nearinsane candour: ‘‘ My sympathies were entirely on the side of the Whites, whose retreat filled me with horror and incomprehension.’’
The war over and the Bolshevik revolution consolidated, Bulgakov made for the capital and its literary circles. ‘‘ Moscow is, as ever, like some marvellous cesspit,’’ he confided to his diary. My writing is progressing slowly. The only problem is that I’m never absolutely certain that what I’ve written is any good. It’s as if there’s some fog obscuring my brain and preventing me from writing precisely when I need to describe what I so profoundly and genuinely can understand and sense with my heart and my brain.
He looked for work in journalism, in suitably proletarian newspapers. Above all he attuned himself to the wild energies of the time, when artists and writers around him were dreaming up new literary forms and ways of advancing a new social order: In amongst my bouts of depression and nostalgia for the past, living in these absurd, temporarily cramped conditions, in a totally disgusting room in a totally disgusting house, I sometimes, as now, experience a brief upsurge of confidence and strength.
Conditions in the capital were beyond easy compass: there was hope, and vigour but there was ‘‘ gangrenous decay’’ as well: Nothing progresses. Everything is gobbled up by the hellish maw of Soviet red tape. Every step taken, every move made by Soviet citizens is a torment, taking up hours, days, sometimes even months.
Bulgakov wrote a vivid, sparkling novelchronicle recalling the post-revolutionary times of civil war in Ukraine. It was highly autobiographical. He placed its chapters in various literary journals. He gave readings at gatherings of writers, and was heard at one by representatives of the avant-garde Moscow Arts Theatre. Soon he had drafted a stage adaptation, which he titled The Days of the Turbins.
After tortuous negotiations it was performed, to much acclaim, in a production by the master dramaturge of the age, Konstantin Stanislavsky. The play stood out among the standard offerings of the Soviet stage. It traced the flickering fortunes of a Chekhovian bourgeois clan as the convulsions of the era swept away their world.
Stalin saw it in 1929 and enjoyed
Cover detail from
Mikhail Bulgakov, right