Liv­ing hell in the mind of a mas­ter

Mikhail Bul­gakov: Di­aries and Se­lected Let­ters

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ni­co­las Roth­well

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

it. This

The Mas­ter and Mar­garita;

Cover de­tail from

Mikhail Bul­gakov, right

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.