The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ni­co­las Roth­well

was a turn­ing point in Bul­gakov’s life. An odd sta­tus en­veloped him. He be­came both pariah and favourite. That same year, the of­fi­cial line on arts and cul­ture shifted. The Rus­sian As­so­ci­a­tion of Pro­le­tar­ian Writ­ers over­saw an in­creas­ingly strict em­pha­sis on lit­er­ary work in tune with Soviet ide­ol­ogy. The gates of the Gu­lag soon opened for the cul­tural elite and, for Bul­gakov, a time of per­se­cu­tions be­gan.

He cal­cu­lated that his work re­ceived 301 re­views in the decade to 1930, 298 of them neg­a­tive. He be­gan writ­ing heart­felt ap­peals to the au­thor­i­ties: to the Writ­ers Union, to the sec­re­tary of the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee (‘‘In view of the fact that my works have clearly be­come to­tally un­ac­cept­able to Soviet so­ci­ety . . .’’), to the se­cret po­lice, to the govern­ment.

He felt he had a re­al­is­tic plan to bar­gain with. Only let him travel, or maybe even de­port him. Then he would be able to see at last the Ber­lin and Paris of his dreams, where pi­rate copies of his works had made him a well­known name. His vague tie to Stalin seemed like a life­line, or a shadow sen­tence. He de­cided to write to the dic­ta­tor: Per­se­cuted, know­ing that it is no longer pos­si­ble for my sto­ries to be pub­lished or my plays to be staged in the USSR, and driven to a state of ner­vous break­down, I am turn­ing to you and ask­ing you to in­ter­cede on my be­half.

Si­lence — for al­most a year un­til, bizarrely, on Good Fri­day 1930, Stalin tele­phoned Bul­gakov and promised to grant him per­mis­sion to travel, and even to meet him in per­son. Was this a cat and mouse game? Stalin liked plac­ing such calls and tor­ment­ing his vic­tims. Noth­ing hap­pened.

Bul­gakov wrote again, in mid-1931, plead­ing: ‘‘ My dream as a writer is that you your­self in­vite me to see you in per­son.’’ The meet­ing never came about. But lit­er­ary work, of a kind, be­gan once more to flow Bul­gakov’s way.

The times were harsh: there were early signs his health was fail­ing, tur­moil had come into his mar­i­tal life. Af­ter com­plet­ing a se­ries of un­per­formed plays de­voted to fig­ures of the lit­er­ary past, Bul­gakov hit on the ex­pe­di­ent of writ­ing a dra­matic piece com­mem­o­rat­ing Stalin’s early years. He ap­proached the Moscow Arts Theatre and se­cured its sup­port. He wrote the first draft, ti­tled Ba­tum for its Ge­or­gian set­ting. It was sub­mit­ted to the Krem­lin for ap­proval and passed to the dic­ta­tor him­self. Talk about per­for­mance re­view!

The trans­la­tor and edi­tor of this vol­ume, Roger Cock­rell, seeks to pro­vide some con­text. Stalin, he feels, broadly dis­ap­proved of Bul­gakov’s works but found them some­how in­ter­est­ing. Per­haps Stalin had ap­pre­ci­ated the even­handed pre­sen­ta­tion of provin­cial life in the author’s early sketches and stage plays; per­haps he ac­tu­ally ad­mired Bul­gakov’s reck­less brav­ery in de­fy­ing the of­fi­cial line.

‘‘ It is odd,’’ Cock­rell writes, ‘‘ that this ruth­less dic­ta­tor and Bul­gakov — who was cer­tainly not a sup­porter of the regime and whose pa­tri­cian views seemed to date from a pre­vi­ous era — should have been locked in such a re­la­tion­ship of mu­tual fas­ci­na­tion.’’

Ba­tum presents its hero in the Cau­ca­sus, or­gan­is­ing strikes and protest marches. Stalin is ex­iled to Siberia, es­capes and re­sumes his rev­o­lu­tion­ary ag­i­ta­tion at Lenin’s side. The work ends with the 1917 up­ris­ings close at hand. The treat­ment is cool through­out, and dis­en­gaged. The piece is far from sim­ple herowor­ship. Stalin was shown the script in July 1939: he blocked its pro­duc­tion and with that rul­ing Bul­gakov’s faint hopes of fur­ther favour seemed to die.

He now suf­fered a swift and ‘‘ mas­sive de­te­ri­o­ra­tion’’ in his health. His eye­sight be­gan to fail, he was plagued by crip­pling headaches, day­light tor­mented him: for weeks on end he was un­able to leave his apart­ment. Th­ese were tell­tale symp­toms. Kid­ney scle­ro­sis had set in. If he still dreamed of some kind of res­cue from the dic­ta­tor, no sign of prefer­ment or at­ten­tion came.

Bul­gakov gave him­self over to work on The Mas­ter and Mar­garita but could cor­rect no more than the man­u­script’s first part: the text thus ex­ists in six vari­ants and the fi­nal draft is re­plete with lit­tle mysteries.

It is clear the novel al­ways held a spe­cial sta­tus in Bul­gakov’s in­most thoughts: at the height of his de­spair­ing the­atri­cal en­deav­ours in the mid-30s he was al­ready dream­ing its chap­ters into life: ‘‘ My Mar­garita is wan­der­ing around in­side my head, to­gether with the cat, and the flights over the city.’’

The in­spi­ra­tions for the tale were com­plex and drawn from dif­fer­ent sources. Bul­gakov min­gled his bent for satire with his in­ten­sive stud­ies of Chris­tol­ogy, mod­ern mu­sic and an­cient Jerusalem. Above all, he used the raw ma­te­rial of Soviet life.

The key scene in the book, the Spring Ball of the Full Moon — per­haps the finest party scene in all lit­er­a­ture — was bor­rowed from US ambassador Wil­liam Bul­litt’s grandly con­ceived Spring Fes­ti­val of April 1935, held at his Moscow res­i­dence, Spaso House, and at­tended by the Soviet po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural elite, and by Bul­gakov.

This was con­scious method: Bul­gakov knew what he was about, con­fect­ing fan­tasy, the bet­ter to di­ag­nose a dis­torted, fan­tas­ti­cal re­al­ity. He also knew his was a dark time, a time for stricken prophecy as much as for mere his­tory. Thus his early civil war novel The White Guard ends not in bat­tles or res­o­lu­tion but in a cas­cade of apoc­a­lyp­tic dreams.

The de­noue­ment of Bul­gakov’s own story came in pro­tracted, em­blem­atic fash­ion. He was con­fined to his bed; he wasted away. He could look back on his life’s arc and see his time: a time re­flected in fine de­tail in th­ese let­ters, the writ­ings of a man un­der pres­sure, con­stantly strug­gling against un­seen, heavy­weigh­ing forces, con­stantly alert and tense. They were writ­ten in the years when the great­est Soviet-era poet, Osip Man­del­stam, the great­est short-story writer of the age, Isaac Ba­bel, and many oth­ers of their kind were van­ish­ing into the camps of the se­cret po­lice.

For Bul­gakov, things were slightly dif­fer­ent: he died in March 1940. The next morn­ing, a call came through from Stalin’s of­fice. Was it true Mikhail Afanasye­vich had met his end? On hear­ing the an­swer, the caller hung up with­out an­other word. Bul­gakov was buried in Moscow’s Novode­vichy ceme­tery, in the lit­er­ary sec­tion, close by the graves of Chekhov and Niko­lai Go­gol.

Decades passed be­fore The Mas­ter and Mar­garita was is­sued in a full edi­tion by Moscow pub­lish­ers. To­day, in a new Rus­sia with strong echoes of the Soviet time of per­son­al­ity cult and om­nipo­tent state se­cu­rity ser­vices, com­plete edi­tions of Bul­gakov’s writ­ings abound. He is at last much read, much ad­mired and much loved.

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