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Recent Reads: Three books by Mikhail Bulgakov

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As even the most casual viewer of my ramblings might have noticed, I’m having a bit of a Bulgakov kick at the moment, and recently devoured and adored three short-ish volumes of his work – somewhat in preparation for a re-read of “The Master and Margarita” in a new translation by Hugh Aplin. The books in question are “The Fatal Eggs”, “Diaboliad” and “Notes off the Cuff”, and I thought it might be useful to consider them together. FE and D were read in close succession, mainly on train journeys to Kent and back, so I was very steeped in this wonderful author’s world!

The Fatal Eggs (Hesperus Press edition 2003, translated by Hugh Aplin)

eggs

This was a re-read for me, as I borrowed this edition from the library some years ago when I first read MB. So it was the Hesperus Press printing I turned to when I wanted a copy to re-read (I do have the story in a different translation within the Harvill Edition of “The Diabolaid”, but I wanted the Aplin version)

FE is one of Bulgakov’s best-known stories and the novella is something of a science fiction story, set 1928 Moscow. Professer Persikov, who has something of a physical resemblance to Lenin, is fiddling about in his laboratory one night when he spots a weird coloured strand in a helix which has a strange effect on some cells. He manages to magnify it to create a red ray and begins his experiments in accelerated growth. Coincidentally, a chicken plague has just hit Russia and the peasants are beginning to starve again. The authorities decided that the professor’s marvellous ray will be just the thing to boost chicken and egg production and solve the crisis. However, unfortunately there is a mix up with egg deliveries, and the wrong kind of thing gets hatched, causing an invasion of scary monsters and much death and mayhem!

On first sight this could be read as a straight early science fiction story, and H.G.Wells was very popular in Soviet Russia. All the elements are there, but there is more depth than a simple sci-fi tale. As with Heart of a Dog, Bulgakov the doctor is having a swipe at science and where it can go wrong. The authorities want to control it, the bureaucrats are incompetent and make mistakes which cause catastrophic events to take place, and Bulgakov clearly thinks there is a limit to what human beings should mess with.

Things are resolved favourably at the end of the book, but not before much death and destruction. Ironically, it is the native Russian cold that defeats the monsters (much as in “War of the Worlds” it is the native Earth bacteria) – the irony coming from the fact that it was the Russian snow which kept Napoleon away from Moscow, and it would be the same snow which defeated Hitler in the future. Prescient, or what?

This book is full of all the lovely touches I expect from Bulgakov – a summary of the 1920s which rapidly paints a picture of the lows and highs of the early Soviet state (including the ever-present housing crisis!), familiar settings such as Prechistenka, which also features in “Heart of a Dog, and some wonderfully evocative writing:

“The frenzied electrical night in Moscow was ablaze. All the lights were burning, and there was not a sport in the apartments where lamps with the shades cast off were not shining. Not in a single apartment in Moscow, whose population numbered four million, was a single person asleep, apart from children too young to understand. In the apartments people ate and drank any old how, in the apartments things were shouted out and every minute contorted faces looked out of windows on every floor, directing their gazes into the sky, which was cut to pieces in all directions by searchlights. In the sky white lights were continually flaring up, throwing pale, melting cones back onto Moscow, and disappearing and dying away. The sky was incessantly droning with the very low rumbling of aeroplanes.”

Moscow was the adopted city of Bulgakov’s heart, and this is very clear from all his fictions. IN FE he captures brilliantly the effect of the events on the populace, utilising all the modern trappings of the city, from newspapers to neon signs. FE is funny, pithy, thought-provoking and unforgettable – highly recommended.

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Diaboliad and other stories (Oneworld Classics edition translated by Hugh Aplin)

diaboliad

This is a recent issue and I indulged in a copy as I find Aplin’s translations work best for me. I read “Diaboliad” not that long ago in the Harvill edition and it didn’t quite gel for me, so I was hoping I would get on better with this version and I did!

The book contains four stories:

Diaboliad
No. 13. – The Elpit Workers’ Commune Building
A Chinese Tale
The Adventures of Chichikov

The title story is the longest and tells the rather manic tale of Korotkov, who works in a bizarre state department. He has settled there, hoping for some stability after the implied madness of recent years (the revolution) and so is unprepared when things go horribly wrong. Firstly, there is no pay – then there is pay in matches, which cause Korotkov to injure his face. When he turns up for work again, the whole staff of the office have changed and there is a new boss, the rather scary person Drawitz. Events start spiralling out of control as Korotkov finds out that not only does his boss have a double, but he himself also has one, called Kolobkov, who is a bit of a rake and the direct opposite of our hero. Poor Korotkov chases around Moscow from office to office, losing his papers and therefore his identity, attempting to clarify who he is and who everyone else is, only to meet a somewhat fatal end!

“Diaboliad” has some of the manic qualities you might expect from a 1930s Hollywood screwball comedy movie – but there is no humour here for the lead character as his life spirals out of control. In the introduction to “Notes on the Cuff” Ellenden Proffer says, “NOTC is typical of Bulgakov’s early prose in that it is thin on description and characterisation, and pulses with a kind of nervous energy.” This is true of “Diaboliad” also. You could describe the character’s fight with bureaucracy as Kafkaesque: however, in Kafka the characters appear to be running through porridge in their attempts to deal with unseen forces, whereas in Bulgakov’s book Korotkov  seems to be pushed from pillar to post on out of control roller skates!  Despite the darkness, this is an entertaining tale with some wonderful vignettes of bizarre offices and barbed comments on the impossibility of finding the right room with the right department. The theme of doubles is intriguing, with hints of Dostoevsky and Gogol; the two doubles of Drawitz and Korotkov reflecting opposing sides, good and evil, of their characters.

The other short tales are all excellent too – “No. 13” is something of a comment on the housing situation (again!) as a beautiful pre-revolutionary building for the rich is transferred into a workers’ commune and then ultimately destroyed by their carelessness. “A Chinese Tale” is a strange little story about a Chinese sharpshooter who ends up fighting for the Red Army. And “The Adventures of Chichikov” is something of a Russian literary in-joke, as Chichikov is the lead character from Gogol’s “Dead Souls”, conjured back to life in Soviet Russia and perfectly able to make a living conning the new establishment as successfully as he did the old!

This translation worked much better for me than the previous one, and it was an excellent read. I believe this was the only major volume of Bulgakov’s work published in Russia during his lifetime (the title story appeared in a journal in 1924 and then a collection in 1925). I’m starting to see recurring themes and patterns in MB’s work and it’s quite obvious why his lampooning of Soviet bureaucracy would have made his writings unacceptable to the authorities and censors – thank goodness it has survived!

It’s worth mentioning here also the additional material provided in the Oneworld Classics version (which I think spills over into their current Alma Classics output too). The books are beautifully produced with photographs at the beginning of author, family, houses etc, and biographical and bibliographical information at the back. This is particularly useful if you want to know more about the author and put their work in context – well done Alma/Oneworld!

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Notes on the Cuff (Ardis 2011 translated by Alison Rice)

cuff

I was very excited when I came across this book on Amazon (and purchased it full price!) as it’s new Bulgakov – I had read everything else I have! NOTC is a collection of four short stories and eight feuilletons:

Notes on the cuff
Bohemia
The Red Crown
The Night of the 3rd

Red Stone Moscow
The Capital in a Noteboook
Moscow, City of Churches
Moscow Scenes
Benefit Performance for Lord Curzon
Travel Notes
The Komarov Case
The City of Kiev

First, a word about feuilletons, as I know Bulgakov was quite a practitioner of this type of literary art and there is a book collecting more of these which I haven’t got yet. Wikipedia says:

“The Feuilleton is a writing genre that allows for much journalistic freedom as far as its content, composition and style are concerned; the text is hybrid which means that it makes use of different genre structures, both journalistic and literary. The characteristic of a column is also the lack of the group of fixed features in strong structural relation.

Thematic domain of a Feuilleton column tends to be always up-to-date, focusing specifically on cultural, social and moral issues. An accented and active role by the columnist as the subject of the narration is also very important characteristic of this genre. The tone of its writing is usually reflexive, humorous, ironic and above all very subjective in drawing conclusions, assessments and comments on a particular subject.

Unlike other common journalistic genres, the feuilleton such is very close to literary. Its characteristic feature is lightness and wit evidenced by wordplay, parody, paradox and humorous hyperboles. The vocabulary is usually not neutral, and strongly emotionally loaded words and phrases prevail.

Besides France, Russia in particular cultivated the feuilleton genre since the 19th century, and the word фельетон acquired the general meaning of satirical piece in the Russian language.

So I think it’s useful here to remember the satirical element in Bulgakov’s work! However, on to this book.

The four short stories, of which the title tale is the longest, could be regarded as typically Bulgakovian. NOTC is autobiographical, covering similar ground to the later novel “Black Snow”, telling the tale of the narrator recovering from typhus and making his first steps into the world of literature. It contains the almost staccato rhythms to Bulgakov’s early prose and some parts of it are missing – but the fragmentary nature of what survives is presumably inevitable because of censorship. Similarly, “Bohemia” is a short piece about Bulgakov becoming the joint author of a play and being very uncomfortable about it. “The Red Crown” is a story I had read in another anthology, an affecting piece about a character haunted by the ghosts of war victims. And “The Night of the 3rd” is another war piece, the story of the events of one night in a city (Kiev?) that is passing from the hands of one faction to another while the civilians survive as best they can.

These pieces are all more or less autobiographical and do bear similarities to other works – in fact, the latter tale is very similar to part of “The White Guard”. Similarly “To a Secret Friend”, which appears in the Glas 5 collection “Bulgakov and Mandelstam”, is in effect an autobiographical piece about how B came to write “Notes on the Cuff” as a prescursor to “Black Snow”, and again covers similar ground. However, the feuilletons are something of a revelation and the ones selected here are some of the best writing of Bulgakov’s that I’ve read. Most of them are about Moscow, his adopted city, and the writing is beautiful but also very, very funny:

From Bohemia: “The play ran for three nights (a record) and the authors were called on stage. Genzulaev came out and took a bow, laying his hand against his clavicle. Then I came out and made faces for a long time so that I would be unrecognizable in the photograph ( which was taken from below with magnesium). Due to these faces, a rumor spread throughout the town that I was brilliant but mad. It was annoying, especially because the faces were totally unnecessary, since the photographer who took our picture was requisitioned and assigned to the theater, so nothing came out on the photograph but a shotgun, the inscription “Glory to….” and a blurred streak.”

From “The Capital in a Notebook”: “Moscow’s literary Bohemia, however, is depressing.

You arrive, and they either ask you to sit on a crate bristling with rusty nails, or there is no tea, or there is tea but no sugar, or the landlady is making moonshine vodka in the next room into which puffy-faced people sneak, and you sit there anxiously because you are afraid they will come and arrest the puffy-faced people and grab you as well, or, worst of all, young poets begin reading their poems. One, then a second, then a third… In short, an insufferable situation.”

What is nice, though, is that Bulgakov is equally scathing about the NEPmen and new bourgeoisie. These pieces are reportage, but more than this – they have the personal touch, as Bulgakov is putting so much of himself into what he writes and that’s half the appeal.

“Travel Notes” and “The City of Kiev” cover a journey to the city of B’s birth, and his observations of Kiev’s response to revolution and gradual change and modernisation. The Moscow of these feuilletons is the cousin of the city which features in Platonov’s writings, particularly “Happy Moscow”. In the early tales from 1921, when Bulgakov arrived there, Moscow is in pieces, people are starving and struggling to survive. But by 1923 in the later writings, the city is coming to life again – there is food in the shops, trams, neon lights and mechanisation and rebuilding – many of which aspects also feature in Bulgakov’s 1920s fictions, notably “Heart of a Dog” and “The Fatal Eggs”. However, 1920s Moscow is noticeably different from the 1930s setting of “The Master and Margarita”. In the former, the state has yet to close in on the inhabitants so completely, and B can get away with his non-politically correct stance. By the latter dates, the iron fist is tightening and it is impossible for a book like M&M to appear.

Interestingly the introduction to a collection of stories by another Kievan author, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, brackets together Bulgakov, Zamyatin, Platonov and SK as producing works in a similar vein. Yes and no – there are necessary similarities because of the time and circumstances these authors were working in, but their focus, emphasis and worldview is very different.

Reading these three Bulgakov works together, it is clear that there are recurring themes and elements in all of his works. Little things prefigure his later longer books: the constant presence of primus stoves which were an essential for survival in post-revolutionary Russia (and used to such great comic effect in M&M); a tram called Annushka (and it is an Annushka who will spill oil which will cause Berlioz to slip under a tram in M&M); office staff change and move overnight in both “Diaboliad” and NOTC. And the feuilleton “Red Stone Moscow” from 1922 contains a description of a department store which is straight out of M&M’s scene of Koroviev and Behemoth causing havoc in such a setting! In some ways, all of Bulgakov’s work could be seen as leading up to his magnum opus:

“For suddenly, with extraordinary, remarkable clarity, I realized that those who say never destroy what has been written are right! You can tear it up, burn it…. hide it from others. But from yourself – never! It is finished! It is indelible. I wrote this amazing thing. It is finished!…”!

NOTC is an excellent collection and the translation seems to capture well Bulgakov’s somewhat breathless early style. I think I would have preferred more notes – which may seem an odd thing to say, but the Hesperus/Oneworld/Alma volumes always have excellent notation and although I’m fairly well-versed in things Soviet/Russian, some might have struggled with things mentioned in these stories. Also, it wasn’t made clear whether the missing sections and ellipses indicated by long rows of dots were literary devices by Bulgakov or due to these fragments being missing owing to censorship, so a little more editorial guidance/comment would have been useful. But nevertheless all of these books have been a joy to read and our doctor-turned-author has to be one of my favourite writers. We can only be glad he made the career change. As Ellenden Proffer says in the introduction:

“In NOTC Bulgakov describes for the first time in his career the romance of becoming a writer. And it remained a romance, no matter how many unhappy experiences he and his heroes suffered.”

Current Reading – plus we purchase more (whisper it) full price books!

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I have decided to dispense with the current reading widget on the side of this page, for a couple of reasons really: firstly, I was constantly having to change it and it will only point at an image already online; secondly (and mainly) because it’s no good when I’m reading more than one book at once! And I am doing this at the moment, despite my reservations about this type of reading, for another very good reason – I found that I was avoiding reading certain books because I didn’t want to commit to them exclusively at the expense of other volumes I fancy at the moment.

The three current reading books in question are these:

current reading
A few words of explanation – “Don Quixote” is a book that’s been TBR for years (actually, decades) and I was spurred on to pick it up by reading of Bulgakov’s love of it (my favourite character from M&M, Koroviev, is often said to be a knight from DQ). Translation and translators came into play here too – I actually have owned for about 20-odd years the Penguin Classics translation by Cohen, but when I did a bit of online research, the later Penguin volume from John Richardson sounded as if it might be up my street. I know there is a more recent, lauded version by Edith Grossman from Vintage, but I read quite a few negatives and when I compared a couple of pages of both versions, I felt the Richardson was for me. I duly procured a cheap copy from Awesome Books (thanks folks!) and I am 100 pages into what is a 1000 page book! It’s actually so far a very funny, very easy read which I’m enjoying a lot, and I’m not feeling at all intimidated by the length as I know I can dip into my other current reads when I feel like it.

Secondly is “A Buyer’s Market” by Anthony Powell, no. 2 in my monthly reading of “Dance to the Music of Time”. As I’m struggling with motivation again, it’s nice to be able to pick this up, read a few pages and stop when I want. And so far, this is much easier to get into than the first book – maybe as I’ve got used to Powell’s style and the characters are quite familiar. I may be a little later finishing it, but heck! At least I started it in February….!

And finally “Notes off the Cuff’ – simply because I *have* to have a Bulgakov on the go at the moment!

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In fact, the Bulgakov has changed since I came up with the idea of three books on the go at once – it was “The Fatal Eggs” – because Youngest Child and I headed off to Kent yesterday for a day out visiting another University. Boy, was it cold!!! The University was fine, and because we were on the train I was able to read – finished “The Fatal Eggs” and also got through a new translation (Hugh Aplin) of Bulgakov;s “Diaboliad”. I’ll review these together with “Cuff” at a later date, I think.

2 bulg

What was rather nice yesterday was the fact that we went via Stratford and on the way back had a chance to stop and pop into the giant (and very posh and expensive) Westfield Shopping Centre. Apart from the rather wonderful World Food Stalls, what thrilled us most was the fact that there was a little branch of Foyles! (Never mind all that designer clothing nonsense – there’s a bookshop!!)  We had a little browse, and YC spotted a book on Kant she needed for her studies. As it was on 3 for 2, and so were the little Penguin Great Ideas volumes on the stand next to it, I confess I indulged in more full price book buying:

great ideas

I probably have all the George Orwell essays already in one of my collected volumes, but this one did look rather pretty. And the Baudelaire book sounded fun as well – so the TBR will now become even higher and more unstable – oh dear!

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