“… a white cloak with blood-red lining…”


The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

One of the things I’ve been promising myself for some time now is a re-read of Bulgakov’s masterwork “The Master and Margarita”. It’s a book I read and loved many years ago, and then fell in love with again more recently when I watched the 2005 Russian TV miniseries. The time had to be right, though, and recently when I was between books and unsure, I just picked it up and started reading. And, oh my! Am I glad I did so!


“The Master and Margarita” was unpublished during Bulgakov’s lifetime (and could perhaps be regarded as unfinished, only finally coming to print in the 1960s. Summarising it is not easy, but here goes nothing. One hot spring evening in 1930s Moscow, the Devil materialises in Patriarch’s Ponds, along with his retinue: an unpredictable and manic ex-choirmaster called variously Korovyev or Fagot (bassoon); and a large black cat called Behemoth with a habit of walking around on his hind legs, a fondness for vodka and a very garrulous tongue (he’s also a bit of a pyromaniac!). Encountering a proletariat poet Ivan Bezdomny (Homeless) and a literary editor Berlioz, they debate the existence of God and the Devil. The narrative then takes a turn into a story of Pontius Pilate, which runs through the whole work, related sometimes by Woland (the Devil), sometimes in a book by a writer known only as the Master, and sometimes in dreams. Woland and his retinue (mainly the retinue, to be honest!) proceed to cause havoc, death and destruction in Moscow. Ivan ends up in a clinic, where he encounters a mysterious man known only as the Master. The latter is the author of the story of Pilate, but has been crushed by the vilification he received by the critics and authorities, and is separated from the woman he loves and who loves him – Margarita.

Behemoth, Azazello and Korovyev, in the 2005 Russian TV adaptation

Behemoth, Azazello and Korovyev, in the 2005 Russian TV adaptation

The tale rushes on, with Woland’s Midnight Ball taking place, where Margarita is hostess and greets a hideous collection of the dead; Korovyev and Behemoth cause havoc wherever they go; Pilate searches for peace and revenge; and Margarita seeks to be reunited with the Master. Can peace be restored to all and will Moscow ever recover from the confusion?

That’s some of the bare bones of what is a rich, complex and quite fascinating novel, but I’ve barely scratched the surface. And yet, despite its complexity and length, I found M&M incredibly easy to read. It’s full of the most wonderful set pieces – a ‘magic show’ at the Variety Theatre, where Korovyev and Behemoth play tricks on greedy Muscovites, while Woland gets the chance to observe them; Korovyev and Behemoth’s visit to the Torgsin store (which you just *know* will not end well); Margarita’s flight through night-time Moscow and her revenge on Latunsky; the execution of Yeshua; well, I could list them forever!


Korovyev and Margarita at the Ball

So you might think from some of the initial impressions you get that this book is just a wacky satire, and that is one of the superficial elements; but it’s also very deep and has much, much more than just historical high-jinks. On a basic level, the Master can be taken as a self-portrait of Bulgakov (and I hadn’t realised quite how much on my first read of this book, but this became much clearer after having read his letters and diaries). Persecuted by the critics, unable to publish or make a living, the Master has struggled to create his mammoth life of Pilate, only to have it torn to pieces. He does not survive the attack (unlike Bulgakov, who fought on to keep writing, composing this book right up until his early death), and ends up in the clinic, broken and unwilling or unable to consider writing again. However, he could also stand for any number of Russian writers who were persecuted, and with the burning of manuscripts (which Bulgakov also undertook) you could draw a parallel with Gogol, who indeed burned the second part of his great work “Dead Souls” so that we’ll never know what was to come next.

Bulgakov is obviously using his work to critique the Soviet regime, and cleverly much of his comment is hidden in the Yershalaim sections of the book: a repressive regime (the Romans), arrests, torture, execution, spying and betrayal. The section where Pilate discusses the fate of Judas with the mysterious executioner Afranius is a model of double-speak, with even the chapter title being ironic, and it’s hard to see how this could ever have been published during Stalin’s time (but then Bulgakov did know that he was writing for the drawer).

And the book certainly gets you thinking about the fine line between good and evil, because nothing is black and white in M&M. Woland is the devil; Yeshua is a messiah. One is good, one evil, you would think but it’s not that simple. Yeshua here (and it needs to be pointed out that this is not just a Gospel retelling; this is Bulgakov’s – and the Master’s – telling of a tale of a historical figure who might have existed, a simple man who believed in peace and was turned into a figurehead); anyway, this Yeshua is no hero, no leader and perhaps is morally ambiguous. His fame will rest on the myth that grows up around him, and he even tells Pilate at one point that the things written down about him are untrue. Conversely, Woland, who should be purely bad, ends up being a force for good. In a pivotal exchange between Woland and Levi Matvei (Matthew), the former says:

“But would you ponder this question: What would your good do if evil didn’t exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people. Here is the shadow of my sword. But shadows also come from trees and from living things. Do you want to strip the earth of all trees and living things just because of your fantasy of enjoying naked light?”

and he’s right. Human beings can’t imagine heaven (the subject of an interesting recent post here) and we can’t imagine a world without striving and searching. So although we follow the Yershalaim sections of the book, thinking that we know what’s to come, our perceptions become skewed as we’re constantly reminded that this isn’t the familiar Biblical tale we expect. Interestingly, the more obvious Biblical elements in fact turn up transposed into the Moscow sections (a last supper with 12 attendees for example).

Bulgakov as the Master?

Bulgakov as the Master?

M&M works on so many different levels that it’s hardly surprising it took Bulgakov from 1929 till the end of his life to write it (and he was still revising it at his death). You can read it simply as a very funny satire, as its portrait of bureacracy-bound 1930s Moscow with its niggling regulations and pomposity is unparalleled; you can enjoy the wonderfully joyous romp as the characters cut through the pettiness of Soviet daily life; you can look at the criticisms of the regime hidden in the book and get a real feeling of what it was like to live under such an authoritarian system; you can enjoy Bulgakov’s take on the historical story of Yeshua; and you can see the painful struggle that Bulgakov and other authors had to try to create their art and have it recognised.

But more than anything the moral element shines through; the need for integrity, for tolerance, for a world where light and shade both exist to balance each other out and where humans can put aside their difference and trust one another. It is the *system* that prevents Pilate from saving Yeshua from execution, an event which will torment him for aeons; when all he wanted to do was walk with the preacher and talk with him. In fact, Pilate emerges from the book as a genuinely tragic character, and the resolution of his story is one of the most moving parts.

There’s so much more I could talk about: Bosoi and the currency; Varenukha and the vampires; everyone wanting reinforced cells; Bulgakov’s incredible use of the imagery of weather; the Moscow housing crisis (which turns up in every one of his books, it seems!); the significance of primus stoves; the motif of composers’ names for characters (Berlioz, Stravinsky, Rimsky); other recurring motifs (sun, moon, knives, roses, severed heads); the fate of Ivan; and of course the influence of “Faust” (Bulgakov was fond of the opera and the legend); but I fear there’s enough in this book for several university theses!

The terrible two

The terrible two

“The Master and Margarita” is truly a masterpiece; this is only my second read of the book, and already I feel I understood so much more from this time round. The characterisation is superb: all of the players leap off the page, alive and real, and I have to confess that Korovyev and Behemoth, with their gleeful mischief, are favourites of mine. In fact, it’s strange how M&M plays with your attitudes as a reader; you find yourself laughing with the bad guys as they burn and destroy; you want Pilate not to suffer any longer; you find yourself drawn to Woland despite his evil, as he actually seems more moral than the authorities in both cities. All of these elements intrigue and provoke, and I think on another re-read I will get even more from the book – there are so many subtleties and nuances.

M&M is one of those rare books that’s so all-consuming that when you get to the end, you simply want to go back to the beginning and start reading it again so you can re-experience every wonderful part of it. Bulgakov really was a genius, pulling together so many different strands in this story to make something extremely powerful, a book that possesses you all the way through. If you haven’t read it yet, you need to read it at least once – it really will change your view of life forever.


As an aside, the version I read this time was that translated by Burgin and O’Connor. There are several different translations (here’s a picture of some of the ones I have – the Glenny translation is not shown because I have an e-book version), and each seems to have its supporters and detractors.

margarita x 5

Obsessive, moi?

This particular translation seems extremely good to me; it captured the voice of the author in a way that sounded authentic to me as I compare it with the other Bulgakov books I’ve read. The translators drew on two versions of the book available (it was initially published in a censored version, and there were also changes made by Bulgakov’s widow), and there are notes at the back which clearly explain why choices were made at certain points. There is also excellent commentary by Ellendea Proffer which not only illuminates specifics which might puzzle the general reader, but also draws out themes and allusions which might not be clear to a modern-day Westerner. For example, the Master skirts round the issue of his treatment shortly before he goes to the clinic, but an authorial mention of the fact that his buttons had been removed from his jacket would signal to a contemporary Russian reader that he had undergone interrogation. The notes are not indicated in the text, which I rather liked as I often find them intrusive; instead they are given for each chapter at the end of the book and you can seek them out if you wish. On my readings so far, I’d highly recommend this version, but I hope to read the more recent Hugh Aplin translation next time and see what I think of that!



So, I *have* been trying very hard not to buy any more books recently – Mount TBR is teetering and definitely doesn’t need anything else piled onto it. However, a few volumes have slipped through the next, mainly because they were just irresistable (although one was a gift, so I guess that’s ok!)

First up *is* the gift:


OH and I were watching a fascinating documentary on “All the President’s Men” recently, revisiting the film and the book all these years later. I saw the film on its first release and love both it and Woodward/Bernstein’s books, so I was most impressed when OH presented me with the book of Watergate written by John Dean, the White House Lawyer who featured prominently in the scandal – what a treat!

The next couple of finds are from the lovely local shops – this Philip Larkin biog is something I’ve been after for a long time, so finding it as a £3 bargain was great! Looking forward to sinking my teeth into it….


The next two were impossible to resist:


I’ve never heard of The Vanguard Library but the cover of this copy of “Brave New World” is lovely – so I brought it home with me, despite already having a paperback copy…. And the “Ultramarine” is the only Lowry I don’t have so it was essential!

However, this last one was a bit of an indulgence:

new master

Yes, I know I already have several copies of “The Master and Margarita” and yes I *know* this is a translation I already have (Burgin/O’Connor) – but it comes with extensive annotations and an afterword by Ellendea Proffer and it was only £2, so there you go – basically I have no willpower! Time for a quick charity donation or two I think, to make a little space…..


Recent Reads: Manuscripts Don’t Burn Mikhail Bulgakov – A Life in Letters and Diaries by JAE Curtis


“And in the room of the banished poet
Fear and the Muse take turns to watch,
And the night comes
When there will be no sunrise”

(from Voronech, 1936, by Anna Akhmatova – these lines about Mandelstam apply equally well to Bulgakov)


Well, needless to say, the Bulgakov kick continues! After my recent intense novel-reading I felt the need of a little non-fiction and this book has been sitting on my shelf for a while. It’s not a new book – it was first published in 1991 to celebrate the centenary of MB’s birth – but my edition is a recent reprint (possibly to coincide with the fairly high profile of the writer at the moment?)

ms dont burn

The blurb on Amazon for the book sums up what the contents are:

“The Russian playwright and novelist Mikhail Bulgakov (1891 – 1940) is now widely acknowledged as one of the giants of twentieth-century Soviet literature, ranking with such luminaries as Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn. In his own lifetime, however, a casualty of Stalinist repression, he was scarcely published at all, and his plays reached the stage only with huge difficulty. His greatest masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, a novel written in the 1930s in complete secrecy, largely at night, did not appear in print until more than a quarter of a century after his death. It has since become a worldwide bestseller.

In Manuscripts Don’t Burn, J.A.E. Curtis has collated the fruits of eleven years of research to produce a fascinating chronicle of Bulgakov’s life, using a mass of exciting new material – much of which has never been published before. In particular, she is the only Westerner to have been granted access to either Bulgakov’s or his wife Yelena Sergeyevna’s diaries, which record in vivid detail the nightmarish precariousness of life during the Stalinist purges. J.A.E Curtis combines these diaries with extracts from letters to and from Bulgakov and with her own illuminating commentary to create a lively and highly readable account. Her vast collection of Bulgakov’s correspondence is unparalleled even in the USSR, and she draws on it judiciously to include letters addressed directly to Stalin, in which Bulgakov’s pleads to be allowed to emigrate; letters to his sisters and to his brother in Paris whom he did not see for twenty years; intimate notes to his second and third wives; and letters to and from well-known writers such as Gorky and Zamyatin.

Manuscripts Don’t Burn provides a forceful and compelling insight into the pressures of day-to-day existence for a man fighting persecution in order to make a career as a writer in Stalinist Russia.”

And this really is a treasure of a book. Each section covers a number of years, with an introductory text by Curtis, followed by the clearly set out letters and diary extracts. The earlier parts are naturally less detailed, as a limited amount of items survive from the time of the revolution and civil war. However, what exists is expertly commented on and put in context by Curtis, who clearly has a deep understanding of, and respect for, her subject.

The later chapters are full of detail of Bulgakov’s life and his attempts to work and survive under the repressive regime. Particularly valuable are Yelena Sergeyevna’s diaries which allow us to see the writer from the point of view of someone close to him, which works well alongside MB’s own thoughts. And there is a wonderful section where Yelena is sent away for a month owing to an illness, and Bulgakov’s letters to her, while he is in the midst of writing “The Master and Margarita”, are illuminating and revealing.

But there is chilling material in this book. Bulgakov comes to Moscow in the early 1920s and struggles to survive the privations of the time – lack of food, fuel, clothing, all the basic necessities plus nowhere to live (ah, this is why the eternal Moscow housing issue turns up time and time again!) He writes shorts stories but after initial hope of publication they are deemed unsuitable. He prolifically produces plays and one, “Days of the Turbins” is a runaway success with the public, despite the fact the critics point out that it doesn’t conform with party ideology. The authorities are left with the awkward situation of a hugely successful production by an author they don’t wish to acknowledge. In desperation, as he cannot find any kind of work to survive, MB writes directly to Stalin asking for a job or to be allowed to leave Russia. Amazingly, the Iron Dictator telephones him and asks if he really wishes to leave the country. This is a pivotal moment that B always looks back on – he refuses the chance to leave Russia and so work at the theatre miraculously appears. However, he always wonders whether this was the time he should have gone into exile as much of the rest of his life is tormented by his inability to travel the world.

Certainly, it is quite clear from this book what a cat and mouse game was played in Soviet Russia between the authorities (all the way up to the Top Man) and the country’s artists. All of these creative people were trying to work whilst having an acute awareness of being constantly observed. The kind of bureaucracy that existed in Soviet Russia was ideal for tormenting the citizen, giving him hope and then snatching it away – in B’s case we can feel his agony at not being allowed to travel outside the USSR (passports were dangled in front of him several times) and the constant commissioning of work which was then never produced or changed so much that it bore no relation to the original concept.

(On his play being cancelled):

“How did I feel?

My first wish was to grab someone by the throat and start some kind of fight. Then came a lucidity. I understood that there was no-one to grab, and that I didn’t know why or what for. Tilting against windmills is what used to happen in Spain, as you know, and that was a long time ago.

And it’s an absurd pastime.

I’m too old.

And the thought that someone might watch from the sidelines with cold and powerful eyes, and might laugh and say, ‘Go on, flounder away….’ No, no, it’s unthinkable.

You have to keep the knowledge of your utter, blinding helplessness to yourself.”

And by the time we reach the 1930s the Stalinist purges begin; the letters and diaries give a terryifying insider’s view of the effects of the purges on artists such as Akhmatova and Shostakovich as well as of course B himself and there are heartbreaking glimpses of artists trying to deal with the fear of not knowing what the next knock on the door might mean. These extracts are shot through with pain and particularly poignant are the attempts to keep in touch with his family in exile, particularly his brother in Paris. There are also snapshots of writers like Ilf and Petrov, and Zamyatin, who were friends of Bulgakovs, and it is astonishing to see how these higher profile names were working and publishing at the same time as B, but his work was buried by the authorities. Zamyatin later went into exile in Paris but alas did not survive for many years more.

mb and yelena

What shines through most is MB’s absolute dedication to his craft as a writer and his determination to write the works he must, even if he is “writing for the drawer”. The insight into the composition of “The Master and Margarita” in these extracts is immense and it is clear that Bulgakov felt that this was a major work.

(Letter toYS while working on M&M)

“‘And what will come of it?’ you ask. I don’t know. In all probability you will put it away in the writing-desk or in the cupboard where the corpses of my plays lie, and from time to time you will remember. However, we cannot know our future….

For the moment I am interested in your judgement, and no one can tell whether I shall ever know the judgement of the reading public.”

But he felt a hopelessness about getting his work to the public in his lifetime:

“The stove long ago became my favourite editor. I like it for the fact that, without rejecting anything, it is equally willing to swallow laundry bills, the beginning of letters and even, shame, oh shame, verses!”


“And I personally, with my own hands, threw into the stove a draft of a novel about the devil, the draft of a comedy, and the beginning of a second novel entitled The Theatre.”

All my things are past rescuing.”
(Letter to the Soviet Government 28.3.1930)

The many references to the burning of his papers are chilling and it still amazes me at the resilience of these works and how they have managed to escape down the years so that we may read them now. Posterity is also fortunate to have had YS to support B through his final years and to preserve his work after his tragic death. Although her diaries often reflect despair:

“Misha’s destiny is clear to me: he will be alone and persecuted until the end of his days.” (Yelena Sergeyevna’s diary, 24.2.36)

there are happier times when they attend events at the American Embassy or go on holidays or laugh with friends – it *is* worth remembering that their life was not all doom and gloom, or else where would the strength come from to produce all these works? Akhmatova in particular has memories of a witty friend.

This is one of those life-changing books that takes you right inside someone’s life and world – you come out the other end of the read feeling as if you have lived through what they have lived through and you will never look at things in quite the same way again. In the end, Bulgakov was a bourgeois trapped in a Soviet world. He did not settle easily into the post-revolutionary regime and refused to produce Socialist Realist works or stories that toed the party line. His writing was always individual and from the heart, which is why his life was such a difficult one. Out of his struggle to survive came his great works of art, for which we have to be grateful. But the human cost to the man was immense.


As an afterword, I was alerted (by Alex in Leeds pointing me at the Alma Classics catalogue) that a new collection of Bulgakov’s diaries and letters has been published by that company (who also issue a number of Bulgakov titles). It sounds magnificent and I hope will expand my knowledge and enjoyment of MB’s work even more than this excellent and pioneering book has done!

The Master and Margarita on Sky Arts 2

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Woland and Koroviev

Woland and Koroviev

A quick heads-up to anyone who missed the recent screening of Vladimir Bortko’s masterly adaptation of this book – there are episodes appearing on Sky Arts 2 from midnight tonight, though I can’t tell whether this is a re-run from the start as there is no programme information given!

Aleksandr Abdulov as Koroviev

Aleksandr Abdulov as Koroviev

For anyone that loves the book, I highly recommend trying to catch these episodes if you can….

Koroviev and Behemoth

Koroviev and Behemoth

The Master and Margarita TV adaptation – more thoughts


I find myself in a somewhat fragile state of mind today, after watching last night the final part of Vladimir Bortko’s magnificent TV adaptation. When the UK’s Sky Arts Channel showed their much-lauded (but not that great) version of “A Young Doctor’s Notebook” last year, they also snuck in this 2005 Russian TV show onto their second channel – without any hype or fuss or anything. I was initially wary, as I tend not to take to other people’s interpretations of books I love.

M&M cover

But I shouldn’t have worried, as it was obvious from the first shots how much Bortko loves Bulgakov’s work and what a marvellous experience watching this show would be. The cast are magnificent – there could be the odd quibble (Woland is older in the show than his description) – but I thought they were just spot on. The sets were magnificent, the effects creditable, the music uplifting – I could rave for hours!

There’s always the danger when adapting a long work of literature that the meaning will be lost, but Bortko stuck closely to the book, and the length and pace of the show allowed the themes to develop properly – no flashy, pointless, rapid-cut action or special effects, but proper acting and dialogue and scenes.


The acting was remarkably good and from what I’ve read online, the cast were Russian heavyweights. I was particularly taken with Koroviev, played by the late Aleksandr Abdulov, and his scenes with Kot Behemoth were a joy!


Any negatives? Not really – I felt that episode 10’s final parting scenes were perhaps slightly truncated and we didn’t really say a proper farewell to Koroviev, Behemoth and Azazello. But the “horses flying to the moon” sequence was incredible and the whole episode was very moving.

I’d recommend this series strongly to anyone who loves the book of “The Master and Margarita” – it is available with English subtitles, or maybe watch Sky Arts to see if it is shown again. There is also an excellent site here which has much information on the book and the show. I’m definitely up for a re-read now – if my emotions can take it!


As a sidenote, it struck me during my obsession with this show how parochial we are in the English-speaking world. Initially my Internet searches brought up limited information on the show. However, when I had a lightbulb moment and hit Google Translate, then put in various search terms in Russian, I came up with a mass of results. We assume that all actors and filmmakers and tv shows are English and known to us. But in the same way as there is literature in many languages, there are whole industries producing multi-language culture. Many of these actors and film-makers are unknown to us, producing work only in their own tongues, yet what they are producing is incredible. Bortko in particular seems to be a film-maker worth watching as what I’ve seen so far of his version of “A Dog’s Heart” looks equally amazing in its own way. We need to look outside of our own culture because experiences like these enrich us.

An Old Favourite: A Dog’s Heart by Mikhail Bulgakov


I confess to being well and truly sunk into a Bulgakovian frame of mind at the moment. The TV version of “The Master & Margarita” has me thoroughly hooked but I’m putting off a reading of the Hugh Aplin translation till it’s finished (today, alas!) So it seemed somewhat sensible to pick up my lovely Hesperus edition of another of the great man’s works (again translated by Aplin) to keep me going.

heart of dog

“A Dog’s Heart” is a much shorter work than M&M but is very well known and packs quite a punch! The initial narrator is a poor injured stray dog called Sharik. Scalded by a mean cook, out in the cold and ready to die, he is found and rescued by the eminent surgeon Philip Philippovich Preobrazhensky. Initially Sharik cannot believe his luck as he is taken back to a nice warm flat, fed and cared for, and in typical dog-like fashion he becomes devoted to the Professor. However, there is more to this kindness than meets the eye, as the Professor is caught up in the scientific crazes that were sweeping Soviet Russia and is planning a transplant operation that will put the glands of a human into the dog.

And the results are surprising and shocking – the dog turns human but combines the worst characteristics of both! Remarkably, he takes the rather odd name of Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov and starts to move upwards in the hierarchy of the communist authorities. Meanwhile, the Professor is battling with the House authorities who want to take away some of his space and it is only the fact that he is surgeon to some high-ranking Communists that enables him to hold them off. Sharikov’s uncouth behaviour continues to get worse, he causes havoc in the flat, molests the women servants and generally disrupts the Professor’s life so much that it becomes unbearable. The end is maybe predictable but the only option available to the Professor, who has had his eyes well and truly opened by the results of his experiment.


It’s a few years since I read this book, but I remembered it remarkably well. Bulgakov is such a great satirical writer – he captures the voice of Sharik wonderfully, giving him a distinctive doggy voice all of his own, much of which is retained when he becomes humanised. It’s a funny, tragic book and not afraid to tackle larger themes of the role of science vs the role of nature – as the Professor admits towards the end of the story,  “Explain to me, please, why one needs to fabricate Spinozas artificially, when a woman can give birth to him any time you like”.  Bulgakov seems to be aiming his sights not only at the medical profession and the ethics of the scientific experiments they are undertaking (a subject also touched on in Platonov’s “Happy Moscow”) but also at a regime that could allow such a bizarrely created “human” to have a position of authority.

One of the things I love about MB’s characters is their moral ambiguity – the Professor is firstly perceived as well-meaning, then seen as possibly selfish and greedy against the backdrop of the Housing committee, then again as cruel in his operation on poor Sharik, but becoming once more a sympathetic person when we perceive what he is going through at the hands of Sharikov. Likewise, the dog is just a dog with all the usual traits, but once these are present in a human body they become completely unacceptable – although he fits in well with the new Communist Man and Woman, so perhaps Bulgakov was simply saying the new regime consisted of dogs!!

And it’s fascinating to notice Bulgakov’s obsession with housing and space issues – obviously in the early days of the Soviet Union, large ex-nobility dwellings were divided up into flats, and as people fled from the country to the cities, the lack of living areas became a major problem. In fact, in M&M Woland refers to the housing problem having spoiled the Muscovites, and space is also an issue in one of the stories I’m currently reading, ‘Quadraturin’ from “Memories of the Future” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky.

For anyone with more than a fleeting interest in Soviet literature and satire, this is an essential read. The translation by Hugh Aplin is eminently readable, as usual, and comes with discreet and useful notes plus a helpful introduction. High recommended!

(As a side-note, I’ve discovered that Vladimir Bortko, who is responsible for the M&M 2005 TV series, also produced an adaptation of this book – that’s the next thing I’ll be looking to track down!!)

Some Thoughts on Bulgakov


I must confess that my thoughts have been somewhat on the subject of Bulgakov recently, particularly since vexing myself with the subject of translators towards the end of last year! This has been somewhat exacerbated by Sky Arts showing the four-part “A Young Doctor’s Notebook” and also the 2005 Russian TV version of “The Master and Margarita”.


See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I watched “Young Doctor” with some trepidation (and having to look away at the gory bits) – and was in the end a little disappointed. John Hamm as the older doctor and Daniel Radcliffe as the younger both acted wonderfully – Hamm in particular seem to catch the essence of Bulgakov well – and there was plenty of rapid fire slapstick of the sort which features in his books. But in the end, the story didn’t really go anywhere and I think this was because the writers took a collection of short stories and attempted to turn it into something more than it was.

However, the Russian “Master and Margarita” is still showing, an episode at a time, and we are up to part 6. I was skeptical at first but I am absolutely *loving* it! The Russian cast are just magnificent – I’m particularly fond of Faggot/Koroviev – and the makers seem to have got things spot on. The period detail is incredible (mixing in real archive footage sometimes), the acting is excellent, and what pleases me most is the pacing. In a feature film or normal adaptation so much would be lost – but here it seems to me that apart from a few minor exclusions everything is in place and the story is being allowed to develop every week. We are allowed to linger on the thoughts and actions of the characters and the quirky events as they unfold without ever being rushed into the next event. Frankly, I *adore* it – it’s the highlight of my week at the moment! As soon as I get up to date with my reading, I shall be picking up the Hugh Aplin translation and setting off for a revisit!


In the meantime, I have rather set myself off on tracking down Bulgakov obscurities as I have, and have read, all of the main works. This search led me to discover that Glas had put a volume of combined Bulgakov and Mandelstam rarities – so I sent off for a copy which arrived last week.

And it is a little treasure. For a start, there are loads of lovely pictures of Bulgakov which I hadn’t seen before, plus extracts from diaries kept by his third wife, Yelena Bulgakova. These contain some very funny sketches that she wrote down as Bulgakov spun the tales. The main content of the Bulgakov section, however, is a piece called “To A Secret Friend”, which is apparently an early version of “Black Snow”and tells of how the writer came to work on newspapers re-writing others’ work and then producing satirical sketches.  It’s funny and typically Bulgakovian in  its flights of fancy, its wordplay and its humour and pretty essential for any lover of the man’s work.

So I’ve now also sent for “Notes on the Cuff” which I think will then mean I have everything that’s been translated into English. It’s at times like these, when I’m labouring under an obsession with a writer whose language is not my own, that I wish I was a better linguist!

Happy Bulgakov Day – Not!

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So – I sat down last night thinking I would give “The Master and Margarita” on Sky Arts a look and guess what – it wasn’t on 😦 Not impressed and hoping very much that it will be on at a later time as my interest is now piqued…


Happy Bulgakov Day!


I have unilaterally decided to designate today as Bulgakov Day, thanks to the fact that Sky Arts are showing two programmes relating to the Great Man today! The first is a new four-part adaptation of  “A Young Doctor’s Notebook”:

Their press blurb goes like this:

“Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe will appear in an extraordinary new series for Sky Arts, based on the memoirs of a Russian doctor working during the Russian Revolution, as part of the brand new series of Playhouse Presents…

A Young Doctor’s Notebook, which will broadcast on Sky Arts in 2013, is a unique four-part comedy drama based on a collection of short stories by the celebrated Russian writer and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov.

Jon Hamm will take on the role of the older doctor, who has a series of bleakly comic exchanges with his younger self, played by Daniel Radcliffe.

Jon Hamm said: “I am thrilled to get the opportunity to work on such rich source material with such fantastically talented people whose work I greatly respect, and to continue the relationship with Sky who have taken such good care of Mad Men since acquiring it.  Clelia Mountford and Big Talk have been championing this project unabashedly and I share their great enthusiasm for bringing something original, dark, funny and moving to light. Also, I have been watching “Bridget Jones’s Diary” on infinite loop, and I think I’ve finally got this accent thing sorted…”

Daniel Radcliffe added: “I have been an obsessive Bulgakov reader for a couple of years now so when the opportunity to become involved in this project came up, I could barely contain my excitement. The book is funny, grotesque and heartfelt in equal measure and I look forward to working with a great group of people to help bring it to life”.

Produced by multi award-wining Big Talk Productions in association with Jon Hamm and Jennifer Westfeldt’s Point West Pictures, the drama recounts Bulgakov’s semi-autobiographical experiences as a young doctor working in the small village of Muryovo at the dawn of the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Recounting from his notebooks, the Doctor considers his life and career as he tries to treat the patients of a village that is struggling to enter the modern age. Dealing not only with the superstitious and poorly educated patients but with his own inner demons, the doctor reveals doubts about his own competence and struggles with the immense burden of medical responsibility.

Mikhail Bulgalov is widely considered to be one of the finest Russian writers of all time. His allegorical and most famous novel The Master and Margarita has been called one of the masterpieces of the 20th century.”

Mention of “The Master and Margarita” leads on to the fact that Sky Arts 2 are showing the 2005 Russian adaptation of the book, also starting tonight.

I confess I’m a little divided about this. While I’m happy that Bulgakov is getting more attention, I always have reservations about film or television versions of books that I love. Bulgakov is an author I feel strongly about and whose work I’m intending to revisit soon. So it may be that I’ll record these programmes and watch them at a later date when I’ve re-read Bulgakov.

But it amazes me to think that M&M couldn’t be published in Russia until 1967 and yet in 2005 it was produced there as a TV show – how times have moved on….

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