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#1968Club – Revisiting an old Russian favourite…

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I had hope to revisit one of my favourite Russian authors for the 1968 Club, but alas, life rather got in the way… However, as I’ve reviewed the book on the Ramblings before, I thought I would share my earlier thoughts on it – it’s a wonderful read. (First published 14.3.2013)

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.

bulgy

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!

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Olympian Writers

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I don’t like sport.

I don’t like totalitarian regimes.

I’m not particularly keen on modern politics….

So is it wrong that I’m still emotionally falling to bits after seeing a huge chunk of my favourite authors appearing in the Sochi closing ceremony?? Particularly seeing Mayakovsky, Bulgakov and Tsvetaeva up there, having spent much of their lives fighting the authorities. And the actors performing as Tolstoy and Akhmatova were pretty spot on.

Tolstoy and Dostoevsky

Tolstoy and Dostoevsky

 

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Closing Ceremony

Gogol and Lermontov

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Closing CeremonyMayakovsky!!!!!!!

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Closing CeremonyNabokov, Bulgakov and Tsvetaeva

Basically – I just *love* Russian authors!!

The ceremony is still on the UK BBC iPlayer if you want to see this bit – about 1hr 20 mins in – just ignore the totally stupid and insulting commentary which really was reprehensible….

(photos mainly from examiner.com)

Recent Reads: A Theatrical Novel by Mikhail Bulgakov

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I’ve titled this review deliberately as this particular book by  Bulgakov has appeared under the name of “Black Snow” and “A Dead Man’s Memoir” and possibly even other titles! However, they are all pretty much the same book (more about that below) and this is an unfinished novel by MB which is a satirical look at theatre life.

 dead man's
The book tells the story of Sergei Leontievich Maksudov, who has written a novel and then a play called “Black Snow”. Early in the story, he describes his life so far:

“I examined my past.

‘And so,’ I said to myself as I sat by the kerosene stove during the March blizzard, ‘I have visited the following worlds.

‘World one: the university laboratory, in which I remember the fume cupboard and flasks on tripods. I left that world during the civil war. Let us not argue over whether I acted frivolously or not. After incredible adventures (although why really incredible? – who did not go through incredible adventures during the civil war?), in short, after that I found myself in the Shipping Herald. Due to what reason? Let us hold nothing back. I cherished hopes of being a writer.”

Of course, this is, like much of Bulgakov’s work, heavily autobiographical. “Black Snow” is “The White Guard” and the book tells the story of MB’s experiences in the literary world – firstly trying to get his book published, and secondly in turning it into a play and attempting to get it staged.

Whilst working at the Shipping Herald, Sergei writes his book and after a series of ludicrous and Kafkaesque encounters, part is published in a journal which immediately goes bust. Our hero tries to kill himself but fails and then miraculously is approached to stage a dramatised version of the story. Sergei is captivated by the theatrical world, but out of his depth, and we are presented with some remarkably funny and pointed pen portraits of life in a busy theatre, where tickets are much in demand (presumably as this is one of the few forms of entertainment available in Soviet Russia?) The play is to be prepared for production and the chapter where Sergei is dictating his play to the almost supernatural typist Poliksena Toropetskaya (based on his sister-in-law Olga) is a standout. It’s brilliantly written and wickedly funny, as she types, interprets what the author wants to say, answers the phone and deals with the endless stream of people coming past her with queries, all the time without turning a hair.

But nothing is straightforward in this bizarre thespian world and the completed play must be read to the theatre’s supremo, based on Stanislavski, who is portrayed as a somewhat eccentric recluse. After his disapproval, things are put on the back burner until suddenly out of the blue Sergei is summoned back to the theatre, and all seems on track for a performance of the play finally to go ahead. But nothing is that simple…

There can be no doubt that MB poured into this book a lot of his frustration at the tortuous processes he went through in trying to get his plays staged – constant problems with censors, actors, temperamental producers, changes of plan, rewrites – all of these element are reflected here, but also his love of the stage and ongoing wish to be part of presenting plays for the public.
The Moscow Arts Theatre is satirised, as well as Stanislavski, the inventor of method acting, as Ivan Vasilevich. However, when MB wrote this book he used a number of experiences over many years, and from many years ago, condensed into a short period of time to make a point. In reality, he was not an isolated man like Sergei and he had mainly a good relationship with Stanislavski.

Mikhail Bulgakov in 1935

Mikhail Bulgakov in 1935

The theatre, as represented in this novel, reflects something of the manic quality that was present in MB’s early prose, but he has become much more measured in his portrayal of this chaos. “A Theatrical Novel” is a wonderful portrait of the madness of theatre life; a milieu in which MB longed to move but in which he struggled to cope – the complexities and the temperaments were always too much for him to deal with and they made him almost hysterical at times with the frustration he felt. Although there is humour and absurdity in this work, there is also the sadness we perceive while seeing all MB’s frustrations at being unable to get his work into the public realm:

“Meanwhile the rain stopped and without any warning at all a frost set in. The window in my garret was decorated with lacework and as I sat there, breathing on a twenty-kopeck coin and pressing it into the icy surface, I realized that to write plays and not have them performed is intolerable.”

“Look at the way life rushes along, like water over a dam,” I whispered with a yawn, “and it’s as if I had been buried.”

In the end, Bulgakov was not buried by the system or the regime or anything else, as his works were strong and powerful enough to survive all these. “A Theatrical Novel” is a great read, even if you’re not a particular fan of the acting fraternity, and if I did star ratings I’d give it 5!

*****

A note on the text

BS, like many of MB’s works, seems to have had a tortuous route into print and there are still some discrepancies between various published versions. The novel was unfinished at MB’s death, and he put it aside in the late 1930s to work on his magnum opus, “The Master and Margarita”. I have two versions of ATN, the Harvill edition (entitled simply “Black Snow”) translated by Michael Glenny and the Penguin – called “A Dead Man’s Memoir (A Theatrical Novel)” – translated by Andrew Bromfield. I read the latter volume this time and enjoyed it immensely, but although I haven’t made much of a comparison of the two versions, there is one substantial difference which does affect the reading of the book dramatically (and here I should insert a SPOILER ALERT of sorts).

b snow

The Penguin version opens with a foreword in which an unnamed friend of Sergei’s relates that his friend has committed suicide and left this manuscript to tell of his life and what had happened to cause him to end his life. However, the Harvill edition appends this as an afterword!  The novel is described as being unfinished, but by putting this section at the end, not only does the reader only find out properly about Sergei’s fate until the end, but also the novel appears more finished as if Sergei has broken off his narrative and not Bulgakov! This radically affects the balance of the book depending on which version you read and on a superficial skim of the Internet I haven’t found anything much definitive about this apart from a Wikipedia entry which begins:  “The novel begins with a preface – the alleged author is not the author, but only a “publisher” of notes of Sergei Maksudov from Kiev, who sent the essay “to his only friend” with a request to correct it and publish under his own name.” This implies that MB intended the suicide to be known from the start and if this is the case, why on earth Harvill or Glenny chose to move the foreword to an afterword is anyone’s guess! If anyone knows anything more about this, I’d be very interested to hear…

Recent Reads: The Letter Killers Club by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

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“The Letter Killers Club” by SK is the last of his volumes currently available in English and the longest single piece so far published by NYRB or Glas – it’s novella length at just over 100 pages. I confess to approaching this one with great anticipation, but also a little trepidation as the subject is books – or rather, the absence of them!

letter-killers

The blurb for the novella on Amazon reads thus:

Writers are professional killers of conceptions. The logic of the Letter Killers Club, a secret society of “conceivers” who commit nothing to paper on principle, is strict and uncompromising. Every Saturday they meet in a fire-lit room hung with blank black bookshelves to present their “pure and unsubstantiated” conceptions: a rehearsal of Hamlet hijacked by an actor who vanishes with the role; the double life of a medieval merry cleric derailed by a costume change; a machine-run world that imprisons men’s minds while conscripting their bodies; a dead Roman scribe stranded this side of the River Acheron. The overarching scene of this short novel is set in Soviet Moscow, in the ominous 1920s. Known only by pseudonym, like Chesterton’s anarchists in fin-de-siècle London, the Letter Killers are as mistrustful of one another as they are mesmerized by their despotic president. Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky is at his philosophical and fantastical best in this extended meditation on madness and silence, the word and the soul unbound.

Hyperbole? I don’t think so, although I’m not sure I’m in the best position to do a rational, measured review of this book because I just came out of a bit boggled at the brilliance of the concepts and the writing. This is a book I need to read again in a more considered manner, now that I know what actually happens, in order to really judge it properly. But here goes anyway.

Our unnamed narrator is taken by an acquaintance to attend the Letter Killers Club meeting. The letters of the title are not items of correspondence but the actual building blocks of language itself – the alphabet. We never learn any real names in this book – the club’s attendees are known by nonsense aliases: Das, Tyd, Zez, Hig, Mov and Rar. The narrator’s acquaintance is the President and he has strong ideas about books:

“… if our letterizations stifle one another, if writers prevent each other from writing, they don’t allow readers even to form an idea. The reader hasn’t a chance to have ideas, the right to have them has been usurped by word professionals who are stronger and more experienced this matte: libraries have crushed the reader’s imagination, the professional writings of a small coterie of scribblers have crammed shelves and heads to bursting.”

The domineering president explains that pure stories do not exist as trapped by letters but only as verbal tales, and each week one of the attendees relates a story to the other members. There is a tension in the air during these meetings, as if not all the members approve of the lack of paper with symbols on it – in fact, one member actually has written notes which crackle and give him away, so they are burned. In Soviet Russia, the written word could kill you – so it is no surprise that the members of the Letter Killers Club refuse to commit their titles to paper.

“…no-one searching emptiness has ever managed to find anything.”

The narrator is intrigued by one particular member of the group, Rar, and attempts to talk to him outside the meeting, where Rar reveals the reason they have asked the observer to come along to the meetings. But the group implodes with the unexpected death of one of its members, which brings an end to the gatherings. It is left to the narrator to break the cardinal rule of the Club and commit his experiences to paper – but with what consequences is never revealed.

That’s just a superficial reading – but what of the stories-within-the-story? Well, there are actually five chapters with individual conceptions, and these are all excellent in their own right – tales which could have been expanded or presented as one of SK’s own short stories. The Hamlet story from Rar dips into the idea of the double (a regular theme in Russian literature) and also ponders on the authenticity or not of an actor’s rendition of a famous part – is each one creating a different version of the character? Tyd presents the merry olde cleric story which is actually two stories with similar character names but different plots and features a double of sorts. The centrepiece story is a long, fantastical tale by Das about “Exes” (i.e. external or ex-people), telling of a futuristic world where a scientific experiment has enabled the ruling class to detach people’s brains from the control of their muscles, isolating their thought processes and producing an army of automatons – the ultimate totalitarian state. It’s superbly written, mind-boggling and inventive, and very telling about the desire for control and power. The writing and sweeping imagination displayed in this particular story took my breath away – pages 62 and 63 are in particular wonderful pieces of prose, but too long to quote here. Firstly the madmen are “converted”, then the dissenters and finally everyone not of the ruling elite – a simple allegory of life under Soviet rule? Not quite – this could be any totalitarian state, not just Soviet Russia.

“One cannot force a person to live an alien, manufactured life. Man is a free being. Even madmen have a right to their madness. It is dangerous to entrust functions of will to a machine: we still don’t know what that mechanical will may want.”

Fev’s tale is a weird fable of three characters with a travelling dispute about why God created the mouth. And the final story, from Mov, deals with death and payment of dues, with the various members of the club offering alternate resolutions to the tale. This resonates with the fate of the members of the club and leads the reader on to wonder how much of each conceiver we should see in his story – and indeed how much of SK we should look for hidden away in his work.

So, putting these concepts aside, it’s worth considering what SK is actually trying to do with this novella. The subject of the art of storytelling is one which recurs often in his work (or at least that which is available so far in English!) and he’s featured the idea in at least two other stories I’ve read – “Someone Else’s Theme” and “The Bookmark”. In this novella hunting of themes and telling of stories and is taken to its logical conclusion – no story can be written down. Russia has a strong bardic tradition (as do most old countries) and using the written word to contain and set in stone stories is relatively recent – in fact, it could be argued that by imprisoning a story in a finalised form, a writer is actually killing what in the oral tradition would have been a living, breathing organism, expanded and improved upon and polished as the bard told it over and over again. Each of these tales has a message or moral of its own, but has the narrator damaged this by fixing the stories in a permanent form? SK was very much a theme-catcher himself, a conceiver, and many of his short stories are more like sketches or outlines than traditional stories. It is a form he seems to excel in and even this, notionally a novella, is more like a collection of briefer works. He had an astonishingly fertile mind and it must have caused him some hardship to simply stop writing stories in 1941 (SK had finally had a collection of stories approved for publication, when the German invasion put a halt to this and he never wrote another one).

The Arbat in the 1920s, where SK lived in a tiny room.

The Arbat in the 1920s, where SK lived in a tiny room.

Of course, there is also the aspect of storytelling in the Soviet world, something I’ve touched upon quite a lot recently on this blog, particularly in my comments on Bulgakov. The 1920s and 1930s in particular were a dangerous age to be an artist in Russia, and the real writing of the era was buried, hidden in drawers or sometimes even in minds. There are many recorded cases of writers memorising their work and destroying the paper copy (Akhmatova’s Requiem, for example), which leaves the chilling realization (after reading Das’s story) that if the mind was then separated from the rest of the body by sinister machines (“ether winds”), the stories would be lost forever. SK seems to have shared MB’s mistrust of science, although SK goes into much more depth with his fictional scientific concepts. Many seem to have a basis in real science or philosophy and they are sometimes hard to grasp, so the notes in this volume are very useful (if not essential!) Bulgakov’s attitude toward other writers in the Soviet system (see particularly “The Master and Margarita”) is very scathing. And they both share such superficial features as the housing problem and the ubiquitous appearance of the primus stove!

SK was just as much affected by the inability to publish as was Bulgakov – he described himself: “I am a crossed out person” which could well apply to B – but the work he produced in reaction to this is very different. SK’s stories look inward to the craft of storytelling itself, the hunting down of themes and the oral tradition. The world of dreams appears more than once, but these stories are perhaps more elusive than MB’s. Bulgakov’s fictions are also fantastical and surreal but in a more biting, obviously satirical way, and perhaps wider in range – particularly with “The Master and Margarita” – although I’ve only so far read a fraction of SK’s work so it might be too early to judge. Although there are superficial similarities and influences in these two Kievan writers, in the end there is no point in comparing them – both produce greatly individual works of genius which still speak to us down the decades. So is this SK’s main statement on the place of artists under totalitarian rule? That remains to be seen when more of his work is translated into English. I’ve been very mentally stimulated by the work of SK I’ve read so far, and enjoyed it very much – carry on producing these originals, please, NYRB!

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