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A city on the cusp of change @glagoslav #iconoclasm #moscow #russia

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We Are Building Capitalism! Moscow in Transition 1992-1997 by Robert Stephenson

When you’re an avid reader and a bookworm, there are times when you stumble across a book you just *know* is going to be perfect for you. I’ve had a few of those in my lifetime, and I came across one recently which couldn’t have been a better fit. My love for Russia and its literature and history is well-known; and I’ve done all manner of wittering away about iconoclasm and the like recently on the Ramblings. So when the lovely Glagoslav offered me a review copy of a new book which looked at the changes which took place in the landscape of Moscow after the end of Communism, it was a no-brainer that I’d want to read it, wasn’t it? 😀

The title of “We Are Building Capitalism!” riffs on the kind of slogans bandied about in the early days of the Soviet Union, and there’s plenty of irony at work here. Robert Stephenson was at the time a UK civil servant who was shipped to Moscow in 1992 after the collapse of Communism, sent as a consultant and then leading a number of projects. He spent five years living and working in Russia’s capital city and during that time he indulged his passion for photography. In doing so, he created a wonderful record of the changes taking place in the city, and this book is a stunning account of those times.

Moscow in the early 1990s was not an easy place in which to live; there were shortages of everything, the economy was changing, and the transition from communism to capitalist was painful. Salaries had been cut, people had lost their jobs and were struggling to survive; and there was the constant presence of pop-up outdoor markets where people tried to sell goods (or their possessions) to make ends meet. The economic uncertainty was matched with political uncertainty, as the new regime struggled to maintain some kind of stability and the oligarchs started to creep in.

Stephenson’s book brilliantly captures those times, and the book is divided into chapters which focus on a particular element – the destruction of old monuments, for example. or the changing face of the shops and markets, the gradual arrival of Western influence (Coke or Macdonalds, anyone?) and the altered skyline of the city. “We Are Building…” is a large softcover book, roughly A4 landscape, and this means that the photographs have the space to be given the prominence they deserve. And they *are* truly atmospheric – from the people in the streets, the old shop front signage, a deserted Patriarch’s Ponds in the winter, to my beloved Mayakovsky silhouetted on the cover against a symbol of modernity, these photographs bring Moscow at that time vividly to life.

Each section of the book has commentary by Stephenson on what will follow, and as I read through and gazed at his photos, I felt a mixture of fascination but also sadness. So much of old Moscow (and it’s a city which *has* been rebuilt a number of times) has been wiped out to be replaced with modern, Western architecture that I couldn’t help but feel sorry that I never got to see it back then. Unfortunately, much of Soviet architecture is not taken seriously (despite the best efforts of commentators like Owen Hatherley to convince people otherwise); and I remember reading that when Vladimir Bortko was filming his 2005 version of “The Master and Margarita”, he actually had to go to St. Peterburg to find the right buildings to shoot with, as there was so little left in Moscow that looked right for the period of the book. I know things have to change and I guess the people that had to live in them might feel differently, but I think we need to be careful about sweeping changes and wiping out the physical past so drastically, as there’s a danger of losing a connection with our heritage.

“We Are Building…” turned out to be just as good (if not better!) than I had expected. Stephenson is a knowledgeable and entertaining commentator and his photographs are wonderful windows into the past. The book touches lightly on the subject of iconoclasm, as there are any number of statues of Lenin, Stalin et al that were pulled down or damaged or destroyed (luckily Mayakovsky seems to have survived); interestingly, many have been restored and resettled in the Muzeon Park of Arts. Which potentially sets off another chain of argument in that although these statues represent people who had become hated, they *were* the result of somebody’s artistic endeavours, so should we regard them as a work of art or just a piece of propaganda to be destroyed? *

But I digress (as usual….!). Stephenson’s book is a wonderful thing, a stunning collection of images recording a time of change which is now long gone; and if you have any interest in Moscow, its history and its landscape this is most definitely the book for you. Stephenson resists all the way through doing comparison shots until the very end, when he shares two shots along the Garden Ring taken twenty years apart. The change is stunning (and not in a good way, in my view); so we’re very lucky to have this collection of images to record the past.

(Review copy kindly provided by Glagoslav, for which many thanks!)

*****

* As an aside, the whole question of how to treat art in public spaces and whether it should actually be treated as art or propaganda is a knotty one which has vexed all manner of commentators. In fact, it was the subject of a film “Doubled Youth” by the Lithuanian artist Deimantas Narkevičius, which looked at the removal of Soviet era sculptures from the Green Bridge in Vilnius. For anyone interested, there is a fascinating discussion about the film from a session at Newcastle’s Baltic Gallery (including, amongst others, Professor Richard Clay) which you can watch here. It’s a complex issue…

“Live. And try to keep others alive.” #WITmonth

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Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922 by Marina Tsvetaeva
Edited, translated and with an introduction by Jamey Gambrell

Despite having had at least two books by Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva lurking on the shelves for well over 30 years, it’s only recently that I’ve actually started to properly pay attention to her writing – and what an author she’s turning out to be. Her poems are monumentally good, and some of them are regularly haunting me at the moment. I have a lovely collection of her prose put out by Virago back in the day; but this book was one I picked up more recently. It’s just been republished by NYRB, but my edition is an old Yale University Press edition from 2002; and it seemed a perfect choice not only to take on my recent travels with me, but also to fit in with WITmonth.

The book contains in effect a number of essays, drawing from diaries Tsvetaeva kept while living through some of the most dramatic times her country had seen.Tsvetaeva was from a bourgeois background, so was never going to be sympathetic to the Revolution; however, her diaries provide a fascinating insight into just how harsh the conditions were and how difficult it was to survive through them. She left Russia, tried some time in exile, and finally followed her husband Sergei Efron back to the Soviet Union in 1939. Efron and their daughter were arrested in 1941; the former was executed and Tsvetaeva took her own life the same year.

I rose on a carousel for the first time when I was 11, in Lausanne; the second time three days ago, on Sparrow Hills, on White Monday with six-year old Alya. Between those two carousels – lies a whole lifetime.

“Earthy Signs” is a remarkably diverse read, however; there are sections that deal with a train journey taken out into the country to try to find food; her attempts to find and keep jobs; poetry readings and the emerging Soviet arts; her thoughts on love and Germany; and so much more. Some extracts are no more than a sentence; others long meditations on life and art. And all of Tsvetaeva’s writing is fascinating.

Much of the success of the book is obviously down to Gambrell, who presumably made numerous editorial choices to structure the book as it is. “Earthly Signs” certainly brings alive Tsvetaeva, who was nothing if not a complex and intense woman. She’s capable of caprice, choosing a particular job simply because the building in which she would work is the one on which the Rostovs’ house in “War and Peace” was based. She’s also a woman of extreme and fluctuating emotions; in the introduction, Gambrell quotes at length a passage by Tsvetaeva’s husband, where he explains her constant cycle of obsession and infatuation with someone new, and in all honesty she must have been quite hard work to live with at times. That temperament is perfectly illustrated at several points in the book, in particular with her encounter with a young peasant soldier she nicknames Stenka Razin (after a historical Cossack hero) and also in her constant attraction to beautiful young men. (That tendency, I’ve noticed, seems to turn up in her poetry quite a lot too…)

Of all the temptations he offers me, I would single out the three most important: the temptation of weakness, the temptation of impassivity – and the temptation of what is Other.

The world in which Tsvetaeva was trying to survive was grim, to say the least; she struggled for food and one of her children actually starved to death. The immediacy of the prose in diary form really brings alive how it was to be in Moscow through revolution and civil war, and the narrative is shocking in many places; one instance which stuck in my mind was Tsvetaeva having to tie her youngest to a chair while going out with her other child to find food. Her naivety is always on show, and she speaks her mind at times when she should have been a little more circumspect, but somehow gets away with it. And it cannot have been easy for an impractical woman to cope with absence from her husband, about whom she had no idea whether he wa alive or dead, living from day-to-day and attempting to scrape the barest of provisions. Even when things got a little more back to normal, Tsvetaeva continued to be a woman who refused to play the game, averse to change her beliefs for anyone.

I’ve taken the year 1919 in somewhat exaggerated terms – the way people will understand it a hundred years from now: not a speck of flour, not a speck of salt (clinker and clutter enough and to spare!), not a speck, not a mote, not a shred of soap! – I clean the flue myself, my boots are two sizes too big – this is the way some novelist, using imagination to the detriment of taste, will describe the year 1919.

“Earthly Signs” was a salutary read, some of which I was involved in during a particularly unpleasant train journey; however, my discomfort for an hour or so was nothing compared with the privations Tsvetaeva undertook to try and track down food supplies. The later section of the book includes an extended meditation on poetry in the section “A Hero of Labor” when she considers the life, death and legacy of the poet, Valery Bruisov, a writer who embraced the Bolshevik revolution. In this piece she draws comparisons (and not for the first time) with the French Revolution, something of a touchstone for many who lived through the Russian equivalent; and on both sides, as both monarchists and revolutionaries can find much to interest them in the earlier conflict. Tsvetaeva also ponders the future of poetry under the Soviets, and it’s fair to say that the poet here who followed their heart will be remembered more than the one who followed the Soviet line.

By Max Voloshin 1911 (a book) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

My comments, of course, apply to the Yale version, although I imagine the NYRB new edition will be much the same in content. I did have minor issues with the book and I do wonder if these will be repeated in the reprint. The notation was problematic as it wasn’t indicated in the text at all, which necessitated constant random flipping back and forwards to see if there *were* any notes. The system employed in the letters of Catherine the Great from OUP, which I turned to after this book, was much more successful; a simple asterisk on the page indicated a note and then I could choose whether to follow it up or not. Also, in “Earthly Signs” there was no translation of phrases in French and German; and I really wonder why they were left in their original language, as if I can’t read Russian (which is why I’m reading this translation) there’s no guarantee I can read French or German either. A simple note could have been added that a particular phrase was originally in either of those languages which would have made it much easier for me than having to keep resorting to the erratic nature of Google Translate…

Marina Tsvetaeva does not mince her words at any point in the diaries; she’s frank about what she thinks about people and events, and there are some perhaps unexpected comments on race that had me hesitating. What is bizarre about this is that several appeared to be aimed at the Jewish race – and yet as the introduction reveals, Tsvetaeva was of Jewish heritage and Efron himself was a Jew. I was going to say that was perhaps strange, but then as a Scot I imagine I would feel quite comfortable being rude about my own race, so maybe I shouldn’t be sensitive about this. And Tsvetaeva is such a good writer, capable of nailing a person in a few lines; for example, her description of the woman in charge at one of her jobs:

The directress is a short-legged, ungainly, forty-year-old cuttlefish in a corset and in spectacles – terrifying. I smell a former inspectress and a current prison guard. With caustic frankness, she’s astounded at my slowness…

I ended “Earthly Signs” emotionally drained; the melancholic Tsvetaeva is never a light read, and the experiences she lived through would have broken stronger people. What emerges from the book, however, is a portrait of an intense, mercurial, emotional and brilliant woman whose tenacity kept her going for longer than you might have expected. That she took her leave when she did is not surprising; but at least she left us her words.

Happy Birthday Mayakovsky!

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Today is the 120th birthday of one of my favourite poets, Vladimir Mayakovsky. In honour of the day here are a some quotes and photos:

mayakovsky

 

I want to be understood by my country,
but if I fail to be understood –
what then?,
I shall pass through my native land
to one side,
like a shower
of slanting rain.

“Back Home!”, first version (1926); translation from Patricia Blake (ed.) The Bedbug and Selected Poetry (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975) p. 36

 

Mayakovsky Monument in Moscow

Mayakovsky Monument in Moscow

Love
for us
is no paradise of arbors —
to us
love tells us, humming,
that the stalled motor
of the heart
has started to work
again.

“Letter from Paris to Comrade Kostorov on the Nature of Love” (1928); translation from Patricia Blake (ed.) The Bedbug and Selected Poetry (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975) p. 213

Mayakovsky’s tragedy was to be a passionate misfit in a society that was becoming increasingly intolerant of individualism. His attitude and his work are still relevant today, and I would highly recommend his prose work “My Discovery of America” which is published by Hesperus Press. One of his silent films, “The Lady and the Hooligan” still survives – as does his memory.

Happy birthday Vladimir Vladimirovich!

 

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.

————–

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!

—————

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.”

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