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A Wonderful piece of Russian Satire – Another Shiny Link

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If there’s one thing I loved, it’s a chunky piece of Russian satire, and so I was particular pleased to be offered the chance to review a lovely new edition of such a book for Shiny New Books! The reprint in question is “The History of a Town” by Saltykov-Shchedrin, an author best-known for his classic satirical novel “The Golovlyov Family”.

history-of-a-town

“The History of a Town” has been reprinted in a beautiful new edition by Apollo, an imprint of Head of Zeus – and their books really are lovely, with striking pictorial covers and end papers. This was my first experience of Saltykov-Shchedrin and it was a wonderful one – you can read my full review here!

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…

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