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A multiplicity of narrators…

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A School for Fools by Sasha Sokolov

NYRB have, over recent years, become one of my favourite publishers, and I always check out their list of forthcoming books with great interest. So I was very excited when I saw that they’d be publishing a sparkly new translation of Sasha Sokolov’s “A School for Fools” (which is out today) and was delighted to receive a review copy from the publishers.

fools

Sokolov and his book have a fascinating history. The author was born in Canada in 1943, where his father was a Soviet diplomat; they were deported in 1946 for spying and returned to the Soviet Union. After studying journalism at Moscow State University, Sokolov made numerous unsuccessful attempts to leave the country (after all, he *was* a Canadian citizen!). “A School for Fools” was written in a remote part of the upper Volga and as it could not be published in Russia, was smuggled to the west by his second wife. Here, it was picked up Carl and Ellendea Proffer of the Ardis publishing house and became a sensation. Sokolov was finally allowed to emigrate in 1975 and although he has published three other works, he is quoted as saying that he keeps writing, but doesn’t want to be published any more (I wonder if this qualifies him as one of the Bartlebys?)

sokolov

You might be forgiven for being a little apprehensive about approaching a book which is described thus on the reverse: “If Joyce had written the last chapter of Ulysses in Russian it would have sounded like this”. And indeed, it’s difficult to know quite how to summarise such a unique book, but I’ll try to give a little bit of an outline. “A School for Fools” is narrated by a young man who is actually two young men – or more precisely someone suffering from a split personality. He/they attend the titular school as they obviously don’t function well in r/l, and their time is divided between the city (Moscow) and a dacha on the outskirts. The cast of characters is fairly small – the narrator(s) and his/their parents, the staff of the school (including the headteacher Perillo and his deputy Trachtenberg/Tinbergen, the latter often doubling as a building superintendent), and the narrator(s)’ favourite pedagogue, Savl/Pavel Petrovich Norvegov. There are also “Those Who Came”, the postman Mikheev/Medvedev, the narrator(s)’ beloved Veta Akatova, Veta’s father and Rosa, beloved of Norvegov. As the story progresses we learn of the narrator(s)’ love of Veta, something of his/their background, his love of butterfly collecting, of life in the School and of the fate of Savl/Pavel.

I am talking like a novel and that makes me uneasy and ridiculous…

None of this, of course, unfolds in a straightforward linear narrative – in fact, “A School for Fools” has to be one of the most arresting books I’ve ever read (and I *have* read some unusual ones in my time, including Burroughs’ cut-up masterpieces). Initially, on approaching the opening pages, you do rather wonder if you’ll actually be *able* to read the book or make any sense of it, but oddly enough it ends up being surprisingly understandable. Despite the apparent disconnectedness of the narrative, a vivid picture builds up of the little settlement by the river, and its inhabitants, as well as the city school and its pupils. The narrators converse with themselves throughout, and this is often a book of digressions, with the story going off in several tangents and eventually coming back to its starting point. Nevertheless, it *does* always make sense and by the end you have a strong sense of the narrator(s)’ life and also what it must be like to live with multiple personalities.

Forgive me, sir, it seems to me that I digressed too far from the essence of our conversation.

The narrator(s) also struggle with a confused sense of time, and the story slips backwards and forwards so that it’s not always clear what is past and present, who is dead or alive. The river of Lethe is referenced often, in particular as running through the little dacha village, and the forgetfulness this implies is often felt by the narrator(s). There is much talk of crossing the river to the other side, which ties in the uncertainty about the state of the living or dead, and the vivid imagery of the story builds up a stunning and intoxicating narrative.

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With a book as involved as this there are obviously going to be many different levels, and as the excellent notes by translator Alexander Boguslawski reveal, there is a dazzling array of references in the book to Russian history, customs and literature. The notes guide you through some, and there are obvious nods to Nabokov with the butterflies (apparently he loved the book); but there are others I picked up that hadn’t been highlighted – for example, a reference to Mayakovsky’s poem which ends:

And you
could you perform
a nocturne on a drainpipe flute?

as well as a desert crucifixion scene which not only contained hints of “The Master and Margarita” but also reflected the split personality of the narrator.

In fact, this is very much a book of dualities and bearing in mind its history, it seems clear to me that Sokolov is also meditating on the double nature of Soviet life. If anything, the book made me think of Christa Wolf’s “The Quest for Christa T.”. I commented when I reviewed that book “All the way through the book, as you look for the meanings, it is the things unsaid or implied that come across powerfully” and I felt this element present in ASFF, as the author gradually builds up layers of the story. Under the Soviet regime what was important often had to be hidden and little phrases slipped into the narrative, like “resurrecting from the dead all those whose mouths uttered the truth”, emphasise this point.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the sometimes paragraph-long sentences, the prose is quite beautiful and hypnotic (and indeed, Sokolov has coined the term ‘proetry’ for such writing). Little gem of sentences and truisms jump out at you all the way through until you end up with a forest of sticky notes marking particularly striking sections.

A book is the best gift, everything best in me I owe to books, book after books, cherish books – they ennoble and refine one’s taste, you look in a book but see gobbledygook, a book is a man’s best friend, it enhances interiors, exteriors, and fox terriers.

And there are so many themes here, including the constant coming of the winds (perhaps an allegory for the sweeping down of the Soviet authorities) but most importantly the question of identities; these are fluid in the book, with the shifting and changing of names, and this is something that’s very relevant to life under Soviet rule when many were not who they seemed to be. Time is seen as flexible and as uncertain as identity.

And you yourself, who are you? You don’t know. You’ll get to know it later, when you string the beads of memory. When you consist of memories. When you turn entirely into memories.

I’d be lying if I said “A School for Fools” was a light or easy read, because it isn’t. It’s a complex, brilliantly structured exploration of any number of themes, and I think best read in as few sessions as possible. I spent a couple of days in its company and absolutely loved it, despite its intricacies. Sokolov has created a way of writing and a world of his own, a pair of remarkably unreliable narrators and a portrait of life on the margins in Soviet society – a gripping and essential book.

*****

I should commend separately Alexander Boguslawski for rendering what is obviously an extremely complex book into English, together with the helpful and unobtrusive notes (Boguslawski mentions that these are not indicated in the text so as not to interrupt the flow of the reading and I think that’s excellent in this case). In particular, he seems to have captured the absurdity and sense of word-play present in the original. The book was original translated rapidly by Carl Proffer and was in need of an update; add to this the fact that Sokolov has tweaked the novel over the years, and that he was consulted by Boguslawski during the translation process and you end up with what is obviously the essential version!

(Many thanks to Emma at NYRB for arranging the review copy – much appreciated!)

The 1924 Club: A Different Perspective

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Simon’s tongue-in-comment on my post about Zamyatin’s “We”, to the effect that he was glad I’d found something Russian to read from 1924, actually led me onto some quite deep thoughts about the state of Russia in the 1920s. The country had been ravaged by years of conflict – the First World War followed by successive revolutions and then a devastating Civil War. The fledgling Soviet state was suffering from famines and shortages, isolated from the rest of the world and trying desperately to keep itself together as an entity. Amazingly enough, in the middle of all this the arts continued to flourish. The visual artists had embraced Constructivism which spread from painting and sculptures into film and theatre. Writers like Mayakovsky used their work for propaganda, slipping into agitprop posters as well as poetry and plays. The initial cultural boom would be crushed by Stalin’s increasing iron grip, but for a while the arts were in the vanguard.

I wondered whether I had any other Russian works on my shelves that would fit into the year we’re following, and hit upon the idea of short stories. I have a number of Russian collections but alas, many don’t give information about the dates of publication. But fortunately one did – “Soviet Short Stories”, edited and introduced by F.D. Reeve. Three of the tales featured in the book appeared in 1924 and so I set about reading them.

1924 soviet

The stories are Isaac Babel’s “A Letter”, Alexander Fadeyev’s “About Love” and Mikhail Sholokov’s “A Family Man”, and they’re all short and dramatic pieces. The first and the last are particularly strong, both telling of the harsh aftermath of the Civil War. Babel’s “A Letter” contains just that – a moving missive home from a soldier, revealing the dark extremes of behaviour. Sholokov’s brutal tale, set amongst the Cossacks, shows just how families were torn apart and turned against each other in an ideological war that really did rip the countryside to pieces. Both of these short pieces show the divides within families and how different generations reacted to the conflict and chose sides regardless of familial loyalties. Fadeyev’s “About Love” is a different kind of story, all about the contrariness of human emotions, and how we love someone more when they don’t love us and vice versa,

The war tales in particular made for stark reading – neither author pulls his punches and the visceral events and human impact is powerful. Fadeyev’s story has a bleakness less physical but still ends up making you wonder about the point of life and love. None of these stories was easy reading, but they did serve as a reminder of how different 1924 was depending upon the country in which you lived. Although all of Europe was recovering from conflict in different ways, it could be argued that the Russian people suffered more than most – a timely illustration of the fact that the 1920s were not all glitter and parties and jazz…

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

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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!

margarita

“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!

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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!

A Book of Brilliant Things

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Red Spectres: Russian Gothic Tales from the Twentieth Century compiled and translated by Muireann Maguire

I hadn’t realised quite how badly I’d been affected by my reading of “Grey Souls” until I came to try to pick up another book – and found it almost impossible to get into one! I’ve definitely been struggling a little with choosing my volumes recently, and nothing I touched appealed – I’ve just been putting everything aside after the first few pages.

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However, I finally got over my stumbling block (or reader’s block!) by pulling “Red Spectres” from my pile of Christmas gifts, and it turned out to be exactly the tonic I needed.

The book is a collection of short stories in the Gothic vein, all written under Soviet rule. Now, Russia under the Bolsheviks is perhaps not a place you would expect this type of writing to flourish, but it very obviously did – maybe because this was a good way to disguise political comment, or maybe because it was a way of writing that was so far removed from politics that it was safe.

Whatever the reason, there is a whole genre here, and translator Muireann Maguire has actually written a book on the subject as well as collecting and translating the stories in this volume. And what crackers they are!

It was the fact that there were stories by Bulgakov and Krzhizhanovsky in it that first attracted my eye to Red Spectres – and in fact all but two of the tales are translated for the first time. It’s a fascinating and collection of stories, ranging from tales of ghosts and mirrors, through science gone wrong to seances that only call up the NKVD! Bulgakov is represented by two works: The Red Crown, a civil story of haunting, and A Seance, a wry comment on the clash between superstition and modern ideology. And the new Krzhizhanovsky is a dark story about a medical dummy that comes to live in a quite unnerving manner and lives through the years of turmoil in Russia.

It’s the speed of decline… Savages also love speed. What you seem to consider a sign of your unique refinement is simply atavism. All entertainments of this type – water sports, cycling, races of all kinds, skiing, funfairs, carousels, carriages, horse-racing – this is all a contagious enchantment with the dizzy sensation of free-fall. Speed has a limit beyond which movement along a horizontal plane becomes free-fall . And those who think like you want to create a motion that’s just like free-fall. What could be more primitive? And, one might say, pointlessly primitive? (Grin; The Grey Motor Car)

But the real revelation to me was the discovery of Aleksandr Chayanov; an agronomist by day, he also wrote 5 short stories and a novel. Maguire has translated three of these, and they’re a standout in the collection. “The Tale of the Hairdresser’s Mannequin” tells of a man consumed by an obssession with the original woman who inspired a mannequin, one of a pair of Siamese twins, and his quest to track her down; “Venediktov” (which has the distinction of having inspired Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita”), is a story of devilish possession and pursuit through Moscow; and “The Venetian Mirror” (one of two marvellous mirror stories in the collection) plays on our uneasiness with the reflected world and our fascination with the possibility of entering it. His writing is excellent and evocative, and the storytelling compelling.

I love the Moscow streets by night, gentle reader; I love to wander through them in solitude, without any goal in mind. The dozing houses might be made of cardboard. Neither the noise of my steps nor the bark of a wakeful guard dog disturbs the calm peace of the gardens and courtyards. The few lighted windows seem to be me to be full of peaceful life, of maidenly reveries, or solitary nocturnal thoughts. As one observed how the little churches dream their dreams, unexpected sights often loom up in the empty streets; now the gloomy colonnades of the Apraksin Palace, now the towering bulk of Pashkov House, or the stony shadows of Catherine’s great eagles. (Chayanov; Venediktov)

Each tale in the collection is a gem in its own right, and put together here they produce a most marvellous book; excellently translated and notated by Maguire, with an informative introduction, this is definitely one of my books of the year – I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s ideal reading if you have an interest in Russian literature, in the Gothic genre, in the development of writing under the Soviets, or simply if you love good short stories. A wonderful book, and just the thing to pull me out of my reading slump!

Dr. Muireann Maguire

Dr. Muireann Maguire

Red Spectres is published by Overlook, who have a history of producing Russian translation, and this is a lovely hardback edition too! For those interested in the subject Maguire has also published “Stalin’s Ghosts”, a study of supernatural fiction in early Soviet Russia, which sounds fascinating! Check out Russian Dinosaur for more about translating the stories for Red Spectres.

Sneaking behind the Iron Curtain

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Journey Into Russia by Laurens van der Post

I’m a great believer in the right book at the right time, and this volume turned out to be very much a case in point. Knowing of my love of all things Russian and all things travel-related, OH tracked down a lovely first edition of JIR for last Christmas – it’s a wonderful object in its own right, complete with fold out map in the back and on lovely quality paper which has stood the test of time. Bearing in mind it’s 50 years old it really is looking good!

I hadn’t found the right time for reading it, but watching Michael Portillo travelling about Russia on a train recently on the BBC made me very jealous and so I decided to assuage the travel itch with Laurens van der Post!

The author himself was quite a fascinating character! The potted version from Wikipedia is: “Sir Laurens Jan van der Post, CBE (13 December 1906 – 16 December 1996) was a 20th-century Afrikaner author, farmer, war hero, political adviser to British heads of government, close friend of Prince Charles, godfather of Prince William, educator, journalist, humanitarian, philosopher, explorer and conservationist.” However, if you read the whole entry, he was friends with Leonard and Virginia Woolf (my book is a Hogarth Press edition), lived a pretty wild and sometimes controversial life, wrote the books on which the film “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” were based, and apparently wasn’t averse to embellishing his life story a little!

A llittle fragile, but a lovely first edition!

A llittle fragile, but a lovely first edition!

What’s so fascinating about this book for me, of course, is that it’s travel writing behind the Iron Curtain – much like the wonderful “Travels of a Capitalist Lackey” by Fred Basnett, which I reviewed here. However, there is a difference in perspective, as van der Post was much more high-profile visitor to the USSR, whereas Basnett’s approach is much more low-key and down to earth. Both books are excellent, and actually reading them fairly close together is quite useful because you end up having quite different impressions from both writers.

Van der Post, it should be said from the start, was obviously a complex character and it’s clear from his writing that he has no sympathy for totalitarian regimes of any sort. Nevertheless, he has a deep wish to *know* Russia and its people and he tries hard to do so, despite being hampered (of course!) by the authorities in various shapes and forms. He manages to travel to a remarkable number of places including Siberia, the Black Sea, Kharkov, Yalta plus of course Moscow and St. Petersburg. Van der Post mixes with as many people as he can, from his guides to local writers, poets, farmers, scientists and as many of the young people as he can make contact with. And he finds, despite their different political viewpoints, that the people of Soviet Russia share many of the same concerns as those outside it, as well as wishing to co-exists peacefully with the West.

The lovely foldy out map

The lovely foldy out map

However, despite the apparent openness of the world he encounters, there are reminders of the State which controls everything. One particular encounter with a group of young people ends with somewhat worrying supervision and van der Post being unable to track down the young people again. Throughout the book, he is careful not to name names so as to avoid getting anyone into trouble with the authorities, which is understandable (although I would like to be able to read an annotated modern version in which the people where actually identified now that the Soviet era is over.) What shows up very clearly here is the isolation of the Russian people, from any kind of contact with the West, its culture, music, politics and people.

Initially, it was a little hard to get going with JIR, as van der Post’s tone can be a little pompous at times. He often seems to be taking a slightly detached, anthropological view of things and sometimes wanders off into pontificating and list of facts, where I found my interest drifting slightly. However, his writing *can* be very evocative, particularly when he feels passionate about a subject:

Cypresses have always gleamed in my imagination like light at the end of a long tunnel perhaps because they may have been the first tree chosen by men to accompany them on their long and enigmatic journey through time. The scent of cypresses after rain is a smell translated and made aromatic in a way that not even the frankincense, myrrh and arboussiers of the antique world can excel. No matter where they grow, in Southern Africa, on the hills behind Golgotha, in Greece or Etruria, cypresses bring with them a sense of dedication out of the earth.

He responds particularly to the landscape of Russia, and his descriptions of travelling through the Siberian steppe are stunning.

One of the most memorable sections of the book is that where van der Post attends a May Day celebration at Kharkov. Here he witnesses Soviet bombast in all its splendour, with endless military parades and trumpeting of the superiority of the Soviet regime. Yet there is no joy coming from the people during the parades, and the whole thing is a cold, mechanical exercise serving only as a propaganda exercise. Van der Post emerges from the experience in a claustrophobic state, desperate for peace and quiet, needing the reassurance of free art and culture.

A little fragile, but a lovely first edition!

And culture is very much the keyword here. In 1964, although some thawing had begun under Khrushchev, art and literature and culture generally were still very much controlled. Years and years of Soviet realism had taken its toll on the Soviet citizen’s mindset and van der Post comes to realise that the people were limited mentally because of it, appreciating all the more the Western outlook:

All this made me realize another thing about Soviet Russia: how barren the Soviet mind and scene is of fantasy of any kind. Suddenly I felt sad that I had not brought Carroll, Edward Lear and the others with me for them to read. Those are the medicines too that the traveller in the Soviet Union needs to kill proliferation of the insect within himself. I longed now not only for fantasy of thought but the live human fantasies which one still encounters daily in the eccentrics of Britain. I realised again the natural wisdom of this deep instinctive respect and love that the English have for genuine eccentricity. And I realized how starved these young people themselves were for some fantasy in their own lives.

As van der Post leaves Russia at the end of the book, he seems to breathe more easily, physically and mentally, as the weight of the Soviet system lifts from his back. Nevertheless, he seems to have gained much from his journey – a better understanding of the place and its people, and the knowledge that things are changing and that as the thaw continues the Soviet people may come to enjoy more freedom.

This was in many ways a great read – it left me with some vivid impressions of the places van der Post travelled through and the people he met. On occasions, his views and his personality slightly got in the way for me and I did find myself a little bogged down occasionally with some of the longer passages about industry and agriculture (and bemused by one particular statement: Siberia could supply the whole of the world with coal for two thousand years and still have some to spare! – really? Then why are we having an energy crisis!) Fred Basnett’s book will probably be more of a long-term favourite of mind, but “Journey into Russia” makes a valuable companion to it!

Recent Reads: Definitely Maybe by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

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(Warning! There *are* slight spoiler elements to this review!)

I don’t like to be away from my Russian authors for *too* long, and it’s always a delight to explore writers you haven’t read before. The Strugatsky brothers are a case in point – I’d heard of them through their novella “Roadside Picnic”, upon which the Tarkovsky film “Stalker” is based, but I’d never actually read any of their works. However, I picked up another novella of theirs, “Definitely Maybe” in London recently, and really felt drawn to read it soon – and as I’m a person who always follows their reading whims……. 🙂 It *is* very highly rated, and the great Ursula LeGuin says:

”One of the Strugatsky brothers is descended from Gogol and the other from Chekhov, but nobody is sure which is which. This is definitely, not maybe, a beautiful book.”

Definitely-Maybe1-225x300
“Definitely Maybe” was published in 1974 1976/1977/1980 (thanks for the correction, languagehat – see comments!) and tells the story of Malianov, an astrophysicist. The place and time are unclear to start with, but it is in high, hot summer and mention of White Nights soon reveals that the story is set in St. Petersburg (or Leningrad, as it was during Soviet times). Malianov should be on holiday, but he has sent his wife Irina and son Bobchick away as he feels he is on the verge of a great discovery. However, he is finding it very difficult to work…..

If the weather conditions were not bad enough, there are the interruptions. First, a large delivery from the local story, with caviar, vodka and all kinds of goodies. Then an attractive young woman turns up, apparently an old friend of his wife. His neighbour in the flat opposite, also a scientist, commits suicide and some strange heavies turn up to interrogate Malianov, accusing him of murder. His scientific colleagues visit, relating tales of also being unable to work owing to distractions. Who or what is causing these problems – is it aliens, or some weird supercivilisation? – and does the mathematician Vecherovsky, who lives upstairs, have a clue to the answer?

This is a fascinating book on a number of levels, and very gripping and readable. It’s written as a series of extracts from a journal so the story dips in and out, which is a clever device to move the plot along, but also keeps you guessing about quite what is happening. Poor Malianov is a likeable protagonist, struggling to keep his thoughts together despite the sabotage to his work that is going on. There are clutches of scientific talk where I’m not sure whether it was real scientific talk or not, but in many ways that doesn’t matter. What matters is Malianov’s struggle – who it is against and what it’s for.

And here we get to the nub of this book – is it science fiction (for which the Strugatskys are known) or is it satire? That’s a good question, particularly as the term Sci Fi encompasses such a wide range nowadays, from classic speculative fiction a la Wells, to modern space sagas of strange alien armies fighting each other for aeons (and all things in between!) It seems to me that the brothers were using a Sci Fi format to house their satire – and obviously doing a good job as it got past the censors mainly intact. But if satire is a literary form that critiques the current regime or norm, then this is certainly it – and a satire with depth and compassion.

arkady and boris strugatsky

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

As a brilliantly written piece of speculative fiction, the story stands in its own right. However, this being a piece of work produced  under the Soviet regime, any reader would be looking for a sub-text – and it’s not difficult to find. Malianov’s struggle is obviously an allegorical one, with the right to do his own research challenged by external forces – not the authorities, not aliens, not a supercivilisation, but a kind of homeostasis; a self-regulating force of nature that wants to stop humanity developing anything that might one day bring about the end of the world. Of course, the forces of nature represent the huge weight of the Soviet state, a constant malevolent force that seemed to be able to throw things in the path of a citizen in the most unexpected way. Although farcical in places, it’s chilling to find that the final, successful method that Nature uses to stop Malianov is the same used by the state in Soviet Russia – to threaten a person’s nearest and dearest.

“Who knows what’s in store for us? Who knows what it will be? The strong will be, and the blackguards will be. And death will come and sentence you to death. Do not pursue the future….”

And so the book becomes a poignant discussion of personal integrity – it is easier to be strong if you are a single person like Vecherovsky, who at the end of the book is the only one left fighting. The minute you care about anyone else you become vulnerable, and Malianov goes through much soul-searching before coming to his decision – the consequences of which he will have to live with forever. He recognises that others have made the same decision he has to make:

“I rolled up into a tighter ball. So that’s how it was. The man had been squashed. He was still alive but no longer the same man. Broken flesh, broken spirit. What did they do to him that he couldn’t take? But there must be pressures, I guess, that no man can take”.

How this book got published is something of a miracle, as the analogies do seem to stare the reader in the face. The crushing weight of both Nature and the Soviet state are obvious, but it is the human condition that is so tragically portrayed – the decisions that have to be made in extreme circumstances and the effect they have on the human psyche. Malianov’s decision is a realistic, human one and he knows the consequences.

“Since then crooked, roundabout, godforsaken paths stretch out before me.”

DM manages to be funny and sinister at the same time, and the commentary on the Soviet regime is obvious. I found the book a really thought-provoking and quite emotional read and I salute the Strugatkys for getting so much into a short novella. I definitely want to read more of their work – there’s no maybe!

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: 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!

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

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“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

“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!

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