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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!

Recent Reads: Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

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I have to confess that this book has been one of my most anticipated reads of recent months. I’ve been eyeing it up for ages now, seduced by the rave reviews and the fact it’s a collection of long-lost Soviet satirical stories. I finally cracked and picked up a copy with some Christmas money, and dived in!

memories-of-the-future-sigizmund-krzhizhanovsky

Some quick facts about SK from Wikipedia:

“Sigizmund Dominikovich Krzhizhanovsky (11 February [O.S. 30 January] 1887  – 28 December 1950) was a Russian and Soviet short-story writer who described himself as being “known for being unknown”; the bulk of his writings were published posthumously. In 1976, scholar Vadim Perelmuter discovered Krzhizhanovsky’s archive and in 1989 published one of his short stories. As the five volumes of his collected works followed, Krzhizhanovsky emerged from obscurity as a remarkable Soviet writer, who polished his prose to the verge of poetry. His short parables, written with an abundance of poetic detail and wonderful fertility of invention – though occasionally bordering on the whimsical – are sometimes compared to the ficciones of Jorge Luis Borges. Quadraturin (1926), the best known of such phantasmagoric stories, is a Kafkaesque novella in which allegory meets existentialism.”

The fact that SK’s work is only just emerging is remarkable in itself and it’s a little frightening to think that such works have been buried for years under the Soviet machine – as Robert Chandler puts it in his introduction to the excellent anthology “Russian Short Stories From Pushkin to Buida” (which features “Quadraturin”) SK was “writing for the drawer” (as were other writers like Bulgakov). I have in fact read “From Pushkin….” some years ago which means I have read “Quadraturin”! This was a surprise to me, and is, incidentally, is one of the reasons I started this blog – to try to record my feelings about what I read and fix my memories of books more firmly!

However, on to this collection. The book consists of seven short pieces, translated by Joanne Turnbull and with some excellent notes by her:

Quadraturin
The Bookmark
Someone else’s Theme
The Branch Line
Red Snow
the Thirteenth Category of Reason
Memories of the Future

of which the title story is the longest. The writing is individual, unusual and singular, and in some ways reminds me of Platonov with its dream-like, haunting quality. The first story *is* a little Kafka-like, dealing with a scientific invention to expand the inside of someone’s room (in a TARDIS-like way) to solve the housing problem (ah, the eternal Soviet housing problem!) But things go wrong, and the protagonist actually ends up lost in his own room! “The Bookmark” and “Someone Else’s Theme” are very much concerned with the telling of tales. The Soviet demand for only Socialist Realism in fiction was very much on the rise, at the expense of true tale tellers, and it was impossible to get something with a fantastic theme published. The Theme Catcher in the first story endlessly spins tales, with only the slightest stimulation needed from life around him to set him off. It is difficult to see these stories as anything else than the reaction of a spinner of romances to the authorities’ demands. “The Branch Line” and “Red Snow” both feature dream sequences and landscapes, beautifully written and entrancing. “TBL” is particularly wonderful, with a traveller apparently taking the wrong train and ending up in the world of dreams where night and day are inverted, and scary dreams are about to take over the real world (another veiled critique of the Soviet dream, perhaps?). The fantasy sequence is wonderfully written, with all the qualities of the best dreams (and nightmares!). Likewise in “Red Snow”, the protagonist encounters regularly a strange character called Saul Straight, while he is struggling to find food and work in a Russia is always cold and snowy (as in most of these stories). He ends up living through a very scary nightmare where he encounters the Russian people queueing implacably (as they do for everything) – this time, for logic! “The Thirteenth Category of Reason” features a corpse who is late for his own funeral – ’nuff said!

The title story is a masterpiece – it tells the story of Max Shterer, who is obsessed by time from childhood and spends the rest of his life trying to conquer and supersede it. His quest to build a time machine spreads over many years, the first world war, the Russian revolution and civil war, plus the early days of the Soviet bureacracy. There is obviously some influence from Wells’ “The Time Machine” here – SK drops mention of the book into the text, and when Max finally gets to set off, he appears to move through time but not space in the same way as Wells’ hero. But there is a political subtext here not present in a straight sci-fi story – and what Schterer sees in the Soviet future is deemed too dangerous to let out (we do not even hear ourselves what it is) and after he is visited by a mysterious personage (Stalin???), he and his tale vanish.

 

Sigizmund_KrzhizhanovskyRunning through these tales is a sense of suspension of real life, which presumably reflects how SK (and many others) felt during the revolution which turned a world upside down, shook it a lot, and set it down in a very different configuration. There are also comments on the effects of Soviet bureaucracy, like this one, which are beautifully written:

“Haven’t you noticed how in the last few years our life has been permeated by non-existence? Little by little on the sly. We’re still  immured in our old space, like the stumps in a felled forest. But our lives have long since been stacked in piles, and not for us but for others. This wristwatch with its pulsating minute hand is still mine, but time is not, it belongs to someone else who will not let you or me into a single one of its seconds. What is death, after all? A special case of hopelessness.” (Red Snow)

These are amazing stories from an amazing writer, and I am just so glad that he was rescued from obscurity. I can’t wait to read “The Letter Killers Club”, and I hope that more of his work will appear in English translation. I do agree with Robert Chandler when he says: “It is now clear that Krzhizhanovsky is one of the greatest Russian writers of the last century.”

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

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

heart of dog

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

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

bulgy

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

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

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

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

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

Recent Reads: The Terrible News

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No. that isn’t a statement about my current reading habits, but actually the title of the little volume I have just finished reading, which is subtitled “Russian Short Stories from the Years Following the Revolution”. Edited and translated by one Grigori Gerenstein, it contains just that – a collection of short pieces by a variety of authors from Ardov to Zoschenko, some of whom I’d heard of and some who were new to me. There was a double motivation for reading this – having coming out of the intensity of reading Platonov, I still wanted something Russian, but something slightly less involving, which short stories would be good for. Also, the collection (which I found while browsing Bulgakov on Amazon!) contained a number of authors I hadn’t yet read but was keen on discovering. So although the collection is a couple of decades old I thought I would give it a try.

terriuble news

And it certainly does cover a range of authors – Babel, Bulgakov, Ilf and Petrov, Olesha are some of the well-known ones. There is also a Platonov story which is a bonus. I was particularly interested in exploring the work of Daniil Kharms who seems to be still considered quite “out there” as far as literature is concerned.

Well – I read the book pretty much in one sitting and it was an interesting and varied collection. Quite a lot of the stories are brutal and hard-edged, particularly the ones in rural settings, which reminds you how harsh life was in post-revolutionary years, while people tried to adjust to the dehumanizing effects of civil war and a world turned upside down. They make hard, bleak reading with characters trapped in situations of violence and famine and terror.

The Platonov story “The Whirlpool” is very typically bleak and shares qualities of his other works I’ve read – in many ways his characters seem out of control of their lives and are buffeted here and there by fate – maybe this is the whirlpool of the title! I was very taken by Kharms’ seven short pieces which were funny and absurd and I think I’ll be exploring his work more. Bulgakov’s story “The Red Crown” is about the physical and psychological effects of war and death on his character.  But the piece that had the most effect on me was Nikolai Aseyev’s “The War Against the Rats” in which the protagonist is tormented by the beasts in his house, but they become entangled with some grey-clad people he mixes with and his sanity finally deserts him as he tries to poison the rats. It’s quite deep and rather affecting and I found it the most memorable – maybe because it shows hints of the Soviet satire and surreal fiction that was to follow.

So – a mostly enjoyable collection with some clever and thought-provoking short pieces. It’s just a shame they didn’t take a little more care with the proofing of the book as they managed to mix up the author photographs of Bulgakov and Kharms….!

 

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