Darkness of a drawer - Mikhail Bulgakov

One of the most revealing episodes in J. A. E. Curtis’s Mikhail Bulgakov, in the Reaktion Books Critical Lives series, itself concerns the writing of a “critical life”. In 1932–3, Bulgakov, a man devoted to the theatre, wrote a brief novelized biography of Molière. The book was commissioned for the hallowed Russian series Lives of Remarkable People, but like much of Bulgakov’s work from the 1920s and 30s, it would not see the light of day until decades after his death in 1940. As usual, the Soviet author had taken a thoroughly un-Soviet approach to the topic, presenting Molière as an individual genius – rather than as a product of his era and class – and fitting the facts of his life into a fictional frame. In his rejection, the series editor explained Bulgakov’s error: “You have placed between Molière and the reader some sort of imaginary storyteller. If, instead of this casual young man in an old-fashioned coat, who from time to time lights or puts out the candles, you had given us a serious Soviet historian, he would have been able to tell us many interesting things about Molière, and about his times”.

This incident captures a central tragedy of Bulgakov’s life: almost all his efforts to win official acceptance, if not approval, were stymied by his inability to produce – and at times even deduce – what was asked of him. The fate that befell the seemingly innocuous Molière biography also befell a number of his plays, including The Last Days, about Alexander Pushkin – timed to coincide with the 1937 commemoration of the centenary of the poet’s death – and Batum (1939), about Stalin’s youth. The Bulgakovs were informed that Batum “received a harshly negative review up there (in the Central Committee, probably)” for making fiction out of a romanticized Stalin; it was also seen as “representing a wish to build bridges and to improve attitudes towards [the author]”. Yelena Bulgakova “indignantly repudiated these latter suggestions”, Curtis writes, “although it is hard to believe that this was not to some extent what had motivated Bulgakov in agreeing to take on this project”. In the 1930s, any Soviet author who craved an audience needed approval “up there” – and Bulgakov certainly craved an audience.

After all, it was largely literary ambition that led the conservative medical doctor, who was born to a bourgeois family in Kiev in 1891, to remain in Soviet Russia after the end of the Civil War. We get a keen sense of this ambition from Bulgakov’s letter to his cousin, sent in 1921 from Vladikavkaz, where he first began to regard himself as a professional writer: “At night I sometimes read over the stories I’ve published previously (in newspapers! in newspapers!), and I think: where is my volume of collected works? Where is my reputation? Where are the wasted years?” It is painful to consider how little he would be able to boast of after another nineteen years of back-breaking literary labour: one volume of fiction; journal clippings of feuilletons, short stories, novellas, and part of his novel White Guard (1925); as well as a handful of staged plays – many of which were quickly banned. If Bulgakov had harboured some hope of publishing White Guard and his brilliant novella The Heart of a Dog in the 1920s, and of seeing more of his plays staged in the early 30s, towards the end of his life he knew that his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, was doomed to “the darkness of a drawer”.

Through it all, Bulgakov could cling to one extraordinary success, The Day of the Turbins. Based on White Guard, the play premiered at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1926 and was only taken off in 1941, after nearly a thousand performances. And yet, this success too was not unqualified. Turbins had first been removed from the stage in 1929, in response to vicious attacks in the press. It was restored three years later, after intervention from Stalin himself, who clearly took a personal interest in Bulgakov. One of the great merits of Curtis’s book is the sensitivity with which she chronicles Bulgakov’s awkward negotiation with power, context­ualizing his multiple letters to Stalin, which prompted a single “astonishing phone call” from the General Secretary in 1930, and his controversial final play.

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