(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

No one has written more about Mikhail Bulgakov than Ellendea Proffer. Intrigued by Bulgakov’s last work, Master i Margarita (1966-1967; The Master and Margarita, 1967), when it was finally published in the Soviet Union, Proffer devoted her 1971 Ph.D. dissertation to a study of the long-neglected author. In subsequent years, she contributed numerous essays to Bulgakov scholarship; edited and cotranslated The Early Plays of Mikhail Bulgakov (1972); collected extensive source material in her An International Bibliography of Works by and About Mikhail Bulgakov (1976); made those of his works still suppressed in the Soviet Union available in Russian in Neizdannyi Bulgakov (1977); as the coeditor of the Russian Literature Triquarterly assigned an entire issue to him; and continues to edit a Russian-language version of his collected works. While the format of the current book follows the pattern employed in the dissertation in treating the writer’s activities chronologically, the wealth of information Proffer has gathered in the intervening years results in an entirely new text. In fact, she extends the parameters of Bulgakov’s situation to reflect the Soviet writer’s circumstances in the 1920’s and 1930’s in general.

Proffer begins her study with a look at Bulgakov’s early prose, thus far little investigated by scholars. Her research makes clear that Bulgakov’s literary beginnings were anything but promising. Like Anton Chekhov before him, he had been trained as a doctor, but he soon gave up that calling to try his hand at literature. After traveling from his native southern Russia to Moscow in 1921, he supported himself by supplying feuilletons to journals. This genre enjoyed great popularity after the Revolution, as it satirized the follies and incongruous adjustments of Soviet citizens to a new way of life. As Proffer recounts the plots of Bulgakov’s early efforts, it becomes evident that only a few pieces display his later flair for creative sarcastic phrasing. Other satirists of the period, notably Yevgeny Zamyatin and Mikhail Zoshchenko, were far superior to Bulgakov, leaving the latter with little to distinguish himself. Proffer does pinpoint a few stories worthy of consideration, several of which Bulgakov managed to publish between 1925 and 1927. They, too, do not reflect Bulgakov’s later extraordinary stylistic talents and tend to be imitative of nineteenth century Russian writers. All in all, Proffer’s evaluation refutes those who assert that Bulgakov’s talent was stifled from the beginning by censorial restrictions. Rather, she suggests that these early years be seen as merely a phase in Bulgakov’s literary apprenticeship. Bulgakov’s first success rests on the novellas collected in D’iavoliada (1925; Diaboliad and Other Stories, 1972), the major piece of which, “Rokovye iaitsa” (“The Fatal Eggs”), is a sharp political satire condemning the misuse of science in social experiments. Proffer praises Bulgakov’s masterly imitation of different social styles highly, but the work also displays Bulgakov’s often-repeated failure to group his brilliantly strung together parodic scenes into a coherent whole. The most remarkable thing about the collection is that it was allowed to appear at all. As it is, approval was withheld from a similar piece, Sobach’e serdtse (1969; Heart of a Dog, 1968), completed in 1924 but never published in the Soviet Union. If Proffer’s interpretation of the metaphors is correct, it is easy to see why. Bulgakov creates an amoral surgeon (Soviet leadership) who grafts the organs of a criminal (ideology) onto a hapless mongrel (the proletariat). The result is a grotesque, violence-prone creature which must eventually be destroyed.

Since Bulgakov’s primary professional endeavors, apart from the clandestine writing of The Master and Margarita, concern playwrighting, staging, and other theatrical activities, Proffer reserves the bulk of her study for this topic. Each play is discussed in a separate chapter to afford easy access for those interested in a particular production, while general biographical information is sometimes accorded separate treatment, other times integrated into the analytic sections. The author places considerable emphasis on Bulgakov’s first play, Dni Turbinykh (1926; Days of the Turbins, 1934), and the novel Belaia gvardiia (complete edition, 1927-1929; White Guard, 1973) upon which it is based. Proffer’s contention that White Guard is one of the best Soviet civil war novels will not be universally accepted because of the abundance of credibly written civil war tales, but she gives a good account of why this historical work stands out in the genre. The featured White family members, though losers on the surface, having bound their loyalties to czarist Russia, nevertheless come across as decent, considerate individuals. Proffer’s comparison to other works demonstrates that this is one of the most sympathetic portraits of antirevolutionary elements ever published in the Soviet Union. The same qualities make it into a successful play, analysis of which Proffer embeds in a general discussion of dramatic activity in the 1920’s. In a rather controversial statement, she credits Days of the Turbins with revitalizing Konstantin Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater and equates the success of the production with that of Chekhov’s Chayka (1896; The Seagull, 1913). The latter is open to question, since Bulgakov was forced to substitute an ideologically upbeat ending and had to agree to several politically motivated changes before gaining censorial approval. Even so, attacks on the play were numerous and it was periodically banned altogether, but inexplicably it turned out to be the most frequently performed play at the...

(The entire section is 2406 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Book World. XIV, November 18, 1984, p. 10.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, December 9, 1984, p. 30.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, October 5, 1984, p. 76.