Mikhail Bulgakov Long Fiction Analysis
Mikhail Bulgakov never took advantage of the opportunity to flee Russia during the revolution and its turbulent aftermath, and his fiction is very much a product of Russian life during the first two decades of the Soviet regime. Bulgakov’s social commentary is not oblique enough to have averted the ire and the proscription of powerful contemporaries, or to keep later readers from recognizing the quality of roman à clef in much of what he wrote. The key, however, is not simply in details of his own biography—friends, adversaries, and a pet cat persistently transposed into a fictional realm. More important, it is in his ability to render the plight of the creative individual in a system designed to subdue him. Within the carefully limned landscapes of modern Kiev and Moscow, Bulgakov’s characters dramatize the limitations and hubris of temporal human power. His books, then, are not merely the frustrated effusions of an author encountering formidable obstacles to his ambitions, nor are they merely perceptive analyses of the kind of community Stalinist social engineering was begetting. Beyond Bulgakov’s contempt for contemporary mischief is a veritably religious sense of a universal spiritual force and a conviction that sic transit gloria mundi. The White Guard thus concludes on a consoling note: “Everything passes away—suffering, pain, blood, hunger and pestilence.” It is this spiritual perspective that endows Bulgakov’s narratives with more than a parochial sociological or historical interest.
The tone of melancholy that suffuses Bulgakov’s works is a consequence of the futility he sees in the artist’s struggle against the mighty of this world, and most of his sympathetic characters are more than half in love with easeful death. Creativity, love, and good humor do, nevertheless, triumph. To reduce Bulgakov’s fictions to the bare formula of a struggle between sensitivity and brutishness and between eternity and the moment is to miss the mournful exuberance of his comédies larmoyantes. Not only Black Snow, the subtitle of which proclaims it, but also Bulgakov’s other books are theatrical novels. The spirited play of a harried author drawn to and disappointed by the theater, they employ self-conscious devices, such as apostrophes to the reader, impudent violations of verisimilitude, and encased narratives, to enact a liberation not only from the oppressive worlds they depict but also from the literary instrument of emancipation itself. Black Snow concludes with a deflationary fictional afterword, and it is night on the final pages of The White Guard, The Master and Margarita, and The Heart of a Dog. Like William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611) abjuring its own magic, Bulgakov’s novels provide bittersweet crepuscular valediction to the powers of temporal authority and to the verbal artifices that their inventive author assembles.
The White Guard
Bulgakov’s first novel, and the only one to be published (at least in part) in his lifetime, The White Guard is set in Kiev in the winter of 1918. It is the moment at which the hetman Pavel Petrovich Skoropadsky, who has ruled with the support of the Germans, flees the city, and the forces of the Ukrainian nationalist Semyon Petlyura prove temporarily triumphant over Whites and Bolsheviks. The White Guard is a polyphonic arrangement of a variety of characters and incidents within a brief, dramatic period in the history of modern Kiev. Its focus, however, is on the fate of one family, the Turbins, representative of a venerable way of life that is disintegrating as Ukrainian society undergoes radical change.
The Turbin children have recently buried their mother, and twenty-eight-year-old Alexei, a physician, his twenty-four-year-old sister Elena, and their seventeen-year-old brother Nikolka, a student, attempt to maintain family traditions and values, which are those of a comfortable Russian intellectual home. Public events make this impossible, however, and the collapse of the kind of humane civilization that the Turbin family exemplifies—with which Bulgakov, whose background was similar, is, despite the censor, sympathetic—is inevitable with the victory of Petlyura’s troops.
Captain Sergey Talberg, the opportunistic scoundrel to whom Elena is married, abandons her to seek safety and another woman in Paris. The hetman, in the cowardly disguise of a German officer, likewise deserts Kiev at its moment of greatest danger. Nevertheless, Alexei and Nikolka, along with many others, enlist in the loyalist army in a futile effort to repulse Petlyura’s advance into the city. Bulgakov depicts a range of heroism and knavery on all sides during the months of crisis in Kiev. The narrative weaves multiple subplots of combat and domestic drama into a vivid account of an obsolescent society under siege.
Through it all, the Turbin house, number 13 St. Alexei’s Hill, remains for the family and its friends a fragile sanctuary. Nikolka barely escapes the violence, and Alexei, who is wounded, miraculously survives battle and an attack of typhus with the gracious assistance of a mysterious beauty named Julia Reiss. Despite the grim situation, gentle comic relief is provided by characters such as the miserly neighbor Vasilisa and the benevolent bumpkin Lariosik, who comes to stay with his relatives, the Turbins.
The apocalyptic tone of The White Guard is supported by religious allusions, particularly to the biblical book of Revelation. The music for the opera Faust remains open on the Turbin piano from the beginning of the novel to its end, and the reader is reminded of enduring values that transcend the contingencies of politics: But long after the Turbins and Talbergs have departed this life the keys will ring out again and Valentine will step up to the footlights, the aroma of perfume will waft from the boxes and at home beautiful women under the lamplight will play the music, because Faust, like the Shipwright of Saardam, is quite immortal....
(The entire section is 2498 words.)