Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2498
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.
As the novel concludes, Petlyura’s victory, too, is ephemeral, as the Bolsheviks advance. Night descends on the Dnieper, and each of several characters dreams of something far beyond the petty intrigues of daylight Kiev. As in all of Bulgakov’s fictions, a foregrounded narrative voice, relying on rhetorical questions, playful and ingenious connections and summaries, and an overtly evocative landscape, impels the reader beyond the trifles of wars and words.
Black Snow, an unfinished work, was discovered in 1965 by the commission established during the post-Stalin thaw to rehabilitate Bulgakov. An account of the emergence of an obscure hack named Sergey Leontievich Maxudov as a literary and theatrical celebrity in Moscow, it draws heavily on Bulgakov’s own experiences in writing The White Guard and adapting it for the Moscow Art Theater as Days of the Turbins. It provides a lively portrait of the artist as a melancholic and misunderstood figure and of a cultural establishment inimical to genuine creativity.
The novel begins with a letter from a producer named Xavier Borisovich Ilchin summoning Maxudov to his office at the Academy of Drama. Ilchin has read Maxudov’s unacclaimed novel and is eager for him to adapt it for the stage. Next follows a flashback recounting how Maxudov conceived his book and how, as an obscure employee of the trade journal Shipping Gazette, he signed a contract for its publication in The Motherland shortly before that magazine folded. The flashback concludes with an account of how Maxudov’s life is transformed after he signs a contract for the production of Black Snow, his stage version of the novel, by the Independent Theater.
Maxudov soon finds himself a victim of the rivalries and jealousies of figures in the theatrical world. In particular, he is caught between the two directors of the Independent Theater, Aristarkh Platonovich, who is currently off in India, and Ivan Vasilievich; neither has spoken to the other in forty years. Ivan Vasilievich is clearly modeled on Stanislavsky, and grotesque descriptions portray the tyrannical director at work, rehearsing his actors in Black Snow with his celebrated “method.” The hapless dramatist makes a convincing case that “the famous theory was utterly wrong for my play.”
Black Snow employs a sophisticated narrative perspective to distance the reader both from its ineptprotagonist and from the bizarre characters he encounters. Its two parts are both written by Maxudov himself in the form of a memoir. An afterword, however, introduces a new, anonymous voice who explains how Maxudov sent the manuscript to him shortly before killing himself by jumping off a bridge in Kiev. This second narrator describes the narrative that the reader has just finished as suffering from “slovenly style” and as the “fruit of a morbid imagination.” Furthermore, he points out its egregious inaccuracies, among which is the fact that Maxudov never did have anything to do with the theater. The effect of this coda, as of those in Knut Hamsun’s Pan (1894; English translation, 1920) and director Robert Wiene’s film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), is to cast retrospective doubt on the reliability of everything that precedes it. Is Black Snow a caustic mockery of philistine bureaucrats, or is it a case study in the psychopathology of a deluded author manqué? Or perhaps both? Maxudov, distraught over frustrations with the Independent Theater, does admit that he is a melancholic and describes an early suicide attempt, aborted when he heard a recording of Faust coming from the apartment downstairs. Black Snow, with its examination of the artist as victim—of powerful boors and of himself—and its lucid blend of whimsy and social observation, is a fitting commentary on and companion to Bulgakov’s other works.
The Master and Margarita
Perhaps the supreme Russian novel of the twentieth century, and one of the most endearing modern texts in any language, The Master and Margarita was first published in abridged form in 1966-1967 and immediately created a sensation. It is a rich fusion of at least four realms and plots: the banal world of contemporary Moscow, containing the Griboyedov House, the Variety Theater, the apartments at 302-b Sadovaya, and a psychiatric hospital; ancient Jerusalem, where Pontius Pilate suffers torment over whether to crucify Yeshua Ha-Nozri; the antics of Woland and his satanic crew, including Koroviev, Azazello, Behemoth, and Hella; and the activities of the Master, utterly devoted to his art, and of Margarita, utterly devoted to him. Throughout, chapters of the novel crosscut from one of these subplots to another and ultimately suggest that perhaps they are not so distinct after all.
What sets the complex machinery of Bulgakov’s novel in motion is a four-day visit to Soviet Moscow by the devil, referred to as Woland, and his assistants. They gleefully wreak havoc with the lives of the bureaucrats, hypocrites, opportunists, and dullards they encounter. They do, however, befriend and assist the Master, an alienated writer who has been hospitalized after the worldly failure of his literary efforts. The Master’s beloved Margarita consents to serve as hostess at Satan’s ball and is rewarded with supernatural powers. An inferior poet named Ivan Homeless finds himself in the same psychiatric clinic as the Master and gradually becomes his disciple. The lifework of the Master is a novel about Pontius Pilate, and chapters from it, with manifest parallels to the situation in contemporary Moscow, are interspersed throughout Bulgakov’s novel.
Woland’s performance at the Variety Theater is billed as a “black magic act accompanied by a full exposé,” and The Master and Margarita itself, an absorbing blend of fantasy and verisimilitude presented with subversive self-consciousness, could be similarly described. The playful narrative voice that overtly addresses the reader mocks not only the characters but itself as well. Numerous authors among the dramatis personae, including Ivan, the Master, Matthu Levi, and Ryukhin, as well as characters given musical names such as Berlioz, Stravinsky, and Rimsky, foreground the process of fabrication and reinforce one of the novel’s persistent themes—the elusive nature of truth.
Most of the characters in Moscow refuse to recognize anything problematic about truth. Arrogantly convinced that human reason is adequate to any cognitive task, they stubbornly deny the supernatural that erupts in the form of Woland or that is evoked in the story of Yeshua. Like the other hack writers who congregate at the Griboyedov House, Ivan Homeless would just as soon take life on the most comfortable terms possible, but his spirit will not permit him to do so. Torn between the material and the spiritual, the temporal and the eternal, the collective and the individual, Ivan is diagnosed as schizophrenic and is hospitalized. His progress as a patient and as a writer will be marked by his success in reconciling opposing realms. Bulgakov, the novelist as master weaver, seems to be suggesting that both artistic achievement and mental health are dependent on a harmony between ostensibly disparate materials.
The Master, like Bulgakov himself, attempted to destroy his book, but, as Woland points out, “manuscripts don’t burn.” Art survives and transcends the hardships and iniquities of particular places and times. It ridicules the obtuseness of temporal authorities with the example of immortal authority. In one of many echoes of the Faust legend, The Master and Margarita chooses as its epigraph Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s reference to “that Power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.” Bulgakov’s ambitious novel certainly does not deny the oppressive reality of contemporary society, but its humor is restorative, and it moves toward an exhilarating, harmonious vision that would exclude nothing. It concludes with a benedictory kiss from a spectral Margarita.
The Heart of a Dog
The most overt of Bulgakov’s statements on the Russian Revolution, The Heart of a Dog, though written in 1925, was published in English in 1968 and in Russian in 1969. It is a satiric novella about an experiment performed by the celebrated Moscow surgeon Philip Philipovich Preobrazhensky, who takes a stray mongrel dog, Sharik, and transforms him into a human being named Sharikov. Much of the tale is narrated by Sharikov himself, who is not necessarily better off for his transformation. To perform the operation, Preobrazhensky has inserted the pituitary of a vulgar criminal into the brain of the dog. The result is an uncouth, rowdy human being who, though adept at language and even at repeating the political slogans supplied by the officious house committee chairman, Shvonder, proves incapable of satisfying the standards of civilized behavior demanded by Preobrazhensky. Hence, convinced that the experiment is a fiasco, he reverses it and turns Sharikov back into Sharik.
The Heart of a Dog features Bulgakov’s characteristic blend of fantasy and social analysis. It parabolically raises the question of the malleability of human nature and of the possibility of social melioration. Once again, it exposes to ridicule the arrogance of those who would presume to shape others’ lives and raises doubts about the efficacy and desirability of social engineering, such as Russia was undergoing in the 1920’s. The book suggests a fatal incompatibility between the proletariat and the intelligentsia, implying that the humane values of the latter are threatened by the former. It seems to counsel humble caution in tampering with the arrangements of the world.
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