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Bulgakov, Mikhail 1891-1940
(Born Mikhail Afanasevich Bulgakov. Wrote under the pseudonyms Emma B., F. S-ov, Em. Be., Ivan Bezdomny, M. Ol-Rait, and Neznakomets) Russian novelist, novella and short story writer, dramatist, biographer, and essayist.
Considered one of the foremost satirists of post-revolutionary Russia, Bulgakov is best known for his novel Master i Margarita (The Master and Margarita), which is recognized as one of the greatest Russian novels of the century. His short stories and fictional sketches, like his other works, often present the adjustment of the Russian intellectual class to life under communist rule. Heavily influenced by Nikolai Gogol, Bulgakov combined fantasy, realism, and satire to ridicule modern progressive society in general and the Soviet system in particular.
Bulgakov was born in 1891 into a Russian family of the intellectual class in the Ukrainian city of Kiev. Music, literature, and theater were important in the family life of the young Bulgakov, as was religion. His father, a professor at the Kiev theological academy, instilled in his son a belief in God and an interest in spiritual matters that he would retain throughout his life. Bulgakov attended Kiev's most prestigious secondary school, where he earned a reputation for playing practical jokes and inventing stories. He continued his education as a medical student at the University of Kiev and graduated with distinction in 1916. Assigned to noncombat duty in the Russian army during World War I, Bulgakov worked for several months in frontline military hospitals until he transferred to a remote village, where he served as the only doctor for an entire district; his experiences in this position served as the basis for the stories of Zapiski iunogo vracha (Notes of a Young Doctor).Bulgakov was discharged in 1918 and abandoned medicine two years later to devote his time to writing pieces for newspapers and magazines. In 1921 he moved to Moscow, where he struggled to support himself and his first wife by editing and writing for various newspapers, but gradually became established as an author. From 1925 to 1928 Bulgakov worked in close association with the Moscow Art Theater as a writer, producer, and occasionally as an actor. His plays were all well received by audiences but denounced by Communist Party critics, and in 1929 his works were banned for their ideological nonconformity. At Bulgakov's request, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin intervened to enable some of his works to be published and performed. Bulgakov resigned form the Art Theater in 1936, at which time he became a librettist for the Bolshoi Theater. Though publishing little, he wrote steadily until his death from nephrosclerosis in 1940.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Bulgakov's first published collection of short stories, D'iavoliada (Diaboliad, and Other Stories), was strongly influenced by Gogol: realism dissolves into fantasy and absurdity, and light comic satire erupts into sudden brutality. Included is his best-known story, "Rokovye iaitsa" ("The Fatal Eggs"), in which a well-meaning scientist discovers a red ray that stimulates growth. The ray is appropriated by a bureaucrat to increase the country's chicken population, but through a mix-up produces instead a crop of giant reptiles that ravage the countryside. "The Fatal Eggs" introduces one of Bulgakov's favorite themes: the consequences of power in the hands of the ignorant. Although written during the same period as Diaboliad, Bulgakov's Notes of a Young Doctor differs radically in its strict realism and exclusion of the fantastic and grotesque. This collection of autobiographical fiction records his trials as an inexperienced doctor working under primitive conditions, and the difficulties he faced as an educated man among the ignorant, superstitious peasants. Another literary achievement, Sobach'e serdtse (The Heart of a Dog), portrays a scientist's transformation of a dog into a man. The creature develops reprehensible human qualities, and the scientist changes him back into the goodnatured dog he once was.
Most of Bulgakov's short fiction was written early in his career, in the middle of the 1920s. Due to official censorship of his manuscript during his lifetime, Bulgakov's greatest works remained unpublished until after his death. The Heart of a Dog, which is ranked among Soviet Russia's best satirical fiction, has never been published in the Soviet Union because of its counterrevolutionary cast. This story has obvious thematic parallels to "The Fatal Eggs" and the two works have elicited similar critical readings. Some critics consider The Heart of a Dog a blatant political satire, equating the operation with the Revolution, while others stress a moral and philosophical interpretation of the conflict between the intellectual scientist and the uneducated masses, and of the disastrous results of interfering with a natural process. Commentators have read "The Fatal Eggs" as a satirical treatment of the Russian Revolution, or, less specifically, as a commentary on progress and a rejection of revolution in favor of evolution. Reviewers generally praise the stories of Notes of a Young Doctor, especially those evincing attention to dramatic tension, but speculate as to whether the collection might more correctly be considered autobiography than fiction.
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D'iavoliada [Diaboliad, and Other Stories] 1925
†Zapiski iunogo vracha [Notes of a Young Doctor; also translated as A Country Doctor's Notebooks] 1963
‡Sobach'e serdtse [The Heart of a Dog] 1969 Sobrante sochinenii (short stories, novels, and dramas) 1982-
Notes on the Cuff, and Other Stories 1991
Other Major Works
Dni Turbinykh [Days of the Turbins] (drama) 1926
Zoikina kvartira [Zoya's Apartment] (drama) 1926
Belala gvardiia: Dni Turbinykh [The White Guard] (novel) 1927
Bagrovyi ostrov [The Crimson Island] (drama) 1928
Kabala sviatosh [A Cabal of Hypocrites] (drama) 1936
Posledniye dni (drama) 1943
Beg [Flight] (drama) 1957
Zhizn' gospodina de Mol'era [The Life of Monsieur de Molière] (biography) 1962
Ivan Vasil'evich (drama) 1964
Tetral'nyi roman [Black Snow: A Theatrical Novel] 1965
Blazhenstvo [Bliss] (drama) 1966
Master i Margarita [The Master and Margarita] (novel) 1966-67
The Early Plays of Mikhail Bulgakov (dramas) 1972
*Many of Bulgakov's short stories and sketches appeared in Russian periodicals and other foreign journals but have not been published in collections.
†Comprised of stories published in Russian periodicals between 1925 and 1927.
‡Written in 1925; translated and published in English in 1968—prior to publication in Russian.
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SOURCE: "Laughter in the Dark," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XI, No. 1, July 11, 1968, pp. 26-8.
[Muchnic is a Russian-born American critic and author. In the following review, she offers a positive assessment of The Heart of a Dog, considering it not only a parable about the Russian revolution but also a denunciation of the concepts underlying the revolution.]
The Heart of a Dog is a variation on [one] of Bulgakov's recurrent themes. In one of his best known, and most uncanny, tales, "The Fatal Eggs," a scientist's discovery of and experiment with a life-giving ray results in the hatching of monstrous reptiles that multiply in uncontrollable profusion and lay waste the land. In The Heart of a Dog, a renowned surgeon, Professor Preobrazhensky (the name suggests "transfiguration"), who specializes in rejuvenating men and women, tries something new. He operates on a stray dog, replacing its testicles by human testes and its pituitary gland by a human one; and the result, a scientific triumph, is a moral and social disaster: out of a pathetic, lovable mutt there emerges an insolent monstrosity that walks like a man and behaves like a cur. Its language is obscene and its manners intolerable. It demands its rights as a citizen, changes its pet dog's name, Sharik, to the human Sharikov, and gets itself a job with the Moscow City Sanitation Department, which entrusts it with the congenial task of eliminating vagrant cats. It steals, attempts rape, slanders and denounces the Professor himself, and tries to shoot his assistant. At the end, the Professor, recognizing his experiment as a lamentable blunder, turns this "man with the heart of a dog" back to its original state.
[In his preface to The Heart of a Dog, Michael Glenny] suggests that the story is a parable of the Bolshevik revolution, that "the 'dog' of the story is the Russian people, brutalized and exploited for centuries," the surgeon "the embodiment of the Communist Party—perhaps Lenin himself—and the drastic transplant operation . . . the revolution itself." To my mind, this is only partially true. The parallels cannot be so explicitly drawn. After all, the dog grew up in the Soviet State and was maltreated by Soviet citizens; and if the surgeon returns his homunculus to his original form, does this mean that Lenin wilfully returns the Russian people to their brutalized and exploited pre-revolutionary condition? But the story is indeed a cautionary fable on the menace of crude, illiterate, and unprincipled creatures suddenly exposed to learning and given status and a modicum of power. Sharikov is a kind of Caliban or a grotesque incarnation of Dostoevsky's Smerdyakov. "What have you been reading?" Professor Preobrazhensky asks him, expecting to hear something like Robinson Crusoe, and getting instead:
"That guy . . . What's his name . . . Engel's correspondence with . . . hell, what d'you call him . . . oh—Kautsky."
And what is his opinion of the book?
"I don't agree."
"With whom—Engels or Kautsky?"
"With neither of 'em."
"That is most remarkable . . . Well what would you suggest instead?"
"Suggest? I dunno . . . They just write and write all that crap . . . all about some congress and some Germans. . . . Makes my head reel. Take everything away from the bosses, then divide it up . . . "
To Sharikov, it is all perfectly simple: one takes from the haves, like the Professor, and gives to the have-nots, like Sharikov. Preobrazhensky loses his patience. "You belong to the lowest possible stage of development," he thunders, "You are still in the formative stage. You are intellectually weak. All your actions are purely bestial. Yet you allow yourself in the presence of two universityeducated men to offer advice, with quite intolerable familiarity, on a cosmic scale and of quite cosmic stupidity, on the redistribution of wealth. . . . "
In such passages as these the social and political implications of Bulgakov's parable are obvious. Yet it seems to me that his meaning lies beyond them. Just as Black Snow, through satire on the Moscow Art Theatre, is actually concerned with the broader theme of the artist's plight, so The Heart of a Dog, through allusive comments on the revolution, is really denouncing the basic concepts that underly the revolution. The meaning is implicit in what Preobrazhensky says to his assistant: "This, Doctor, is what happens when a researcher, instead of keeping in step with nature, tries to force the pace and lift the veil." The human glands Preobrazhensky had used happened to be a drunkard's and thief's. Perhaps Sharikov would have turned out better had they come from a worthier man. But, Preobrazhensky asks, what if they had been Spinoza's? Why perform such an operation at all? "What in heaven's name for? That's the point. Will you kindly tell me why one has to manufacture artificial Spinozas when some peasant woman may produce a real one any day of the week?" This is what Bulgakov is writing about: the ominous error, of which the revolution may be an example, in meddling with fundamental processes of nature.
It is not, that is, the social and political so much as the intellectual revolution Bulgakov is satirizing, that drastic change in men's attitudes to life and nature which the Bolsheviks tried to instill, their arrogant assumption that fate lies in men's hands, that they can both know and foresee everything and create whatever they please. It was against this kind of arrogance that Pasternak had also written. "Reshaping life!" he had said through his Doctor Zhivago, "People who can say that have never understood a thing about life. . . . They look on it as a lump of raw material that needs to be processed by them, to be ennobled by their touch. But life is never a material, a substance to be moulded. . . . " Like Pasternak, Bulgakov also quarreled with the self-exalting assumptions of Soviet ideology, but whereas Pasternak's work was a lyrical assertion of what he called "the sublimity of life and the unfathomable values of human existence," Bulgakov's was fantastic grotesquery satirizing human presumption. This is the core of The Master and Margarita (it was published in English last fall), a humorous, intricate, philosophic work that seems to be a version of Goethe's Faust, but is really a parody of it, transforming the Goethian conception of a world in which illimitable human striving, whatever crimes it may entail, is the essence of virtue, into a daemon-ridden one where helpless men are ruled by incomprehensible fate, where the highest good is an artist's mysterious knowledge of truth and reality, and the finest virtue is self-abnegating devotion.
Bulgakov was unique, with a voice all his own, one of that brilliant group of young Russian writers of the early 1920s who were, most of them, exiled, suppressed, or killed in the Thirties. A humorist and satirist—not so genteel as Olesha, not so light-hearted as Ilf and Petrov, not so Chekovian as Zoshchenko, not so trenchant as Zamyatin—humorous rather than witty, horrifying rather than bitter, he was, in his daemonic fantasy and his uproarious laughter, akin to Gogol, but more intellectual. Interested in rational rather than social man, in man as believer rather than doer, he always began with the actualities of Soviet Russia, but saw them in the context of a larger philosophic scheme, of which The Master and Margarita is his finest and grandest statement.
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SOURCE: "Bureaucratic Brute," in The New York Times Book Review, July 28, 1968, pp. 5, 16.
[Sourian is an American critic and novelist. Below, he discusses the political implications of The Heart of a Dog and lauds the story's humor, claiming: "implicit always is a passionate and severe humanity. "]
In 1923, Lenin, the tired and ailing wizard of the Revolution, foresaw monstrous possibilities in what he had wrought. In one of his last letters he said, "I am horrified by the bureaucratic procedure of Stalin and Ordjonikidze." In his final letter, written to Stalin himself, he declared, "I must appeal to the Party as a whole and demand your expulsion. You are not fit to be a Communist," and characterized him as an Abdul Hamid with a drunken lust for power.
But it was too late; Lenin's death spared Stalin, and in 1925, in the same month that Mikhail Bulgakov began to write The Heart of a Dog, surely realizing how dim were its chances of seeing print, Trotsky was informed by the Central Committee that he must resign his post and that he would be expelled from the party unless he stopped criticizing its policies, whereupon the former War Commissar was ignominiously put in charge of a concessions committee for electrical supplies, leaving the field of power open to the dogs. . . .
After decades of suppression, while the works of mediocre compromisers and kowtowers flourished, Bulgakov's books were finally published in the Soviet Union, albeit in censored form; The Heart of a Dog, however, written much earlier, has yet to appear there. . . .
[This] novel would certainly still rankle, having forewarned with comic bitterness and aristocratic contempt of the worst result of the Revolution—a lumpen-authoritarianism leading finally to murder as a solution to "policy" differences.
The foul climate has been well-evoked in that branch of Russian literature published, if at all, outside of Russia: Pasternak, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Eugenia Ginzburg's noble and horrific account of her own unwarranted sufferings, Journey Into the Whirlwind, and so on.
But Bulgakov's novel was not written after the fact. It is prophecy in the true sense—surprising yet ultimately un-mysterious. The careful observer of the present, in touch with the past as well, thus plots an arc into the future. Such a small matter as, say, the mildly ominous boorishness of a tenants' committee in the present of 1925 becomes a coordinate on the curve.
[In the introduction to his translation of The Heart of a Dog, Michael Glenny states] that Bulgakov, a journalist by trade, published several long stories in the twenties in a satirical vein popular at the time, and of a "'fantastic realism,' in which frightening and often outrageously grotesque ideas are embodied in a narrative of straight deadpan naturalism," reminiscent of Gogol, whose Dead Souls was successfully dramatized by Bulgakov.
The Heart of a Dog answers to this general description. Bulgakov's strange wizard is a world-famous Moscow specialist in the transplantation of human glands, Dr. Philip Philipovich, who turns a decent enough mongrel into something worse than either man or dog. The operation, described in the book, is bloody, and Sharik the dog becomes Poligraph Poligraphovich, subsequently a Commissar "for the elimination of vagrant quadrupeds." It rapidly becomes clear that the elimination may not stop with quadrupeds.
No one is more upset by the existence of this bureaucratic brute than the doctor, who is forced to watch Poligraphovich eat at his table, sleep in his apartment, abuse his cook, break his equipment, play Don Juan, and try, in the most cowardly fashion, to ruin him.
Lenin apparently liked to quote Napoleon as saying, "You commit yourself, and then—you see." Fortunately Dr. Philipovich manages at the end to reverse the process he has set in motion, after having publicly reproached himself for his mistake; and when he is charged with the murder of Poligraphovich, he points to Sharik the dog, dozing cozily at his feet.
Such is Bulgakov's unobstrusive skill that it all seems quite believable. The reader sees just how Sharik evolves into Poligraphovich into Commissar. The psychology is sound, the illusion is remarkably well sustained, the humor is never forced, and implicit always is a passionate and severe humanity.
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SOURCE: An introduction to Diaboliad, and Other Stories by Mikhail Bulgakov, edited by Ellendea Proffer and Carl R. Proffer, translated by Carl R. Proffer, Indiana University Press, 1972, pp. vii-xx.
[Ellendea and Carl Proffer are translators, critics, and editors of Russian literature, with a special interest in the writings of Mikhail Bulgakov. In the following excerpt from an essay written in 1971, they provide an overview of the short fiction collected in Diaboliad, and Other Stories.]
The Irish filid, or poet, frequently used his magic talent for satirical purposes, and ancient Irish laws suggest that the authorities came to regard these poetic satirists as a serious social problem. Thus Aithrine the Importunate was eventually walled into his fortress with his sons and daughters and burned. He was not the first nor the last satirist to suffer at the hands of societies and governments fearing the metaphorical swords of the written word. If rats can be rhymed to death, and humans can be skewered on their own folly, so artists like Bulgakov who perform these ritual murders with great skill have never been loved by proponents of systems or men holding power.
A parabolic path led Bulgakov to writing. It began in Kiev, where he was born, the son of a professor of theology in 1891, and swerved to a literary career in Moscow, where, blinded by neurosclerosis and filled with painkilling narcotics, he died in 1940. Despite boyhood dreams of the theater, he went to medical school at Kiev University and spent his first adult years in ignorant rural areas amputating limbs and healing infections (venereology was his specialty), rather than composing dialogue. When World War I and Revolution raged around Kiev, Bulgakov lived through the city's fourteen changes of power in the refuge of his family's apartment—later transformed into the home of the Turbins in his brilliant first novel White Guard (1925) and in his famous play Days of the Turbins (1926). He abruptly abandoned medicine in 1919, and after a hungry stay in the Caucasus, where he wrote stories for newspapers and plays for local theaters, Bulgakov moved to Moscow in the bitterly cold winter of 1921. . . .
[Diaboliad, and Other Stories represents] the first stage in Bulgakov's career as a prose writer. Besides the dozens of stories Bulgakov wrote in the years 1921-25, he also completed what is probably the best Civil War novel (White Guard). The feuilletons were written strictly for money, the novel was a labor of love. The Diaboliad collection and the first parts of White Guard were both published in 1925, and, with the exception of two slim booklets of reprinted feuilletons (1926), this marked Bulgakov's last appearance in print until after the death of Stalin. Bulgakov's satire was neither gentle nor primitive, and thus could have no success with Party-oriented keepers of the faith. Diaboliad provoked a furor of criticism; the journal in which White Guard was serialized (Russia) was shut down by the Cheka; and Bulgakov's plays Days of the Turbins and Zoya's Apartment (1926) were subjected to a bewildering sequence of bannings, rewritings by the theaters, and "unbannings." To this day Diaboliad is not in the open card catalogue of the Lenin Library in Moscow, and the copies of the almanac Nedra have had the stories "The Fatal Eggs" and "Diaboliad" torn out and Bulgakov's name expunged from their tables of contents—this no doubt a relic of the Stalin era. . . .
"Diaboliad" belongs to the tradition of Russian stories about "little men" and civil servants started by Gogol in "The Nose" and "The Overcoat" and continued less successfully by Dostoevsky in The Double. Character types are similar, including civil servant heroes suffering from sexual isolation and menacing superiors. The systemizing world of bureaucracy reduces people to categories, prizing sameness over individuality—and thus it produces frightening doubles. The boundaries which separate people begin to disintegrate, as does the sanity of the hero; when this happens the distinction between the "real" world and a fantastic world is not far behind. Madness and fantasy are age-old satirical devices. Gogol's Poprishchin ("Notes of a Madman") imagines noses living on the moon; Bulgakov's Korotkov sees Underwarr turning first into a phosphorescent black cat (forerunner of Behemoth in The Master and Margarita) and then into a white cock smelling of sulphur. Dostoevsky's Golyadkin Sr. loses his identity to an arrogant serial self and Korotkov loses his identity to a similar upstart—through documents, for as Soviet satirists have noted, without identification papers a man is not a man. In Gogol, without a nose a man is not a man.
Stylistic grotesqueries accompany thematic ones. Comic similes and realized metaphors appear on every page (Underwarr has a voice "like a copper pan"; after the first reference in the simile it is always "clanged the pan" or "rang the pan"). Ordinary verbs of saying are rare; the dialogue is marked by all kinds of "squeaks," "sings," and "mutters" rather than "he saids." Inanimate objects such as type-writers or teapots sing and talk to characters. People are turned into synecdoches (usually colors or clothing), and many minor characters remain nameless except for some dominant feature ("the blond one," "the kuntush").
Neither in the use of fantasy nor in stylistic grotesqueries is Bulgakov unique for the mid-twenties. The short story was the dominant genre, and there was a great deal of experimentation in the realm of verbal stylization and fantasy—much of it more radical, and ephemeral, than Bulgakov's style. This was particularly true of the group known as the Serapion Brothers—named after a character in E. T. A. Hoffmann. Their leader, Lev Luntz, wrote a story entitled "Outgoing No. 37" in which a little clerk so fears for a lost document that he turns into that document (as Gogol's hero in Vladimir Third-Class turns into that medal). The Kafkaesque atmosphere and fantasy of that story is much like that in "Diaboliad." Among the better-known writers one had such experiments as the primitivism of Zamyatin, the ornamentalism of Vsevolod Ivanov, and the brilliant narrative inventions of Zoshchenko. In all of these stories, as in Bulgakov's, characterization suffered at the expense of style—true, sometimes as an intentional reduction of the characters to the status of robots. One of the ways Bulgakov does this—and it is obviously borrowed from Gogol's "The Nose" and Dostoevsky's The Double—is the exaggeratedly detailed registering of Korotkov's physical gestures and changes of location.
Korotkov's mortal plunge provides a natural ending, but it is not "the bone of the bone and the blood of the blood of the beginning," as Robert Louis Stevenson has said endings of short stories must be. It is typical of Bulgakov (for example, "The Fatal Eggs," "A Chinese Tale," "No. 13") that what seemed harmless fun and fairly mild topical satire should unexpectedly end in death—which is no laughing matter. Of course, the mixture of satire and death is not unusual; (indeed it has ancient roots), and this is found in works by the best Russian satirists of the twenties—in Zamyatin's We, for example, or Zoshchenko's Tales of Nazar Ilich Sinebryukhov. But as is frequently the case (recall Gogol's "The Overcoat" again) the reader is faced with the problem of sympathy. If Korotkov has been made flat and ridiculous in the beginning, can we feel his death as a real tragedy? The problem of irony which undercuts irony is one which Bulgakov faces in other stories too, including "The Fatal Eggs."
"The Fatal Eggs" is the most famous and ambitious story of [Diabolad, and Other Stories]. The Serapion Brothers had helped renew interest in stories with interesting plots (generally classical Russian literature has little plot interest), and works describing adventures enjoyed great popularity. Nor were science-fiction elements entirely new to Russian literature in the twenties. Zamyatin's anti-utopian We is the best-known example; Alexei Tolstoy's pro-Soviet tales "Aelita" and "Garin's Death-Ray" soon followed, and Bulgakov returned to this kind of literature in the short novel Heart of a Dog (1925) as well as in his later plays. In "The Fatal Eggs," using the plot of H. G. Wells' The Food of the Gods, Bulgakov created a horrifying picture of the catastrophe that results when the state interferes in scientific endeavors. The story is brilliant in its details, but as allegory it is somewhat unclear. Although it is the leather-jacketed Feyt and the journalist Bronsky who are responsible for getting the government interested in using the ray for chicken breeding, it is some unknown person who switches the reptile and chicken eggs. This means that the direct cause of the reptile invasion is an accidental switching of boxes—which seems rather pointless. Bulgakov's critique of the Revolutionary handling of scientific inventions and the attempt to circumvent natural evolution is presented far more lucidly and logically in Heart of a Dog—written only a few months after "The Fatal Eggs."
Feyt himself is at first portrayed as an extremely unpleasant man with a Mauser at his hip—but then we suddenly discover that he had been a flute player before the Revolution and that he has a nice wife and is really just a kind, simple man. We are told all of this in chapter eight, which is devoted to an idyllic (and humorous) description of the night on the Sovkhoz: Feyt is fluting, his nice wife is listening—and the next day she is crushed by a giant reptile in a scene described in horrifying naturalistic, clinical detail. This is a shock from which the reader never really recovers; although the deaths that follow are many and frightening, they are expected—except perhaps for Persikov's death at the hands of the Moscow mob.
The reptiles and ostriches, like Napoleon, are finally destroyed not by the Russians, but by an incredible frost. The frost comes at the end of August in true deus ex machina fashion. While interesting on first reading, the plot itself is not all-important, which one can conclude from the fact that Bulgakov's basic plot differs from Wells' only in that Persikov is killed—Wells' persecuted scientist escapes the mob and lives out his days in safe obscurity.
Bulgakov's originality consists in the way he adapts the story to the Russian environment—the Deaconess Drozdova's story, for example, is all his own invention. Also in evidence is Bulgakov's great talent for arousing readers' interest by creating an air of mystery and suspense. However, all of these abilities are as nothing when compared with Bulgakov's ability to make the fantastic seem real—as in the description of the giant reptiles ravaging the land. Scientific precision and a proclivity for naturalistic detail might explain the extraordinarily powerful effect of these descriptions of horrible events—but only partially. Perhaps it is explained by the visual nature of Bulgakov's imagination, the fact that whatever he described he had "seen," if only in a nightmare. Elena Sergeevna Bulgakova has related how when dictating Bulgakov would stand staring out a window, interrupting himself only to correct a detail which he could see but was describing imprecisely. In Theatrical Novel there is an obviously autobiographical description of a dramatist "merely" transcribing the pictures which of themselves appear before his eyes.
The visual side of Bulgakov's imagination is perhaps most effective in the six scenes of "A Chinese Tale." This story is somehow enchanting in its description of a Chinese coolie in the Red Army. Bulgakov's repeated evocation of the coolie's childhood under the hot sun is an effective and touching contrast to the cold of Moscow and the Kremlin wall. The repetition of certain key details, details which are packed with memory and meaning for the character—the kaoliang, the keen-edged shadow, the buckets of ice-cold water—is typical of the mature Bulgakov's prose. The cocaine dream with its careful incorporation of details from the coolie's immediate past and mystical foreshadowing of the future (the Chinaman being rewarded for a decapitation) is another successful feature of the story. (The irreverent references to Lenin make the story unpublishable now.) Bulgakov later used the cocaine, the Finnish knife, and Hellish vision of a Chinese dwelling in Moscow in his play Zoya's Apartment.
As noted by critics at the time Diaboliad was published, "A Chinese Tale" appears to be a polemic with Vsevolod Ivanov's celebrated story "Armored-Train 14-69"—which was made into a play and put on at the Moscow Art Theater shortly after Bulgakov's own Days of the Turbins, with much less trouble politically. Ivanov also has a Chinese hero, but a real hero who joins the Bolsheviks and intelligently and consciously serves the cause. In the end he deliberately sacrifices his life for his comrades, throwing himself under the wheels of a train which has to be stopped. Contrast Bulgakov's coolie, who owes his original acceptance by the Red Army merely to his utterance of three words, the Russian national oath ("Fuck your mother"), and who serves and kills strictly for bread, with not a whisper of ideology.
"The Adventures of Chichikov" is one of Bulgakov's "Gogolisms." The title is the title which Gogol's censors insisted he use above Dead Souls. Basically the story uses characters and lines from Dead Souls (both Part I and Part II), but other works by Gogol, including The Inspector General and "The Nose," are also incorporated parodistically. Much of the narration is composed of bits and pieces of sentences from Gogol—such as the last sentence of the story, which from "again life went parading before me" is from the end of a Homeric simile in Dead Souls. Bulgakov's ironic "dream" ending mimics both Gogol's original version of "The Nose" and the denial of reality in the preface to "The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich"—the narrator claims it is all fantasy, but the reader knows that it is all too real. For this reason, Bulgakov was attacked by politically minded critics who, like the critics mentioned in Dead Souls ("they will come scurrying from their crannies"), saw the story as unpatriotic slander. There are several examples of Gogol's works being updated during the twenties, including Barkanov's long story "How Ivan Ivanovich Made Up with Ivan Nikiforovich" and Meyerhold's surrealistic production of The Inspector General. Later Bulgakov was to be the author of the stage version of Dead Souls which has been a standard at the Moscow Art Theater for nearly forty years, and he wrote film scripts for both Dead Souls and The Inspector General. Even before "The Adventures of Chichikov," which is really an overgrown feuilleton, Bulgakov used Gogolian epigraphs, characters, themes, and parodies in several of his feuilletons for The Whistle (see especially the hilarious "Inspector General with a Kicking Out").
"No. 13. The Elpit-Rabkommun Building" (from Rabochaja kommuna—Workers' Commune) is also a feuilletonistic piece. Its themes (the housing shortage, problems of communal living, "ignorant" or "uneducated" people—temnye ljudi) recur in Bulgakov's early humorous works and then in his plays (Zoya's Apartment, Bliss), as well as in The Master and Margarita. Indeed, the number of the fatal apartment—50—is used again in The Master and Margarita (Berlioz's and Woland's apartment), and No. 13 was the Bulgakovs' address in Kiev. In this story the narrator's sympathies seem to lie primarily with the old order, and the ignorant people, the unwashed multitudes represented by Annushka, are to blame for tragedies of this sort. The repeated images and metaphors (the naked stone girl, the fire as beast), the secret servicemen, hints of demonism (the devil is disguised as a snowstorm), allusion to Meyerbeer's The Huguenots, and the sudden intrusion of electrifying death are all typical of Bulgakov's fiction.
Three of the feuilletons published in a tiny book called A Treatise on Housing (the title story, "Four Portraits," and "Moonshine Lake") are characteristic of the best of Bulgakov's early newspaper humor—which is not to say much. They are not really fiction, and are of interest now mainly for the topical humor—after all, Bulgakov was rather bold to poke fun at pictures of Lenin and Marx. They are also useful for a study of Bulgakov's narrators. Typically these early works had quotations from Worker Correspondent Reporters as epigraphs. Bulgakov would then bring the epigraph to life—a frequent device was a mix-up caused, say, by the combination of a snack bar and a library, or what would occur when the political indoctrination class, choir practice, and the movie "The Daughter of Montezuma" would all take place simultaneously. His success with feuilletons is due in large part to Bulgakov's natural abilities as a storyteller—since feuilletons are unified by the narrator rather than by plot. The narrator-storyteller was one that was natural to Bulgakov, and he employed him in most of his prose. This narrator is especially visible when a work is long and tends toward the comic. For example, the narrator is fairly unobtrusive in "Diaboliad," but he makes his presence felt in "The Fatal Eggs."
The need for refuge in the midst of real and metaphorical storms is a theme which runs through most of Bulgakov's fiction. "Psalm," however, is very unusual for him. He had written feuilletons in which dialogue dominates, and some of the impressionistic devices are used in other stories (especially "The Raid"), but "Psalm" is wistful, personal, and delicate in a way unusual for the early Bulgakov. Here we have no satire, no science fiction, none of the grotesqueries which dominate virtually all of his other early stories—only a quietly lyrical set of scenes between a lonely man and a lonely woman. It is a touching story, affecting partly because Bulgakov has his characters transform homely details, such as the buttons, into apt symbols of complicated and pathetic situations in a way which we recognize as very human.
Abram in "The Raid" also has a very human triumph, a minor victory of quiet inner dignity over the indignity of physical ridiculousness, the arrogance of Yak, and the torment of Revolution. In manner "The Raid" is close to the battle scenes in White Guard, and to a certain extent, some scenes in "A Chinese Tale." This happens when the narrator's mind merges with that of the main character and we see things, estranged, through the eyes of a wounded man—Abram recalls the warmth and unfinished watercolor as the Chinaman had the kaoliang. Stories about the Civil War were probably numerically dominant in the early twenties, and the naturalistic description of physical cruelty can also be found in the tales of Vsevolod Ivanov, Mikhail Slonimsky, and Nikolai Nikitin. The metaphorical, impressionistic description of the storm and attack also owes something to the ornamentalism typical of the twenties, although the light effects are typically Bulgakovian.
"The Crimson Island" was published in the Berlin newspaper On the Eve in 1924. "Islands" and "journeys" are ancient devices for presenting utopias or anti-utopias, and obviously Jules Verne, from whom Bulgakov borrows characters and situations, is the most important forerunner in this genre. Both the island and the journey were used frequently by Soviet writers—from Mayakovsky's Mystery-Bouffe (1918) to Ehrenburg's Trust D. E. (1923) and Valentin Kataev's Ehrendorf Island (1924). Bulgakov's story appears to be a parody of the kind of propagandistic stories written after the Revolution, allegories in which history is simplified and characters are either heroes or villains. It is full of hyperbole, gross caricature, incongruous juxtapositions, and funny non sequiturs. It is an amusing piece, but hardly significant; one would not give it much attention if Bulgakov had never written a play called The Crimson Island. The play was written in 1927 and premiered at the Kamerny Theater in December 1928. While the play was very popular with the public, the critics violently denounced it as "talentless, toothless, humble" and a "pasquinade on the Revolution." The play is quite different from the story—in fact the basic story is made into a play within the play, and the main theme becomes censorship. So The Crimson Island served as the final piece of evidence in the trial by press of Bulgakov, and soon he was run out of Russian literature.
A complete picture of Bulgakov's early prose would also have to include such diverse genres as "Notes on the Cuff," the stories which make up The Notes of a Young Doctor, and Heart of a Dog, The first of these is a curious work—a fragmentary autobiographical account given the appearance of a fictional feuilleton describing Bulgakov's literary life in the Caucasus (with many famous writers such as Mandelstam and Pilnyak appearing briefly) and then in Moscow's labyrinthine corridors. The six stories which form The Notes of a Young Doctor, told in the first person, are again closer to White Guard, with little grotesque satire, more in the realistic vein. There are strong echoes of Tolstoy's story "The Snowstorm," Pushkin's story with the same title, and such Chekhov stories as "The Enemies." Here one again finds a hero, common to many of Bulgakov's works at different periods, who suffers agonizing self-doubt, but survives inhuman trials because of his aristocratic sense of human dignity and humane compassion. The young doctor is an aristocrat in ability, as are the scientific heroes of "The Fatal Eggs," Adam and Eve, and Heart of a Dog All three of these works describe the confident misuse of knowledge which, while promising human good, leads only to injustice and inhumanity.
Bulgakov once referred to himself as a "mystical writer"—but he is only mystical in that he believes there is more to the world than common sense can know. There is no absorption in the other-worldly in his works—even in The Master and Margarita he describes Yeshua and his character, not God and His divinity. Bulgakov's world is moved by the desire for justice here and now, and his most powerful satire comes from the frustration of that desire.
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SOURCE: "Surgical Spirit," in New Statesman, Vol. 89, No. 2309, June 20, 1975, p. 807.
[Pritehett, a modern British writer, is respected for his mastery of the short story and for what critics describe as his judicious, reliable, and insightful literary criticism. Below, he provides a positive assessment of the collection Notes of a Young Doctor.]
Early experience as practising doctors has more than once given a headstart to a number of novelists and it is easy to see why. They are not bemused by literary tradition; their discipline makes them objective. Their material is waiting for them every day in the surgery; they see society without its clothes, naked and defenceless, frightened or malingering,. shameless or struck by fate. What happens when they become story tellers? Most of them become anecdotal in a conventional way; few attain the stature of a Chekhov. The practice of medicine was with him a key to larger matters than physical illness; and he is distinguished from the other great Russians, both in his views on art and society, and by his freedom from the didactic tradition of Russian literature. He did not, like other doctor-writers split in two when he came to write.
Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940), on the other hand, does appear to have split. He became known in the NEP [New Economic Policy] period for his fantasies, his mastery of the grotesque and satire in the free ferment that went on for a short time after the Civil War. On this savage subject he was one of several outstanding raw and vivid realists who could rise to the epic note. But between 1925 and 1927 he wrote sketches about his earlier life as a young doctor in the Smolensk region to which he had been sent in 1916. They appeared in magazines and have only lately been collected. They reveal a grave, nervous young man who is discovering for himself the vast gulf of 500 years that separated the Russian peasant from the intelligentsia. The oil lamps of his little provincial hospital seemed to him a lonely beacon which symbolised the battle between light and darkness. Not that the hospitals were poorly equipped: the place he was put in charge of when he qualified—though he had no intern experience whatever—was decent enough; but in those days it lay in a wilderness, and awful roads made it almost inaccessible.
The strain on an inexperienced young man working almost alone, for months on end, was hard to bear. Some doctors collapsed under it, as one reads in the most remarkable of his sketches. It purports to be the diary of a doctor who has become a morphia addict and who with bitter accuracy reports the clinical progress of his own case. A literary writer might easily have fallen into selfdramatisation, but Bulgakov has quietly made the victim his own observer and has thereby given the double focus of psychological truth. I have never read as convincing a study of addiction and Bulgakov's art has given it human reality. It is interesting that the extravagant, later Bulgakov could be so exact and laconic.
That Bulgakov—and his patients—survived those grim times of 1916 in this remote place is a tribute to the courage of a young man rising by force of will over his own fears. He arrived knowing only the text books. He feared his youth made him ridiculous. Almost the moment he arrived he was obliged to amputate the leg of an injured girl; he must have been well-taught for, book in hand, he kept the girl alive. But what he is able to convey is his sense of his own will directing him, as if it were another person, when what he felt was nausea and horror. And nature outside—blizzards, gales, the isolation of the weeks of thaw, and once even a night ride from a dying man with wolves in pursuit and the frozen panic of the horses—added the sense of an elemental struggle. So these straightforward yet extraordinary sketches gain their effect from being also the account of a young man's growth. One begins to see that he became a novelist not because he had material but because he was storing up passion and temperament. It tells us something about him, that his later satires, grotesqueries and fantasies were a protest against melancholy and the standardisation of the Soviet citizen. What happened to him when the brief years of literary freedom came to an end, I don't know: they were years when satire and imagination, the Gogol qualities, burst out. That time before the Union of Soviet Writers got its teeth in has rarely been matched since.
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SOURCE: "Structure and Meaning in Bulgakov's The Fatal Eggs,'" in Russian Literature Triquarterly, No. 15, 1978, pp. 263-79.
[In the following essay, McLaughlin explores the "narrative mechanism" that Bulgakov uses to relate the events of "The Fatal Eggs, " thereby demonstrating that the story is not only a social satire but also a commentary on moral and philosophical issues.]
The critics—irrespective of their political stand—characterize "The Fatal Eggs" inevitably and not incorrectly as a social satire. But to view the story exclusively as a social satire is to ignore a number of textual features which strongly suggest that Bulgakov's concerns were moralphilosophical at least as much as social-satirical. The social-satirical interpretation of the story singles out those incidents that show how a society totally inefficient in all its public functions exploits, mistreats, and kills its greatest genius. Yet it ignores the obtrusive fact that the scientist-hero Persikov is a sinner in his own right, obsessed with science, virtually devoid of human qualities and concerns, voluntarily isolated from the political, social, and human world. Persikov sinfully tampers with life by experimenting with an evil life force, the red ray, and by surrendering it to further abuse. Like Goethe's Zauber-lehrling, he unleashes hellish forces over which he loses control. Purged of emotions, weak-willed, ethically frail, he becomes a satanist and his science, black magic.
Bulgakov aims at two targets in his story. He exposes to ridicule and censure a society guided by strictly utilitarian principles, and also an individual dehumanized by an obsession. This interpenetration of contemporary satire and serious ethics against a narrative background of fantastic events in "The Fatal Eggs" also characterizes Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. "The Fatal Eggs" is a more important early work than commonly assumed, and The Master and Margarita is not the isolated masterpiece it seemed to be.
The inattention to the serious ethical problems raised in the figure of Persikov is at least partly attributable to Bulgakov's narrative mechanism. Bulgakov chose a reporting consciousness that lacks a firm ethical point of view and consistent judgmental faculties. As a result, a pattern of broken norms in grammar, logic, narrative organization, attitude, and commentary marks the structure of the story. It is a pattern of thwarted conventional expectations. It absorbs the reader's attention and disorients and puzzles him. It is also the prime vehicle of social satire. It makes both victim (Persikov) and villains ludicrous and pitiable. The social functionaries appear at once devilishly evil and intellectually so limited, so subhuman, so naively, unscrupulously and openly opportunistic that they are criminal as well as comic. Similarly, Persikov appears so naively, innocently and childishly out of touch with his surrounding world, he behaves in such a ludicrous and subhuman manner, that he seems to be too comic to be entirely blameworthy for his deeds.
But Bulgakov orients his reader behind the back of his recording consciousness with symbolic patterns and authorially valid remarks. They are the key to the neglected moral-philosophical aspects of the story. Studying the narrative mechanism of the story, i.e., sorting out what is authorially valid and what is unreliable information, allows the story's ethical implications to emerge.
One major source of comic distortion and disorientation is the insensitivity of Bulgakov's recording consciousness to lexical and grammatical conventions. Words from lexical strata conventionally considered incompatible may stand adjacent to each other. Grammatical structures which tradition has associated with certain "styles" and "tones" combine incongruously. Grammatical forms clash with lexical meanings.
Throughout "The Fatal Eggs" verbal material from the dominant lexical stratum consisting of words marked in the Dictionary of the Russian Language as "colloquial" (razgovornoe) and "substandard colloquial" (prosto-rechie) is interspersed with words marked obsolete, bookish, or foreign. The resulting combinations are stylistically and semantically incongruous. The pervasive use of colloquial formulations (such as tak Hi inache, dal'she poshlo khuzhe, delo bylo vot í chem), oral fill words (such as itak, chut'chut', kaby, vidimo, a vprochem, pravda, prosto uzh, chto li etc.) as well as diminutives and phonetic transcription of noises, sets an informal oral tone and suggests unpretentiousness, naturalness and truthfulness. On the other hand, the use of bookish or obsolete words (such as koi, poistine, zasim), pretentious words of foreign origin (such as eruditsiia, spich, fenomenal'nyi, perturbatsiia, siurpriz), and the misuse of difficult technical terms and parts of speech convey affectation and ostentatious grandiloquence. The semantic quality created by the lexical stratum of a given word clashes immediately with the semantic aura of the following word, which comes from a different lexical stratum. Such a collision of semantic realms produces a tension, disorientation and semantic "bulging."
Let us take this sentence as an example: A tak kak on govoril vsegda uverenno, ibo eruditsiia í ego oblasti u nego by la sovershenno fenomenalnaia, to kriuchok ochen' chasto poiavlialsia pered glazami sobesednikov professora Persikova. ["And since he always spoke with assurance, for the erudition he had in his field was absolutely phenomenal, the little hook of his bent finger appeared often before the eyes of Professor Persikov's partners in conversation."] Here the informal conjunctions a and tak kak, the particle to, and the diminutive kriuchok combine incongruously with the bookish conjunction ibo and the pretentious eruditsiia and fenomenal'nyi. The lexical collocation of the informal and the bookish becomes transferred to the subject described. Persikov becomes familiar as well as strange and distant, ridiculous as well as respectable.
Inappropriate and misleading chapter titles, which first raise and then frustrate expectations, also reflect the (of course carefully manipulated) insensitivity of the recording consciousness to lexical and novelistic conventions. The title of the first chapter, Curriculum vitae, e.g., is conventionally out of place in literature. It suggests the dry matter-of-factness and external objectivity of a bureaucracy. The text that follows includes neither factual biographical information, as the title would suggest, nor a novelistic biography with experiences and facts related to character and character development. The numerous dates and figures are a pseudo-tribute to the title; they are irrelevant. The hodge-podge of the conventionally relevant (his wife left him, he had no children, he obtained the chair of zoology, he published this article and that book of such and such length) and the irrelevant (certain frogs and toads died in a particular year, the government requisitioned three of his five rooms in 1919, the clock at the corner of Herzen and Gorokhovaya St. stopped at a quarter past eleven, etc.) creates an incongruity that is comic and, at the same time, disorienting. Upon closer inspection we realize that the details have been selected from Persikov's point of view. Bulgakov allowed the recording consciousness to coincide with Persikov's consciousness. This strategy exposes Persikov as selfish and naive, and at the same time ridicules and belittles revolution and civil war.
Similarly, the title of the last chapter—"A Frosty God on a Machine" ( "Moroznyi bog na mashine ")—is more than a folk-etymological mutilation of the Latin deus-exmachina (bog iz mashiny) in which the Latin ex is translated with the Russian na (on); it also provokes a host of conventional expectations that are partially met, but in unconventionally comic terms. Just as Bulgakov ridicules the title concept by taking it too literally, i.e., by animating it (what is meant is "Frost as Deus ex Machina"), his narrative mocks its own contrived pseudo-solution, the sudden frost. The mutilation of the technical term in the title parallels the ironic violation of justice which the frost constitutes. It comes to save villains, not to reinstitute a whole world (as a deus ex machina would).
Bulgakov establishes an atmosphere of comic distortion when he makes his recording consciousness break morphological and semantic rules in such combinations as "anti-chicken vaccination" ("anti-kurinye privivki") when "vaccination against the chicken pest" is meant, and "anti-religious sufferings" ("anti-religioznye ogorcheniia") when sufferings from anti-religious activities is intended; and in such phrases as "chicken events," "chicken commissions" "chicken field," "chicken catastrophe" when "events resulting from the chicken pest" etc. is meant.
Similar effects result when the conventions of metaphor are transgressed, namely, if the secondary subject introduces semantic dimensions that are unrelated and basically incompatible with those of the principal subject. The suggested figurative relation of the two subjects then becomes forced and incongruous. Each subject, in fact, retains its literal meaning, and the secondary subject does not unveil hidden semantic dimensions of the principal or develop meaning along the line of semantic similarity. Instead, its semantic realm is logically incongruous with that of the principal subject. Both subjects interact in their confrontation: the secondary subject ridicules the primary subject, making it absurd or illuminating it ironically. Such a collision of metaphoric subjects may also have the effect of putting in question or destroying the laws of logical probability.
Such metaphors occur when the narrative consciousness reverses the conventions of animation, i.e., reduces the human figure and personifies objects and abstract concepts. It reports that "curious heads of people stood above the rural fence and in its cracks" ("liubopytnye golovy liudei torchali nad derevenskim zaborom i í shcheliakh ego") and that Pankrat speaks with the "sleepless cylinder hat on guard" ("Pankrat govoril bessonnomu dezhurnomu kotelku "). As a result of such a perspective, human beings disintegrate and become automata.
Violating the laws of reality and logical probability, the narrative consciousness animates the inanimate. We no longer tread on familiar ground when the pest is allowed to walk on our side: "Having reached A in the north, the pest stopped all by itself, because it had nowhere else to go . . . it stopped . . . disappeared and quieted down . . . lingered on . . . did not go any further" ("Doidia na severe do A, mor ostanovilsia sam soboi po toi prichine, chto itti emu dal' she bylo nekuda . . . ostanovilsia . . . propal i zatikh . . . zaderzhalsia . . . dal' she ne poshel"). Equal estrangement results from the humanization of animals. A frog is crucified. Sleeping roaches keep their silence and demonstrate their opposition to war communism by disappearing. Mrs. Drozdova's chickens die as human beings. The dying rooster becomes a restless drunkard who "like an animal [!] stared at them." The hen suffers "like a man" and receives parting words on its way to heaven.
By allowing his recording consciousness to create such apparently harmless metaphors as the humanization of the chickens, Bulgakov makes important implicit statements. On the one hand, the humanization of the chicken world imparts tragic proportions to an event that is merely unfortunate. On the other hand, the dominantly colloquial lexicon of the passage undermines the tragic grandeur metaphorically imposed on the events. The context of this episode makes evident that Bulgakov contrived this clash to comment on two circumstances of life during the Twenties: the unsuccessful anti-religious campaigns and the New Economic Policy. At the beginning of the episode Deacon Drozdov is reported to have succumbed to sufferings caused by anti-religious campaigns of the Soviet government. But ironically, his neighbors remain so superstitiously religious that it is entirely natural for the prior of the local church to perform a service on behalf of the chickens afflicted with the "evil eye." As it turns out, praying does just as much, or rather, as little, as government commissions to curb the pest. The NEP, by allowing private enterprise to flourish, gave Drozdov's widow a chance to survive. Despite high taxes and constant changes in regulations, she managed to run a profitable chicken farm. Her chickens were more important to her than people, and with good reason: their death meant her destitution. It is comic and tragic that chickens dominate human life and that the anti-religious campaigns culminate in the deacon's unnecessary death and the survival of primitive religiosity. His chosen narrative consciousness allows Bulgakov to criticize and ridicule the presented facts implicitly.
Bulgakov achieves the same effect when his recording consciousness disregards the expected relationship between grammar and meaning. Conventional expectations are reversed when a weighty syntactical build-up (a host of subordinate clauses) collapses in a short main clause, which moreover has little logical connection with the preceding verbiage. The grammatical logic of the following sentence (based on the construction "it is unknown whether . . . but well known that . . . ") is irreproachable:
Neizvestno, tochno li khoroshi bylo lefortovskie veterinarnye privivki, umely li zagraditel'nye samarskie otriady, udachny li krutye mery, priniatye po otnosheniiu k skupshchikam iaits í Kaluge i Voronezhe, uspeshno li rabotala chrezvychainaia Moskovskaia kommissiia, no khorosho izvestno, chto cherez dve nedeli posle poslednego svidaniia Persikova s Al'fredom í smysle kur í Soiuze bylo sovershenno chisto.
It is unknown whether the Lefortovo veterinary vaccinations were actually valid, whether the Samara roadblock units were skillful, whether the decisive measures undertaken in respect to the egg merchants of Kaluga and Voronezh were successful, whether the Extraordinary Commission in Moscow worked successfully, but it is well known that two weeks after Alfred's last visit with Persikov, it was entirely clean in the Union of Republics as far as chickens were concerned.
The semantic content of the sentence, however, is utterly illogical. What is claimed to be unknown in the first section of the sentence is implicitly reported as familiar in the second section. In other words, since the chickens died, official measures were obviously unsuccessful, though their effect is reported as unknown. Furthermore, the enumeration of the subordinate clauses lacks conventional logical ordering. Different levels of abstraction are mixed. Specific minutiae are followed by general categories: the specific campaign measures normally would be subsumed under the activities of the Moscow commission. Listing items of different levels of abstraction in one coordinating chain transmits the contradictory message that all are of equal or logically graded significance. Here Bulgakov attacks under cover the Soviet preoccupation with "decisive measures" and useless commissions and the government's inability to acknowledge defeat.
Not only grammatical and lexical usage, but also narrative structure and commentary reflect the disorienting qualities of Bulgakov's recording consciousness. Narrative structure fails to comply with the laws of logic and causality; discrimination and judgment proceed in disregard of conventional standards.
Bulgakov wreaks havoc upon conventional expectations of narrative sequence when he begins his story with the report that Persikov entered his study and looked around, and then proceeds to refer to a mysterious "terrifying catastrophe" which began that evening and whose "first cause" was Persikov. The reader expects to hear what Persikov saw when he entered his study or why he looked around. Instead, he is immediately jolted to a different level of abstraction. After the allusion to the catastrophe, a description of the protagonist follows, a description, however, that lacks any information relevant to the catastrophe. It notes the shape of Persikov's head, the tone of his voice, habits of gesture, etc. Of the catastrophe we hear only chapters later.
The chapters consist of dissociated fragments in random order. The narration shifts whimsically from episode to episode, with titles and chapter numbers inserted for no compelling reasons. Chapter VII, for example, first reports the spread of the chicken pest, the reaction of the domestic and foreign press, and Persikov's work in the "chicken domain." Next, in swift succession, it recounts Persikov's rejection of an automobile, a speech by him, his collision with a mysterious stranger, the arrival of Rokk, the strange mood sweeping the country, the death of Persikov's former wife, and a conversation between Pankrat and the Institute's guards. Sometimes chapter titles have little connection with the contents. The chapter "The Deacon's Wife Drozdova" contains only a passing reference to her. "A Chicken Story" devotes about three out of ten pages to "chicken matters."
The unreliability of the recording consciousness becomes particularly disturbing when it passes on fantastic and possible occurrences as facts of equal validity. This combination of two disparate realms throughout "The Fatal Eggs" finds symbolic representation in the story's central image, the red ray. The ray speeds breeding and increases size; this is scientifically plausible. But its capacity to instill evil is possible only by magic. Similarly implausible events, such as a frost in the middle of August, an invasion of ostriches and reptiles (which, to begin with, could not live in the Russian climate), their victory over the Russian army, the "inexplicably melancholy mood" that befell men and animals on the day before the snakes hatched, are reported as commonplace or strange, monstrous, mysterious, nightmarish or extraordinary; but their truth is taken for granted.
The evaluative commentary of the recording consciousness is equally disorienting. An obvious or trivial fact generates extensive commentary, as e.g., the containment of the chicken pest within the borders of the Soviet Union. In addition, in the commentary, the narrative consciousness avows ignorance of well known facts or pretends knowledge of the unknowable: in the north and east the pest "had no place to go" since "there was water" and "since chickens aren't found in water"; in the south the pest stopped simply, no conjecture given; and in the east it halted "in the most amazing manner at the Polish and Rumanian border." The commentary continues, "Was it the climate [that] was different there or [was it] that the defensive quarantine measures undertaken by the neighboring governments played a role?" The reader would, of course, know that the climate does not stop at borders and that most likely the quarantine measures halted the pest.
In another such case the recording consciousness ceremoniously admits ignorance of a fact which is of no interest to the reader, and perfectly clear as well. "Dunia, the maid [is said to have] found herself in a copse behind the Sovkhoz and, by coincidence, the red-mustached chauffeur of the battered Sovkhoz truck was there too. What they did, remains unknown." Not only is it no coincidence that the chauffeur was there, but the reader guesses very well what Dunia and the chauffeur were up to. After the reader decides the matter is closed, the narration continues: "They took shelter in the fluid shadow of an elm directly on the chauffeur's outspread leather coat." With this telling piece of information the matter is really closed.
This grotesque inconscience in attitude, commentary, knowledge, and values is part and parcel of the changing identity of the recording consciousness, as a result of which its distance from characters and events also varies. Occasionally it seems to possess a specific identity. Its language is orally and colloquially flavored, and on two occasions it employs the phrase, "let's say" ("skazhem"), which labels it as an observer with limited knowledge. On the other hand, its vocabulary and syntax are often bookish, and much of its information is that of an omniscient teller. In short, the contradictory nature of the commentary prevents us from locating it in a single sane mind. The narrative consciousness shares both the attitudes of the characters and the vision of the author. It sometimes assumes a position above the characters, but, at other times, it descends to their level and plays the part of an objective but limited observer. The result is a constantly and whimsically shifting intellectual distance, which, in turn, contributes to a sense of mistrust in the validity of the narrated information and of the evaluatory commentary.
In the following example the narrative consciousness is cast as an omniscient nonparticipant. It is privileged to know things concealed from the ordinary reporter. Quasi-indirect discourse reports Ivanov's thoughts:
Ivanov byl porazhen, sovershenno razdavlen: kak zhe takaia prostata veshch', kak eta tonen'kaia strela, ne byla zamechena ran' she, chort voz' mi! Da kern ugodno, i khotia by im, Ivanovym, i deistvitel'no, eto chudovishchno! Vy tol'ko posmotrite.
Ivanov was surprised, in fact, completely shattered: how could such a simple thing as this thinnish arrow not have been noticed earlier, the devil take it! By anyone, for that matter, why not even by himself, Ivanov. And indeed it was monstrous! You just look.
Similarly, the narrative consciousness summarizes a conversation which could not possibly have been overheard: "and then a conversation took place, the meaning of which could be summed up as follows." Such privilege produces a tone of superiority which is exacerbated by such detached, evaluative commentary as: "Unfortunately, for the republic, no ungifted mediocrity sat at the microscope. No, it was Professor Persikov."
On the other hand, in just as many cases the narrative consciousness loses this privilege of omniscient knowledge and moves to a level identical with or even lower than that of the characters. It speculates about Persikov's thoughts as often as it reports them with confidence: "he probably wanted Pankrat to. . . . " Or it registers incomprehension of Persikov's behavior: "for some reason he accused the People's Commissar of Education of the deaths." It may also assume the role of an objective, disinterested observer, who is ignorant of scientific matters: "One could obviously see something very interesting in the frog's mesentery . . . the two scientists exchanged lively words incomprehensible to simple mortals."
The moral distance of the narrative consciousness, i.e., its attitudes to characters and events, is just as unstable as its intellectual distance. And the reasons for the vacillation in attitude remain obscure. Both Persikov and Rokk, for example, are alternately admired and despised. Persikov is a "first-rate scientist" with an "Eye of genius" who as the "only one in the world possessed something special apart from knowledge." Rokk also is a "positively great man." Such assertions of greatness remain unproven and are contradicted by equally unproven statements to the contrary. Persikov is "the first cause of the catastrophe," a "swine," and "washes his hands" like Pontius Pilate. Rokk's face makes "an extremely unpleasant impression," and the snake is said to have "released him for repentance." Finally, such similar evaluative phrases as "and to the misfortune of the republic no ungifted mediocrity sat at the microscope" and "Alas! Alas! To the misfortune of the republic the sizzling brain of Alexander Semyonovich Rokk did not break down" equate protagonist and antagonist.
Such contradictory evaluations are further complicated by the fact that the narrative consciousness is sometimes comically detached from Persikov, at other times sympathetically close to him. This makes Persikov both a subhuman marionette and a pathetically human being.
The comic aspects of Persikov's personality involve his physiology and conduct, the absence of motivation for his behavior, and the goals behind his frantic activity. Like Gogol's Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin (Mr. Shoe), Vladimir lpatievich Persikov (Mr. Peach) is a ludicrously incomplete man. He is said to have a "croaking" voice, and the mechanical habit of screwing up his eyes and hooking his right index finger. His body and mind are not coordinated. He puts his shoes on the wrong feet, takes them off in the street, smokes an unlit cigarette and passes for a drunkard. When during the miseries of the Civil War he mourns the death of his Surinam toad and ignores the starvation of his own devoted guard, when he thinks of nothing but writing articles on frogs and teaching, examining, and failing students for not knowing that amphibia lack pelvic buds, when we learn that he preferred his frogs to his wife, we can still laugh at this being devoid of consciousness and conscience. He is a caricature of the devoted scientist.
But expressions of sympathy and reports about his emotions constantly undermine this comically detached view of Persikov. "Alas, the garbled name did not save the Professor from the events," the narrative reads. Later, he is a "hunted-down wolf" and said to have been "crucified" by a "furious mob" of "wild animals." Furthermore, Persikov himself is said to experience a fleeting feeling of compassion for the "mechanical man"; and realizing his moral responsibility for his discovery, he momentarily resists inquiry about it and the expropriation of his experimental equipment. When he finds out that his untested discovery has caused a catastrophe, he suffers a stroke and becomes deranged. Turned into a victim of his own obsession and external circumstances, he excites our sympathy. It is as if the narrative consciousness was equipped with a telescope which—when used correctly—would bring Persikov sympathetically close and—when turned around—jolt him to the comic horizon.
Occasionally, a sympathetic close-up is overlaid with a comic distance shot. An event is described that excites the reader's sympathy for Persikov. Persikov's response, however, is so inappropriate that the sympathy is lost amid condescending laughter. Persikov, for example, first loses his experimental chambers and then receives the news of his former wife's death. Persikov starts to cry, but for the wrong reason, the loss of the object, rather than of the human being: "his lips trembled like those of a child from whom one took suddenly, without any reason, his favorite toy." Ironically, a most human attribute, tears, is associated with something most inhuman, in fact, evil. Persikov's humanity is simultaneously asserted and denied.
The most blatant example of the incongruence of situation and conduct—of which the recording consciousness seems entirely unaware—is Persikov's death. When a mad crowd storms the Scientific Institute, he fails to flee to safety and shouts: "This is outright insanity! You are completely wild animals." Ironically, he is mad; his conduct has no logical relation to his insight. As with Gogol's Akaky Akakievich, the details surrounding Persikov's death cast a comic illumination over this tragic event, mixing two perspectives, two kinds of distance.
Since the recording consciousness of the story has proven to be unreliable, Bulgakov has to offer other sources of orientation. These are a symbolic leitmotif and symbolic phrases, and a systematic exposure of inadequate perceptions. He also relies on the reader's information about the historical period during which the catastrophe strikes. Oriented in this way, the reader is able to examine the narrative critically and to see how Bulgakov's narrative mechanism functions to ridicule contemporary social mores.
The most important sign of an authorial point of view and the most significant clue for the interpretation of the story is the symbolic leitmotif "red." The ray which the professor discovers is red, and it is revealed as demonic from the very outset. Though it is called the professor's child, it is a brain child, conceived by a "monstrous, fantastic accident" ("chudovishchnaia sluchainost"') which "leads to the devils knows what." Not sunlight but artificial light produces this false "spirit of life." All creatures that grow under the red ray have a special viciousness. A textual allusion to hell confirms the authorial intent: the chamber in which the scarlet ray appears is compared to hell.
Persikov becomes an instrument of metaphysical evil when he continues to experiment with the red ray, although he has seen and been appalled by its effects upon amoebas. He is tempted to dabble with life as it is given, and he succumbs to the temptation. He sins, driven, like Faust, by an obsessive curiosity; but his obsession, unlike Faust's, is an obsession in the void, and obsession without motivation. The authorial voice is audible when superstitious peasants call Rokk "anti-Christ" and want to kill him who dares to breed chickens unnaturally "by ray." When a superstitious mob kills Persikov, who committed the same sin with amoebas and frogs, the parallel to Rokk becomes clear.
From the outset much factual information about Persikov allows the reader to form a picture of him on the authorial level. His mourning over the death of his experimental animals in contrast to the unlamented disappearance of his frog-hating wife and the causal reasoning about the starvation of the Institute's faithful watchman ("The cause of his death . . . was the same as that of the poor animals.") suggest that Persikov is a victimizer without human ethical consciousness, devoid of a sense of the value of life and of human limitations and responsibilities, a man with a non-normative, purely rational relationship to natural phenomena. When Persikov comments "very good" to a gory scene of vivisection ( . . . "on the glass table a frog—half-choked and struck dumb with fear and pain—was crucified on a corkplate, its transparent viscera pulled out of its bloody abdomen into the microscope") the reader agrees with the comment of the dying frog: "you are rotten bastards . . . " Moreover, when Persikov "washes his hands," we encounter another authorial hint at Persikov's moral guilt.
The color red is not only symbolic of metaphysical evil, but of contemporary social-political devilry. The reader cannot avoid seeing "The Fatal Eggs" as an allegory of the Civil War, nor can he avoid the implication that revolution and communism share the qualities of the red ray, bring strife and evil, and interfere with the normal social and moral processes. Such interpretation imposes itself when one reads: "In the area, where the red, pointed sword of the ray lay, strange phenomena were taking place. The red strip teemed with life . . . Some force infused them with the spirit of life. They crawled in flocks and fought each other for a place in the ray. Within it a frenzied . . . process of multiplication went on . . . The red strip and the entire disk quickly became overcrowded, and the inevitable struggle began. The newborn ones attacked each other furiously, swallowing each other and tearing each other to shreds . . . The strongest were victorious. And these best ones were terrifying." The victorious invasion of the reptiles produced by the red ray becomes the ruthless "red" conquest during the Civil War.
The symbolic function of "red" becomes more explicit when Moscovites are said to read such journals as Red Fire, Red Pepper, Red Journal, Red Projector, Red Evening Moscow, The Red Raven, and The Red Fighter. Mr. Rokk collides with Persikov's discovery in his room at the "Red Paris Hotel," and he founds the experimental Sovkhoz "Red Ray." Furthermore, the characters who represent this contemporary "red" society resemble the amoebas in the viciousness of their fight for a place "in the red strip," that is, for material survival and wellbeing. The journalists, for example, fight with ruthless frenzy for an interview with Persikov; Bronsky, the victorious one, is the worst and most terrifying—like the victorious amoeba under the ray. These representatives of society are, in fact, marked as creatures of the devil. One of the members of the secret police is an "angel"—that is, a fallen angel—in patent leather boots, eyes hidden behind foggy glasses. The word "angel" ironically suggests the Biblical "guardian angel" ("angel khra-nitel")—the secret police agents have officially come to guard Persikov's life—as well as "okhrana," the feared Third Section (secret police) of Nikolai I. These men betray, use, and destroy Persikov in the name of protecting him and his discovery.
Bronsky, employee of the journal Red Raven and member of the secret police possesses several features of the conventional devil. He is a foreigner and wears patent leather boots that resemble hooves. Furthermore he raves ("besnovalsia") and writes devilish stuff ("chertovshchina"). Rokk, similarly is not only greeted by Persikov as "devil"—he materializes when named and appears incognito, like Faust's poodle—but wears a yellow revolver, the color of evil. The "religious" peasants recognize him immediately as "anti-christ." As devil, he also plays the part of fate ("rok" = fate). His physical collision with Persikov suggests the collision of a society which lives according to what is symbolized by red (material survival of the fittest without any moral values), with an unscrupulous individual who experiments with an evil biological force.
Predictably, a disaster ensues. But are society and individual equally responsible for it? How authorially valid is such a statement as "its [the catastrophe's] primary cause was Persikov"? There is sufficient authorial evidence that Persikov is meant to be judged much less severely than the "red" society. Not only is he never equated (by simile or metaphor) with the evil red force he invokes, but he himself is not guided by the "ethical" maxim of the "red" society: the most powerful should survive. In fact, Persikov is unselfish as far as his personal material well-being is concerned. His guilt lies in an obsession with something inhuman and abstract, but nonetheless something outside himself. His fellow-citizens are entirely motivated by petty self-interest. Persikov is shown to have a moral sense, albeit a weak one: he does resist large-scale experimentation with his discovery. And some degree of innocence is suggested when people are said to relate to him as to a child and to find him naive. He is set apart from his society, though in an ambiguous way. He is admired as a great man, but feared as someone not entirely human; people relate to him with "reverence and terror."
More important still, Persikov is allowed to die and thus redeem his moral errors. He becomes the victim of a society which "shoots" him with a black camera; he is metaphorically killed by an inhuman publicity campaign in which political objectives override his individual rights. Voices report, falsely, but in anticipation of the real event, that Persikov was found with his throat slit open. Finally, his society "crucifies" him. Persikov emerges as a person evil in a Faustian sense, who has been victimized by forces even more evil than himself. Persikov gains moral stature by being placed in such an evil social context. Had he been placed in a society guided by traditional Christian ethics, his demonic pursuits would have found external limitations, and he would have been more of a Marlowian Faust. In "The Fatal Eggs" he is sinner and saint, victim and victimizer.
Ironically, society, the main culprit, has no chance for (nor is it, implicitly, worthy of) redemption and regeneration. The ignoble invasion of the reptiles chastises it, but only to deprecate it even more. An unnatural natural event is needed to save it, grotesquely and undeservedly, from utter peril, stamping it as incapable of tragedy, heroism or self-impelled regeneration. Had it perished in its fight against self-provoked evil, it could have been tragic; had it won, it could have been heroic. Finally, this solution implies that the "red" evil remains unexorcised from Soviet society.
Under the comic surface of the story, then, lurks a deep authorial concern with individual and social ethics. The introduction of a demonic biological force, supernatural evil, lifts the story out of its purely temporal context and universalizes the particular institutional and human shortcomings the story describes. As a result, the story asks questions about universal ethical principles, the individual's responsibility to himself and to society, and society's responsibility to the individual. The real-life situations and attitudes Bulgakov satirizes become symbolic embodiments of moral and philosophical problems thanks to the complex interplay between a symbolic pattern and his particular recording consciousness.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3484
SOURCE: "Points of View in Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog" in Russian Literature Triquarterly, No. 15, 1978, pp. 281-91.
[Goscilo is a Scottish-born American critic, editor, and translator who specializes in Russian literature. In the following essay, she discusses the shifts of narrative voice in The Heart of a Dog.]
Four narrative voices may be distinguished in Heart of a Dog: those of Sharik, Bormenthal, Professor Preobrazhensky, and an "impartial" commentator. Whereas the first three offer limited points of view, the fourth (with a few minor exceptions) is omniscient. Structure and point of view furnish mutual reinforcement, for Bulgakov allows the alternations in viewpoint to coincide roughly with the four divisions of the story: Chapters I through IV (preoperation and operation) are filtered chiefly through Sharik's eyes; Chapter V (immediate post-operative results) comprises Bormenthal's laboratory journal; Chapters VI to IX (long-range effects of transformation) are mostly omniscient narration with occasional flashes from Preobrazhensky's perspective; and the Epilogue (reverse operation) reverts to an omniscient mode, briefly reinstating Sharik as the center of consciousness at the story's close. The impersonal narrator intrudes in all sections, his "objective" commentary disrupting or fusing with the subjective presentation of the three narrator-participants. His vantage point dominates the third section (Chapters VI to IX), for the fleeting insights into Preobrazhensky's inner world are rare. Most of the Epilogue, likewise, unfolds objectively, with only the last two paragraphs proceeding from Sharik. Upon careful examination, these apparently arbitrary shifts prove to be systematic and susceptible to a logical explanation; they are part of a tightly controlled technique.
Sharik, who is unquestionably the least conventional narrator insofar as he is a dog, ceases to narrate once he sheds his canine identity through the operation that transforms him into the objectionable pseudo-human Sharikov. Instead of steering the reader's perceptions, he becomes the chief object of the reader's and the other personae's focus, and justifiably so; he is, after all, the necessary subject of a scientific experiment. Until the metamorphosis, however, Sharik's point of view prevails. Clearly, then, his animal nature is requisite for certain qualities of narration that Bulgakov wishes to accentuate at the beginning and conclusion of the novel.
"Ooooww—oooww—ooow—! Look at me, I'm perishing"—with this desolate howl cum piteous exhortation, Sharik launches into eight paragraphs of uninterrupted interior monologue—an extended introduction that serves to kindle the reader's amused interest and capture his affection. To predispose the reader favorably to the mongrel—to move him by the dog's unenviable plight and to insure that he will place in Sharik the trust that one customarily invests in the narrating persona—Bulgakov enlists the aid of two major interrelated devices: he discloses Sharik's inner world directly, reproducing the dog's thought processes, and he transfuses the narrative with infectious humor. Sharik's philosophical musings, peppered with an astringent yet disingenuous commentary on the street-scene he surveys, reveal a broad range of winning qualities: epigrammatic cynical wisdom combined with simplistic naivete, stoic resilience, sensitivity of perceptions, acute moral awareness, and an attractive compassion for the world's unfortunates.
Sharik's endearing traits, moreover, are enhanced by the comic spirit in which the character of the dog is largely conceived. Through a series of corollary incongruities, Bulgakov refines upon the striking fundamental incongruity of a dog who is cogently articulate and, moreover, given to philosophical rumination. By cutting across boundaries that are conventionally assumed to separate the human domain from the purely animal, Bulgakov shrewdly taps a rich vein of humorous possibilities. For instance, Sharik arrives at various information that has conscious significance only for a human, but does so through deductive methods of an unabashedly canine nature. He deduces that it is 4 p.m. (preoccupation with clock time is surely the lamentable prerogative of humans?) from the smell of onions that emanates from the Immaculate (Prechistenka) fire station. Many of his conclusions and observations, in fact, are inspired by odors and the dilemma of acquiring food wherever possible (be it from garbage cans, benevolent cooks, etc.). Yet his observations are riddled with remarks that one is apt to identify only with a human mentality; they evidence a concern with prices, a knowledge of gourmets, and the like. Human values are clearly grafted onto a canine sensibility, and the resulting synthesis is often hilarious and moving.
Humor likewise is generated by the absurdity of Sharik's familiarity with and references to class distinctions and political slogans. An edge is lent to his indignation at the cook who scalded his side, for example, by the fact that the cook's action violated the much-vaunted Soviet doctrine of class solidarity: "The viper—and a proletarian too!" According to Sharik's accurate understanding of socialist stereotypes, at least in their ideal form, the cook's class origins should unite him by a common bond with his own kind (e.g., Sharik). Further, Sharik denounces garbage men (a profession by definition inimical to the canine world?) as "the lowest rubbish of all proletarians." Yet he reveres the memory of Vlas, a cook from Immaculate, for an openhandedness which, Sharik implies, is an outgrowth of Vlas's connections with the upper classes: "He is a grand character, God rest his soul, a gentleman's cook employed by Count Tolstoy's family and not the Food Ration Board." In short, Sharik is a street dog reared on Soviet cliches, but frankly appreciative of the finer things in life and the grandeur that attached to a class now officially defunct. His powers of discrimination enable Sharik to recognize Preobrazhensky immediately as a privileged and superior individual of exacting tastes. Overcome by admiration for the Professor's panache and lordly self-assurance, Sharik is quick to discern later that the insufferably self-righteous Shvonder and his cohorts are "outclassed" by the sybaritic scientist in all senses of the word. Insofar as he opts for an insulated affluence over the evangelical renunciation and continence of the proletariat, Sharik may be classified as a bourgeois.
For the opening segment of the first section, Bulgakov wisely confines the reader to Sharik's vision. By the time that the "little typist's" words of commiseration break into Sharik's sustained interior monologue, his hold on our trust and affection is solid. "The dog Sharik," as the objective narrator later confides, "possessed some secret which enabled him to conquer people's hearts"—including the reader's. At this stage Bulgakov reinforces our liking for the irresistible animal by introducing the omniscient narrative voice, whose very first words stress the pitiful aspect of Sharik's condition—his physical pain, his despair and loneliness, and the poignant "little dog tears" trickling from his eyes. Henceforth, Sharik's perspective and the omniscient mode alternate, the two voices frequently merging so as to become almost indistinguishable. Occasionally, too, narrated interior monologue gives way imperceptibly to interior monologue in its pure form. For example, the paragraph which ushers Preobrazhensky physically into the novel opens with what seems to be an impartial human intonation, yet halfway through it dissolves into Sharik's inimitable manner of speech. And the final sentence of the paragraph subsides into a growl. Such a blend inclines to bolster the reader's faith in Sharik, for it implies that Sharik's knowledgeability is in some way comparable to, if not on a par with, the "impartial" narrator's.
Having secured the reader's friendliness and compassion for Sharik, Bulgakov turns his attention to the task of heightening Preobrazhensky's image by focussing on it from the spunky little dog's stance. Bulgakov permits the scientist to reveal his humane charm personally—through his trenchant pronouncements, his amiable kindliness to Sharik; his consideration for his colleague Bormenthal and his servants Zina and Darya; his clear-headedness and freedom from unreasonable prejudices; his unshakable integrity; and his consummate aplomb in besting such nonentities as Shvonder. Capable of appreciating the spiritual (in art, and most notably opera) and the physical (in all aspects of creature comforts and especially in food—note the considerable space devoted to Preobrazhensky's meals and his enraptured disquisitions on the pleasures of fine cuisine), he emerges as a well-rounded and balanced human being—warm, generous, imaginative, yet disciplined and commonsensical. His own actions and words, as well as the universal homage accorded him, attest to his worth. What inflates Preobrazhensky's image to the proportions of heroic myth, however, is the halo cast over him by Sharik's perceptions. Bulgakov elevates the Professor in the reader's estimation by allowing Sharik to apply consistently to his master a vocabulary associated with magic, riches, and divinity.
Philip Philipovich Preobrazhensky's beard and mustaches are reminiscent of "knights of old"; he is a "dignified benefactor," an "immaculate personage," "a miraculous fur-coated vision," and "the sage of Immaculate" (repeated); he "thunders like an ancient prophet," and he is regularly identified with shining and glittering objects: "the gold rims of his glasses flash"; "a gold chain across his stomach shines with a dull glow"; his study "blazes with light"; his hair shines "like a silver halo"; "his glittering eyes" scrutinize his patients, while his eyeglasses "glitter" and his fox-fur coat "glitters with millions of snowflakes." Not only do the devoted Bormenthal and a grateful patient observe reverentially that he is "a wizard, a magician," but Sharik, doing "obeisance" to Preobrazhensky after his colorful victory over Shvonder and his cronies, is convinced that his master is "the wizard, the magician, the sorcerer out of those dogs' fairy tales." Preobrazhensky is, indeed, one who performs the magical transformations that his name implies.
The language through which Sharik's enchanted worship of Preobrazhensky is communicated acquires a dubious tinge, however, with the operation. Immediately before he is anesthetised, Sharik glimpses with foreboding the "unusually brilliant lighting" of the operating room presided over by "the high priest," "the patriarch," "the divine figure." Once the mongrel loses consciousness, and as an automatic consequence, his command over point of view, Preobrazhensky "the priest" who "raises his hands as though blessing the unfortunate Sharik's difficult exploit," still shines and glistens with gold as he embarks upon his "conjuring tricks." But his image is contaminated by comparisons with figures of destruction, and the terms in which the operation itself is described reek of violence. Bormenthal is likened to a beast of prey and a tiger, Preobrazhensky to an inspired robber and a satiated vampire, and both to murderers. Furthermore, Bormenthal "shouts," "swoops," "squeezes," "grips," "leaps," "pounces," "pierces," and "plunges," while the Professor "barks," "growls," "roars," and "hisses" as he clenches his teeth, bares them to the gums, becomes "positively awe-inspiring," and flashes "a savage look" at his assistant. It is as though the two were reverting to atavistic instincts as blood "spurts," the scalpel seems to "leap," and the patient's skull "shakes" and "squeaks." As a result of the emotionally-charged lexicon, the operation suggests the illicit enterprise of predatory beasts.
At this stage, then, Sharik is removed as the intermediary, the link between the professor and the reader. The scientist, who heretofore has impressed us most favorably when viewed through Sharik's partial eyes, becomes a slightly equivocal figure. His treacherous plan, steeped in duplicity, prevents the reader from giving his unqualified approval.
To summarize: in the first part of the novel, Sharik's angle of vision produces humor and wins the reader's fondness for the spirited mongrel. It also aggrandizes Preobrazhensky, the "transformer" of life, and engenders mystery, for Sharik remains ignorant of the significance of Preobrazhensky's conduct, as does the reader even after he learns about the operation to which the unconscious dog, naturally, cannot be privy.
The "great man's" assertion that Sharik is likable is placed in a key position—at the end of the first section—both to mitigate the reader's censorious attitude to Preobrazhensky, and to accentuate the ineffable charm of the mongrel who can no longer be his own spokesman. That charm contrasts dramatically with the provoking obnoxiousness of Sharikov in later parts of the narrative.
Bormenthal's laboratory diary constitutes the comparatively short second section. Its scientific format serves to lend plausibility to the fantastic events it records. Furthermore, the dry nature of what is at base a scientific ledger brings into sharper relief the subjective and emotional elements which penetrate with increasing momentum into Bormenthal's jottings and which humanize the portraits of both doctors. Stimulated by Bormenthal's awed adulation of his idol, the reader's esteem for Preobrazhensky revives. Whatever qualms the violence of the operation may have bred in the reader's mind dwindle in the face of the Professor's scientific brilliance and daring. Moreover, now that Sharik is an object of observation, the reader is distanced from him. Bulgakov's subtle control of narration encourages the reader to accept his own alienation from the being with whom he earlier sympathized so wholeheartedly. In fact, the reader is grateful for the dissociation, for the new developments that Bormenthal registers in Sharikov's (ex-Sharik's) personality coalesce to form a picture of an unscrupulous and somewhat repugnant vulgarian. Crudity, greed, and sloppiness are Sharikov's principal traits; his vocabulary consists primarily of curses and street invective. As Bormenthal dolefully notes, "His swearing is methodical, uninterrupted, and apparently absolutely meaningless." Both doctors, like the reader, find him repellent—a reaction that emerges clearly from Bormenthal's purportedly objective notations.
With the metamorphosis completed and the reader's sympathy transferred from Sharik to Preobrazhensky and his colleague, Bulgakov in the third and major portion of the novel switches to a narration that, with certain modifications, may be called omniscient. At no stage is the reader brought into proximity with Sharikov. The man-dog is seen exclusively from the outside, and whereas Sharik's character was revealed through the inner workings of his desires and thoughts, Sharikov's is shown solely through action. Where Sharik was the appealing and relatively passive victim, Sharikov is the selfish, cowardly, and destructive victimizer who initiates the disastrous incidents that bring his creators to the brink of despair. His infuriating behavior makes it impossible for the reader to cherish anything but amused contempt or vague revulsion for the creature. Perhaps the major reason for our dismayed withdrawal of sympathy is the paradoxical discovery that with his newly acquired human form, Sharikov becomes an utter animal. Those human qualities that made Sharik so winsome are replaced in Sharikov by baser impulses. Boasting distressingly meager intellectual resources, the intractable brute drinks to excess, eats unrestrainedly and grossly, steals, chases cats, and enjoys catching his own fleas with his teeth. Contentious and querulous, he is epicene, coarse, and motivated by pragmatic self-interest to an unprecedented degree. Preobrazhensky succinctly diagnoses the dismal state of affairs when he declares that "Sharikov now only shows traces of canine behavior and . . . [one] must remember that chasing cats is the best of the things he does! The whole horror of it is that he now has not a canine, but a human heart. And the rottenest heart of any existing in nature!"
What contributes substantially to the reader's alienation from Sharikov is the latter's alliance with Shvonder. While Sharik was clearsighted enough to despise the scoundrel's stubborn mediocrity, Sharikov, by contrast, seems drawn to it. In other words, Sharik, his animal nature notwithstanding, was immeasurably more acute, tasteful, and honorable than the pseudo-human Sharikov.
Preobrazhensky, who was formerly well-nigh deified, becomes totally humanized in the third section as his customary composure starts to erode. In addition to the laudable characteristics that he exhibited earlier, he now reveals vulnerability, moral courage, a capacity for self-criticism, and an uncommon readiness to shoulder responsibility. If only through his ability to retain honor and dignity in the midst of havoc and his steadfast fairness and magnanimity to Fyodor, Zina, Darya, and Sharikov's duped little typist, to whom he gives money, he earns the reader's unreserved respect. That the "objective" narrator wishes to redirect our sympathies to Preobrazhensky may be gathered from the fact that it is now he who not unlike Sharik, calls the professor "a gray-haired Faust" and "an ancient king of France." Less a seer than an individual valiantly battling overwhelming odds, the Professor is portrayed as a man beleaguered by doubts, hounded by the inane conjectures and speculations of the press, plagued by the calumnious denunciations of Shvonder, and exasperated beyond endurance by the increasingly abusive humanoid he himself has manufactured. The uneasiness and sufferings that the Professor undergoes are accented in a number of ways: through the narrator's references to both his mental fatigue and his physical deterioration; through Bormenthal's solicitous endeavors to spare Preobrazhensky's taut nerves from further irritation by Sharikov's outlandish antics; and through Philip Philipovich's own reflections, which the narrator occasionally presents as narrated interior speech. Secondary characters—Zina, Darya, Fyodor—all commiserate with the scientist's plight, thereby indicating that Sharikov is insupportable by everyone's standards.
Approximately equal attention is allotted in the section to Sharikov's wanton displays of unmitigated idiocy and to the barely mastered sense of outrage they arouse in the professor. The penultimate division of the last chapter in the third section concludes on a note, however, that spotlights the visible signs of Preobrazhensky's psychic strain and distress: "Philip Philipovich merely gestured in despair. And the patient noticed that the professor had becomed stooped and recently seemed to have grown grayer." That is our last close-up of the scientist in the section, and it is one which stirs our compassion.
The narrative of the very short passage that follows unfolds from the standpoint of the "impersonal" commentator who, at appropriate junctures, falls prey to the confused ignorance of Gogol's deceptively ingenuous narrator. He purposely withholds information from the reader even as he actively whets his curiosity. If, indeed, "we are all like Scheherazade's husband, in that we want to know what happens next" [E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, 1927], the mystification created by Bulgakov's idiosyncratic teller artfully plays upon our impatience. In order to augment suspense and to keep the reader puzzled as to the true nature of what is called the Professor's "crime," he enigmatically refers to the act as "it," suspends key explanatory sentences in midpoint and leaves them dangling, and repeats the neighbors' subsequent statement about what they witnessed that evening without corroborating or denying its veracity. Such tactics successfully heighten the emotional intensity of an event that essentially stays unidentified until the Epilogue. By contrast to the preceding parts of the novel, which were presented scenically, this passage is handled in the panoramic manner. As a result, summary replaces dramatization, the immediacy of the former scenes vanishes, and the pace is accelerated. Here Bulgakov prepares the reader for the compressed Epilogue that unveils the mystery and rapidly ties up the threads of the novel.
With the Epilogue comes a release in tension, the reemergence of the old Preobrazhensky—"masterful," "energetic," "dignified," "regal"—and a continuation of "impersonal" narration. As soon as Sharikov is summoned upon the scene it becomes clear that he is beginning to revert to Sharik; the Professor's mysterious "crime" is in reality a blessing, for it redresses his central error and reverses the transformation effected by the first operation. Vestiges of the insensate and sulky boor are still perceptible in Sharikov, but his canine aspect is visibly dominant in the final confrontation with Shvonder and the police. Because Bulgakov takes pains to emphasize that Sharikov is undergoing a speedy change to his original shape, the reader correctly anticipates another encounter with Sharik the dog qua narrator.
At the close of the novel Sharik has completely regained his canine form and consequently his control over the narrative viewpoint and the reader's responses. The "impartial" voice interjects itself regularly into Sharik's thoughts, but it is unmistakably Sharik who, basking in the domestic equilibrium of his restored paradise, once more admires Preobrazhensky as "the higher being, the powerful benefactor of dogs," and "the gray-haired magician." What is evoked in the concluding passage is the secluded coziness of Chapter III. As in the earlier scenes, the resolute Professor, singing his favorite motif from Aida, is absorbed in his scientific research; Sharik gratefully acknowledges his debt to his stylish master and, blessing fate for his rediscovered haven, artlessly speculates upon his background. Not only has Preobrazhensky vindicated Sharik's belief in his magical prowess and beneficence, but he has passed honorably the stringent moral test of acknowledging his colossal blunder. In so doing he has exonerated himself before that reader who insists upon a continuity between ends and means and who deplores man's gratuitous tampering with the processes of nature. Moral strength brings it own rewards; harmony and tranquility reign in the apartment where "the blinds shut out the thick Immaculate night with its lone star."
To a reader attuned to the implications behind the novel's shifts in narration, a return to Sharik's viewpoint is synonymous with a retreat to trust and affection. The reader's faith in a benign presence that oversees the activities of men is affirmed, for the resolution of Heart of a Dog, with its triumphant reinstatement of Sharik's naively wise perspective, testifies to Woland's comforting truism [in Master i Margarita] that "all will be as it should; that is what the world rests on."
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6584
SOURCE: "Development of a Writer, 1891-1921" and "Moscow and Journalism, 1921-24," in Mikhail Bulgakov: Life and Interpretations, University of Toronto Press, 1978, pp. 3-31, 32-44.
[Wright is an English educator, author, and critic. In the following excerpt, he discusses Notes of a Young Doctor and the short fiction of Bulgakov that appeared in various Russian journals in the early 1920s.]
The publication of Bulgakov's medical stories dates from a later period, but he probably made notes for some of them while he was still in Nikolskoe [in the Sychyovka district of Smolensk province in 1916-17], and certainly he made drafts before he left Kiev .. . in 1919. There are nine of them altogether, all except one published in a medical journal, Meditsinskii rabotnik, between 1925 and 1927. In order of publication these are: 'First Breech,' 'Snowstorm,' 'Egyptian Darkness,' 'Starry Rash,' 'Towel with a Rooster,' 'The Missing Eye,' 'I Killed,' and 'Morphine.' It seems that Bulgakov intended to publish at least some of these as one book, in imitation perhaps of Vikenty Veresaev's very successful Notes of a Doctor of 1901. But it was not until 1963 that five of the above were published together, in a small paper edition put out by the 'Ogonek' library, under the title Notes of a Young Doctor. Included too was one story, 'Silver Throat,' not previously published in Meditsinskii rabotnik, somewhat revised by the editors to make its details consistent with other stories. The same five stories were reprinted in the authoritative Selected Prose edition of 1966, and now Bulgakov's 'Steel Throat' was substituted, unamended, for the 'Ogonek' editors' 'Silver Throat,' and placed second instead of third.
It is convenient to treat the six stories of Notes of a Young Doctor as one work, leaving aside for the present 'Starry Rash,' 'I Killed,' and 'Morphine,' which were not included. Apart from the inconsistencies of 'Steel Throat' (chronological detail, the narrator's age, the number of his patients) and a few other minor discrepancies, the stories are relatively consistent with each other, linked by setting and characters, principally the narrator, and follow in a definite time sequence. They involve a doctor's first year of practice: his fears because of his inexperience, the operations he performs successfully (an amputation, a tracheotomy, a breech delivery), his own secluded life, the growth of his practice.
Made up of individual incidents over the course of a year, these stories have a charm and simplicity which is extraordinarily appealing, and indeed this collection belongs to the best of Bulgakov. It has received praise, justifiably, from critics and doctors alike. In some ways the stories are almost written to a formula, involving three stages: the narrator's thoughts and fears, or memories of other cases; some sudden happening involving the need for decision and action; and the successful conclusion, bringing about a greater understanding on the part of the narrator. In the six collected stories there is little variation from this set pattern. Underlying them too is an outlook on life which reflects Bulgakov's own, for many of the themes which occur in his later works can be found here in some form or other.
The centre of interest in these stories is the personality of the narrator: a narrator who is all too human, even if he is a qualified doctor. The reader can identify with him precisely because his attitudes are those of all of us in unfamiliar situations. Afraid of his youth and the impression he makes, he deliberately tries to make himself look older, without success. He stands in awe of things he does not understand, instruments in the hospital he is unfamiliar with, the well-stocked pharmacy. While even the assistants and midwives seem to be more experienced than he is, above all he is tormented by the memory of his predecessor, who of course knew everything and compared to whom he is a 'False Dmitry,' an impostor. Objectively, his fears are exaggerated, for we as readers well know that he will come through; but it is for this reason that we can smile upon the narrator's sense of inadequacy, at his feeling cold with fear when faced with a difficult case, at his constant sweat when operating. Bulgakov frequently makes use of an interior monologue or a dialogue with some inner voice to express the narrator's thoughts, which are amusing in that they dwell always on the possibilities of disaster:
' . . . and what will you do about a hernia?' fear stubbornly insisted in the form of a voice.
'I'll sit him in the bath,' I defended myself in a rage. 'In the bath. And I'll try to reduce it.'
'A strangulated one, my dear fellow! What earthly use are baths then! A strangulated one,' fear sang in a demonic voice. 'You'll have to cut him open . . . '
Yet contrasting with this fear there is an equally exaggerated pride, in which the narrator delights: he performs operations without spilling a drop of blood; when his assistants compliment him, as is frequently the case, he pretends to be more experienced or assured than in fact. But he is honest enough to admit to this boasting and to be ashamed of such pretensions. Underneath everything, he knows that potentially he is a good doctor, but still only at the beginning, that he must constantly be learning. It is this that is emphasized in the last story, 'The Missing Eye,' where after thinking over all that he has been through and learnt he becomes boastful—'I positively cannot imagine their bringing me a case which could stump me . . . '—then makes a mistake which could have cost a boy his eye, and is duly humbled.
These feelings that Bulgakov is describing are common to anyone placed in a position of responsibility: the clinical details are not important so much as the choices the narrator is called upon to make and his own attitude towards them. There is here a certain fundamental honesty.
Bulgakov shows an extraordinary ability to make fun of himself through his narrator: to look humorously at his actions and analyse his inner feelings, his fears, his depressions, his pride in the job he is doing.
In Bulgakov's later work one of the principal themes is that of the writer and his struggle in life. Here his doctor is just as much of an artist, struggling against inner and outer forces, and taking pride in his hard-won professionalism. On a more general level, this applies to any conscientious person. The first struggle is with oneself, one's own treacherous thoughts and the temptation to take the easy way out—"'Die. Die quickly," I thought, "please die. Otherwise what shall I do with you?" ' But man finds surprising reserve powers for, despite the cowardice of his thoughts, his inner self takes over and accomplishes things he would not have thought possible. This is no mere accident but, in medicine at least, the result of training and the acquisition of certain attitudes—and the same surely is true of other professions. It leads one to act seemingly against one's own interests, even against common sense—as when, in 'Steel Throat,' the narrator persuades a mother and grandmother to allow an operation he does not know if he can do. Here, the contrast between the narrator's desires and the words he speaks provides an obvious source of comedy: 'Within myself I thought "What am I doing? I'll just butcher the girl." But I spoke differently: "Hurry up, hurry up, agree! Agree! Look, her nails are already turning blue."' Even in a different situation, when the narrator is almost attacked by wolves when returning from a patient, this inner man takes over, avoiding agonizing decisions in the face of the need for action. It is the same with Bulgakov's later heroes. As men of integrity, all do what they know they must despite the real dangers they face.
In Notes of a Young Doctor man's interior struggles are often expressed in physical form, on the down-to-earth level of comfort as opposed to necessity: the narrator is constantly being interrupted—from sleep, from having a bath, from shaving. This is the whole point of the story 'Snowstorm,' where he is called out from a day of rest to a girl who then dies before the doctor can do anything. What is important is the bath he can at last enjoy, contrasted with the discomforts of the drive and then the cold misery of the return when he and the coachman get lost in the snow. The story is reminiscent of Tolstoy's 'Master and Man' but with the difference that in Tolstoy the main character is a merchant travelling to make a profit, whereas here we have a doctor who is travelling only because of his sense of duty. And he, in contrast to the merchant, lives, swearing that he will never go out again like this—but knowing quite well that he will not refuse when the time comes. This is the first time that Bulgakov uses the image of the snowstorm—emphasized by an epigraph from Pushkin—but we . . . find it again in other of his works. It has been suggested [by A. M. Al'tshuler, in "Bulgakov-Prozaik," Literaturnaia gazeta, February 7, 1968] that the storm is the aesthetic equivalent of the Revolution, that the way through it is shown by the lamp of the hospital symbolizing science and light. But it is hardly necessary to find such a specific reference. Man is simply alone in an apparently hostile world: he cannot tame it or change it, but he can find his own area where there is light and civilization, try to cling on to this and extend it.
A related theme, .. . is the struggle against ignorance, the 'Egyptian darkness' which impedes the growth of civilization and, like the storm, is a force of its own. It finds its expression most often in the ignorance of the peasants, those 'benighted people' who lack understanding and actively prevent enlightenment: the grandmother in 'Steel Throat,' superstitiously afraid of the surgeon's knife and sure all the child needs is some medicine when she is already on the point of suffocation; a father-in-law who makes a pregnant woman walk five kilometres to the hospital to give birth because he does not want to give her horses for nothing. The story 'Egyptian Darkness' opens appropriately with a description of physical darkness—in the village where the nearest kerosene lamps are nine kilometres away. There follows a whole series of stories of peasants' stupidity: the woman who gets enough medicine to share it with all the village, or the man who applies mustard plasters on top of his sheepskin coat. And the narrator, determined to struggle with this darkness, gets caught himself with a patient of seeming intelligence who takes all his pills at the same time because he thinks that this will be more effective.
Such themes we can find in many of Bulgakov's feuilletons, and in some of his later works as well. Darkness is not only a matter of ignorance: it is often one of self-interest, narrow-mindedness, dogmatism, or, on a more philosphical level, of evil. And to achieve light in one's own life is a struggle, too, involving both learning and experience: ' "One can obtain great experience in the country," I thought as I went to sleep, "but one must just read, read, as much as possible . . . read."'
Of course, there is a more fundamental struggle too, between life and death: the basic raison d'être of the doctor. As a medical student Bulgakov had on his wall a sign which read quod medicamenta non sanai, mors sanai (Hippocrates): what medicine does not cure, death cures. This might almost have been an epigraph to these stories, when it would sound not as a piece of cynicism but as a grim warning. As a doctor, Bulgakov is aware that death is his one real enemy. 'Death' plays an important role in his other works, too; later he will explore its meaning, the whole problem of immortality and of the life which has gone before, particularly in The Master and Margarita. Here it is expressed in simple physical terms. It is always ugly, as opposed to those it threatens who, significantly, are young and beautiful. Theirs is the beauty of life itself, and sometimes, inevitably, it is extinguished.
Such are the human problems which are presented even in these early stories. Yet for all their seriousness, they are humorous, even light-hearted, for the reader knows that in the end all will turn out well, even after the death in 'Snowstorm.' There is here an optimism that difficulties will be overcome. 'Bulgakov writes lightly and gayly. Only his is the gaiety not of heedlessness but of conquered timidity and inexperience—which makes it the most lasting and intelligent gaiety there can be' [Vladimir Lakshin, in a review of Notes of a Young Doctor, in Soviet Literature, February 1964]. Bulgakov's light-heartedness stems partly from his condescending treatment of his own narrator and partly from his use of dialogue. He never allows a description to continue too long without inserting dialogue in some form: either another person's words, or the narrator's own thoughts, or the narrator's 'second voice.' In this is reflected at different times the comical speech of the peasant, the seriousness of the medical staff, and of course all the different tones of the narrator himself: fear, pride, boastfulness, urgency. Because we see through the narrator in all his assumed roles, the total effect is a humorous one.
If we turn to the three medical stories not included in Notes of a Young Doctor, we find that thematically there is a certain similarity, but the light-hearted tone is absent. 'Starry Rash,' about the horrors of syphilis, is another story emphasizing the 'darkness,' the ignorance of the peasants. But it is too didactic, and the concern too specific: we are no longer interested in the narrator but in a medical and social problem. So too with 'Morphine,' a wearisome account of a doctor's addiction (when it was republished in Russkaia mysl' in March and April 1970, a whole page of the original was omitted accidentally without its being noticeable). 'I Killed' is more interesting, showing a doctor taking life in order to escape from the brutal soldiers of the Ukrainian nationalist Petlyura in 1919; but again, it is lacking in humour and hardly belongs in the cycle of the other stories.
Quite apart from the opposition of Bulgakov's widow to publishing 'Morphine,' it would seem unlikely that he himself intended these three stories to be collected with the others. (He made no attempts even to bring names in 'Morphine' in line with the rest.) The main reason for setting them aside was undoubtedly an artistic one. The inclusion of any one of them would destroy the collection's present artistic unity, for they take us outside the world of a young doctor in his first year of practice; nor do they have the same uniformity of style.
Notes of a Young Doctor, as it is, makes a consistent, satisfactory whole. Its tone is humorous throughout—and Bulgakov is often at his best when serious issues are combined with comedy. He is, of course, writing in a minor form. A work such as Veresaev's Notes of a Doctor, which treats broadly the same subject, is far more weighty and gives a deeper insight into the kind of moral dilemmas a doctor may face. Bulgakov has none of Veresaev's long theoretical discussions. But artistically his work is more satisfying, its strength lying in its careful selection of incidents, which give an impression of a young man's problems in his chosen profession. The reader relates to the narrator as a person rather than as a doctor, for in this collection (if not in 'Starry Rash' and 'Morphine') literature comes before medicine. Bulgakov in his stories aimed basically at simplicity as the hallmark of good writing. In Notes of a Young Doctor he achieves this admirably, while raising issues to which he was to devote a lifetime of thought.
Of all the feuilletons Bulgakov wrote at the beginning of the twenties, those published in Gudok are the least ambitious from a literary viewpoint. Therein lies their charm. Totally unpretentious, written hastily for monetary reward, they are amusing, simple, and direct: revealing Bulgakov's mastery in just telling a funny story. There are over a hundred readily identifiable stories of this type in Gudok for the years between 1923 and 1926, and it is probable that there are other similar ones either overlooked or hiding under unidentified pseudonyms, both in Gudok and elsewhere. We may add to these Bulgakov's published volume of Stories of 1926, containing a number of reprints from Gudok, a number from Nakanune, and five more not published earlier but also of the Gudok type. (This volume was published by Smekhach, a humorous magazine which the 'Gudok' press printed. Another collection of stories, advertised for publication by Nedra, never appeared, having apparently been banned.)
The feuilletons are essentially based on true events, on information sent in by the 'working correspondents.' Taken as a whole, they provide a surprisingly vivid picture of life among the ordinary workers in the years following the Revolution and civil war. They are characterized by brevity, by their concentration on one single humorous incident or situation, and by their satirical purpose. They are almost entirely situational comedy, with considerable reliance on dialogue. The style is conversational: Bulgakov, for example, will often add 'serve him right!' to a story where a wrong-doer is caught and punished. Some have a strong plot (as the story about a locksmith who simulates various illnesses to make money on medical payments, until he is caught: 'A Nasty Type'); some are purely descriptive with scarcely a plot at all. Frequently the emphasis is on abuses brought about by people's ignorance and stupidity, and there is a constant, sometimes expressed, hope that things will improve after those responsible have been made to look foolish.
The feuilletons are described most easily in terms of a few of their recurrent themes. Bureaucracy of one kind or another is perhaps the most prominent target of Bulgakov: workers not getting what they are entitled to ('The R.K.K.,' 'The Libertine'); the need to get official stamps and signatures on documents ('The Trouble with Stamps'); officiousness or overzealousness making life difficult ('Skull-Hunters'); or officialdom being a hiding-place for fraud and deceit ('False-Dimitry Lunacharsky,' 'A Bewitched Place,' 'How the Local Committee Bought a Present with an Old Woman's Money'). On the one hand, workers—such as telephone operators—use their job to their own advantage ('On the Telephone,' 'The Undismayed Operators,'); on the other, getting paid is a constant problem ('The Effective Remedy,' 'The Desired Payment,' 'Three Kopecks'). Party meetings are another theme: speakers do not turn up ('The Station-Master's Cradle') or come with an agenda three years out of date, which is still discussed ('The Wrong Trousers'); a drunk gives a lecture on syphilis for women's day ('Festival with Syphilis'); another is thrown out of a theatrical performance ('Inspector General with an Ejection'). Drunkenness itself is a frequent theme (' A Story of Beer,' 'On the Usefulness of Alcoholism,' 'A Drunken Steam-Engine'). There are stories about the problems of getting rations ('How Buton Got Married') or about inefficiencies in the commercial trusts ('A New Method of Book Distribution'). As we might expect, there are a number of medical stories too ('Man with a Thermometer,' 'The Flying Dutchman'). And there are more grotesque ones with corpses continuing, by habit, to do what they did when alive ('Adventures of a Dead Man,' 'When the Dead Rise from Their Graves,' 'The Dead Walk'). Or there are the simple oddities: the shunning of a man with the same name as the White general Wrangel ('Trick of Nature') or a dream about the former tsar travelling by tram ('The Conductor and a Member of the Imperial Family'). Typical of Bulgakov at his most amusing is 'Political Director of Divine Worship,' in which a school and a church are in adjoining buildings and everything can be heard from the other—with the result that there is a hilarious dialogue of political and religious slogans, while the deacon gets drunk and is almost converted to communism. Ludicrous and yet all too probable in this new society, exaggerated perhaps and always containing a strong element of social satire—with the author's sympathy on the side of the individual—stories like this had an immediate appeal to Gudok's readers.
One of the earliest feuilletons published there is rather different from the others: 'The Raid,' concerning a sentry, Abram, who is captured and beaten up by the enemy, only just escaping with his life. Years later, someone in a workers' club is telling of his war adventures and the others turn to Abram, now deaf, never expecting that he will have anything to tell: when he does, they can hardly believe it is true. It is simple and unpretentious, as are the other feuilletons, and very moving. Without humour or satire, describing instead the simple feelings of an ordinary man and his one moment of involuntary heroism, it is a step away from journalism into the realm of literature. . . .
The Nakanune feuilletons are altogether more ambitious, longer, and more varied in scope. . . . [We] may divide them into those that are largely literary description and those that tell a definite story. In all of them, Bulgakov is very much the writer of the town, and indeed he has been described as the 'singer' of Moscow in the same way that Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Blok were the singers of St Petersburg.
His descriptions relate entirely to the Moscow he was living in, and specifically to the time of the New Economic Policy, which allowed, temporarily, for the reestablishment of private enterprise and ownership. Bulgakov describes the 'nepmen'—those who took advantage of the policy—and the new 'red specialists,' also the black market ('Under a Glass Sky'). He talks too of the ordinary people in the shops, and the outward show and glitter of the goods there as opposed to the real hunger that still existed ('Red-stoned Moscow'). The most successful of such descriptions is 'Forty Times Forty,' which contrasts the 'heroic' Moscow of 1921 with the new Moscow of the NEP. Starting as a gradual humming of which everyone soon becomes aware, the NEP develops into all the noise of a busy, thriving city, with its bright lights, businesses, fashionable restaurants. Although Bulgakov clearly takes pride in the growth of 'mother Moscow' he has no particular love for the nepmen, whom he fears 'at the thought that they were filling all Moscow, that they had gold ten-rouble coins in their pockets, that they would throw me out of my room, that they were strong, had large teeth, were wicked, with hearts of stone.' Yet he is impressed by the vigour of the new society around him, by such achievements as the impressive Agricultural Exhibition ('The Golden Town'), by the new orderliness, which he praises in 'Chanson d'été' and 'The Capital in My Notebook.' The second of these particular feuilletons serves as a vehicle for Bulgakov to describe all kinds of things going on in Moscow: reconstruction, nepmen flourishing, the opera, a well-behaved schoolchild, a man so wealthy he is a trillionaire. (These last two scenes appeared in English translation the same year, in The Living Age.) He expresses his opinion of the theatre, and in particular his dislike of Meyerhold's 'biomechanics.' He is concerned, too, with what will become of the intelligentsia, but shows optimism, despite everything, that it will survive.
Bulgakov is remarkably fair towards the society he is describing: he does not condemn or praise as a whole, although he does not hesitate to describe his individual likes and dislikes. His own experiences clearly play a large part in what he writes (see, in particular, 'A Day of Our Life,' with its conversations and with its frustrations), but despite this he never forces his views on the reader or implies that things were better in former times. Indeed, he seems to have accepted the new order, and writes with a simple love of his country, with all its faults. Each piece reads like a 'letter from Moscow'—which, of course, to his readers in Berlin it undoubtedly was. The appeal is mainly to those who know and love Moscow: the interest was in 'what it's like now,' and Bulgakov provides details both of the familiar and the new. Thus in 'Red-stoned Moscow' he tells what the NEP is like, but finishes with an image of eternal Moscow, with the chimes from the Kremlin bell and the 'Kitay-gorod' lying close by. It is similar in 'Travel Notes,' which describes a train journey: there is a new Bryansk station, but the same old queues; boys are still selling preserves at stations en route, but illegally, since passengers are now supposed to use the special shops. Even the descriptions of demonstrations against Lord Curzon ('Lord Curzon's Benefit Day'—also translated in The Living Age) are interesting largely in that they take place against the familiar background of Moscow, for which Bulgakov shows a love that the reader can be expected to share. So, too, in 'Kiev—a Town,' in all Bulgakov's survey of the recent history, in all his discussions on Kievans as compared with Muscovites, on churches, on the NEP, there lies a basic appeal to the reader's familiarity with Moscow itself, to his love for it—which Bulgakov still shares deeply: 'Iç a word, a beautiful town, a happy town. The mother of Russian towns.'
Bulgakov shows a remarkable sense of his audience. Today we can still feel something of this appeal—the Russian certainly can—but now for most of us these feuilletons must seem more like period pieces, essays representing journalism of high quality rather than strictly literary writing.
The same may be said of some of those that tell a story. Two such feuilletons, 'Golden Documents' and 'Sparkling Life' (both subtitled 'From My Collection'), consist of a number of tales of the same type that are in Gudok: four of these even appear alongside them in the 1926 Stories. 'Sparkling Life' has some particularly weak items, hardly more than funny jokes. A few other feuilletons too are typical newspaper stories: a friend who has a final fling before being arrested ('Cup of Life'), a horse-dealer who makes money by murder ('The Komarov Case'), a bank director ruined by his speculator brother ('The Belobrysov Story').
A number, however, demand greater attention. One, 'The Crimson Island,' a low burlesque on the Revolution, was the basis for a play. . . . More important is 'The Adventures of Chichikov,' which would be included in the Diavoliada collection—and was also at one time forbidden for public reading. It is linked with the other feuilletons in Nakanune in that primarily it is a satire on life in Moscow and on the NEP. It differs from them in that it is a comic imitation of Gogol, using not only his situations and characters—mainly but not exclusively from Dead Souls—but many of his actual sentences as well. In a 'dream,' Chichikov, the hero of Dead Souls (which had The Adventures of Chichikov' as an alternative title) reappears in Moscow in Soviet times, and finds there all his old acquaintances. Very little has changed, except for the names. Chichikov first wangles extra rations for himself, following Sobakevich's example, then, inspired by Nozdryov, goes into the export business and builds up a completely non-existent enterprise (in Gogol's original he has, of course, built up an estate of non-existent serfs).
The elements of satire need little elaboration: the little change since Gogol's day, the same people still occupying important positions, the petty crooks such as Chichikov and Nozdryov managing to survive in Soviet times very nicely. There are some clever instances of parody too, with sufficient of Gogol's thought kept intact and combined with the modern situation to create incongruities almost of the type that we find in his own prose. Thus Gogol's famous description of the troika and the Russians' love of speed is applied to the motor car and a rather different picture from the uninterrupted drive through the Russian countryside results:
What Russian does not love a swift ride?
Selifan loved it, too, and therefore at the entrance to Lubyanka he was forced to choose between a trolley car and a plate-glass store window. In a brief instant of time Selifan chose the latter, swerved away from the trolley, and like a whirlwind, screaming 'Help!' drove through the store window.
'The Adventures of Chichikov' is an amusing and witty story, but not perhaps a work of major importance. Its merit lies in its basic idea—the application of Gogol to modern times. The imitation is well sustained, the parallels are ingenious, but beyond this there is not a great deal of depth.
One of the earliest feuilletons deserves to be better known: 'Red Crown (Historia morbi)' of 1922. (The Soviet scholar M. Chudakova suggests that this may be identified with the Illness' Bulgakov mentions in his letters—and that it may also be a stage in the composition of The White Guard.) It is about a narrator haunted by the image of his dead brother Kolya, and by that of a man hanged by the White general whom Kolya served. It is a powerful story of the horror and senselessness of the civil war, and the bestiality of the hangings that took place. The responsibility for this, however, lies not with the general alone but also with the narrator, and a bond is formed between the two in their common guilt: 'Who knows, perhaps that dirty begrimed man from the lamppost in Berdyansk comes to you. If so, we suffer justly. I sent Kolya to help you hang others, and you did the hanging.' The burden of accepting such guilt is intolerable: the narrator goes mad. The story is a brilliant precursor to Bulgakov's play Flight, where the theme of responsibility and illness brought on by repeated hangings is central.
Four of the Nakanune stories were republished in 1926 in a paper book entitled A Treatise on Housing—the name of the first of them. This story was originally the first part of a feuilleton entitled 'Moscow of the Twenties' (the second—about the ruses people employ to obtain or keep an apartment—was not republished). From a literary point of view 'A Treatise on Housing' is the least satisfactory of the four. The housing shortage in Moscow and the pressures caused by overcrowding are illustrated by a story of three people living in a telephone receiver [sic] and their inevitably muddled conversations, and by the arguments that go on in the author's own apartment block. Although Bulgakov's usual witty style can be appealing (This winter Natalya Egorovna threw a mop rag on the floor and couldn't unstick it because it was nine degrees above the table and on the floor there were no degrees at all—and it even lacked one') there is a certain faeetiousness, particularly in the hyperbole of the telephone receiver, that is annoying; it is neither fantasy nor realism.
The same theme is treated more effectively in 'Four Portraits.' In the Moscow of that time a person was allowed only a certain amount of 'living space': anyone with more had to accept other lodgers, often total strangers, who could nevertheless not be ejected. The process was known as uplotnenie—which is most easily translated as 'doubling up.' The story concerns a man's efforts to prevent this, and our sympathies are entirely with him rather than with the commissions who come to inspect his apartment. He is, in fact, an early example of the 'sympathetic crook' who is to feature in many of Bulgakov's later writings. The third story, 'A Lake of Home-brew,' describing a drunken brawl which goes on for nearly twenty-four hours in the narrator's own apartment block, is interesting largely for what it tells us about Bulgakov's own life.
Most outstanding, however, is 'A Psalm,' one of the best stories of this period: about a neighbour's four-year-old boy, his father, who has gone away, and his mother who returns to kiss with the narrator after the boy has gone to bed. It is a most moving story of loneliness yet affection as a result of grief—emphasized by the boy with his ordinary child's concerns and lack of understanding. It is remarkable, too, for its use of leitmotifs: cones of light from the kerosene lamp; door hinges, which sing pleasantly and unpleasantly; buttons, which are a constant problem for the narrator; and above all the refrain of the poem 'I'll buy shoes to match my coat, and at night I'll sing a psalm, I'll get a dog, and somehow we'll get by.' More than this there is little to hope for.
Two stories in Rupor in 1922, 'The Extraordinary Adventures of a Doctor' and 'Spiritual Séance,' need not particularly detain us. But two others published in the newspaper Krasnyi zhurnal dlia vsekh are far more important: 'No 13—the Elpit House—Workers' Commune' of 1922 (well known since it was republished in the Diavoliada collection) and 'Fire of the Khans' of 1924. Both have clearly been strongly influenced by Konstantin Fedin's 'The Orchard,' which has an almost identical theme—destruction of the old by fire—and had been published in Nakanune (in the same issue as 'Notes on the Cuffs') some six months earlier than 'No 13.' In 'No 13' the once-elegant five-storey Elpit House becomes, after the Revolution, a workers' commune, but its manager, Khristi, is retained. He tries to keep up the building for its former owner but, when there is an oil shortage, a woman lights a stove she has illegally installed in her apartment, causing a fire. Khristi watches, weeping, as the building burns.
It is arguably Bulgakov's earliest masterpiece—the imitation of Fedin notwithstanding. The main theme is more than nostalgia, it is the difference of two worlds, one of which is characterized by the ignorance and stupidity of the new class. 'We are ignorant people. Benighted people. We fools must be taught,' thinks Annushka, the woman who caused the fire. What was splendid about the past has been destroyed, needlessly, and we cannot help but weep with Khristi at this destruction. We may also see the Elpit House as symbolical of the old régime, with all its luxury and decadence, until taken over by communism, personified in the new name of the building and its inhabitants. Despite hopes for survival, the old is totally destroyed—and indeed, when this story was later published in the Diavoliada collection, Soviet critics were not slow to point out Bulgakov's apparent feeling that the change had been for the worse. But Bulgakov's sympathies were not necessarily entirely with the old order. In this story he merely points to certain glories of the past and the neglect that follows from making over their use to those who are unappreciative, or have no sense of history.
A similar theme is the basis of 'Fire of the Khans.' A group of tourists is shown round the former mansion of the princes Tugay-Beg Ordynsky by the old servant Iona, who clashes ideologically with a most objectionable man dressed only in shorts and a cap. The reader's sympathy is all with Iona, particularly when he gets the better of his opponent. When the others have left, one man returns: the present, disinherited, prince, whom Iona had not recognized. Angry at the treatment of his family and at the new régime, Tugay-Beg sets fire to the house and makes his escape. The theme of the glories of the past and the vulgarity of the new—epitomized in the odious half-naked party member—is still very much present. Iona fulfils a similar role to that of Khristi, by looking after the house for the hoped-for return of the legitimate owner—or indeed to that of the gardener in Fedin's story, who himself burns down the dacha attached to the orchard in disgust. But of the three former owners of house, estate, and orchard, Tugay-Beg, consumed with hatred for the new régime, is the least sympathetic. He is shown as unable to reconcile himself with the new, questioning his own existence in this world, and becoming bitter, malicious as a result.
Bulgakov's own attitude remains ambiguous, although it would appear to be more pessimistic than Fedin's since, although he is not uncritical of the past, he shows greater love for it. In both his stories he struggles to maintain a certain objectivity, describing sadly what he recognizes to be inevitable and showing the futility of struggling against it.
Bulgakov's works before 1924—and some for the following two years—are largely journalistic. In them we can find many stylistic features which would become part of his mature writing: his use of dialogue, his love for a simple direct story, his witty narrator who enjoys making his own comments. It is successful journalism, but would hardly be of great literary interest were it not for Bulgakov's subsequent achievement. In a few stories, however, he shows deeper insights and more universal concerns than is possible in mere reportage. The human emotion portrayed in 'No 13,' 'Fire of the Khans,' 'Red Crown,' and 'A Psalm' gives them a more than local interest and makes of them literary works in their own right.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7174
SOURCE: "The Diaboliad Collection," in Bulgakov: Life and Work, Ardis Publishers, 1984, pp. 105-22.
[In the following excerpt, Proffer provides an overview of the five stories that comprise the 1925 Russian collection D'iavoliada (Diaboliad, and Other Stories).]
The editor Angarsky accepted the long story "Diaboliad" for his Nedra anthology in the hopes that it would find favor with readers tired of literary experiments which neglected plot. One reader who did regard it as the most important work in Nedra No. 4 (1924) was Evgeny Zamyatin, the famous author of the anti-utopian novel We. Zamyatin was an influential critic who was still on the board of the Leningrad Writers' Union despite his controversial novel, which could not be published in Russia. He might be considered politically suspect by some, but his literary opinions carried weight.
Since what Zamyatin had to say in his review of the Nedra anthology reveals many of the literary and social concerns of the mid-1920s, and provides a context for Bulgakov's place in the literary scene, it deserves attention. Zamyatin dealt severely with most of the works in the collection. He especially disliked Veresaev's Dead End and Serafimovich's The Iron Flood. Veresaev, who was on the Nedra board, was an old-fashioned writer in all respects, and it is understandable that Zamyatin would have little interest in his work. But Serafimovich's novel, which was to be proclaimed an official classic of Soviet literature, was original in several respects, and had as its hero the masses themselves. Zamyatin expressed annoyance at its operatic tone and uninteresting style, but did find some of the scenes memorable. Another work, Sergeev-Tsensky's "The Professor's Story," gets slightly higher marks as an example of neoclassicism, which Zamyatin declares superior to Serafimovich's "pseudoclassicism." The poetry, in the critic's view, is just as uninspired as most of the prose:
In its choice of poems, Nedra still clings to its realistic virginity—and clings to it so rigidly that the verses of Kirillov, Polonskaya and Oreshin have the sameness of ten-kopek coins: of the six poems published, four even have the same meter—iambic tetrameter. [M. Ginsburg, A Soviet Heretic: Essays by Yevgeny Zamiatin, 1970]
The one work which pleased the critic was "Diaboliad":
The only modern piece in Nedra is Bulgakov's "Diaboliad." The author unquestionably possesses the right instinct in the choice of his compositional base—fantasy rooted in actual life, rapid, cinematic succession of scenes—one of the few formal frameworks which can encompass our yesterday—1919-1920. The term "cinematic" is all the more applicable to this work since the entire novella is two-dimensional, done on a single plane; everything is on the surface, and there is no depth of scene whatever. With Bulgakov, Nedra loses its classical (and pseudoclassical) innocence for what I believe is the first time, and as happens so frequently, the provincial old maid is seduced by the very first brash young man from the capital. The absolute value of this piece, somehow too thoughtless, is not so great, but it would appear that we can expect good things from its author.
"Diaboliad" is a headlong rush into the life of the city, and it is appropriate that the hero commit suicide by leaping from one of the tallest buildings in Moscow. The building in the novella has ten floors, just as the Nirenzee building did, and a vast number of offices and corridors like the House of Labor, where Gudok was published. There is a touch of German expressionism in the descriptions and the action, and everything takes place at film speed.
The plot of the novella, like the plots of Heart of a Dog and "The Fatal Eggs," turns on a simple but crucial mistake. The meek, quite boring hero, Korotkov, who is employed at a match factory, mishears the name of his boss and reads his signature as "kal'sony" (underwear) instead of "Kal'soner" (translated as Underwarr in the English version). Because the hero reads the signature as part of an order, and transmits the order, he is fired. In the course of the tale Korotkov is obsessed with the desire to explain this mistake to his boss. This aim is hopelessly and comically complicated by the fact that there are two sets of doubles involved, his boss's look-alike and his own. In this work the very traditional Russian theme of the double is taken to grotesque extremes as poor Korotkov, accused of being a Don Juan (as his double is), begins to go insane after chasing the two Kalsoners through the endless bureaucratic corridors. He soon concludes that it is all the trick of the devil . . .
Korotkov has also been robbed of his documents, and is thus unable to prove his identity. Since the person who could replace them, his housing manager, is away, there are serious consequences: without his documents Korotkov does not exist. From non-existence to suicide is a short step, as a chase involving the various doubles leads him to the roof and his final jump.
It is hard to take this tale seriously as an indictment of bureaucracy, although the bureaucratic machinery is as wretched as anything found in Saltykov or Sukhovo-Kobylin. Korotkov himself seems to be the source of most of his problems. His own stupidity and hysteria blind him to obvious explanations—one of the two Kalsoners has a beard, one does not, and someone else might have concluded that two different men were involved. Korotkov is something of a parody of the traditional Russian "little man," but it would be straining ingenuity to see the story as a condemnation of an entire society. People with political minds, both pro- and anti-Soviet, will see political aspects of this story, but I think, like Zamyatin, that the plot is merely a pretext for the introduction of a series of dazzling scenes, all based on famous Moscow locations of the early twenties. Bulgakov's customary suggestions of demons and magic are present, at least in the fantasy imagery, and the smell of sulphur—natural to a match factory—suggests a hellish fire. At one point, as Korotkov watches one of the doubles fall, the man seems to metamorphose into a black cat with phosphorescent eyes, which then rolls itself into a ball and jumps through a broken window. Another figure tied to the satanic line is a little old man who frequently turns up, a malevolent force, clearly, whose eyes flash ominously. All of this is the first occurrence of material which will turn up again in Theatrical Novel and The Master and Margarita.
The comic scenes are less refined than later variants. The typewriter terror scene, for example, is an early version of the office scene in The Master and Margarita in which the entire staff is forced to sing in unison by Woland's band. Here Korotkov hallucinates a scene of thirty typists doing a cancan around their desks to the bells of the typewriters, which are playing a foxtrot.
At the end Korotkov decides to jump rather than surrender to his pursuers, but he believes he is going up rather than down, until "the incarnadine sun cracked resoundingly in his head, and he saw nothing more." This description is very close to the one used as Berlioz dies in Bulgakov's last novel.
The influence of Gogol (especially "The Nose" and "The Overcoat") is evident here, and while there are obvious thematic echoes of Dostoevsky's The Double, Bulgakov modernizes many devices. The style, with its sudden hallucinatory transformations and incongruities, realized metaphors and detailed registration of character movements, gestures and colors, owes something to the Gogolian-Dostoevskian Natural School of the 1840s; but a number of these devices were characteristic of the 1920s as well. What marks "Diaboliad" as modern is its speed and compression. As Zamyatin suggests, things on the surface attract our attention, and there is little real psychology. Instead of interior monologue we have dialogue, for which Bulgakov had a real talent. It is joined by extremely diverse verbs of saying: characters are said to sing, squeak, ring—all somewhat dehumanizing—but rarely simply speak.
The story's exuberance stems from the author's enjoyment of the epoch itself. There is a fascination with elevators, skyscrapers, and public transport; the sound a machine-gun makes is compared to a "deafening" Singer sewing-machine and so on. Like a Charlie Chaplin movie, this work makes use of all the modern machines and settings to contrast with an old-fashioned hero. However, unlike Chaplin, Bulgakov does not mix his ingredients well. The hero's silliness is not balanced by sympathetic traits. Korotkov is very funny when, in his literal way, he hits Dyrkin with a candelabra, but when four pages later Korotkov is dead, the reader may be forgiven for not caring very much. Unlike the hero of Theatrical Novel, to whom he bears a real resemblance, Korotkov has no talent to recommend him. He is neurotic at the beginning of the story and insane at the end, little more than a man with an obsession. In this he is like Gogol's Akaky Akakievich, but it is not really possible to care about him. Korotkov lives in a world of mechanical-seeming people, but he himself is an automaton by the end, with few human qualities left.
In this first real try at the fantastic Bulgakov did succeed in combining the grotesquely fantastic with sharply observed details of Moscow life, and required only a better plot to support his style—such as the one he adapted from H. G. Wells for "The Fatal Eggs."
The starting point for the plot of Bulgakov's most famous novella ["The Fatal Eggs"] is H. G. Wells's The Food of the Gods, but as Christine Rydel has pointed out [in "Bulgakov and H. G. Wells," Russian Literature Triquartely 15 (1978)], Bulgakov utilized only the first third of the English novel for plot ideas, and the intentions of the two works are quite dissimilar. Wells was a genuine sciencefiction writer, and in his novel happily predicted a future in which children are given special food (which, however, causes disasters in the present) and become like gods. Bulgakov was not interested in describing a future order. In all of his fantasy works he does so only once, in the play Adam and Eve. "The Fatal Eggs" is, like other Bulgakov works, a satire which uses elements of science fiction for the purpose of examining present, not future, problems.
The novella was finished in October 1924, read to friends and colleagues soon after, and first published in the sixth Nedra anthology, which came out around February 1925. Subsequently it was serialized in Red Panorama (Krasnaia panorama) in a shortened version, under the title The Red Ray (Krasnyi luck).
In "The Fatal Eggs" events unfold in the most unpredictable fashion. It is a satirical, parodic tale of a scientific experiment gone wrong in the future Soviet Republic of 1928. Among the many satirical targets are journalists, and the story should and can be considered in the context of the mass journalism of the 1920s, as Chudakova points out [in "Archiv M. A. Bulgakova," Zapiski Otdela Rukorisei, Vypusk 37 (1976)]. The journalists of the time (and not just in Russia) seemed to share a naive belief that great scientific advances would take place at any moment, and, indeed, that such advances had already taken place. The description of the yellow journalists—as embodied in the character of Bronsky, who actually sets the plot in motion—is pointed and well-informed. Bulgakov's extensive knowledge of the Moscow newspaper world was obviously useful, and there are many inside jokes, distortions of well-known names and parodies of the jargon of the new era.
The basic elements of the work are familiar: an obsessed scientist, his faithful lab assistant, a stunning new discovery, and a terrifying development as the discovery is either misused or misunderstood. But the fact that the setting of Bulgakov's story is 1928, only three years after publication, indicates that science-fiction is not the proper category for this work. Nothing has really changed in those three years and no contemporary reader thought the story was about anything but Moscow in the midtwenties.
At the beginning of the story the narrator lays the blame for an unspecified catastrophe on the scientist Persikov. Professor Persikov, he says, must be considered "the prime cause of this catastrophe." But Persikov, like so many other erudite characters in Bulgakov's literary world, seems to inspire ambivalent feelings in the author. Bulgakov was fascinated by scholarly expertise and accomplishment—both his father and his brother were experts in their fields—and he himself had envisioned a glamorous future involving microscopes when he first chose a medical career. But at the same time, Bulgakov was painfully aware of what pure scientific curiosity could lead to, such as the gases used during World War I. In Bulgakov's view, it was dangerous to ignore the social and political implications of a discovery—something the Soviet Union, anxious to be in the forefront of science, had a tendency to ignore, at least in the press. Bulgakov respected the highest traditions of science, but was skeptical about scientific rationalism, and the supposed golden age the new science would usher in. Science had all but replaced religion in Soviet popular culture, and the belief in progress through technology was widespread. "The Fatal Eggs," for all its debt to Wells, is really a variation of the Faust theme: man should not try to assume the powers of a god.
Persikov may seem to come from Wells, but he was actually based on a real person, Lyubov's relative, Evgeny Tarnovsky, a man who was remarkably erudite. Persikov is a Faustian figure, endowed with a quick temper and an all-consuming interest in zoology. His problems begin with his discovery of what a certain red ray does to amoebas which are accidentally caught in it. The ray increases both the size—and the viciousness—of the organisms subjected to it. Rumors of this discovery immediately spread through Moscow.
Unknown to the professor, who doesn't read newspapers because he thinks they only contain gibberish, there is a chicken plague raging through the nation, and various parties are trying to come up with a solution to the shortage of eggs. The journalist Bronsky publicizes the ray; the head of a collective farm, Rokk (translated as Feyt in English, since his name echoes rok, the Russian for "fate") reads of the discovery and is certain that it will solve the chicken problem. He comes to Moscow to convince the professor to help.
Feyt is a negative character who shares many of the physical characteristics of Kalsoner from "Diaboliad." When he first enters the professor's study the entire scene appears hellish to him, and the professor seems to have the air of Satan.
It is important to remember that the professor is firmly opposed to using the ray to produce enormous chickens by exposing imported eggs to it. The professor declares that the ray has not been sufficiently tested, but a phone call from a mysterious and stern personage of high authority convinces him he has no choice, so he lets the state farm have his specially constructed chambers.
Up to this point the novella is essentially comic: the chicken plague produces all sorts of comic headlines and humorously named commissions. But once Feyt goes off with the chambers, the suspense intensifies—the reader has been warned from the start that some unspecified catastrophe has taken place. At the lyrically described collective farm there are signs from nature that something is wrong: the dogs bark, the birds are silent, the peasants are uneasy. The eggs which were due to hatch under the ray are found empty. Feyt, a leather-jacketed relic of the Civil War, is at this moment incongruously playing the flute, a reminder of his previous profession as a musician. The next day, when Feyt and his wife go for a swim she is suddenly, and horribly, devoured by a giant reptile, and the comedy takes a truly grotesque turn:
Blood splashed from her mouth, a broken arm slipped out, and little fountains of blood spurted from under the fingernails. Then, almost dislocating its jaws, the snake opened its mouth, quickly slipped its head over Manya' s, and began to pull itself over her like a glove over a finger.
The explanation for this is that by an incredible coincidence (like the mistaken identity in "Diaboliad"), the Professor's long-awaited shipment of reptile eggs has been switched for Feyt's chicken eggs: the result is that the countryside is infested with giant anacondas and other such creatures instead of the giant egg-laying hens. Who exactly switched the two shipments is unknown, which means that the direct cause of the reptile invasion is accidental, and does not involve either Persikov or Feyt. However, there is no doubt that Bulgakov's real theme is the interference of the state in scientific matters—a point not made by Wells.
The deaths that follow the first one are many and horrible, but it is Manya's that shocks the reader. In the midst of this clinically described violence, the comedy persists: in an attempt to distract the monster, Feyt plays the waltz from the opera Eugene Onegin on his flute, having dimly remembered that one can charm snakes. However, "the eyes in the foliage instantly began to smolder with implacable hate for the opera."
Bulgakov's ability to give concrete form to the imaginary is, as usual, combined with accurate observations of the real world. For example, the picture of Moscow awaiting its doom, with the atmosphere of panic and mob violence, though set in the future, is based on what Bulgakov saw during the Civil War. Certain figures from the present are carried into this future, such as the cavalry commander who had become legendary ten years before, i.e., Budenny.
The civil hysteria has dire consequences: Persikov is killed by a man who splits his skull open. The professor is described as spreading his arms "as one crucified" just before he is killed. Persikov's institute is destroyed by fire—the end of many things in Bulgakov's fiction.
The giant reptiles are finally exterminated, but not by the soldiers who have mobilized for this task. On the night before the dawn of August 19 (Bulgakov favored the time just before dawn for important events) the monstrous creatures are killed by an incredible summer frost. Like Napoleon, they are defeated by the weather. This chapter is entitled "A Frosty God Ex Machina," and the frost is indeed a sudden, almost off-hand development in terms of the story's plot.
The red ray, the discovery which set everything in motion, is lost forever, since, as the narrator concludes, something besides knowledge was needed, and that something was possessed by only one man in the world—Persikov.
There are only two important characters in "Fatal Eggs," and it seems to me that the story can best be understood through them. Professor Persikov and Feyt are the only two characters who are provided with extensive biographies.
Persikov is the classic scientist, a type which attracted Bulgakov; such characters are usually shown as absorbed in their work, and essentially uninterested in the world around them. I have no doubt that Belozerskaya's relative was the model for certain character traits, but it seems to me that there is another obvious prototype for this character in the person of Pavlov, a world-renowned scientist who disapproved of the Revolution, but kept on working in Russia, ignoring his changed context, and achieving some degree of success.
Persikov is flawed, but he is not really a negative character, although some critics have made that assumption. It is Persikov's genius, his drive to follow something to its logical end, which leads to the developing of the red ray, but it is the phone call from the Kremlin which determines the outcome. One can make the case that Persikov could have somehow destroyed the ray so that no one else could misuse it, or could have fought harder to restrict use of it until he knew more. This is all implied by Persikov's words when he understands that the ray will be used on the eggs, with him or without him: "I wash my hands of this!" Like Pilate, Persikov is overwhelmed by events, and like Pilate, he senses that something wrong is taking place.
Persikov, like the doctor hero of Heart of a Dog, is Faustian in certain ways. He is doing a dangerous thing, interfering with natural processes; the point of both stories is the same—that evolution is safer than revolution. But as long as Persikov's experiment remains in his laboratory there is no danger to anyone but himself. This seems to me a key point. Bulgakov is not saying that scientific endeavor should be restricted—as a doctor he saw the benefits which came from the scientific mind at liberty—he is saying instead that such things are best left to scientists. Persikov is not quite as lost in the ivory tower as he seems to be: he exhausts himself helping with the chicken plague, throws a spy out of his office, and in general appears to be an intellectual of the old school, a type for which Bulgakov had great admiration. Persikov's dry, logical approach to life does not prevent him from weeping when he learns of the death of his wife, who had deserted him fifteen years earlier. In general, his brusque, cantankerous exterior is deceiving. The wife, however, is a clue, since in Bulgakov's works absence of a woman indicates a man who is not completely alive. Persikov's sin is one which is always punished in Bulgakov's world: he has become so absorbed in his work that he has lost his interest in the world around him—and the people around him. One of Bulgakov's main points when describing scientists is that they bear responsibility for what they discover—they cannot simply present a weapon, say, to their society and then return to their laboratories with no thought of how their discovery will be used. Persikov is wrong, but he is not an evil force, no matter how devilish he seems to Feyt—who is a force for evil.
Feyt is antipathetic in basic ways, and the narrator's treatment of him is ironic. We are told that he has accomplished such feats as the irrigation of Turkestan, and that he began as a musician before the Revolution. These two things do not seem to go together, and the Professor voices the conviction that the man is an ignoramus—which, of course, is quite true. Feyt's biography is thought-provoking: from musician, to editor of a Turkestan newspaper, to member of the local Agricultural Commission, and finally, irrigator of Turkestan, after which he comes back to Moscow. Like Persikov's, his appearance is strangely old-fashioned, but in a different way, since he is still wearing the uniform of the Civil War, a leather jacket and puttees. Feyt's ignorance is of a different order from that of the "dark people" but the results are the same. He notices that the eggs that arrive at the farm seem dirty, but it never occurs to him that they are not chicken eggs. He is a man of action, after all, not an intellectual—but in the end he does not even possess common sense, only a sort of brutal determination.
In the descriptions of the two major characters we may see the basis for an allegorical interpretation of the role of the intelligentsia (Persikov) in breeding the Revolution, as compared to the opportunists (Feyt) who came to power, utterly unprepared for the positions they would occupy. However, the allegory hunters fall into hopeless contradictions when they deal with the specific details of the story. It is tempting to see the red ray itself as a metaphor for Bolshevism, but who is Lenin? Critics have suggested both Feyt and Persikov for this identification, which indicates the problem of decoding the allegory here. The fact that the eggs are switched by accident implies blind forces at work, which in turn connects with Bulgakov's Tolstoyan attitude to history itself. In any case, Feyt's name gives us a clue to his role. Like many other negative characters, such as Stroganov in Bulgakov's play about Pushkin, Last Days, Feyt is blind to possible consequences.
This novella should be evaluated not only in the context of the Diaboliad collection, but as a companion piece to the other two novellas Bulgakov wrote in the twenties, "Diaboliad" itself and Heart of a Dog. These works share themes and stylistic devices, as Bulgakov turned from the historical and autobiographical material of the Civil War to modern city life, with its exuberance and contradictions. In this new world Bulgakov finds many traces of the old, despite the new jargon (which he parodies) and the advances of science which are supposed to change the world. The theme of the misuse of science is even stronger in Heart of a Dog, which is, unlike "The Fatal Eggs," an unambiguous allegory about the dangers of remaking the world overnight through revolution.
It is appropriate that "The Fatal Eggs" was included in the collection Diaboliad: as in the story "Diaboliad," there are signs of the devil at work everywhere. Bulgakov was especially amused by rumors of the anti-Christ, and here the peasants spread the rumor that Feyt is none other than he. The secret police are given shoes with toes that resemble hooves, and variations on the phrase "the devil knows" are scattered throughout the tale.
The narrative is a deliberate melange of styles and parodies. At times the events are seen from the point of view of a credulous, dense journalist; at other points the voice is that of an omniscient, ironical narrator. Bulgakov's aim is clearly to get his readers off balance, and in this he succeeds, following perfectly rendered scientific description with very funny semi-literate journalese typical of the yellow press, in which big words are consistently misused. Bulgakov's ear for the speech of this era serves him well. The description of the chicken plague is an Iliad of the animal world, containing many comic catalogues. Puns and word distortions, combined with the ignorance of the characters, are further sources of comedy for the reader—and confusion for the characters. The title itself contains a double pun: rok (fate) sounds like Rokk (Feyt's name in Russian), so that one could hear the title as Rokk's Eggs as well as "The Fatal Eggs." In Russian the word eggs (iaitsa) is the vulgar Russian term corresponding to the English "balls" when describing the male anatomy, so that the title of the story can also be read as The Fatal Balls or Rokk's Balls, either quite shocking to the Russian ear. Bulgakov continually plays on these double entendres throughout the story. "The Fatal Eggs" has a structure based on comic illogic and surprise, with frustration of expectation the norm: chapter titles promise what they do not deliver, and interesting plot lines are deliberately interrupted at crucial points, all leading, of course, to greater suspense.
Whatever its muddiness as allegory, "The Fatal Eggs" is a successful work of the imagination. Bulgakov's ability to make the fantastic seem real, the graphic descriptions of the giant reptiles ravaging the land, the rush of the narration—these things are so powerful that the reader tends not to stop and analyze anything. Indeed, according to Mayakovsky, who returned from a trip to America in 1925, one American newspaper had reported the plot of "The Fatal Eggs" as if it were true.
Seen against the other notable works of the time, "The Fatal Eggs" is especially original and daring. This work immediately convinced both readers and critics that Bulgakov was a writer to watch, and, for many people, "The Fatal Eggs" seemed to be the best of Bulgakov's satiric prose. This, however, was only because his real masterpiece of this particular genre of satiric science fiction, Heart of a Dog, was never published in the Soviet Union.
"The Fatal Eggs" provoked strong responses from the critics. Some thought it counter-revolutionary, while others were puzzled by the apparent contradictions. One generally hostile critic, D. Gorbov [in "Itogi literaturnogo goda," Novyi mir, 1925], was willing, but unable, to attribute an anti-Soviet meaning to the work:
Despite all readiness to read into it some definite meaning, even more some repudiation of our society (as one of the critics advises us to do), we confess that we couldn't do it: too many threads are left hanging.
Another critic wondered how a work obviously meant for the "White Guardisi press" had ended up on the pages of the Soviet periodical Nedra [M. Lirov, "Nedra, Kniga 6-ia," Pechat'i revoliutsiia, July-September, 1925]. Fyodor Gladkov, the author of Cement, accused Bulgakov of feeling culturally superior while "vomiting on our way of life." (This last was in a letter to Gorky, who was an admirer of Bulgakov's story [Literaturnoe nasledstvo 70. Gor'kii i sovetskie pisateli. Neizdannaia perepiska, 1971]).
Gorky was not the only one to praise the story. A New World (Novyi mir) critic wrote:
Bulgakov's tale is not just light reading. The characters, types and scenes are all topical and pointed. A brief sentence is enough to illuminate an ugly corner of our present life with a bright ray of laughter.
The editor of the respected journal Red Virgin Soil (Krasnaia nov'), Voronsky, provided an interesting analysis of this novella some years later, in 1927, when Bulgakov was under attack for a long list of literary sins, including the writing of "The Fatal Eggs." Voronsky calls the work unusually talented and caustic, and notes that its basic thesis is that bad can come of a good idea when it ends up in the head of a well-meaning, but ignorant person. This is, he agrees, the right of a writer: why not discuss this problem? But the critic claims that the flaw in Bulgakov's work is that he does not know exactly why he is writing this "lampoon" or what precisely he wants done about the problem.
At best, this work arouses doubt .. . in the end one doesn't know where he is leading us: perhaps not at all in the direction which our new reader, who values October [i.e., the Revolution] wants to go. ["Pisatel, kniga, chitatel," Krasnaia nov', 1927]
In my view, all of these critics, save Gladkov, are correct. Bulgakov, perhaps afraid of the censorship, perhaps undecided in his own mind, does not follow through. His joke does not have a logical punch line; it is nevertheless very funny.
The critics may have had doubts, but the readers did not. S. N. Sergeev-Tsensky, one of the regular contributors to the almanac, said that Bulgakov's work was the only thing in Nedra that wasn't boring [M. Chudakora, "Arkhiv M. A. Bulgakov"].
Bulgakov's most important admirer was Gorky. In his letters from this period Gorky recommended that his correspondents get a copy of Nedra and read Bulgakov's tale: "It will make you laugh. It's a witty thing!" Gorky's only complaint was that Bulgakov had not exploited all of the work's possibilities—he had not, for example, included a picture of the giant reptiles advancing on Moscow, which, he said, would have made a "terrifically interesting scene."
In 1926, in a review of Bulgakov's hit play Days of the Turbins, an American correspondent mentioned Bulgakov's "first book of short stories which caused a sensation here eighteen months ago because it included a daring skit on some of the weak points in Bolshevist methods. It was called 'The Fatal Eggs'" [Walter Duranty, "Red Intelligentsia Is Stirred by Play," New York Times, November 7, 1926]. This, we may assume, represented general opinion available to a foreign correspondent, and demonstrates why "The Fatal Eggs" would eventually be seen as a serious literary transgression. . . .
[The] manuscript Bulgakov submitted to the Nedra publishing house shows that he originally planned that the Diaboliad collection would contain the story "The Fire of the Khans" as well as the other stories which were finally printed in it. In terms of subject matter this would have made sense; it seems likely that the censorship would not pass the story of an emigre who secretly returns to Russia in order to set fire to his former estate. The stories which were printed, however, are scarcely less provocative, given the requirements of the censorship even in these years, and it is understandable that the collection is still banned in the Soviet Union.
"No. 13. The EIpit-Rabkommun Building," orginally published in 1922, recounts the rise and fall of the Elpit Building, the history of which is based on the Pigit Building where Bulgakov was living. According to Levshin, the details of the building's history are fairly accurate. Bulgakov describes the worst moment in this history—when it was transformed into a workers' commune. The only person standing between this magnificent building and utter ruin is the efficient superintendent, Christy, who had worked at the building since before the Revolution. But Christy cannot save the building from the ignorance of its new inhabitants. When there is no fuel for a week these people start using the little stoves in their rooms, which have no flues, for heat. The result is that the building goes up in flames. At the end of the story, the old woman who has caused the fire, Annushka—no doubt a version of that same Annushka-the-plague from The Master and Margarita—has a lucid thought for the first time in her life: "We are ignorant people. Ignorant people. We must be taught, fools that we are . . . "
This is a cautionary tale, firmly rooted in the reality of the life of the people in Bulgakov's building, and the implications of the story are hardly orthodox, even for the early 1920s. In this work we may see Christy as an analogue to the caretaker in "The Fire of the Khans," a man who takes care of a place or property out of love and long association. His efficiency shows him to be the opposite of the Bulgakovian building manager, who is both ineffective and officious. That Christy is essentially an unreconstructed pre-Revolutionary type would not have been overlooked by contemporary readers.
"The Adventures of Chichikov," first published in Nakanune in 1922, is an act of homage to Bulgakov's beloved Gogol. Bulgakov later wrote play adaptations and scenarios for Dead Souls and The Inspector General, but this is his first known "Gogolism." The title of the story is the one which Gogol's censors insisted he use above the title of Dead Souls; while Bulgakov uses characters and lines from that novel, he also cannibalizes other works by Gogol, including The Inspector General and "The Nose." Much of the material of this story is actually composed of bits and pieces of Gogol's prose, for example, the last line: "... and again life went parading before me in its quotidian way." This tale of how Gogol's resurrected scoundrels successfully swindle everyone in NEP-era Moscow makes the point that the Russian corruption which existed before the Revolution is flourishing after as well. Just as all of the illegal deals are coming to a climax, the narrator himself enters the story to rout the rascals, as only a reader of Gogol could. The ending, which shows all the preceding events to have been a dream, mimics both Gogol's original version of "The Nose" and the denial of reality found in the preface to "The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich." This story has a certain charm, and is funny, but it is a distinctly minor work, like most of the other short pieces in the Diaboliad collection.
A story which falls outside all of the usual Bulgakovian categories is "A Chinese Tale," first published in 1923. The visual side of Bulgakov's imagination is much in evidence here, as we see what the primitive mind of a Chinese coolie makes of the Red Army and the Civil War. In the end he understands nothing, and is comforted only by the sensual memories of his childhood under the hot sun, in contrast to the cold of Moscow. The repetition of certain key details which are packed with meaning for the character—the kaoliang, the shadow, the buckets of cold water—is characteristic of Bulgakov's serious prose. The coolie's cocaine dream, with its careful incorporation of details from his past and a foreshadowing of his future, is also well done. At the time the Diaboliad collection was published, critics took the story to be a polemic with Vsevolod Ivanov's famous "Armored Train 14-69," a story which was made into a play and put on at the Art Theater shortly after Bulgakov's Days of the Turbins. Ivanov's story, published in 1922, also has a Chinese hero, who is genuinely heroic, joining the Bolsheviks to serve the cause. In the end he deliberately sacrifices his life for his comrades, throwing himself under the wheels of a train which must be stopped. In contrast, Bulgakov's coolie owes his original acceptance by the Red Army to his utterance of three words in Russian (the only Russian he has picked up)—the oath "Fuck your mother." This coolie serves and kills strictly for bread, and ideology is something quite incomprehensible to him. The story follows the format of titled mini-chapters, but it remains a sort of special exception in Bulgakov's works, a work whose point is elusive, as if it were an exercise in exoticism, under the influence of some well-known works by Bunin and others. But the character, the opium den, and the Finnish knife will return again, in the play Zoya's Apartment.
In November of 1924 Bulgakov signed a contract with the Nedra publishing house for a collection of stories. In May 1925, Mospoligraf printed Bulgakov's collection of stories under the general title Diaboliad (D'iavoliada). This collection, the only real book to be published during Bulgakov's lifetime, was responsible for much of his reputation among readers and other writers. It contained "Diaboliad," "The Fatal Eggs," "No. 13. The Elpit-Rabkommun Building," "A Chinese Tale," and "The Adventures of Chichikov."
The edition was not large, apparently five thousand, and book collectors assert that part of the edition was destroyed, making the book a bibliographic rarity. Despite the small edition, the book helped Bulgakov's reputation, revealing as it did a writer of real talent who used specifically modern Soviet material in an original manner. The book received substantial critical attention, much of it negative, but even if some critics became suspicious of Bulgakov on the basis of this collection, the editors and publishers greeted "The Fatal Eggs" with enthusiasm, since it was a work which would attract and satisfy readers.
The cumulative impression of the stories included in the Diaboliad collection is one of dark satire. Bulgakov deliberately selected works which fit the conception of "deviltry," and there is an edge to the humor: major characters die with frequency, and a demonic force appears to operate in all five works. In "Diaboliad" a clerk commits suicide after being driven insane by a quirk of fate; in "The Fatal Eggs" the major character is murdered by a man, and numerous others by reptiles; in "No. 13. The Elpit-Rabkommun Building," an old woman burns down a building, causing the death of a fireman; in "A Chinese Tale," the Chinese sharp-shooter is bayonetted; in "The Adventures of Chichikov," Gogol's characters find that little has changed in the new Russia.
The diabolic references in these works are ironically misleading. Virtually every time someone says "the devil take it," "the devil only knows," there is an assumption that the devil himself or some other distant force is the explanation of whatever has gone wrong. Closer examination reveals, however, that more often than not, people themselves are to blame for what appears devilish—burning down the house (when specifically warned not to have fires), rushing ahead with a new discovery (when warned it has not been sufficiently tested), and so on. What village story-tellers would ascribe to the work of the devil, Bulgakov sees as human error, human responsibility. His attribution of events to "deviltry" is ironic, like so much else in these works. There are terrible forces at work in the world of these stories, but they are human ignorance and cupidity, and not deviltry.
Bulgakov was a master at parodying the styles of different social levels, and here we find journalese, bureaucratese, folk locutions, epic narrators, political and military jargon and big city street vulgarisms, to name only a few of the linguistic targets. The style is sophisticated, but perhaps too unrestrained, and the marks of the early twenties are visible throughout—synecdoche, exaggerated attention to physiological changes, comic similes and realized metaphors. Bulgakov did this with a surer touch and fresher eye than most of the writers of the period, but his stories are weak structurally, as if they were novels imprisoned in a short form. Equally unsatisfying is the lack of characterization, which is certainly deliberate, since Bulgakov had demonstrated in "Notes on the Cuff that he was perfectly able to characterize briefly but well. This problem may come from Bulgakov's changing ideas about satire. In any case, this collection shows how early the classic Bulgakovian narrator was present, i.e., from the start. Here is the actor-narrator of The Master and Margarita, who switches from the style of a well-bred educated man to an incredibly dense yokel. Throughout the collection there are multiple points of view, another characteristic of Bulgakov's longer prose.
There is nothing new for Russian literature in the themes of these stories: the madness of urban and bureaucratic life are prominent in the works of Gogol and Saltykov, two of Bulgakov's favorite writers. But the nineteenth-century writers are very different in style. Bulgakov is laconic where they are lavish. Bulgakov brought something new to this material, a genuinely modern outlook and style, which was also different from the work of his contemporaries. As Altshuler mentions [in M. A. Gor'kii i russkaii literatura, 1970], Bulgakov's fantasy differed from that found in the Hoffmannesque works of the Serapion Brothers group. For them, the fantastic world of the soul or spirit was separate, and opposed to, the impoverished world of the senses and the everyday. For Bulgakov, fantasy was a part of the everyday, tightly interwoven with the sensual world, growing right out of it. This required a thorough understanding of the real world, and Bulgakov, like his literary models, was careful to accurately describe the ordinary environments of his heroes as well as the fantastic deformations of that world. Nor can anyone miss the joy he takes in the sights, sounds, and smell of that "ordinary" world which for him is so magical in itself.
Diaboliad as a whole is an interesting collection, especially when judged against the other works of this period, but few critics would have predicted the author's ultimate development as a writer from reading only this. White Guard was a far better indicator of the range and depth of Bulgakov's abilities as a writer, but fate decreed that it be published in full only abroad, leaving Diaboliad as the only prose by which most readers could judge him.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1530
SOURCE: "Medical Ethics and the Problem of Role Ambiguity in Mikhail Bulgakov's 'The Murderer' and Pear S. Buck's 'The Enemy,'" in Literature and Medicine, Vol. 7, 1988, pp. 107-22.
[In the following excerpt, Dagi discusses the moral ambiguity embodied in the physician, Dr. Yashvin, in "The Murderer. "]
Several years after the October revolution, Dr. Yashvin, an urbane man and excellent surgeon, appears unusually preoccupied during a soirée. The conversation turns to the way in which the public fails to appreciate the moral probity of physicians. If a patient dies, for example, the physician is called a murderer. This appellation, the host argues, is absurd: "'A surgeon with a pistol in his hand—that . . . might be murder. But I've never met any such surgeon in my life. .. . '"T o the astonishment of those present, Dr. Yashvin announces that he has killed a man—a patient—deliberately. The night of the soirée is the seventh anniversary of the murder.
Yashvin begins his account of the murder by describing the closing days of the civil war in Kiev, when the White Russian forces were in retreat. The arrival of the Bolsheviks was eagerly anticipated by the populace, not only for ideological reasons, but also because of the atrocities committed under the leadership of the infamous Petlyura, general of the White Army. There had been endless pogroms. Naked bodies were everywhere: the dead were robbed of their clothing and possessions. So commonplace had such atrocities become that Yashvin, like many others, was inured to their horror. His interest in the political aspects of the conflict had long since dwindled into apathy. But after the White forces vandalized his library, he too "'started looking forward to the Bolsheviks' arrival.'"
One evening, upon returning from the hospital where he was an intern, Yashvin was summoned to join Petlyura's forces. He decided, instead, to flee. Packing some meager possessions, he purposefully put an automatic pistol and spare magazine in his pocket. Trying to leave the building surreptitiously, he was intercepted by two troopers and brought before Colonel Leshchenko, one of Petlyura's cavalry commanders and a sadist, who declared that Yashvin would be disciplined for attempting to escape. As Yashvin observed the brutal punishment that was meted out by the Colonel to deserters, he realized that this would most probably be his lot as well.
In the course of battle, the cavalry troop deserted Kiev and moved to Slobodka, guarding Yashvin closely to preclude his escape. New headquarters were established. People were brought in and tortured. Yashvin could not close his ears to the anguished sounds of human agony. When he protested, he was told that the Colonel has discovered '"an organization in Slobodka. Communists and Yids.'" Interrogations were in progress: the tortures continued while Yashvin tended to wounded soldiers.
Suddenly Yashvin was summoned to treat the Colonel, who had just been stabbed by one of the men under interrogation. As Yashvin examined the wound, a woman burst in, distraught, demanding to know why her husband had been shot. In reply, the Colonel said simply, "'"Because he had to be shot, that's why."'" The woman turned contemptuously to Yashvin and exclaimed:
"'And you're a doctor!' . . .
'"Oh, my God,' . . . 'what a wretch you are . . . you trained at university and yet you can bring yourself to treat this murdering swine ... tying nice little bandages for them! He thrashes a man in the face without cease, till he drives him mad . . . And you're bandaging him!'"
Yashvin did not answer her, but he remembers: '"Everything blurred before my eyes and I felt sick; I knew the most terrible episode in my wretched career as a doctor had begun.'" The woman spat in the Colonel's face. Furiously, he ordered his men to thrash her twenty-five times with a ramrod. Only then did Yashvin protest: "They're going to beat a woman?'" The colonel retorted, "'Now I see what sort of a doctor I've been given!'" Quietly, Yashvin continues his account:
"I must have fired one of the bullets into his mouth because I remember him swaying on the stool and blood running out of his mouth;... Finally he slumped to the floor. As I pulled the trigger, I remember being afraid of losing count and firing the seventh bullet, the last one. 'That'll be for my own death,' I said to myself. The smell of gun powder from the automatic was delicious."
Yashvin escaped by jumping out of a window and hiding during a night filled with artillery barrage. The next morning, Petlyura's men fled. The Bolsheviks were in control, and Yashvin returned to Kiev.
The end of Yashvin's story is met with silence. After a pause, the host cautiously inquires whether Yashvin is certain that Colonel Leshchenko died. Is it possible he was only wounded? "'Oh, don't worry,'" responds Yashvin. "'I killed him all right. Trust my experience as a surgeon.'"
"The Murderer" is a parable in which truth is less important than plausibility. Yashvin serves two purposes for Bulgakov: figuratively, he stands for the virtuous physician; allegorically, he represents the intelligentsia. . . . From the very first, Yashvin is established as a morally significant figure. In the context of post-revolutionary Russia, he is remarkably balanced: cultured, intellectual, educated, and reasonable. His support for the Bolsheviks is highly qualified, perhaps even reluctant. He is neither a radical nor a pacifist and certainly not a fanatic ideologue. No, Yashvin is set slightly apart from his audience: he is, in some vaguely defined way, an admirable individual.
The murder is a secret that the audience neither expects nor quite believes. It belies the character of the man. Yashvin may have killed, but it is inconceivable that he should have murdered. Yet Yashvin is not introduced in a heroic mode. His attempts to escape Petlyura arise from self interest, not principle. In many respects he begins solipsistically. He neither aspires to virtue nor thinks of it: on the contrary, virtue is thrust upon him by circumstance. Early on, like a reporter, Yashvin observes the tragedies that surround him without becoming involved. He attempts to parlay his professional role as a physician into political neutrality. The impossibility of this position becomes evident to the audience before it is acknowledged by Yashvin. It requires external moral indignation to prod Yashvin into action. The woman whose husband has been killed addresses him in stages: first as a physician; next as a person; then as a member of the intelligentsia, a civilized human being; and finally as a morally responsible agent. At each level, a different moral issue is raised as a consequence of distinct roles and role responsibilities. As a doctor, how could Yashvin stand by, witness, and tacitly condone the atrocities he describes? As a person, what must his own moral standard be? As an educated soul and a member of the intelligentsia, would he not know better, would he be ignorant of the differences between right and wrong? And ultimately, on the level of an explicit ethical challenge to Yashvin's conflicting responsibilities in each of these roles, how can Yashvin save the life of an immoral being? Yashvin knowingly has the opportunity to choose between the moral responsibilities of these several roles, and now must do so.
These questions move Yashvin, but do not overcome his moral paralysis. Now, however, he has been sensitized acutely. A relatively more trivial issue releases and captures the full force of his hitherto unexpressed—perhaps even unacknowledged—moral dismay. As the Colonel orders his men to take the woman away to beat her, Yashvin cries out in protest—ostensibly because it is a woman who is about to be beaten. This breach of chivalry becomes the proverbial straw, or, to use a different metaphor, the lens that focuses Yashvin's indignation. Yashvin realizes that the most terrible episode in his career has begun. With this recognition, he transfers himself and the reader from the mode of moral disengagement to that of ethical discourse. This is the critical moment, the instant of moral revelation, when right and wrong are starkly and inescapably contrasted.
Forced to confront the meaning of what he has witnessed, Yashvin can no longer escape. His weak protest as the woman assails him—"Are you talking to me?," as if there were any other possibility—is a gesture of moral defensiveness, akin to Cain's response after the death of Abel. Alea jacta est: "this has been the first step." He has acknowledged, however weakly, the moral revelation. Now the question is whether he will find the wherewithal to act.
Ironically, the Colonel's response, parallelling the woman's taunt, is what challenges Yashvin to his core: "Now I see what sort of a doctor I've been given!" Yashvin is left with no choice. He kills the Colonel. He proves what kind of doctor the Colonel has been given. But has he acted as a physician or in some other role? Has he taken unjust advantage of his access to the Colonel? As a physician, is he not prohibited from killing, particularly from killing his own patient? Would a caring physician not feel at least some remorse?
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5203
SOURCE: "Failures of Transformation in Sobac̆'e serdce" in Slavic and East-European Journal, Vol. 33, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 386-99.
[In the following essay, Fusso analyzes the scope of political allegory in The Heart of a Dog (Sobac̆'e serdcej, concluding that the allegorical level extends beyond "the level of social and political themes, which lie relatively close to the surface..., [to] the level of language, where Bulgakov's critique of radical transformation finds perhaps its deepest expression. "]
Bulgakov's Sobac̆'e serdce is the tale of a transformation: a meddling professor turns a perfectly nice dog into an obnoxious man. As recently as 1984, in Ellendea Proffer's biography of Bulgakov [entitled Bulgakov: Life and Work, 1984], the story has been read as an allegory of the revolutionary transformation of Russian society, a cautionary tale about the dangers of tampering with nature. Other readers have been understandably dissatisfied with the schematicism of an interpretation that draws an equation between plot events and political events and seems to deny the richness and complexity so characteristic of Bulgakov. Yet, it is impossible to deny the allegorical aura of this fable-like work. If Sobac̆'e serdce is in fact an allegory, it is by no means a simple or naive one. Bulgakov's allegory is both broader and deeper than the political reading in the tradition of Animal Farm implies. It has as its frame of reference not only the Marxist revolution but the cult of the new in all its forms: technological, commercial, linguistic, and aesthetic. The allegory is expressed not just in plot and theme, but in every level of the text. In other words, it is a matter not just of fabula but of sjuz̆et in Tynjanov's sense, permeating style, lexicon, and narrative construction. The allegorical reading can be refined and deepened through a closer look at the process of transformation in Sobac̆'e serdce not just on the level of social and political themes, which lie relatively close to the surface and have been rather thoroughly elucidated, but on the level of language, where Bulgakov's critique of radical transformation finds perhaps its deepest expression. For of all Bulgakov's works Sobac̆'e serdce is the most skeptical about the possibility of instant, irreversible metamorphosis through the magical power of language.
In his study of the fantastic, [The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, translated by Richard Howard, 1973], Tzvetan Todorov characterizes metamorphosis as a type of transcendence:
We say readily enough that someone monkeys around, or that he fights like a lion, like an eagle, etc. The supernatural begins the moment we shift from words to the things these words are supposed to designate. The metamorphoses . . . constitute a transgression of the separation of matter and mind as it is generally conceived. .. . the transition from mind to matter has become possible.
This formulation reminds us of the beauty, swiftness, and irreversibility of transformation in that encyclopedia of change, Ovid's Metamorphoses. In Ovid's work human desire or guilt combines with divine power to effect miraculous and satisfyingly complete transformation. In Sobac̆'e serdce, transformations are human, devoid of theophany, and thus flawed, incomplete, and reversible—mind fails to control or transcend matter. On the highest level of generality, the stubbornly materialistic universe of this work is related to Bulgakov's attitude toward the recent social transformation of Russia, particularly in response to the myth of that transformation propounded by Vladimir Majakovskij.
Sobac̆'e serdce, written in early 1925 and not published in the Soviet Union until 1987, is set in the Moscow of the immediate past, December, 1924, to January, 1925, at the height of the NÈP period. A mutt named šarik, who helps narrate the first three chapters, is lured home by the arch-bourgeois reactionary, Professor Filipp Filippovic Preobraz̆enskij. Preobraz̆enskij's scientific interest is in eugenics, the improvement of the human race, but he makes his living and protects his seven-room apartment from consolidation by performing rejuvenation operations on NÈP-men and government officials. After a period of recuperation and fattening up, during which s̆arik observes the goings-on in the poxabnaja kvartirka, he himself becomes the subject of an experiment. Preobraz̆enskij practices his surgical techniques by transplanting the pituitary gland and testes of a recently deceased criminal, Klim Cugunkin, into the dog. Contrary to the expected outcome—S̆arik's death—the dog survives, gradually takes on human shape and the ability to speak, and christens himself Poligraf Poligrafovic̆ S̆arikov. S̆arikov resists the educational efforts of both Preobraz̆enskij's assistant Bormental, who attempts to drum the rules of bourgeois etiquette into the wretch's head, and the house manager s̆vonder, who gives him the Correspondence of Engels and Kautsky toread and gets him a job purging the city of stray cats. s̆arikov's disruptive escapades take on a serious character when he writes a denunciation of Preobraz̆enskij, and the exasperated professor and his assistant perform another operation, reversing the effects of the original one. The story ends with s̆arik, scarred but ignorant of his interlude as a man, watching Preobraz̆enskij continue his researches.
s̆arik is born u Preobraz̆enskoj zastavy, Klim dies there. The entire story proceeds under the sign of preobraz̆enie, transfiguration. On the level of style, the work is saturated with similes, metaphors, and metonymies, which have the momentary effect of transforming one thing into another. In narrative fiction, figurative expressions carry more weight than they do in everyday language because of the significance each detail acquires in the process of interpretation. Thus the figures of speech in Sobac̆'e serdce, as several critics have noted, transform the emotional tone of certain key scenes. The kitchen where Preobraz̆enskij's cook, Dar'ja Perrovna, presides is a hell where she toils in vec̆naja ognennaja muka, and where she flays the bodies of defenseless grouse kakjarostnyj palac̆. The fire of her kitchen is transferred to her amorous exploits when she entertains her fireman lover. Kak demon pristal, she murmurs to him. Doc̆ego vy ognennaja! he answers. The same change in coloration is given to the scene of the operation on s̆arik, as an ominous tone begins to pervade the comic work. For example, Preobraz̆enskij is referred to as z̆rec, pagan priest. This epithet, when combined with Preobraz̆enskij's love for Aida, reminds us that the major function of the priest in that opera is to offer up the soprano and the tenor as human sacrifices. He is also compared here to a vdoxnovennyj razbojnik and a sytyj vampir.
Despite the effect of temporary transformation, these similes stay on this side of Todorov's limit between mind and matter. Dar'ja Petrovna remains a very earthly and innocuous servant despite her figurative ties with hell; Preobrazenskij, variously referred to as bozestvo, francuzskij rycar', and Faust, remains a recognizably human and unheroic figure. The failure of figurative language to realize itself in Sobac'e serdce becomes more obvious when compared with the status of figurative language in Master i Margarita. Here there is a constant play with realization of commonplace metaphor. The inhabitants of Apartment No. 50 are said to have "mysteriously disappeared," when in fact they have been arrested, but when the Devil comes to town, people begin to vanish instantaneously and by supernatural means. In an homage to Gogol, a bureaucrat's request, certi b menja vzjali, is immediately granted, and his empty suit is left to toil away behind his desk. And when an audience expresses its dissatisfaction by calling for the M. C.'s head to be torn off, their metaphor is instantly realized by the demonic cat Begemot. No such magical realizations of the figurative occur in Sobac'e serdce.
Characters are transformed not only through figurative language but by the physiological changes accompanying emotional stress. Preobrazenskij is particularly prone to turn an apoplectic red or a ghostly white under the travails caused by Sarikov and Svonder. The expression on menjalsja í lice marks the crisis of several scenes. Such changes in appearanceare concentrated in the scenes of the two operations on Sarik. In the first, Preobrazenskij's face stalo strasnym; Bormental's becomes mjasistyj i raznocvetnyj. Even the professor's fingers are transformed: svoimi korotkimi pal 'carni, stavsimi tocno cudom tonkimi i gib kirn i. In the later scene of the subduing and retransformation ofthe odious Sarikov, Bormental is seen by the servants s ne svoim licom, and a bit later with zelenoe lieo. Preobrazenskij, too í tot vecer sam na sebja ne by I poxoz. Preobrazenskij also undergoes a more protracted change in appearance. Under the strain of dealing with Sarikov, he begins to look older and more haggard. When a former patient comes to warn him of Sarikov's denunciation, he notices cto professor sgorbilsja i daze kak budto posedel za poslednee vremja. But this change is seen to have been reversed along with the change of Sarikov back into Sarik: vse mogli ubedit'sja srazu, cto Filipp Filippovic ocen ' popravilsja í poslednjuju nedelju.
All these changes are temporary and psychologically motivated. Bulgakov dealt with changes in appearance very differently in his 1924 story "D'javoliada." Here the demonic Kal'soner drives his subordinate Korotkov mad by his rapid, supernatural transformations. He goes from being clean-shaven to having a long Assyrian beard and back again, his voice varies from the clang of a copper pan to a sweet falsetto, and he ultimately becomes a black cat and then a white cock that is swallowed up by the earth only to reappear in Kal'soner's original form (breathing fire this time) to preside over Korotkov's selfdestruction. No explanation is offered; the story is so free with the mind-matter limit as to lose all narrative coherence. By contrast, the changes in appearance in Sobac'e serdce are well within the bounds of conventional realistic description. It is only in the context of the story's other types of transformation that they become at all remarkable.
An important verbal transformation is laid bare in Sarik's opening "narration." The convention of the satirical canine observer is a very old one, going back at least to Lucian. But Bulgakov introduces a curious twist. This dog's seemingly first-person narrative is contaminated by the voice of an omniscient third-person narrator. In Mirra Ginsburg's English translation Sarik's narration is printed in italics to set it off from the omniscient narrator's voice, but in the Russian the only signal is provided by the narrator's past-tense verb forms, which interrupt Sarik's present tense. Even Sarik's first-person narration, however, is invaded by bits of information that could be known only to the omniscient narrator, thus disturbing the illusion that the dog is speaking. Sarik lets fall certain facts that he could not possibly know at this point, such as Preobrazenskij's name and patronymic and the fact that he is velicina mirovogo znacenija, blagodarja muzskim polovym zelezam. When Sarik becomes a man, his first utterances are disconnected obscenities and fragments of conversations. Bormental concludes: Rugan' èia metodiceskaja, bespreryvnaja i, po-vidimomu, soversenno bessmyslennaja . . . kak budto eto suscestvo gde-to ran'se sly sala branny e slova, avtomaticeski podsoznatel'no zaneslo ix í svoj mozg i teper ' izrygaet ix packami. But this contradicts our initial impression of Sarik's command of language—in his opening narration he is coherent, shrewd, and the master of a literary style. The inevitable conclusion is that the opening narration is actually in one voice, but a voice that shifts between an objective presentation and an imitation of a dog's-eye view—a kind of ventriloquism. Bulgakov lays bare the convention of representing a character's inner life. The narrator indeed transforms himself into a dog, but it is an imperfect transformation. Gaps and incongruities are left in order to signal that this transformation too remains on the level of figurative language. This is not a dog's narration but a doglike narration.
When we move to the level of plot, we find that transformation remains the dominant motif. Again, however, transcendence of the mind-matter limit fails to be achieved; verbal transformation remains verbal, and physical change is brought about by physical means. Rejuvenation is evoked in figurative language twice. Sarik, following the sausage held out to him by Preobrazenskij, sees a poster with the words: Vozmozno li omoloeznie? He answers: Natural'no, vozmozno. Zapax omolodil menja . . . Similarly, Dar'ja Petrovna asks her ardent lover: Cto ty, cisto tebja toze omolodili? One of Preobrazenskij's patients calls him mag i carodej, but his rejuvenation operations are not a magical feat but a technical one, and it is clear that the technique is still imperfect and in need of improvement. The same patient has green hair, as a result of using a dye made by the government cosmetics industry in an attempt to make his appearance match his rejuvenated sexual appetite. When he suggests that a method of rejuvenating hair might be Preobrazenskij's next project, the latter replies: Ne srazu, ne srazu, moj dorogoj. This imperfect rejuvenation process can be compared with the magical action of Azazello's cream in Master i Margarita. The cream instantaneously takes ten years off Margarita's age—both her vitality and her youthful looks are restored in seconds.
The transformation of Šarik into Šarikov is also connected with figurative language. It evokes the whole complex of Russian expressions built on the word sobaka: sobaè'ja sèast'e (Bulgakov's original title for the work), sobaè'ja zizn', sobake sobaè'ja smert', and a remarkable saying attested by Dal: Ne bej sobaki, i ona byla èelovekom (Dal's note: obrašèena í psa za prozorlivost'). The pejorative connotations of these expressions, though, are more apposite to Klim the man than to Šarik the dog. The obnoxiousness of Šarikov is due not to his canine aspects but to the human legacy of Klim. If he has a sobaè'e serdce, it is not in the literal sense of a heart actually belonging to a dog. Šarikov has Klim's human heart, which can be called sobaè'e serdce only in the pejorative figurative sense.
Despite the metaphorical aura and proverbial documentation of the dog-into-man transformation, the transformation of Šarik, like the rejuvenation operations, is a matter of technical skill, not an instantaneous magical feat brought about by language. Bulgakov devotes an entire harrowing chapter to a description of the operation, informed by his own practical experience as a doctor. He emphasizes the intense physicality of surgery, the pressure to accomplish difficult maneuvers quickly, racing against the perishability of the body. He spares no detail of spurting blood or oozing tissue. The action of opening Šarik's cranium is described as a feat of craftsmanship: [Preobraženskij] naèal pilit', kak vypilivajut damskij rukodel'nyj jašèik. Even the seemingly magical change in Šarik's shape after the operation, described in Dr. Bormental's notebook, is eventually shown to be in accordance with physical laws, as defined within the story. Preobrazenskij's discovery that the pituitary gland determines the shape (oblik) of the organism is the rational explanation for what otherwise would seem to be a supernatural occurrence. The transformation of Šarik lacks magical ease and speed, but it also lacks magical completeness. Šarikov is not a new being, an educable tabula rasa, as Bormental thinks. Preobrazenskij recognizes that he cannot be educated beyond the limits of Klim Cugunkin. He refines Bortmental's definition of their discovery: Odnim slovom, gipofiz—zakrytaja kamera, opredeljajušèaja celoveceskoe dannoe lieo. Dannoel . . . a ne obscecelovëceskoe. Thus this new creature has a past—the past of Klim Čugunkin, petty crook and alcoholic.
Early in the story, when Preobrazenskij triumphs over the house committee that seeks to consolidate his apartment, Šarik thinks: Čto on, slovo, čto li, takoe znaet? In fact it is not the power of language but the power of Preobrazenskij's influence over his highly-placed patient that has done the trick. In general, language does not have the magical efficacy in Sobaè'e serdce that it does in other Bulgakov works, notably Master i Margarita. Here we find, as in Master i Margarita, the maxim that a person cannot exist without a document. In Master i Margarita, the existence of Aloizij Mogaryc is obliterated and denied when his name disappears from the landlord's rentbook (Nikakogo Mogaryca ne bylo), and the Master is restored from nonentity (Ja teper' nikto) to full-fledged existence when he retrieves his papers. But in the epilogue of Sobač'e serdce, the document attesting to the existence of Poligraf Poligrafovic Šarikov is powerless in the face of the physical evidence of the re-caninized Šarik. Another manifestation of the power of language, frequently used by Gogol, is the way in which rumors take on a life of their own and begin to influence events in the physical world. In the Bulgakov work that immediately preceded Sobač'e serdce, "Rokovye jajca," rumors about a scientist's experiment ultimately destroy him, when an angry mob bursts into his laboratory and beats him to death. In Sobač'e serdce, similar rumors fly, distorting the nature of Preobrazenskij's experiment and linking it with the apocalypse, but they have only the minor result of an increase in annoying telephone calls. In one case, language in the form of rumors exerts an influence over life and death; in the other, despite the threat of apocalypse, language fails to be translated into physical action. "Rokovye jajca" bears an interesting relation to Sobač'e serdce. It treats similar plot material but in a very different way. Instead of being set in the immediate past it is set in the near future; as a result the events are given a more fantastic treatment. Of course Sobač'e serdce belongs to the genre of science fiction, since the physical laws it posits are not those that we know to be valid, and even Preobrazenskij's imperfect operation surpasses the technological capabilities of medical science in the 1920s. But although "Rokovye jajca" is also about a scientific experiment gone wrong, its tone and atmosphere are entirely different from those of Sobač'e serdce. In "Rokovye jajca," the Moscow landscape is illuminated by moving, speaking advertisements and news stories flashing from the roofs of skyscrapers; the results of Persikov's experiments culminate in scenes of cartoon violence and gore; the giant, malevolent reptiles to which his ray has given birth decimate the Mozajsk cavalry and nearly encircle Moscow. In Sobač'e serdce, the streets of the city and the psychology of the characters are realistically observed, and the treatment of Preobrazenskij's exteriment avoids hyperbole—Preobrazenskij's troubles with arikov occur on a restricted, one might say intimately domestic, scale. Thus although both stories may technically be labeled science fiction, "Rokovye jajca" is much farther removed from traditional psychological realism than is Sobač'e serdce.
Sobač'e serdce lacks the quality determined by Todorov as the hallmark of the fantastic: the hesitation between a rational and a supernatural explanation for unusual events. The narration explicitly postulates a rational, scientific explanation for the change in Šarik; within the narrative, physical laws are obeyed. There are no magic or divine transformations here as in Master i Margarita, where demonic mountebanks turn rubles into dollars, a beret into a meowing cat, and a human head into a jewelled goblet. Sobač'e serdec stays stubbornly within a materialistic universe, where verbal transformations remain figures of speech and physical transformations are difficult, slow, and incomplete.
Why does Bulgakov here discredit the magical power of language, while in other works he allows Todorov's mindmatter limit to be freely transgressed? A clue is provided by the presence in the text of Vladimir Majakovskij. Majakovskij appears precisely in his capacity as čarodej for the new Soviet state, utterer of magical incantations designed to influence external reality, high priest of magically realized metaphor. The first reference to Majakovskij appears in Šarik's opening narration. The dog quotes Majakovskij's most famous advertising slogan: Nigde krome kak v Mossel 'pronte. Majakovskij took advertising very seriously; of this slogan he wrote: Nesmotrja na poètičeskoe uljuljukan'e, sčitaju 'Nigde krome kak v Mossel 'prome ' poèziej samoj vysokoj kvalifikacii [Polnoe sobranie soèinenijv trinadcati tomax, 1955-61]. He saw advertising as the industrial and commercial branch of agitation. In a 1923 article, Agitacija i reklama, he emphasizes the magical efficacy of good advertising: Nado zvat', nado reklamirovat', čtob kaleki nemedlenno isceljalis' i bezzali pokupat', torgovat', smotret'l Advertising is the creation of a name that wields persuasive power: Reklama—èto imja vešèi. Kak xorošij xudoznik sozdaet sebe imja, tak sozdaet sebe imja i vešè'. Uvidev na oblozki zumala 'znamenitoe' imja, ostanavlivajutsja kupit'.
In Sobač'e serdce, the "magical" power of advertising is seen from another point of view, as a pathetic deception. Majakovskij's attempts to create powerful names for Soviet products are consistently undermined in the text. His Mossel'prom slogan is wickedly altered by Šarik. When the dog sees the well-dressed Preobrazenskij buying a sausage in a state store, he cries: Začem ona vam? Dlja čego vam gnilaja lošad'? Nigde, krome takoj otravy ne polučite, kak v Mossel'prome. Throughout the story, Soviet products are shown to be contaminations, substitutions, or pure fictions, as in the case of the galoshes that Majakovskij peddled for Rezinotrest. When Preobrazenskij asks šarikov what will become of all the cats he's strangled in the Purge Bureau, he replies: Napol'ty pojdut.. . .iz nix belok budut delat' na rabočij kredit. The cats will, of course, remain cats, despite being called squirrels. The "name of the thing" as advertised fails to change the substandard nature of the thing itself.
Another reference to Majakovskij occurs during a dinner at which Preobrazenskij expounds to Bormental his reactionary views on the recent revolution. When Bormental timidly suggests that the sudden disappearance of galoshes and steam heat is due to razruxa, Preobrazenskij explodes. He calls the word mirai, dym, fikcija. Čto takoe èto vaša razruxa? Staruxa s kljukoj? Ved'ma, kotoraja vybila íse stekla, potušila vse lampy? According to Preobrazenskij, razruxa is an imaginary scapegoat on which people blame their intellectual and physical inability to cope with external difficulties. In his view, razruxa is in people's heads. Značit, kogda èti baritony kričat 'bej razruxu!'—ja smejus'. . . Èto označaet, čto každyj iz nix dolžen lupit' sebja po zatylku!
It is not hard to guess that these "baritones" represent a paranoiacally multiplied Vladimir Majakovskij. It was indeed he who created the fairy-tale figure of razruxa—trekljataja staruxa for his Okna ROSTA agitational posters in 1920. Razruxa, who also appears in act 5 of the 1920 version oí Misterija-buff, is the embodiment of the forces of chaos and destruction. Hand in hand with her brother Golod, she goes about the country smashing machinery and gobbling up workers. Majakovskij depicts her as a bright-green goblin with a bent girder in her mouth.
Both Majakovskij's advertising and his ROSTA windows were ubiquitous in Moscow of the 1920s, and they presented Bulgakov with a vivid image of Majakovskij's approach to the achievement of utopia. Majakovskij creates a world of magic words, of glittering, if as yet non-existent, consumer goods, of fairy-tale monsters, of heroic Red Army soldiers who can defeat any counter-revolutionary ogre as long as they are armed with the right rhyming couplets. In a 1923 feuilleton, Bulgakov depicts Majakovskij on a balcony, hurling words tjaželye, kak bulyžniki onto the crowd below (Sob. soč.). If in Sobač'e serdce words are denied their usual magical weight and efficacy, it is perhaps because Bulgakov is attempting to counter Majakovskij's magical approach to the large-scale social transformation that forms the background to Sobač'e serdce—the 1917 revolutions.
Bulgakov's works of the decade following the Revolution fix on the physical obstacles blocking the path to utopia. He has left us a graphic picture of the lack of food, clothing, and especially living space endured by all Russians in those years. In his 1923 feuilleton "Sorok sorokov," he looks back on the immediate post-Revolutionary period with clear eyes, denying the attempts of poets to change history through wishful assertion....
Like the smaller-scale transformations in Sobač'e serdce, the transformation of Russian society is a human production, and limited by human power and skill to cope with physical obstacles. Despite his belief in language, when dealing with the problems of post-Revolutionary Russia Bulgakov is concerned to deny the kind of magical incantation indulged in by Majakovskij and his epigones.
In speaking of the possible achievement of utopia, Bulgakov uses not Majakovskij's term "kommuna" but the term "zolotoj vek" (which he will consider to have arrived when sunflower seeds disappear from the streets of Moscow). The classical allusion reminds us that Bulgakov's attitude toward the past also contrasts with that of Majakovskij. For Majakovskij, the Revolution was a realization of the Futurist metaphor of complete newness, of being able to purge language and literature of its past and to start afresh. Bulgakov, who began his public career in Vladikavkaz defending Puškin in a debate against a Majakovskij clone, approached survivals of the past in a very different spirit. For him the famous Futurist call to "throw Puškin, Dostoevskij, Tolstoj, etc., etc., overboard from the Steamship of Modernity" is not only obnoxious but impracticable. The eighteenth-century odie tradition lives on in Majakovskij just as the unpleasant predilections of Klim Šugunkin live on in Šarikov. Even the most radical invention of the Futurists, zaum', cannot free itself entirely of the past; its most brilliant practitioner, Xlebnikov, relies for the power and resonance of his poetry on the meanings and associations accumulated by Russian phonemes and morphemes over the centuries.
As we have seen, Preobrazenskij's transformation of Šarik fails to eradicate the past; the new creature is merely the sum of Klim's character plus a few doggy habits. Although this creates an uncomfortable situation for the professor, there is something comforting in the thought that nothing is really lost, that human transformations fail in completeness and irreversibility. In "Sorok sorokov," Bulgakov's narrator looks out on a panorama of Moscow and sees not only the new but the old—he takes pleasure in recording the former names of buildings and institutions. The skyline is dominated by the "forty forties," the domes of Moscow's ancient churches that have witnessed so many humanly induced transformations. His is not the sour nostalgia of a Preobrazenskij but the calm conscientiousness of an historian, noting the outlines of the past that remain ineradicably in the present and the future.
A final, tangential note. One of the most important functions of language is its labeling function. The consequences of accepting a label or having it forced upon one may be of life-and-death magnitude; the wrong label can mean prison, the right one can mean escape from starvation. Among the genres to which Sobač'e serdce belongs (the literature of talking dogs, of Faust, of Frankenstein) is the literature of hunger, the literature that investigates what happens when bodily needs and desires corrupt the spirit. (In a sense, Master i Margarita belongs to the same genre.) The imperative of the belly was of necessity a vital topic in Soviet literature of the post-1917 era. Even Majakovskij's apocalyptic Misterija-buff is really the story of a group of people in search of a decent meal. In Sobač'e serdce, Šarik is the character most aware of this imperative, having known starvation, and it is his search for security and satiety that leadsto his temporary downfall. He initially resists the name Šarik given him by passersby, on the grounds of inappropriateness: Šarik—èto znaèit kruglyj, upitannyj, glupyj, ovsjanku zret, syn znatnyx roditelej, a on loxmatyj, dolgovjazyj i rvanyj, šljajka podžaraja, bezdomnyj pes. Gradually, however, lulled by the bourgeois comfort of Preobrazenskij's home, Šarik changes his identity from vagabond to oatmeal-eating barskij pes. He even begins to imagine an aristocratic lineage for himself: Oèen ' vozmozno, èto babuška moja sogreš ila s vodolazom.
When Šarik is anesthetized, the last words that float through his head are: Za èto? He has perhaps offered the answer himself in his pre-operative meditations. He admits to himself that he has irrevocably adopted the label barskij pes and traded freedom for comfort. Da i čto takoe volja? Tak, dym, miraz, fikcija, . . . Bred ètix zlosèastnyx demokratov. . . . Unlike Majakovskij's razruxa, volja is not a fairytale witch but a word with a meaningful history. It is for Šarik's failure of courage, his willingness to deny the meaning of freedom, that he is delivered into the hands of his torturers. Šarik is restored to life at the end of Sobač'e serdce, but he has no memory of the transformation to which he has been subjected. There is no guarantee that the same thing will not happen again to the unsuspecting dog. The final scene emphasizes the reversibility of change. Whole phrases are repeated from the pre-operation narrative; the original equilibrium of Pre obrazenskij's apartment has been restored. But the seeds of change also remain, in the form of Preobrazenskij's continuing scientific quest. Šarik has been granted at least temporary peace, but light, the awareness of danger that might arm him against it, has been denied.
Although the ending of Sobač'e serdce might seem to be a Bulgakovian idyll (drawn shades, humming radiators, intellectual at work), the final line from Aida cannot help but evoke the frightening image of the cowled surgeonexecutioner; the ominous, threatening side of Preobrazen skij's personality is clearly present up to the end. Despite attempts to identify Bulgakov with Preobrazenskij, Bulgakov's feuilletons of the 1920s do not deal kindly with people who hang onto seven-room apartments in the midst of a housing shortage. Bulgakov may have had a bourgeois background, but in 1920 he starved along with the proletariat. In "Sorok sorokov" his autobiographical narrator describes his Šarik-like position between two worlds. . . . Survival is won by refusing to capitulate to either camp, by persistence and courage in holding onto freedom—freedom from labels.
Bulgakov's position in relation to literary conservatism on the one hand and the avant-garde on the other is similar to that of his autobiographical narrator vis-à-vis the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Zholkovsky has subtly analyzed the way in which Bulgakov complicates the familiar carnival opposition between the forces of order (government) and of disorder (revolt) in sobaè'e serdce: the professor is both a challenger of the ruling ideology (the Soviet state) and a conservative opponent of disorder, while Šarikov, the carnival clown, is presented not as a liberator but as the villain of the piece. "Èta paradoksal'naja konfiguracija—produkt togo perexodnogo istoričeskogo momenta, kogda pod Porajdkom, podryvu kotorogo posvjaščen Karnaval, možet ponimat'sja kak staryj, tak i novyj rezim" [A. K. zolkovskij, "Dialog Bulgakova: Oleši (o kolbase, parade čuvstv i Golgofe)," in Sintaksis 20 (1988)]. At the moment when the last have become first, when political (and literary) radicalism have become orthodoxy, the individual who wishes to side with either Order or Disorder may not know where to look. Bulgakov's literary strategies take full account of this bewildering perexodnyj istoričeskij moment. He refuses the label either of literary conservative or of avant-gardist; like the narrator of "Sorok sorokov," he perenjal . . . priemy v oboix lagerjax, combining respect for tradition with brilliantly conceived experimentation. Sobač'e serdee may be a product of Bulgakov's reaction against the avant-garde, but Master i Margarita, with its strikingly original blend of psychological realism, horror-movie fantasy, and religious myth, actually makes us believe, contrary to the convictions of its author, that there can be something new under the sun.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5235
SOURCE: "The Social and Political Context of Bulgakov's 'The Fatal Eggs'," in Slavic Review, Vol. 51, No. 3, Fall, 1992, pp. 497-510.
[In the essay below, Haber discusses the satirical parallels between the events following the Bolshevik Revolution and the characters and circumstances in the story "The Fatal Eggs. "]
"The Fatal Eggs," written in 1924 and published in early 1925, was the first of Bulgakov's works to attract widespread attention—and a storm of controversy. Recipient of a few positive reviews as well as uniformly enthusiastic praise—privately expressed—from writers and editors, the novella was also the object of virulent attack from a number of (mostly proletarian) critics. Among the attackers were those who saw the work as a thinly veiled allegory and Professor Persikov's discovery of the "revolutionary" red ray as an allusion to the socialist experiments of the bolsheviks.
While a link between the scientific and socio-political levels of the novella indubitably exists, a strict allegorical reading (in which more recent critics have also been known to engage) is too simplistic to accommodate Bulgakov's rich, complex portrayal of Soviet society. The work's resistance to schematic interpretation, moreover, is compounded by two factors. The first is the myriad of referents associated with its main characters and its central images which operate simultaneously on several planes—the scientific, religio-metaphysical and political—and each level contains multiple meanings, not always easily reconcilable. The second fačtor, which especially complicates interpretation of the socio-political level, is the blurring of time: while occurring in the near future (1928), the novella contains an intricate web of allusions to events of the immediate past. This essay will focus on the social and political dimensions of "The Fatal Eggs" and, by examining in detail the topical realia underlying Bulgakov's fantastic world, reach a more precise understanding than heretofore of these relatively neglected aspects. We should thereby arrive at a greater appreciation of the scope and richness of the work as a whole.
When one turns to the descriptions of Moscow in "The Fatal Eggs," one is struck immediately by the absence of the schematism generally associated with futuristic, allegorical works. Bulgakov's city is, in fact, so far from a straightforward communist utopia (or anti-utopia) that little specifically socialist remains. The noise, lights, rushing cars and teeming crowds render Moscow almost indistinguishable from other modern metropolises like New York or London:
It [the city] shone, lights danced, died down and flashed up. On Theater Square the white headlights of buses and the green lights of trolleys revolved; above the former Miur and Meriliz, over the added tenth story, an electrical, multi-colored woman was jumping, emitting multi-colored words letter by letter: "workers' credit." In the public garden opposite the Bolshoi Theater, where a multi-colored fountain gushed at night, a crowd pushed and hummed.
In this dynamic urban world, many distinguishing signs of bolshevism are fast fading: "comrade" has virtually disappeared from the vocabulary and civil war garb is entirely replaced by suit jackets even among the proletariat. This is not a depiction of a rationalized, socialist city of the future; rather, it is the Moscow of 1928 from the vantage point of the mixed system of NEP [New Economic Policy] that prevailed in 1924.
In this regard, "The Fatal Eggs" has particularly close ties to Bulgakov's feuilletons published in 1922-1924 in the Berlin "Change of Landmarks" newspaper, Nakanune. But the construction and return of plenty of NEP portrayed so vividly in the latter is projected into the near future in the former. The housing crisis, the bane of Bulgakov's early Soviet existence, is at an end and nascent technology and construction have advanced. And if in one Nakanune feuilleton a tail coat amazingly materializes among the uniforms and leather jackets of the civil war period, by the time "The Fatal Eggs" takes place the entire audience at Persikov's lecture is dressed in evening clothes. In the Nakanune pieces, Bulgakov's depiction of the glittering hybrid world of NEP, although far from uncritical, is filled with the optimism and vitality of a recovery period; the Moscow of "The Fatal Eggs" in many ways reflects that optimism. Indeed, some reviewers singled out for praise the glowing depiction of Moscow of the future: " . . . the author of a Utopian r-r-revolutionary novel could hardly arouse in his readers the same sense of a powerful, joyous country, a true New World" [L-v, Novyi mir, 6 (1925)]. Even a more negative reviewer [A. Men'shoi, "Moskva v 1928-m godu," in Zhizn' iskusstva 18 (1955)] praised the "beauty" of the contrasts of old and new, the "running, rush, quickness, dynamism of our marvelous days."
The contemporary reader of "The Fatal Eggs" associated this glittering, speeding city not only—not even primarily—with the new bolshevik order, but with America. Thus our negative critic [Men'shoi] sums up his impression: "Moscow has started living American-style [zazhila poamerikanski]. Moscow has become entirely Americanized [obamerikanilas']" And there are in the text numerous explicit links between this "New World" and America. Persikov's housing problem, for example, has been solved by the efforts of a "united American-Russian company" which in 1926 "built . . . 15 fifteen-story houses in the center of Moscow and 300 workers' cottages, each containing eight apartments, on the outskirts, thus ending once and for all the terrible and ridiculous housing crisis that so tormented Muscovites in the years 1919-1925." And Persikov himself is lured by Americanisms: he agrees to answer the questions of an impudent journalist because " . . . all the same, there is something American in this scoundrel." Bulgakov depicts this Americanized society with considerable élan, but also with implicit reservations. His city is a place, after all, where artificial light replaces the natural, where the increased speed and growth brought about by technology have also increased the level of ruthlessness.
This process, symptomatic of all modern, technological societies, is analogous to the developments among the amoebae which run amok under Professor Persikov's ray. And there are additional parallels between society and Persikov's laboratory, especially apparent in Professor Persikov's relations with journalists where colored rays and magnification also play a role. One evening, for example, when the professor is out on the street, he is accosted by a journalist and blinded by a "violet ray" apparently from a camera. The next day he sees himself, much magnified, "on the roof, on a white screen, shielding himself with his fists from the violet ray." Such importunate journalists (who also figure in the work that inspired "The Fatal Eggs," H. G. Wells's Food of the Gods) are, like the speed, crowds and artificial lights of Moscow, a feature of the modern world as a whole, not just of socialist society: yet another indication that Bulgakov's Moscow cannot be reduced to a schematic vision of the bolshevik future.
At the same time, however, one must avoid the extreme of regarding the city as merely a generalized metropolis. The society of the novella reflects the hybrid system of NEP in which specific features both of the west and of bolshevism play roles. The most salient feature of the latter—and one that emphasizes the parallels between Persikov's laboratory and contemporary society—is central control. If the social Darwinism underlying laissezfaire capitalism in the west is analogous to unfettered natural evolution, the laboratory, with its controlling and manipulating intelligence, is the model for socialism. From the beginning of "The Fatal Eggs," socialist central control, imposed primarily by the GPU [the Russian secret police], co-exists with the elemental urban life typical of all modern cities. When, for example, the journalist Bronskii, "staff member of the Moscow magazines Red Flame, Red Pepper, Red Journal, Red Projector and the Moscow newspaper Red Evening Moscow" calls upon Persikov, the scientist at first summarily orders him thrown out. But when he learns that Bronskii also works for Red Raven, a publication of the GPU, he relents and agrees to see him.
Although the GPU is here and elsewhere a coercive force, relations between the professor and the secret police are not entirely adversarial. Persikov, indeed, summons the GPU when a suspicious character offers him 5,000 rubles to pass his discovery to a foreign government. At that point, parallels between Persikov and the GPU emerge that reinforce the analogies between his control in the laboratory and their control of society as a whole.
Throughout the novella Persikov is portrayed as a "divinity" who tampers with nature in the "hell" of his laboratory; the three GPU agents who come to him are also a blend of the heavenly and the diabolical. The first is "reminiscent of an angel in patent-leather boots. The second, shortish, . . . [is] terribly gloomy ... " The third, like the professor, is endowed with extraordinary vision and has "amazingly piercing [koliuchie] eyes" which, although covered by smoky glasses, "see the study, illuminated and permeated with streams of tobacco smoke, through and through." They, like Persikov, are amazingly knowledgeable and are able to identify a suspicious visitor from a mere glimpse of a galosh he left behind. Grateful to Persikov for his cooperation, the GPU agents offer to control the pesky journalists, to prevent them from disturbing him. Accustomed to total control in his laboratory, Persikov requests that the reporters be shot, just as he killed his irradiated tadpoles when they got out of hand. The response of one of the agents reveals the congruous methods of the secret police and the scientist: " . . . of course that would be good . . . however, such a project is already being worked out [nazrevaet] at the Council of Labor and Defense . . . "
Persikov's tragedy in "The Fatal Eggs" is that in the course of the novella he himself becomes victim to his belief in scientific control. The GPU not only attempts (and fails) to control forces inimical to him, but they and the government as a whole also repeatedly manipulate the man of genius himself. And so, while Persikov is in one sense a "divinity," a model to his science-worshipping society, at the same time he is but a means to its end: just as a frog is "crucified" by Persikov in a scientific experiment, so in the end is he himself "crucified" in the state's larger social experiment.
The ever-present power of the state, overshadowed at the beginning of the novella by the glitter and dynamism of modern, urban society, emerges only during a national crisis: the chicken plague which first breaks out in a provincial town and soon spreads throughout the country. Not only does the disease show the limitation of scientific control over the forces of nature, as others have noted, it also takes on other levels of meaning, from frivolous to grave. Clearly of the first category are the scabrous associations evoked by the resulting shortage of eggs (eggs in colloquial Russian = balls, testicles); for example, performers at a night club sing: "Oh, mama, what will I do without eggs?" And a feuilleton that lambasts a Mr. Hughes (an allusion to Charles Evans Hughes, American Secretary of State) concludes: "Don't hanker after our eggs, Mr. Hughes—you have your own!"
The ostensibly light-hearted reference to Hughes points to another, non-sexual order of impotence in the Soviet Union and is part of a complex web of political allusion in the novella. The political, indeed international, political significance of the chicken plague is manifest, first of all, by the fact that it ceases immediately at the borders of the Soviet Union. As the narrator comments: "Whether the climate there was different or the defensive-cordoning measures taken by neighboring governments played a role, the fact is that the plague went no farther"; the military terminology (zagraditel'nye kordonnye mery) here alludes to the cordon sanitaire placed around the Soviet Union by western powers to prevent the spread of the "contagion" of revolution. One also recalls that in the satirical allegory "The Crimson Island," written shortly before "The Fatal Eggs," the revolution itself is termed a "plague" against which a quarantine is enforced by nervous imperialist powers. In "The Crimson Island," the plague is declared over six years after the revolution, at which point the French and British decide to invade the island. And in "The Fatal Eggs" (written in the seventh year after the revolution), the plague arouses fear of intervention. A voice from a loudspeaker calls out: "New attempts at intervention! ... in connection with the chicken plague!"; and a newsboy cries: "Poland is preparing for a nightmarish war!"
Bulgakov envisioned a recurrence of intervention and Polish invasion based on the Soviet political situation shortly before "The Crimson Island" and "The Fatal Eggs" were written. The fear of intervention arose with French occupation of the Ruhr in early 1923 and the concomitant threat of invasion by France's eastern ally, Poland. This fear was exacerbated when the fiercely anti-bolshevik Lord Curzon came to power in England and in May 1923 presented the Soviets with a very stiff ultimatum. In the very first published entry in his diary, Bulgakov writes of the events leading up to the ultimatum: "There is the smell of a rupture or even of war in the air.... It's awful that Poland and Rumania have also begun stirring.... In general we are on the eve of [momentous] events." In one of his Nakanune feuilletons, "Benefit Performance for Lord Curzon," Bulgakov describes a mass demonstration against the Curzon ultimatum. Chicherin, the principal orator at the demonstration, imputed Lenin's illness as basis for the current crisis since it had convinced the bolsheviks' enemies that "Soviet power is deprived of its firmness and can be overthrown by pressure from without." He concluded: "We firmly await our enemy before our threshold ... " [quoted in Edward Hallett Carr, A History of Soviet Russia: The Interregnum, 1923-1924, 1954]. Thus the chicken plague symbolizes both the revolutionary contagion with which the Soviet Union was threatening other nations and the weakness of the country itself in 1923-1924 when the death of its powerful leader "emasculated" the country and invited foreign invasion.
If the plague imagery in "The Fatal Eggs" parallels that in "The Crimson Island," the depiction in the novella of international relations is far more complex. The Soviet Union has not been "quarantined" after all: with its American housing, German scientific equipment and French electric revolvers, among many other things, it appears to enjoy full economic relations with capitalist countries. And while the chicken plague does bring the risk of foreign intervention, it also results in a massive import of eggs. This rather contradičtory state of affairs actually reflects the international situation by late 1923 and early 1924 when the Soviet Union, in desperate need of foreign aid for its economic recovery, attempted to normalize relations with western powers by establishing active trade and, in some cases, diplomatic relations. The danger of foreign conflict remained, however, due to Soviet unwillingness to abandon revolutionary activities abroad and to pay its foreign debt. This unstable international situation—broad foreign contact co-existing uneasily with foreign threat—is projected into the future in Bulgakov's fiction.
In addition to this complex of political referents, the chicken plague alludes as well to the chronic agricultural problems with which the country was suffering, in particular to the serious drought that threatened the harvest of 1924. The measures taken in "The Fatal Eggs" to combat the chicken plague echo the Soviet government's reactions to the agricultural and international crises of 1923-1924. In July 1924 an "emergency commission for combating the consequences of the deficient harvest" [Carr, A History of Soviet Russia: Socialism in One Country, 1958] was set up, a manifestation of the increasing demand placed upon scientists to redirect their attention toward social problems. As Trotsky wrote in Pravda in late 1923: "... all of us very much need a new orientation on the part of scientists: the adjustment of their attention, their interests, and their efforts to the tasks and demands of the new social structure" ["Science in the Task of Socialist Construction," translated by Frank Manning and George Saunders, in Problems of Everyday Life and Other Writings on Culture and Science, 1973. Originally published in Pravda, November 24, 1923]. Another, more significant result of this demand was the formation, also in 1924, of a chemists' organization, Dohrokhim, whose main task was to find practical uses for chemistry, especially in defense. In "The Fatal Eggs," there are organizations analogous to the "commission for the deficient harvest" and to Dohrokhim: the "emergency commission for combating the chicken plague" and Dobrokur. Persikov becomes a member of both organizations and follows the path that Trotsky envisioned for scientists in which obligation to the state takes precedence over pure research.
Persikov's intellectual autonomy—like that of actual scientists of the time—is ever more eroded by his civic duties. The real test of his autonomy, however, occurs upon the arrival of Alexander Semenovich Rokk, direčtor of the Red Ray sovkhoz. Rokk wants to put the red ray to immediate practical use: to accelerate chicken breeding and thus end the crisis. The professor's confrontation with Rokk is a test that Persikov ultimately fails when, Pilate-like, he declares "I wash my hands" and yields the equipment to the sovkhoz chairman. In the hands of Rokk, the ray, without losing its broader implications in modern technological society as a whole, becomes specifically associated with the socialist experiment; it is he who attempts to apply the laboratory model to the real world.
Yet to regard Rokk as simply an undifferentiated communist is a mistaken response to this complex tale; one must define more exactly the position that he occupies in the ideological spectrum in the Moscow of 1928. When he enters Persikov's study, the professor is struck by his revolutionary garb, his leather jacket and "immense mauser pistol," an attire that, the narrator explains, makes him look "strangely old-fashioned" in the Moscow of 1928. He adds: "In 1919 this man would have fit in perfectly, he would have been tolerated in 1924, at its beginning, but in 1928 he was strange." Of special importance is "in 1924, at its beginning," for in January of that year two events occurred which may have led Bulgakov to predict a shift in the Communist Party of the future. The first was the death of Lenin; more significant for "The Fatal Eggs," however, was an early indication that Trotsky would fall from power: a newspaper bulletin, announcing his illness and "leave with full freedom from all duties for a period of no less than two months." In his diary, Bulgakov quotes the bulletin, then commenting: "And so on 8 January 1924 they chucked Trotsky out. God only knows what will happen to Russia." The writer no doubt reacted so strongly to news of Trotsky's "leave" because the bitter struggle taking place within the Communist Party pitted supporters of the ruling triumvirate—Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin—against Trotsky and other so-called "deviationists." These latter considered the NEP a retreat from revolutionary socialist principles to be replaced as soon as possible by greater central control of the economy, while the ruling coalition advocated the more popular line of continuing the policy. Thus Bulgakov, having observed the weakening of the more doctrinaire branch of the Party, described the Moscow of "The Fatal Eggs" as having a flourishing NEP with zealous revolutionaries such as Rokk virtually extinct—although, as the novella demonstrates, they may reappear at a time of crisis.
Further evidence of Rokk's link with Trotsky's followers can be found by comparing him to the diabolical Shpolianskii in The White Guard. Like Shpolianskii. Rokk was an artist before the revolution. However, as former flutist at "the cozy Cinema Enchanted Dreams [Volshebnye grezy] in the city of Ekaterinoslav," Rokk parodies the formidable Petersburg poet and critic. The revolution marked a sharp break in Rokk's life, as it did in Shpolianskii's: he replaced his flute with a mauser and began to wander from one end of the country to the other. Himself radically transformed, he set about transforming the nation, both by "enlightening" its populace, as editor of a newspaper in Turkestan, and by altering it physically, as a member of a commission concerned with irrigation there. The image of Rokk at the end of "The Fatal Eggs" is also congruous to that of Trotsky himself toward the end of The White Guard. In "The Fatal Eggs," the diabolical snakes that hatch from "Rokk's eggs" (an alternative translation of the novella's title) threaten to invade Moscow just as the poet Rusakov in the novel envisions Satan-Trotsky's legions coming from the "kingdom of the anti-Christ, Moscow" and invading Kiev.
Rokk's convictions and proclivities, moreover, coincide—in travestied form, of course—with Trotsky's. Rokk's unquestioning faith in Persikov's ray (" . . . your ray is so renowned you could even raise elephants, not just chicks") lampoons Trotsky's belief in the power of science and technology to conquer nature. The latter in 1924 imagined that: "Through the machine, man in Socialist society will command nature in its entirety. .. . He will change the course of rivers, and he will lay down rules for the oceans" [Literature and Revolution, translated by Rose Strunsky, 1960]. He also envisaged physiological transformations (not in chickens, to be sure, but in people): "Even purely physiologic life will become subject to collective experiments. The human species, the coagulated homo sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, will become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psycho-physical training. This is entirely in accord with evolution . . . "
Rokk parodies not only Trotsky's pronouncements on science but also his devotion to high art and his belief that in a socialist society masterpieces of the past could enrich and elevate the ignorant proletariat: "What the worker will take from Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, or Dostoievsky, will be a more complex idea of human personality, of its passions and feelings, a deeper and profounder understanding of its psychic forces and of the role of the subconscious, etc. In the final analysis, the worker will become richer." However, when Rokk tests the civilizing effects of culture and tries to charm by playing Evgenii Onegin on his flute to a product of "revolutionary" change (one of the giants that has hatched from the "fatal eggs"), the creature proves impervious to high art. It jumps past the sovkhoz director and strangles his wife—the first of an untold number of ghastly fatalities that result from his ill-conceived experiment.
Rokk also shares Trotsky's association with the newest, most technological of art forms, the cinema. Such enthusiasm for the medium was, of course, widespread among political and artistic radicals of the time: Lenin himself dubbed film "the most important of all the arts." In "Vodka, the Church, and the Cinema" [in Problems of Everyday Life, originally published in Pravda, July 12, 1923] Trotsky looked to motion pictures to replace both tavern and church in Russian life, and hoped to "make up for the separation of the church from the socialist state by the fusion of the socialist state and the cinema . . . Having no need of a clergy in brocade, etc., the cinema unfolds on the white screen spectacular images of greater grip than are provided by the richest church. . . . " Early in "The Fatal Eggs," as we have seen, magnified representations created by artificial rays are projected onto Moscow buildings and play a prominent part in the new society. Rokk's revolutionary transformation, to be sure, entails severing his former tie to the cinema and abandoning his cozy bourgeois niche in the "dusty starry satin" of the Enchanted Dreams Movie Theater for the "open sea of war and revolution." The narrator ironically adds: "It turned out that this man was positively great, and of course it was not for him to sit in the lobby of Dreams." Rokk, however, merely transfers the cinematic dream world from the stuffy little theater out into the great world of revolution: he now has the "cinematic" task of creating giant beings by means of an artificial ray. This task, moreover, involves usurpation of the divine-religious function, as do motion pictures in Trotsky's view.
The combination of cinematic motif and religious imagery continues: Rokk's "cinematic" effort to play God having failed, he undergoes a reverse transformation to "Biblical prophet" and entreats two skeptical GPU agents: "Listen to me. Listen. Why don't you believe?" When the agents investigate, they find a "strange cinematic light" illuminating a huge number of giant snakes and on the floor three experimental boxes which resemble "immense cameras." The "enchanted dreams" of Rokk's cinematic past become a nightmare when transferred to the world of reality; the blasphemous attempt at creation results in terrible destruction.
Rokk is not a stereotypical communist; rather, he is associated specifically with Trotsky and others who advocated a return to the accelerated revolutionary processes of war communism. This is not to imply, of course, an identification of Rokk with Trotsky: there is little superficial likeness between the brilliant and urbane co-maker of the Russian revolution and the provincial, semi-educated sovkhoz director. Through Rokk, Bulgakov demonstrates instead the untold havoc that could be wrought by Trotsky's grandiose beliefs in the transforming powers of science and art.
The snake incursion itself also has a complex of political referents, domestic and international. The fact that the disaster originates in the countryside—especially at a new Soviet institution, a sovkhoz—suggests an analogy between the horrifying outcome of Rokk's experiments and a peasant uprising resulting from over-precipitous attempts to socialize the rural population. Dissatisfaction is expressed by the peasantry in the novella: in response to the thousand human deaths resulting from the plague, a "prophet" appears in Volokolamsk "who proclaim[s] that the chicken plague was caused by none other than the commissars ... " The peasants then beat "several policemen who were taking chickens away from peasant women" and break windows in the local post office and telegraph station. Another example of peasant dissatisfaction, more closely tied to the basic plot, occurs shortly before the eggs hatch when the housemaid warns Rokk of mortal danger from the peasants: "They say that your eggs are diabolical. . . . They wanted to kill you." The next day, after the appearance of a "well-known troublemaker and sage," the eggs hatch and giant anacondas and ostriches overrun the land.
Bulgakov's concern about disorder in the countryside is confirmed by a diary entry of late 1923 in which he reported that "hooliganism is developing among the young people in the villages" and observed that "We are a savage, dark, unfortunate people." Rural rioting occurred in 1924 and there were murders of sel'kory (village correspondents) whose ardent bolshevism, reminiscent of Rokk's, aroused antagonism among the peasants. That Bulgakov linked these disorders to future catastrophe is attested in a diary entry of late 1924, where he comments on a sel'kor murder, "Either I have no intuition [chut'e] .. . or this is the introduction to a totally unbelievable opera."
The international aspects of the snake incursion are also numerous: within "The Fatal Eggs" itself there are references to the threat of intervention; the eggs are of foreign origin and the beasts that hatch from them are exotic; the snakes follow the "Napoleonic" route through burning Smolensk to the threshold of Moscow; Budennyi's cavalry is mobilized as it was during the Polish campaign of the civil war. In Bulgakov's diary entries for 1923 and early 1924, moreover, he expressed numerous times the premonition of impending war or other disaster and occasionally echoed almost verbatim his reaction to the Curzon ultimatum, "we are on the eve of events." These premonitions were linked with particular frequency to the failed German revolution of fall 1923 in whose planning the Russian communists were centrally involved. That Bulgakov was aware of the Soviets' revolutionary activities in Germany is also apparent in his diary: "The Communist Party is bending over backwards [iz kozhi von lezet] to incite a revolution in Germany and create havoc." And he speculated on a possible struggle between fascism and communism (which would seem prophetic were it not such a frequent topic in Pravda and Izvestiia at the time): " . . . who knows, perhaps the world really is splitting into two parts—communism and fascism . . . It is possible that the world really is on the eve of a general skirmish between communism and fascism." It is tempting to draw a connection between the snake invasion and the fascist danger: the giant snakes and ostriches, after all, result from Rokk's attempt to speed up natural processes, and the growth of fascism, in Bulgakov's view, was furthered by the communists' misguided attempts to accelerate revolutionary processes abroad. As he noted in his diary in October 1923: "In Germany, instead of the expected communist revolution, evident and widespread fascism has resulted." But the disaster in "The Fatal Eggs" should not be associated only with fascism. That it refers to a broader foreign threat is indicated by a later entry in Bulgakov's diary which comments on the breakdown of an Anglo-Soviet conference: "It would be interesting to know how long the 'Union of Socialist Republics' will last in such a position."
The snake invasion and its ensuing destruction may thus be linked to the more extreme bolshevik policies of 1923-1924, both domestic and foreign. Here, as with the red ray and the chicken plague, Bulgakov has created a capacious symbol which accommodates disparate sociopolitical referents. It is precisely these broad symbols that make "The Fatal Eggs" such an extraordinarily dense work, one which conjures up from beneath its bright and witty surface the entire tangled complex of political events and issues of its tumultuous time. The political dimension, moreover, by no means negates other levels of symbolism—whether scientific or metaphysical—that have been discussed by other critics.
"The Fatal Eggs" also provides a vivid illustration of the relations of Bulgakov's art to politics during the NEP. He, together with Zamyatin and a number of others, occupied a middle ground far from those ideologically committed writers (whether of the proletarian or futurist stripe) who placed their art at the service of the state. Nor did he side with those, most notably the Serapion Brothers, who emphasized the autonomy of art in contemporary reality and insisted that a literary work should "live its own life. . . . Not be a copy of nature, but live on an equal footing with nature" [Lev Lunts, "Pochemu my Serapionovy Brat'ia," in Rodina i drugie proizvedeniia, 1981]. Especially in his three novellas, "The Diaboliad" (1923), "The Fatal Eggs" (1924) and Heart of a Dog (1925), Bulgakov employed the fantasy typical of the Serapions but transplanted it from some imagined "other" world to everyday Soviet life. By introducing incredible factors into the contemporary socio-political equation (the discovery of the ray of life, the transformation of dog to man), he engaged his art in current issues, only at an ironic, hypothetical remove; entered a dialogue, both complex and playful, with the prevailing verities; and probed some of the basic assumptions of the new society.
This dialogic stance was a precarious one, at the very limit of the permissible even in the relatively tolerant atmosphere of the mid-1920s. With Heart of a Dog, written just a few months after "The Fatal Eggs," Bulgakov fell over the edge; no less than the bolshevik leader Lev Kamenev judged the work "a sharp lampoon on contemporary life, [which] under no circumstance can be published." Heart of a Dog was the first of Bulgakov's works to be banned entirely, a harbinger of the writer's total exclusion from print.
Despite the official disfavor his satirical fantasies aroused, however, Bulgakov continued along the path broken by them, a path that led finally to The Master and Margarita. In that novel the fantastic is once again grounded in everyday Soviet reality and the many-layered and at times opaque allusiveness of "The Fatal Eggs" achieves its fullest artistic realization.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9131
SOURCE: "Feeding a Poor Dog a Bone: The Quest for Nourishment in Bulgakov's Sobach'e serdtse," in The Russian Review, Vol. 52, No. 1, January, 1993, pp. 58-78.
[Below, LeBlanc analyzes The Heart of a Dog (Sobach'e serdtse) as a tale about the need for physical and spiritual sustenance, asserting that Bulgakov's focus on language and imagery pertaining to eating signifies the "deleterious effects that the Bolshevik Revolution and the concomitant victory of the proletariat were having upon the level of culture in Soviet Russia. "]
Mikhail Bulgakov's Sobach'e serdtse (1925), most critics would agree, is essentially the tale of a transformation gone awry: it tells the story of how a scientist—through a misguided organ transplant operation—turns "a perfectly delightful dog" into a disgustingly vulgar quasi-human being. As Helena Goscilo explains [in "Point of View in Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog," in Russian Literature Triquarterly 15 (1978)], "those human qualities that made Sharik so winsome are replaced in Sharikov by baser impulses." Few readers, I think, would seriously dispute the view that what stands at the center of Bulgakov's satiric novella is this ill-fated transformation of Sharik (the pleasant dog) into Sharikov (the unpleasant man), a change that is generally interpreted as serving to parody the grand social experiment of creating a new species of human being: homo sovieticus. It seems to me, however, that readers of Sobach'e serdtse tend to overlook a metamorphosis of almost equal significance that occurs earlier in the narrative when Sharik is first taken in off the street by Philipp Philippovich and brought home to live with him. Upon trading his wretched freedom for the material comforts provided in the wealthy doctor's home, this clever canine vagabond rapidly changes his class identity and transforms himself from a homeless mutt to, in his words, a "gentleman's dog" (barskii pes). Sharik's initial transformation from a miserable specimen of the lower strata of society to a more genteel member of the privileged class, however, not only advances the novella's central theme of transformation. It also helps to illuminate the widespread search for nourishment that takes place in Sobach'e serdtse and thus to reflect the story's abiding concern with alimentation, ingestion, and gustation. This occurs because Bulgakov charts the change of identity in Sharik, much as he does the result of the central transplant operation itself, largely through the language of gastronomy. The author, as I aim to demonstrate in this essay, uses food imagery and eating metaphors as a way to express some of the grave misgivings he harbored about the deleterious effects that the Bolshevik Revolution and the concomitant victory of the proletariat were having upon the level of culture in Soviet Russia. As a result, Sobach'e serdtse engages the reader in a discourse that is at once gastronomical and culinary as well as political and psychological.
Within the context of Bulgakov's overall literary oeuvre, such gastronomic or culinary discourse is not unique to Sobach'e serdtse, of course. Following in the rich satiric tradition established by such great writers as Molière, Gogol, and Chekhov, Bulgakov tends throughout his works to exploit the comic possibilities of food motifs, very often humorously contrasting physical with spiritual ingestion: that is, he frequently treats eating both as mimesis and as metaphor. Perhaps the most memorable instance of his use of gastronomic satire occurs in Master i Margarita, where he portrays the members of the Soviet literary establishment as venal philistines who are more concerned with feeding their bellies than with nourishing either their intellects or their souls. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that the headquarters of MASSOLIT be housed in a building which bears the significant name (significant in a culinary and etymological as well as a literary and cultural sense) of Dom Griboedova: the House of Griboedov (the "mushroom eaters"). Indeed, this ostensible literary "hothouse," under whose roof young artistic talent is supposed to ripen (a place, as Koroviev points out, that is designed to nurture and develop "the future author of a Don Quixote, a Faust or—who knows?—Dead Souls!") [The Master and Margarita], is famous primarily for the magnificent restaurant that it houses in two large rooms on the ground floor. "Some of us old inhabitants of Moscow still remember the famous Griboedov," Bulgakov's narrator exclaims at the beginning of a veritable ode that he delivers on the gastronomic wonders of the restaurant.
But boiled fillets of perch was nothing, my dear Ambrose! What about the sturgeon, sturgeon in a silverplated pan, sturgeon filleted and served between lobsters' tails and fresh caviar? And oeufs en cocotte with mushroom purée in little bowls? And didn't you like the thrushes' breasts? With truffles? The quails à la Genovese? .. . Do you remember, Ambrose? But of course you do—I can see from your lips you remember.
Not just your salmon or your perch either—what about the snipe, the woodcock in season, the quail, the grouse? And the sparkling wines! But I digress, reader.
Bulgakov proceeds in the novel to make Griboedov House into an infernal netherworld, where poets are depicted as wanton gluttons, much after the manner of those damned souls Dante depicts in his Divine Comedy, sinners who, as one critic notes, care "more for stuffing their mouths with food than for opening them with words." [Maggie Kilgour, From Communion to Cannibalism: An Anatomy of Metaphors of Incorporation, 1990]. The Soviet literati who inhabit Griboedov House appear to be little more than greedy and vulgar materialists who, to borrow an apt distinction that Lev Tolstoy once made [in Anna Karenina, 1877], live more for their stomachs (dlia briukha) than for their souls (dlia dushi).
In Sobach'e serdtse, however, Bulgakov invokes food motifs less to highlight the inherent materialism, baseness, and venality of human beings than to condemn a social system that creates a condition of widespread hunger and misery among its populace. Such a strategy becomes readily apparent from the opening section of the book, which makes a strong impression upon the reader not merely because the narrative point of view is that of a dog but also because that canine perspective is so thoroughly dominated by longings for food, shelter, and warmth. In addition to being made to view the world from the "defamiliarizing" vantage point of a four-legged creature, readers of Bulgakov's novella are also forced to focus upon the lower material aspects of both human and animal existence. As we pursue the thoughts of this homeless and hungry dog, we see that Sharik has been reduced to the indignity of rummaging through garbage cans, searching desperately for sustenance to fight off the looming threat of starvation. Like many a human member of the lower social classes, people who have become severely disenfranchised and alienated under the economic systems of War Communism and now NEP capitalism, Sharik exists on the very margins of his society, forced to live in a harsh and cruel world not of his choosing, where sheer physical survival predominates over all other instinctual urges, psychological desires, and spiritual aspirations. The desperate battle for self-preservation that Sharik wages in the opening section of Sobach'e serdtse thus reminds us of the fate of the literary hero in picaresque fiction, who likewise travels through a nightmare world of pain, hunger, and deprivation.
The point of depicting such existential misery is usually ideological, of course, since picaresque novelists generally pursue the satirical aim of exposing and attacking the social inequities that exist within their native societies. As had been the case with Lazarillo de Tormes, Guzmán de Alfarache, and other Spanish picaros, Sharik's struggle for survival is presented to us largely through food imagery and eating metaphors. The contrast between wealth and poverty in the story he tells, for instance, is set up as more than merely a sociological opposition between the gentry class on one hand and the peasantry or proletariat on the other. It also manifests itself in gastronomical terms as a dichotomy between those fortunate people who can afford to dine on fancy dishes at elegant restaurants and those unfortunate others (including dogs like Sharik) who are happy just to feed on the free sausage ends left over by people at Sokolniki Park and to lick to their heart's content the greasy paper in which that sausage is wrapped. At the human (rather than canine) level, the low end of this spectrum of gastronomic polarization between wealth and poverty is occupied by Vasnetsova, the female typist who works in the same building where Sharik is rummaging in the gateway. Like the narrating dog, she too lives at a basic subsistence level that some gastrocritics would call degré zéro alimentaire. Because she is a working-class girl who can hardly afford to dine at the expensive Bar Restaurant on Neglinny Avenue, Vasnetsova is forced to eat the stinking soup and putrid meat served in the "Normal Diet" cafeteria (even though such slops hurt her stomach by giving her cramps). Indeed, by story's end this selfsame typist will even be prepared to put up with the indecent sexual advances of the lecherous Sharikov, willing to work for the obnoxious director of the purge section of the Moscow Communal Property Administration, if only to avoid having to eat any longer the unpalatable food served in the Soviet cafeteria. ;I'll poison myself!" she exclaims in despair. "Every day in the cafeteria it's corned beef."
This function of food imagery as a measure of socioeconomic status, and thus its use as a narrative device for categorizing the characters in the story along the lines of social class, becomes even more apparent once Professor Preobrazhenskii enters the narrative. When the professor first makes his appearance across the street from the gateway where Sharik is holed up, the canine narrator immediately recognizes that this very distinguished looking personage could hardly be a comrade, but must instead be a member of the privileged class. Sharik then proceeds to describe Philipp Philippovich's gentility in terms that are predominantly gastronomical. Like the French, who according to Sharik know how to "eat well" (lopaiut bogato,) the professor is not one "to start gobbling [lopat'] moldy corned beef." Instead, he too is presumed to "eat plenty" (est obil'no). Indeed, Sharik is greatly surprised that a wealthy and cultured gentleman like Professor Preobrazhenskii should be buying sausage in such a shabby little food store when he could easily afford to shop at the more elegant establishments on Okhotnyi Row. "Sir, if you could see what this sausage is made of, you'd never come near that store," Sharik addresses himself mentally to the professor. "Better give it to me."
Because Sharik's whole life seems to constitute little else than the search for a decent meal, it comes as no surprise that the human beings with whom he has the most contact are cooks, a category of people that he again valorizes along the lines of social class. The proletarian cook, who burned Sharik's side by throwing boiling water at the dog when he spotted him scrounging through garbage cans, is, in his opinion, a worthless scoundrel and a scum. In contrast to the heartless cruelty demonstrated by this meanspirited representative of the working class, Sharik remembers fondly the generosity of a gentry cook named Vlas, who not only treated stray dogs more humanely, but also practiced his culinary craft with much more competence than did his proletarian brethren. "All the old dogs still talk of how Vlas would throw them a bone, and with a solid chunk of meat on it," Sharik reminisces nostalgically:
May he be blessed for it in the Heavenly Kingdom—a real personality he was, the gentry cook for the family of Count Tolstoy, not one of those nobodies from the Soviet of Normal Diet. The things they do in that Normal Diet, it's more than a dog's brain can comprehend. Those scoundrels make soup of stinking corned beef, and the poor wretches don't know what they're eating.
The "poor wretches" to whom Sharik alludes include, of course, those lower-class folk (such as Vasnetsova) who, given their miserable material conditions, have little choice but to eat such gruesome fare; only dire biological necessity can possibly explain why they are willing to "come running, gobbling it down, lapping it up."
By having Sharik delineate the quality of their respective styles of cooking as one of the principal differences between proletarian cooks who work at the Normal Diet and gentry cooks who work for the family of Count Tolstoy, Bulgakov introduces one of the central motifs in his story: namely, the theme of nourishment. The reader is invited to make the inference that the bulk of the country's population is, like Sharik and Vasnetsova, still desperate for an adequate supply of edible food to eat. Sharik himself broaches this issue of proper alimentation when, after describing how Vasnetsova is resigned to her fate of eating the stinking soup and putrid meat served daily at the Normal Diet cafeteria, he asks rhetorically, "Is that the kind of nourishment she needs?" The more pressing question in this text, however, is: Who can provide the kind of nourishment that is needed by Vasnetsova and, by extension, every working-class citizen in Soviet Russia? For Sharik, the answer is the gentry class, embodied in Vlas, the benevolent and talented barskii povar, as well as in the person of Philipp Philippovich, the cultured and imperious gentleman-aristocrat whose characterization by the canine narrator, as we have seen, is dominated by gastronomic imagery (he "eats well," he won't "start gobbling moldy corned beef," he is unafraid "because he is never hungry"). These two personages, Vlas the cook and Preobrazhenskii the host, both of whom are closely associated with the privileged gentry class from tsarist days, seem to hold out the only real hope of adequately nourishing the badly underfed dog. Indeed, when Sharik first sees the professor, the latter is even carrying a source of nourishment in his hand: namely, that piece of "special Cracow sausage" (made up of chopped horsemeat mixed with garlic and pepper) whose smell alone is enough to "rejuvenate" (omolodil) the starving canine.
As the professor lures Sharik home with the piece of sausage, the reader of Sobach'e serdtse thus sees how Bulgakov, who foreshadows in this scene the "rejuvenation" operation that the dog will soon undergo, is able to link the theme of transformation with the theme of alimentation. As we quickly discover, Philipp Philippovich is willing to feed Sharik some of the tasty "rejuvenating" sausage, but the price exacted in exchange for this sustenance is the renunciation of the dog's freedom, a miserable burden that the hungry, homeless mutt seems only too eager to rid himself of. Resorting to a series of toadying gestures that perhaps emblematize as much Sharik's readiness to act obsequiously toward an authority figure as his eagerness to show his love and devotion to this kindly new benefactor, the servile dog licks Philipp Philippovich's hand, kisses his galoshes, and crawls along the sidewalk on his belly. "I kiss your trousers, my benefactor!" he muses shamelessly. When Preobrazhenskii, after stroking Sharik's midsection, instructs the dog to follow him, the latter confesses that he is prepared to follow his new master "to the end of the world." "You may kick me with your fine suede shoes," Sharik admits, as he kisses the professor's overshoes. "I won't say a word."
To the long list of genres to which Sobach'e serdtse may be said to belong (the literature of talking dogs, of Faust, of Frankenstein), Susanne Fusso suggests [in "Failures in Transformation in sobac'e serdce" in Slavic and East European Journal 33 (1989)] that we add the "literature of hunger": the literature that, in her words, "investigates what happens when bodily needs and desires corrupt the spirit." Placing Bulgakov's novella within the context of those works of postrevolutionary Soviet literature that addressed the "imperative of the belly" in war-torn Russia, Fusso argues that it is Sharik's "search for security and satiety that leads to his temporary downfall," a demise she traces back directly to the dog's "failure of courage, his willingness to deny the meaning of freedom." There is no disputing the claim that Sharik has indeed traded his freedom for the comfort, security, and stability provided by the professor's apartment, a gastronomic heaven where he believes he has at last found sobach'e shchasfe (the novella's original title). Even before Philipp Philippovich rescues Sharik from the streets, we hear the starving mutt confess, "We have the souls of slaves and a wretched fate!" After a few days at the professor's home, Sharik openly admits, in a highly revealing moment of epiphany, that he has now become "a gentleman's dog, an intellectual creature," and he dismissively rejects freedom (in words that echo the professor's own) as nothing more than "a puff of smoke, a mirage, a fiction. .. . A delirium of those wretched democrats." Sharik's renunciation of his liberty is further signalled by his acquiescence in donning a collar and chain, two restraining devices that he is at first ashamed to wear since they make him feel like a convicted criminal. Once Sharik realizes, however, that the collar and chain serve at the same time as social emblems, which indicate his membership in an upper-class household and thus will earn him the respect and admiration of militiamen (as well as the envy of his fellow dogs), he begins to take great pride in his shackles: "A collar is just like a briefcase, the dog quipped mentally and, wagging his behind, proceeded with a lordly air [kak barin] up to the second floor."
Given the long-standing Russian cultural tradition of valuing the concerns of the spirit over those of the flesh, there are certainly strong grounds for viewing Sharik's process of gentrification mainly in a political light and thus for condemning the dog's readiness to "sell out" so cheaply—to forfeit so easily his personal freedom and submit to what one critic calls "the seductive but cheap allure of comfort" [Diana L. Burgin, "Bulgakov's Early Tragedy of the Scientist-Creator: An Interpretation of The Heart of a Dog" Slavic and East European Journal 22 (1978)]. Moreover, the kitchen of the professor's apartment, with its flaming oven, is associated with imagery that makes it as much a hellish domain as a gastronomical paradise. Being nutritionally satisfied and materially comfortable, however, hardly seems to constitute a diabolical moral vice or personal shortcoming on the part of other characters in Bulgakov's novella, as the case of the "sybaritic" [Goscilo] scientist-creator and the well-fed members of his household clearly demonstrates. "Sharik's predilection for the comfort and luxury that are synonymous with a vanishing way of life and with the upper social strata," as Goscilo notes, "makes him, indeed, Preobrazhenskian." Seen primarily in psychological and gastronomical terms, Sharik's search for security and comfort can be understood in a much less negative way, especially when we keep in mind that this poor dog is at first merely seeking some basic nourishment so as to avoid starvation. From the moment Sharik leaves the cold, cruel world of Moscow's back streets and goes to live in the professor's spacious, well-heated, and amply provisioned household, he begins to undergo a personality change that the author, as I suggested at the outset of this article, charts largely through the language of gastronomy. In psychological terms, Sharik gradually moves out of a mode that Roland Barthes, in his Introduction to Brillat-Savarin's Physiologie du goût , has characterized as the "realm of necessity" (l'ordre de besoin,) the domain of survival, which is dominated by hunger, deprivation, and an obsession with food. In Sharik's case, this realm of necessity not only shapes the dog's measurement of time, which is gauged according to the smell of onions emanating from the local firehouse; it also generates its own special gastronomic language, composed of visual as well as olfactory signs used by canines to communicate such notions as "meat," "sausage," "cheese," and other food items.
Once he is removed from his dire existential situation of hunger and homelessness, however, where food and shelter are desperately coveted as basic items of survival and self-preservation, Sharik is soon free to progress to more civilized needs, more elevated desires, and more sophisticated tastes. The warmth, comfort, and security provided by Preobrazhenskii's home allow Sharik to enter into a new psychological realm, one that Barthes calls l'ordre de desir: the domain of pleasure, where food now becomes a sign of abundance, plenitude, and extravagance. The seriously underfed Sharik, once a shaggy, lanky, and skinny mutt, quickly "fattens up" while living at the professor's home, where in preparation for the upcoming transplant operation he is allowed by the master of the house to eat all that he wants, despite the strident protests of the servant Zina and her complaint that the dog, who allegedly "eats enough for six," is eating them "out of house and home." "In the course of a week," we are told, "the dog gobbled down as much food as he had eaten during the last month and a half of hunger in the streets." Sharik becomes so sated, in fact, that he is moved to admit at one point that he "can't stand looking at any more food." This once scrawny mutt begins at last truly to deserve the name "Sharik," which, as he himself noted earlier, is supposed to indicate "somebody round, plump, the son of aristocratic parents who gobbles oatmeal." Not only is the quantity of food that Sharik is now able to eat much improved over what he had to survive on while living in the streets, so too is the culinary quality of his present diet far beyond comparison with what he used to have to eat. Freed from the necessity of scrounging through garbage cans in back alleys, eating human leftovers, or licking greasy sausage wrappers at Sokolniki Park, Sharik is now allowed to eat roast beef, mutton bones, and other canine delicacies in the comfort of the professor's elegant dining room.
We might say, borrowing Barthes's terms again, that l'appetit naturel within Sharik, whereby he eats to live, has rapidly given way during his stay at the professor's apartment to l' appetit de luxe, according to which the fattened dog now lives to eat, dreaming sybaritically of the next sumptuous repast that Dar'ia Petrovna will feed him. Food for the sated Sharik is no longer primarily a means for satisfying basic hunger and thus avoiding starvation; rather it has now become a source of pure pleasure in and of itself, as well as a stimulant for further desire. In a sense, this dog has realized in practice the sentiment expressed earlier by Vasnetsova's embittered lover. "It's my turn to have some fun in life," he had been heard to exclaim, "I've starved long enough in my youth." Whereas the professor's human clients have undergone a rejuvenation operation that enables them better to enjoy sexual pleasures, the dog Sharik has undergone a change that allows him to revel hedonistically in the delights of gastronomical indulgence. This pre-transplant transformation that Sharik's personality undergoes as he moves out of the realm of necessity and into the realm of desire—from l'appetit naturel to l'appetit de luxe from hunger to pleasure—parallels the theoretical model of human development formulated by Abraham Maslow, one of the pioneers of the American school of humanistic psychology. According to Maslow's theory of self-actualization [expressed in his Toward a Psychology of Being, second edition, 1968], human motives can be arranged in hierarchical form, whereby man's basic physiological needs (to satisfy hunger, thirst, and sex) stand on the bottom rung, followed by the need for safety (security, order, stability), belonging (love and affection), esteem (feelings of self-respect and success), and finally self-actualization. Since the physiological needs at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchical pyramid are the most urgent, they must first be satisfied before man can be freed to seek the higher spiritual goals of the self. More important for the purposes of my analysis, however, is the assumption, implicit in Maslow's theory, that the society in which one lives must be able to provide nourishment, safety, and stability before the individual can even begin to strive for the loftier goals to which human nature innately aspires. Otherwise, man is destined to struggle incessantly to satisfy his most basic and primitive biological needs.
Maslow's developmental model seems quite applicable in the case of Sharik, who suddenly discovers within himself the existence of higher needs (such as safety, belonging, and esteem) only after he is provided with the basic necessities of life. Once he is fed and his basic physical hunger has been satisfied, Sharik can begin to seek nourishment that is spiritual in nature rather than merely corporeal, psychological rather than simply physiological. He can now appreciate the need for food for the soul as well as the body, sustenance for the mind as well as the stomach. In Western culture, it is true, there is a strong tradition of considering physical and spiritual appetites not as complementary urges, but rather as polarized and opposing ones: the complete satisfaction of bodily appetites, it is often feared, will stupefy the hunger of the spirit and the imagination. The fictional world that Bulgakov creates in Sobach'eserdtse, however, seems to resemble the Rabelaisian universe, where "physical hunger must be satisfied first before the process of feeding the spirit with art can even begin" [Kilgour]. Since Sharik's needs for safety, security, and belonging are amply taken care of at the professor's home, the dog is free to entertain thoughts that reflect his desire for higher needs, such as self-esteem and self-actualization. Indeed, he even posits for himself an inherent nobility of spirit when he muses about the possibility that, unbeknownst to anyone, he might well be a "canine prince incognito." It should be noted that a precedent for Sharik's metamorphosis was provided by the professor's able assistant, Dočtor Bormental'. He was once a "half-starved" creature himself before Philipp Philippovich nurtured, sheltered, and thus transformed him from a poor medical school student to a valuable and productive member of the scientific community.
By metaphorizing the act of eating in Sobach'e serdtse in the way that I have been charting here, Bulgakov makes this bodily function serve in his text as a trope for intellectual, moral, and cultural ingestion. Read as an allegorical tale, Sharik's story begins to suggest that the traditionally disenfranchised classes in Russia—the peasantry, the proletariat, the petty bourgeoisie, the lumpenproletariat—can hardly hope to find the physical or spiritual sustenance that they seek under the culturally bankrupt ideology of Bolshevism, which has instead ushered in the triumph of the venal, the vulgar, and the philistine. When Sobach'e serdtse is read as a political allegory, the alimentary imperative elaborated in the opening section of the novella tells us metaphorically that the Soviet regime which came to power with the revolution has been unable to provide sufficient nourishment, either physical or spiritual, for the starving masses in Russia. Bulgakov's political message here reads that Lenin and his Bolshevik cohorts have reneged on the promise they made that first brought them to power in 1917: that is, to bring food to the populace. What the people of Russia need is a moral, spiritual, and cultural leadership that, in addition to providing them literally with their daily bread, is capable of feeding them spiritual food as well, thus nurturing and preserving within them lasting cultural values.
This need for a sustenance that is by nature spiritual, intellectual, and cultural becomes especially acute during the second half of Bulgakov's novella, where narrative attention shifts from Sharik the dog to Sharikov the man. The cultural leadership that Russia so desperately needs is here represented primarily in the person of Philipp Philippovich. Yet this eminent scholar and renowned surgeon, a man whom Andrei Sinyavskii has characterized as a "typical representative of the old Russian intelligentsia" [Soviet Civilization: A Cultural History, translated by Joanne Turnbull, 1990], proves to be a somewhat problematic figure to have serve as the ethical center of the story. On one hand, Preobrazhenskii emerges as "the very incarnation of good taste, refinement and intellect" [Burgin], and would thus seem to represent all that Bulgakov values positively about prerevolutionary Russian culture. On the other hand, this "mad scientist" can be seen in a highly negative light as a rather fiendish figure who flourishes materially during the heyday of NEP by performing expensive rejuvenation operations that do little more than cater to the baser instincts of the venal people who can afford them. In gastronomic terms, meanwhile, the vampirish imagery and demonic motifs that occasionally cluster around Philipp Philippovich could be understood to suggest that he not only generously "feeds" Sharik and later Sharikov, but also "feeds upon" them like a bloodthirsty predator.
Nonetheless, Preobrazhenskii emerges as the one character in Sobach'e serdtse who reveals most directly to us Bulgakov's intention that the act of eating be understood in this text as a paradigm for the art of living. "Food," the professor observes to Doctor Bormental' at one point, "is a curious thing. You have to know how to eat, and imagine, most people haven't the slightest notion of how to do it. It is not only a matter of knowing what to eat, but also when and how." By focusing on the manner as well as the content of the dining experience, the professor is implying here that under the Soviet regime people have, in a broad sense, somehow lost the ability to make sound judgments or discriminating choices and thus to appreciate the finer things in life; one might say that, in gastronomical as well as cultural terms, they simply have no sense of taste. As Stephen Mennell reminds us, "taste, in food as in other domains of culture, implies discrimination, standards of good and bad, the acceptance of some things and the rejection of others" [All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present, 1985]. It is against the ostensible absence of such powers of discrimination and appreciation that Philipp Philippovich takes strong issue in his continuing dispute with Comrade Shvonder and the other members of the cultural department of his apartment building's house committee, a dispute, significantly enough, that centers initially upon the issue of the professor's dining room. "Nobody in Moscow has a dining room .. . not even Isadora Duncan," Shvonder and his fellow committee members object when Preobrazhenskii insists upon maintaining what they consider to be an excessive number of rooms in his apartment. When Philipp Philippovich inquires where then is he expected to take his meals, Shvonder suggests that he eat them in the bedroom. "I shall dine in the dining room," the professor thunders back, "allow me to take my meals where all normal people take theirs, that is, in the dining room." The intensity and centrality of this dining room dispute seem to support Mariia Shneerson's contention [in her "Chto mozhet vyiti iz etogo Sharikova?" Grani 42 (1988)] that Sobach'e serdtse is less about the history of a failed scientific experiment than about a man's battle to defend the integrity of his home—a battle for what she calls "the inviolability of his abode."
In Bulgakov's novella, the stolovaia (understood in both its meanings: as a private "dining room" as well as a public "dining hall") is made to function as an indicator of one's good taste, proper manners, and overall cultural development. In sharp contrast to those stinking public cafeterias in which poor Soviet working-class citizens (such as Vasnetsova) are forced to dine on slops, the private dining room in Preobrazhenskii's apartment constitutes a highly cultured setting, characterized by elegant dining, refined tastes, and intelligent conversation. In the tradition established by Plato's Symposium, the professor's dining room serves as the scene for philosophical discourse (the province of the mind) as well as banquet feasting (the province of the body). Indeed, Philipp Philippovich, reinforced by the hearty dinner that he has just consumed, proceeds after the meal to thunder forth with pronouncements like an ancient prophet. Having maintained that knowing how to eat—and thus, by extension, how to live—involves knowing "what to talk about while you are at it," he now speaks out sharply against the highly deleterious effect that the discourse of Marxist-Leninist ideology exerts upon the process of alimentation. "If you care about your digestion," he warns Dočtor Bormental', "my good advice is: do not talk about Bolshevism .. . at the dinner table. And—heaven preserve us!—don't read any Soviet newspapers before dinner." The professor goes on to explain how the patients at his hospital, whom he had deliberately compelled to read Pravda each day, all lost weight as a result. Those patients found, in addition, that their appetites had been ruined, their reflexes dulled, and their state of mind depressed. If eating is understood in Sobach'e serdtse as a trope for living, then the novella's political subtext encourages us to comprehend the professor to be saying that the ruling ideology in Soviet Russia gives one a bad case of existential indigestion and spiritual flatulence. The imposition of Marxist doctrine by the Bolsheviks threatens nothing less than the total impoverishment and decline of the country due to cultural malnutrition.
If the first half of Bulgakov's novella is concerned with the starving Sharik and the theme of alimentation mainly in its literal sense of physical hunger, nourishment, and digestion, then in the second half, where Sharikov's story comes to the fore, attention is shifted to the metaphoric aspects of this theme: to poor nourishment in its spiritual, intellectual, and cultural sense. In addition, the discourse of gustation—good taste and judicious discrimination—is now brought into the foreground as Preobrazhenskii and Bormental' increasingly voice their serious misgivings about the savage beast (culturally considered) that their organ transplant operation has succeeded in creating. The irony here, of course, is that this creature turns out to be bestial more because of the vulgar nature of the human being whose organs have been transplanted (Klim Chugunkin) than because of the canine nature of the dog Sharik.
Fear of Russia's imminent cultural collapse as a direct result of the vičtory of such vulgarity is expressed as early as chapter 3, where this topic dominates the postprandial conversation that takes place between Preobrazhenskii and Bormental' during the initial dining room scene. The professor here launches into a long harangue about the so-called economic "ruin" (razrukha) that is said to be threatening their country. Susanne Fusso has shown how Bulgakov, through this motif of razrukha, is making allusion to Vladimir Maiakovskii, attempting to counter the Futurist poet's fairy-tale figure (an old witch by the same name in his play, Misteriia-buff ) who, as the embodiment of the forces of chaos and destruction, "goes about the country smashing machinery and gobbling up workers." Whatever its particular intertextual connections may turn out to be, Preobrazhenskii's diatribe on razrukha is clearly directed in a general sense against those who are responsible for the cultural decline that Russia has begun to experience since the Soviets took power. The current problem in the country, according to Philipp Philippovich, is not an imminent economic collapse, attributable to certain elements in the population who are dedicated to wrecking the industrial machinery (and thus the productive capacity) of the young state. The culprit instead is the moral, intellectual, and cultural deterioration that the people of Russia have had to experience ever since the disappearance of the gentry class. All that remains in the wake of the passing of Russia's sociopolitical and cultural aristocracy is a spiritual coarseness that serves as the main target for the author's satiric attack in the novella. Thefts in their apartment building, for example, the professor is quick to remind his loyal assistant, began only after the revolutions of 1917. Philipp Philippovich goes on to excoriate the victorious proletariat not only for stealing his galoshes but also for tracking in dirt on the marble staircase from their muddy boots. What these new people lack, he explains through a highly colorful (if scatological) example, is not so much an adequate supply of material goods as a sense of basic decorum: "If, coming into the bathroom, I will—forgive the expression—begin to urinate past the toilet bowl, and if Zina and Dar'ia Petrovna do the same, I'll have ruin (razrukha) in my bathroom. Hence, the ruin is not in the bathrooms, but in people's heads." The point of Professor Preobrazhenskii's bathroom trope is to emphasize that high gentry culture must be preserved, otherwise low plebeian culture will fill the vacuum and come to dominate society. An upper class made up of educated, refined, and well-mannered people must provide the necessary moral leadership in the country and serve as role models for the lower classes. An elite vanguard of civilized people, according to the professor, is needed to show others how to use toilets properly or else the people will degenerate to such barbaric behavior as urinating on the bathroom floor.
One of the more overt manifestations in Sobach'e serdtse of this class war—this competition for dominance between high and low culture in Soviet Russia of the 1920s—occurs in the domain of music. The after-dinner conversation in chapter 3 between Preobrazhenskii and Bormental', for instance, is interrupted by the sounds of choral singing that waft into the professor's dining room from the general meeting of the house committee taking place upstairs. The communal, narodnyi character of choral singing as a quintessentially proletarian activity is in keeping, of course, with Marx's view that man's alienation within capitalist society stems largely from the division of labor, a system whereby each person abrogates to someone else (invariably a specialist) tasks and activities whose fulfillment might otherwise make us better rounded, more complete and whole human beings rather than badly fragmented ones. The politically incorrect and rabidly undemocratic Professor Preobrazhenskii, who makes it clear that (contra Marx) he is "an advocate of the division of labor," seems to support instead an elitist meritocracy of talent and abilities, whereby only those who are blessed with a beautiful voice and formal training as a singer would undertake to sing songs. A strong supporter of high culture and a steadfast proponent of its preservation, Philipp Philippovich clearly prefers professional operatic singing to amateur choral singing: throughout the text he can be heard repeatedly to hum his favorite line from the libretto for Verdi's Aida ("Toward the sacred banks of the Nile"). This contrast between high elitist culture and low popular culture in the realm of music becomes especially palpable after the transplant operation is performed and Sharikov appears. Indeed, one of the most salient indicators of the cultural barbarism of the quasi-human monster that Preobrazhenskii has created, besides his inclination to frequent the circus rather than the theater, is his propensity (shared later by Prisypkin in Maiakovskii's Klop) to play the infectious melodies from popular tavern tunes on his balalaika. The infectiousness of such melodies is made evident, of course, by the fact that even the professor himself begins to hum one of these tavern tunes rather than his beloved arias: "The moo-on is shining . . . The moo-o-n is shining . . . The mooo-n is shining . . . Phew, can't get rid of that damned tune!"
Not unlike music, food and eating also come to serve in Sobaeh'e serdtse as a barometer for measuring one's level of cultural development and sophistication. This function of food motifs can be seen in the two very different scenes of dining depicted in the text: the first in chapter 3, before Sharik has undergone the transplant operation, and the second in chapter 7, after Sharikov has been created. Taken together, these two dining scenes succeed in creating a cultural matrix by which the reader can contrast the appallingly savage behavior of the uncouth proletarian Sharikov with the more civilized behavior exhibited at table by the urbane, genteel duo of Preobrazhenskii and Bormental'. The opening of the scene in chapter 3 immediately endows the professor's dining room with an aura of haute cuisine, elegant decor, and refined manners:
Thin slices of salmon and pickled eel were piled on plates adorned with paradisiac flowers and wide black borders. A piece of fine, moist Swiss cheese lay on a heavy board, and near it stood a silver bucket with caviar, set in a bowl of snow. Among the plates stood several slender liqueur glasses and three crystal carafes with liqueurs of different colors. All these objects were arranged on a small marble table, cosily set against a huge sideboard of carved oak filled with glass and silver, which threw off sheaves of light. In the center of the room a table, heavy as a sepulchre, was covered with a white cloth, and on it were two settings, with napkins rolled like papal tiaras, and three dark bottles.
Moreover, the after-dinner conversation between these two civilized, well-educated gentlemen that takes place in this chapter, as we remember, centers upon a general discussion—counterrevolutionary in nature, according to Bormental'—about how proletarian types are lowering the cultural level of people in Soviet Russia (the professor's bathroom trope).
The scene of dining in chapter 7, on the other hand, provides us with a very concrete example of the appalling Philistinism that, according to Philipp Philippovich, has triumphed in this society with the advent of socialism. Much like Victorian novelists, for whom "dining rituals take on the serious purpose of defining moral good and upholding class structure" [Helena Michie, The Flesh Made Word: Female Figures and Women's Bodies, 1987], Bulgakov uses the evening meal as an opportunity to make gastronomic savoir faire into an index of social status: knowing how to eat directly reflects one's knowledge of how to live. The focus in this second scene of dining, as a result, is centered upon the almost total lack of table manners and dining etiquette exhibited by Sharikov. Even before the meal begins, we know Sharikov as an incorrigible slob who has been repeatedly castigated for a lack of manners. He has already been warned, for instance, to put an end to several of his more ungainly habits in the apartment: such as eating sunflower seeds, playing his balalaika, sleeping on the bench in the kitchen, throwing cigarette butts on the floor, swearing, spitting, and catching fleas with his teeth. "You are a savage [dikar'r]! Bormental' screams at him in exasperation at one point. Preobrazhenskii, for his part, inquires sardonically, "Where do you think you are? In a tavern?" This uncouth behavior on the part of the savage Sharikov is only further underscored once the scene of dining actually commences. Bormental' initially will not even let Sharikov begin eating until he first tucks in his napkin; indeed, the doctor threatens to have Zina take away Sharikov's food if he doesn't oblige. Then Bormental' must remind Sharikov to use a fork, to offer vodka to others before taking some himself, and to avoid hiccuping at table since it spoils other people's appetites.
These valiant attempts to inculcate some decent table manners and basic rules of dining etiquette seem totally wasted on Sharikov, a gluttonous gourmand who is intent solely on quickly filling his stomach, downing his meal (especially his vodka and brown bread) as rapidly as possible. "Everything with you is like being on parade," he interjects. "A napkin there . . . a necktie here . . . pardon me . . . please . . . merci . . . You are torturing yourselves, just like in tsarist times." Unlike the earlier scene of dining in chapter 3, Preobrazhenskii's afterdinner comments at this meal touch upon the low cultural level not of the people in Soviet Russia generally, but specifically of this one particular representative of popular, proletarian culture. "You are on the lowest rung of development," the professor shouts at Sharikov:
You are a creature just in the process of formation, with a feeble intellect. All your actions are those of a beast. Yet you permit yourself to speak with utterly insufferable impudence in the presence of two people with a university education—to offer advice on a cosmic scale and of equally cosmic stupidity on how to divide everything . . . And right after gobbling up a boxful of toothpowder too.
Philipp Philippovich ends his harangue against such blatant nekul'turnost' (on the part of a creature he has already characterized as a "Neanderthal") with the plea that Sharikov "try to learn, try to become a more or less acceptable member of socialist society." The meal concludes with the professor entreating his ill-mannered guest, "Just behave decently."
Much like the mealtime admonitions rendered earlier by Doctor Bormental', all of Preobrazhenskii's advice comes to naught, as do his efforts in general to educate and "nurture" the vulgar Sharikov, who is referred to in the text as the professor's "charge" (vospitannik) and his "ward" (pitomets,) words that in Russian underscore—at an etymological, lexical level—the notion that Philipp Philippovich has been endeavoring to "feed" (pitat') moral, spiritual, and cultural "food" (pishcha) to his creation. In fighting against the deplorable cultural barbarism that is represented by Sharikov (as a loyal defender of the proletarian class) and in attempting to remedy the spiritual malnutrition from which average citizens living under Soviet rule must necessarily suffer, Preobrazhenskii—as we have seen—finds himself pitted directly against Comrade Shvonder and the other members of the house committee. The class war that they wage against each other manifests itself in their efforts to win the cultural as well as ideological loyalties of Sharikov: Philipp Philippovich seeks to inculcate some aristocratic manners, tastes, and values in his creation, while Shvonder's efforts are directed toward raising the political consciousness (and political correctness) of this fledgling proletarian. Where Preobrazhenskii would like to have his "ward" appreciate the Bolshoi Theater's version of the aria "Celeste Aida," Shvonder and his cohorts encourage this new comrade to participate in their weekly sessions of choral singing. Sharikov's education, as Zholkovskii puts it, consists of a general "playing" with culture.
This clash of competing cultural values touches upon reading as well as singing. Thus Shvonder encourages Sharikov to raise his political consciousness by reading Engels' Correspondence with Kautsky, which is, according to Preobrazhenskii, an insidious tome that ought to be destroyed by being thrown into the fireplace. The only literary work that Philipp Philippovich mentions (and that Sharikov might thus consider as an alternative to Engels's Correspondence) is Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. "And what do you read?" the professor asks Sharikov after the latter mentions that he is a voracious reader. "A picture suddenly flashes through his mind: an uninhabited island, a palm tree, a man in an animal skin and cap. 'I'll have to get him Robinson'." This particular choice of text seems significant to me on a number of counts. First of all, Robinson Crusoe, understood as the narrative account of how a European man teaches himself to survive in an alien environment outside of civilized society, represents the apotheosis of a "novel of education" (roman vospitaniia) and would thus constitute an appropriate aid to Preobrazhenskii in his project to educate or "nurture" (vospitaf) his child of creation and to enable the latter to emerge from his primitive state. Moreover, Robinson Crusoe—as a representation of man as an essentially economic animal (homo economicus)—epitomizes the type of the rugged individualist; as such, he counterposes directly the collectivist ideology of the Bolsheviks that Shvonder is attempting to inculcate in Sharikov. In addition, Defoe's novçl may be said to constitute a classic example of what critics engaged in cultural studies would today characterize as "colonial discourse": that is, Crusoe's narrative account of his adventures is told from the culturally, ethnically, and sexually biased perspective of an empowered White Anglo-Saxon Protestant male from imperialist Europe. As a result, Robinson Crusoe constructs the image of the "other" as a savage cannibal in order to have him serve as the direct antithesis of its hero, who is a civilized European man of culture. Defoe's novel creates a dualism of this sort, Maggie Kilgour points out, in an effort to justify subsuming the inferior element in this pairing and thus vindicate cultural cannibalism.
Preobrazhenskii's scheme to nurture and educate Sharikov, it seems to me, shares some striking affinities with this imperialist brand of colonial discourse. For one thing, Sharikov and the proletarian class that he represents are similarly depicted as existing at a primitive level of cultural development, especially when viewed from the perspective of such well-educated members of the cultural elite as Preobrazhenskii and Bormental', who highly value the achievements of European civilization. Like "Ellochka the Cannibal," the fashion plate in Ilf and Petrov's Dvenadtsat' stul'ev who grotesquely cannibalizes not only the Russian language and her husband's meager income but also modern material culture in general, those characters in Bulgakov's novella who belong to the proletariat are invariably portrayed as what the author would deem intellectual and cultural "pygmies." By representing Sharikov, Shvonder, and others of their proletarian ilk as wild, primitive beasts (dikari) who are culturally impoverished, Bulgakov advances a discourse that encourages the readers of Sobach'e serdtse to share in what Kilgour refers to as "the imperialist desire for total mastery of what is foreign and strange by means of complete appropriation and incorporation." It is curious that the imperialist strategy of cultural cannibalism in Sobach'e serdtse—the construction of a hegemonic relationship between high gentry culture and low proletarian culture in Soviet Russia during the 1920s that allows the stronger of the two to devour the weaker one—should include the reading of Robinson Crusoe, since Defoe's hero represents a fictional character who is himself obsessively concerned with the threat of actual cannibalism.
This battle over the book in Sobach'e serdtse—the competition being waged between Engels's Correspondence and Defoe's Robinson Crusoe as the appropriate intellectual food to feed the spiritually starving Sharikov—reveals the manner in which Bulgakov (whether wittingly or not) exploits the act of eating not only as a trope for life but also as a metaphor for literature: for the processes of reading and writing as well as living. In its treatment of eating as an act of mental consumption and internalization, Bulgakov's text may be seen to follow a wellestablished tradition of viewing literature, and especially the knowledge it imparts, as food for the reader's mind. Writers of Western literature, as we know, have frequently compared reading to eating, and writing to cooking. In the "Author's Prologue" to Gargantua et Pantagruel [translated by J. M. Cohen, 1987], for example, François Rabelais invites the reader to the verbal feast that he has prepared in the text of his work. Indeed, he compares the reading of his book to the activity of a dog (according to Plato, the most intellectual creature in the world) who breaks open a bone and licks out the delicious marrow hidden within. Similarly, in the introduction to his History of Tom Jones, subtitled "Bill of Fare to the Feast," Henry Fielding warns his readers—just as an innkeeper through a menu might warn his customers—what type of literary meal they can expect to be served up in his comic novel and how the author (not unlike a cook) has gone about preparing that fare. "We shall represent Human Nature at first to the keen appetite of the reader," Fielding announces, "in that plain and simple manner in which it is found in the country, and shall hereafter hash and ragoo it with all the high French and Italian seasoning of affectation and vice which courts and cities afford."
Within Russian literature, one of the writers whose verbal art has quite often been described through gastronomical metaphors is, appropriately enough, Nikolai Gogol, perhaps the most famous of all Russian literary gourmands and one of Bulgakov's most revered literary models. Simon Karlinsky, for one, has called Gogol a "word glutton" because of the author's highly exuberant prose style, while Edmund Wilson has compared reading one of Gogol's "far-stretching" paragraphs to eating "a big bowl of Ukrainian soup, full of cabbage and beets and potatoes, chunks of sturgeon and shreds of beef or duck, with a foundation of sour cream." Iurii Ivask likewise makes use of culinary imagery when he describes the Russian author's unique writing style, observing that "Gogol's literary victuals are rich and greasy and full of vitamins, just like the meals prepared according to the instructions of a Pul'kheriia Ivanovna, a Korobochka, or a Petukh." Even one of Gogol's contemporaries, the literary critic Stepan Shevyrev, had recourse to gastronomic analogies when describing the idiosyncratic prose style of this famous Russian writer, comparing Mertvye dushi to a pie that had been overstuffed by "an ingenious gastronome who has bought the ingredients without calculating how much he will need, and who does not spare the filling."
All these analogies between gastronomy and literature ought to remind us that both these fields of human endeavor participate actively in a nation's cultural discourse. Eating and speaking are, after all, closely related oral acts, both of which involve the mouth, and there thus exists a natural kinship between the person who prepares a meal and the person who creates a work of literature. As Ronald Tobin has noted [in Tarte à la crème], the poet and the cook ought to be seen as quite kindred souls in the sense that they both perform "an archetypal, sacred and creative act that produces original, complex products which change the consumer emotionally, intellectually, and physically." The poet and the cook, in other words, both seek—by engaging in the mediatory activities of their verbal and culinary art—to fulfill what Claude Levi-Strauss has described as the humanist's goal of transforming raw nature (le cru) into sophisticated culture (le cuit.) "Cuisine," as Tobin succinctly puts it, "is the ultimate art of metamorphosis."
In Bulgakov's case, of course, this very sort of metamorphosis through the civilizing process comes to serve as one of the central themes of his story: Preobrazhenskii attempts to transform both Sharik and Sharikov (Klim Chugunkin) from primitive beasts into relatively sophisticated creatures. In a metaliterary sense, meanwhile, the author of Sobach'e serdtse may himself be considered a chef who seeks to transform his readers by providing them—in accord with Horace's dictum that literature combine pleasure and benefit—with both food for the stomach (through the novella's rich comic and satiric entertainment) and food for the soul (through its more serious political allegory and psychological analysis). It is all the more unfortunate, therefore, that Soviet Russia's cultural watchdogs, the censors, found Bulgakov's inventive contribution to canine literature not to their taste and thus prevented contemporary Russian readers during the late 1920s from breaking open this juicy literary bone and sucking out its delicious marrow. Instead it has been left to subsequent generations of readers, both inside and outside the author's homeland, to discover and to savor the tasty, but nourishing artistic treat that Bulgakov has served up for us in Sobacwe serdtse.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 622
Proffer, Ellendea. An International Bibliography of Works by and about Mikhail Bulgakov. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1976, 133 p.
Primary and secondary bibliography listing publications in several languages including Russian, English, Dutch, French, German, and Italian.
Terry, Garth M. Mikhail Bulgakov in English: A Bibliography 1891-1991. Nottingham, England: Astra Press, 1991, 30 p.
Index of works by and about Bulgakov in English.
Belozerskaya-Bolgakova, Lyubov. My Life with Mikhail Bulgakov. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1983, 136 p.
Personal account by Bulgakov's second wife.
Proffer, Ellendea. Bulgakov: Life and Work. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1984, 670 p.
Comprehensive biographical and critical study of Bulgakov' s career.
Berman, Michael. "Plays and Stories by a Soviet Chekhov." The New York Times Book Review (23 July 1972): 7, 13.
Positive review of The Early Plays of Mikhail Bulgakov and Diaboliad, and Other Stories.
Doyle, Peter. "Bulgakov's Satirical View of Revolution in 'Rokovye iaitsa' and Sobach'e serdtse." Canadian Slavonic Papers XX, No. 4 (December 1978): 467-82.
Compares the story "The Fatal Eggs" and the novella The Heart of a Dog, "examining the different ways in which each work treats the same theme—the rejection of revolution as a means for achieving human progress."
Friedberg, Maurice. "The Earliest Transplant." Saturday Review LI, No. 20 (20 July 1968): 24-5.
Favorable evaluation of The Heart of a Dog in which Friedberg describes contemporary scholarship devoted to Bulgakov's writings as "a successful literary excavation that yields gems whose existence had never been suspected."
Hetényi, Zsuzsa. "Fatal Hearts of the 1920s (On Mikhail Bulgakov's Story The Heart of a Dog)" translated by Jonathan Crossan. Scottish Slavonic Review, No. 14 (Spring 1990): 181-90.
Examines the historical context that shaped the philosophical perspective presented in the novella.
Hoover, Marjorie L. A review of Diaboliad, and Other Stories. Studies in Short Fiction XI, No. 2 (Spring 1974): 218-21.
Summarizes several stories in the Diaboliad collection, which receives a mixed assessment from Hoover.
Lakshin, Vladimir. A review of Notes of a Young Doctor. Soviet Literature (February 1964): 189-90.
Praises the humor and realism of Notes of a Young Doctor.
Morgan, Edwin. "The Healer's Art." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3821 (30 May 1975): 584.
Mixed review of Notes of a Young Doctor.
Natov, Nadine. Mikhail Bulgakov. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985, 144 p.
Survey of Bulgakov's life and works.
Proffer, Ellendea. Introduction to Notes on the Cuff, and Other Stories, translated by Alison Rice, pp. vii-xix. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1991.
Describes Notes on the Cuff, and Other Stories as "a very nervous collection of stories from the start of Bulgakov's career—a nervous man, writing in a nervous time. The cataclysm underlying all of the tension one can sense here is the harrowing experience of the Revolution and Civil War, as well as a brief exposure to World War I."
Sahni, Kalpana. A Mind in Ferment: Mikhail Bulgakov's Prose. New Delhi, India: Arnold-Heinemann, 1984, 260 p.
Assesses the prose of Bulgakov "in the context of . . . socio-historical and cultural developments in Post-Revolutionary Russia," noting that he neither belonged to a literary group with ideological aims nor actively participated in politics. Bulgakov "refused the simplistic solutions to art that were demanded of the [Russian] artist and for this he was ostracised."
Soviet Literature 1 (1988).
Issue devoted to Bulgakov; includes autobiographical and biographical material, critical essays, and translations of several short works.
Theroux, Paul. A review of Diaboliad, and Other Stories. The Washington Post Book World VI, No. 19 (7 May 1972): Part I, p. 4.
Judges Diaboliad, and Other Stories "a lively collection" but categorizes Bulgakov's stories as "funny social criticism" rather than "great satire."
"Almost Human." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3471 (5 September 1968): 937.
Positive review of The Heart of a Dog.
"Disruptive Moments." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3679 (1 September 1972): 1013.
Brief appraisal of Diaboliad, and Other Stories.
Additional coverage of Bulgakov's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 105; and Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 16.
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