October 2013

Madeleine Monson-Rosen

nonfiction

Diaries and Selected Letters by Mikhail Bugakov, translated by Roger Cockrell

On December 26, 1924, Mikhail Bulgakov wrote in his diary, "What concerns me more than all these Lyashkos is the question whether I am a real writer or not." He'd completed his early works Diaboliad and The Fatal Eggs, which met with success among his circle of friends and colleagues, but he was a few years from his position with the Moscow Art Theater, a position granted him despite the Soviet state's censorship of nearly everything he ever wrote.

In the Diaries and Selected Letters, readers will see Bulgakov become the real writer he did not yet recognize. Although this volume of the diary begins with Bulgakov's move to Moscow in the beginning of 1921, the early entries are short and abrupt. They allude coyly to more events than they actually relate. The first entry, from January 1922, begins, "Given up the diary for a bit. A pity -- there's been a lot of interesting things going on all this time." Yet gradually these short entries evolve into longer, more introspective, more lyrical meditations. By the time Bulgakov wonders whether or not he's a real writer, he's already revealed the answer.

The diaries and especially the letters illustrate Bulgakov's development into a "real" writer, despite the demoralizing and frightening obstructions he faced from the increasingly repressive Soviet government, and despite the potentially debilitating history he escaped when he left his home and his medical career in Ukraine and struck out as a writer in Moscow. In a pithy introduction, as well as in a dense biographical summary included after the text, editor and translator Roger Cockrell situates the volume in Bulgakov's personal history. Trained as a doctor, Bulgakov fled Ukraine and the belligerent White, Red, and Ukrainian Nationalist factions who press-ganged him into service because of his medical training. He was initially sympathetic to the Tsarist Whites, Cockrell surmises, until, "after witnessing murders, torture, and pogroms, Bulgakov was overwhelmed with horror at his contemporary situation." After a "spiritual crisis" brought on by his experiences, including an addiction to his own supply of morphine, he gave up medicine and turned to a literary career.

That spiritual crisis must have steeled Bulgakov's bone-dry wit and satirical attitude, which persist even when the diaries are chillingly cut off in December 1925, seized in a raid by the OGPU, a predecessor of the KGB. Letters requesting the return of the diaries, and, eventually, the transcript of Bulgakov's interrogation begin in 1926. The remaining decade-and-a-half of Bulgakov's life is revealed in his letters, often to literary friends inside and outside the USSR, friends to whom he inevitably complains, yet nearly always concludes with multiple "kisses." Bulgakov's own humanity, his tenderness toward his friends in the midst of his struggle, permeates this book. Cockrell's translation and his additional material crackle and glow with Bulgakov's energy. This volume is a triumph for its translator, who reveals the very human life behind its author's own posthumous triumph. In the face of nearly unbearable pressure to conform to a politically sanctioned realism, the Diaries and Selected Letters reveals a fabulist heroism that absolutely justifies the degree of posthumous fame Bulgakov earned with The Master and Margarita, the composition of which overshadows the letters from the last years of his life, putting that extraordinary novel into tragic relief.

Many years earlier, in an eleven-item letter to the Soviet government that would justify purchase of this book by itself, Bulgakov enumerates his reasons for being unable to conform to a Soviet aesthetic. Both rageful and wry, the author makes a reasoned defense of his work that never has to appeal to the transcendence of art itself. His work is his. Audiences enjoy it. Why shouldn't he be free to create it? "M. Bulgakov" he writes of himself in item number eight, "HAD BECOME A SATIRIST, precisely at a time when any idea of genuine satire (reaching into forbidden areas) was absolutely inconceivable in the USSR." His all-caps shouting is offset, however, by item number ten: "I appeal to the humanity of the Soviet authorities to ask that you magnanimously set me free, as a writer who cannot be of use in his own homeland." And in another perverse turn of fate, Bulgakov's work, and his appeal to humanity, reached both far and high. In a letter dated July 1931, he writes of receiving a telephone call from the General Secretary, that is, Stalin himself, granting his permission to travel. Yet he never received the promised passport.

In his letters, Bulgakov reveals his own humanity, and his satires take on a heroic character. The Master and Margarita, along with his many lesser known works, becomes the witness of that heroism, with its theological and mythological themes, not to mention its giant demoniac cat, when, under interrogation, Bulgakov is forced to explain why he can't just write about peasants and workers. Ever the satirist, he could not even approach his death as a realist. In one of his last letters, December 1939, three months before dying, he writes, "it's all so painful, boring and banal. As is well known, there is only one decent way to die, and that is by a gun, but, regretfully, I do not have one available."

Diaries and Selected Letters by Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Roger Cockrell
Alma Books
ISBN: 978-1847493033
278 pages