Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Manuscripts don’t burn

It’s 80 years to the day that Mikhail Bulgakov, one of Russia’s most interesting 20th century writers, died. Although feted at home for a short period in the 1920s, his satirical tone fell out of favour with the authorities, and he spent the last decade of his life unable to publish any writing. His most famous book - The Master and Margarita - was kept secret for years after his death and not published until the 1960s. Intriguingly, he had, in the book, used the phrase ‘Manuscripts don’t burn’, and this has since become a famous quote. The phrase, however, applies even more pertinently to a diary Bulgakov kept in the 1920s which, after having been confiscated by the authorities and returned, he himself destroyed! Yet, a copy was found 60 years later, buried in the KGB’s files.

Bulgakov was born in Kiev in 1891 to Russian parents, his father being a professor at the Kiev Theological Academy. He married Tatiana Lappa in 1913, and with the outbreak of the First World War volunteered as a doctor for the Red Cross. He was sent to the front line, where he was severely injured. In 1916, he graduated from the medical school at Kiev University and then served in the White Army, before also briefly serving in the Ukrainian People’s Army. After the Civil War, much of his family emigrated to Paris, but Bulgakov went to the Caucasus, and was then refused permission to leave Russia. In 1919, he gave up medicine for literature, and in 1921 moved, with Tatiana, to Moscow to pursue the life of a writer.

In Moscow, he worked as a journalist and for the literary department of the People’s Commissariat of Education. Parts of a largely autobiographical novel (much later published in English as The White Guard) were serialised in a journal. In 1924, he married again, to Lyubov Belozerskaya. In 1926, according to Wikipedia, he published a book called Morphine, which gave an account of his addiction to the drug (taken initially to ease the pain of war wounds). From the mid 1920s, though, Bulgakov mostly wrote and staged plays, especially with the Moscow Arts Theatre. He was at the height of his popularity in 1928 when he had three plays showing. But, increasingly, he found himself at odds with the Soviet authorities for the nature of his satire; and, before the end of the decade, government censorship was preventing publication of any of his work or the staging of any of his plays.

In 1929, Bulgakov wrote to Maxim Gorky (see The New York Times, for example): ‘All my plays have been banned; not a line of mine is being printed anywhere; I have no work ready, and not a kopeck of royalties is coming in from any source; not a single institution, not a single individual will reply to my applications.’ In 1931, Bulgakov married for the third time, to Yelena Shilovskaya, who would prove a dedicated and inspirational partner. And then, at a complete loss, he wrote to Stalin asking for permission to emigrate. He refused, but arranged for him find work in the theatre, as an adapter of classics and a producer. Stalin’s favour protected Bulgakov from arrest, but the political climate remained too hostile for his writing to be published.

During the last decade or so of his life, Bulgakov worked on what would become his most important literary work - The Master and Margarita, a multi-leveled satire and fantasy - but it was suppressed by the authorities. Bulgakov died on 10 March 1940, and it was not until the 1960s that The Master and Margarita was finally published, subsequently bringing its author considerable but belated worldwide attention. See also Encyclopaedia Britannica, IMDB, Library of Congress, or Russiapedia for further information.

For a few years in the 1920s, Bulgakov kept a diary, says Dr Julie Curtis, in her biography Manuscripts Don’t Burn: Mikhail Bulgakov - A Life in Letters and Diaries (published by Bloomsbury in 1991, and a few pages of which can be read online at Amazon.com.)

In her preface, Curtis writes: ‘An extraordinary story attaches to [the diary], which everyone, including Bulgakov, had supposed to have been destroyed over 60 years ago. In 1926, Bulgakov’s apartment was searched by the OGPU (a forerunner of the KGB) and his diaries were confiscated, along with the text of The Heart of a Dog. Since Bulgakov was on this occasion only marginally implicated in a case being mounted by the secret police against one of his acquaintances, he soon began to make official complaints demanding that the manuscripts be returned. He finally got them back some three years later, in 1929, whereupon he immediately burned the diaries and resolved never to keep a diary again. Since that time, it had been assumed that the diaries were lost, until the advent of Glasnost prompted the KGB to admit that, in fact, the OGPU had made a copy of at least part of of the diary back in the 1920s, and this was still sitting in the KGB’s archives.’

‘The fate of Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita,’ Curtis continues, ‘which was published after being kept secret for a decade while he was alive, and for a further 26 years after his death, together with this astonishing re-emergence of his diary 60 years on, has lent a peculiarly prophetic force to a phrase from The Master and Margarita which defiantly proclaims the integrity of art: ‘Manuscripts don’t burn.’ This is the phrase from the novel most frequently quoted in the Soviet Union today.’

Although there are relatively few entries from Bulgakov’s diary in Curtis’s book, Curtis does give more general information about them: ‘In these diaries Bulgakov is very frank, a foolishness which taught him a painful lesson when the diaries were confiscated, and which he never indulged in again; amongst other things, they contain traces of a condescension towards Jews which has caused some dismay amongst his present-day admirers. He is also candid when it comes to speaking about himself and his relationship with Lyubov, whom he describes as his ‘wife’ for some months before the official registration of their marriage. There is an unattractive irritation with himself that he should be so physically infatuated with her, and there is a hint of his doubts about the strength of her commitment to him, which seems to have led, on occasions, to him making scenes. . . The diaries reveal, too, Bulgakov’s obsessive preoccupation with his health, which may be attributable to the fact that as a doctor he knew that there was always a danger he might succumb to the same disease as his father . . . In addition, we can trace in the pages of the diaries the indications of a nervous susceptibility which would lead in due course, when his life really became difficult, to bouts of terror at being left alone and a fear of walking alone on the street. Overall, the image of Bulgakov that emerges from his diaries is not quite that of the cultivated man of letters he was to project in later years.’

Subsequent to Curtis’s biography, Roger Cockerell edited and translated a selection of  Bulgakov’s diaries and letters covering a 20 year period (1921-1940). This was published by Alma Classics in 2013 as Diaries and Selected Letters. Cockerell based his selection on a Russian edition of the diaries and letters published in 2004, though he also consulted a more complete (Russian) edition of the diaries and letters dating back to 1997.

Here are several of Bulgakov’s diary entries, as found in Cockerell’s edition.

29 October 1923
‘The heating was on for the first time today. Spent the entire evening sealing the windows. This first day of heating was especially noteworthy for the fact that the famous Annushka left the kitchen window wide open all night. I really don’t know what to do with the wretches who live in this apartment.

I have a severe nervous disorder connected with my illness, and such things drive me mad.

The new furniture from yesterday is now in my room. In order to pay on time we had to borrow five chervonets from Mozalevsky.

Mitya Stonov and Gaidovsky came round this evening, invited me to join the journal Town and Country. Then Andrei. He was reading my ‘Diaboliad’ and said that I had created a new genre and an unusually fast-moving plot.

It had only been the Moscow Agricultural Pavilion on fire at the Exhibition, and it had been quickly put out. Definitely arson, in my opinion.’

6 November 1923
‘Kolya Gladyrevsky has just gone; he’s creating my illness. After he’d left I read Mikhail Chekhov’s poorly written and second-rate book on his great brother. I’m also reading Gorky’s brilliant My Universities.

I’m now full of thoughts, and have just begun to realize clearly that I need to start being serious about things. And, what’s more, that writing is my entire life. I’ll never return to any sort of medicine. I don’t like Gorky as a person, but he’s such a huge, powerful writer, and he makes such terrifying and important points about writing.

Today, at about five, I was at Lezhnev’s, and he said two things of significance to me: firstly, that my short story ‘Psalm’ (published in On the Eve) was magnificent, as “a miniature” (“I would have published it”), and, secondly, that On the Eve was universally despised and loathed. That doesn’t frighten me. What does frighten me is the fact that I’m thirty-two, and the years I have wasted on medicine, my illness and my weakness. I’ve already had two operations on the idiotic tumour behind my ear. <...> They’ve written from Kiev to say 1 should begin radiotherapy. Now I’m afraid that the tumour will spread. And I’m afraid that this blind, stupid, detestable disease will interrupt my work. If I’m able to carry on, I’ll write something better than ‘Psalm’.

I’m going to start studying from now on. My voice may sometimes trouble me, but it cannot be anything other than prophetic. Quite impossible. And I cannot be anything other than a writer.

Let’s wait and see, learn and be silent.’

8 January 1924
‘There’s a bulletin in today’s newspapers about the state of Trotsky’s health. It begins as follows: “On the 5th November last year L. D. Trotsky was ill with influenza...” and ends as follows: “...to take time off, with a full release from all his responsibilities, for a period of not less than two months.” Any further comment on this historic bulletin would be superfluous.

And so, on 8th January 1924, Trotsky was kicked out. May God help Russia: He alone knows what the future holds for her! May God help her.

Spent the evening at Boris’s. Have just got back with Taska. Great fun. I drank wine, and my heart was fine.

The chervonets is worth 3.6 billlion.’

16 April 1924
‘Just returned from the opening of the railwaymen’s congress at the Assembly of Nobility (now Union House). The entire editorial hoard of the Hooter, with very few exceptions, was there. My job with others, was to correct the shorthand report.

In the circular hall, divided by a thick curtain from the Hall of Columns, there was the clatter of typewriters and the bright electric lights of the chandeliers glowing in their frosted white shades. Kalinin, in a dark-blue shirt, round-shouldered, mispronouncing his Rs and his Ls, appeared and said something or other. In the dazzling floodlights they were filming everywhere.

After the first session, there was a concert. Mordkin and the ballerina Kriger danced together. Mordkin is handsome, flirtatious. Performers from the Bolshoi sang, including, amongst others, Viktorov, a Jew, a dramatic tenor with a repellently piercing but huge voice. A certain Golovin, a baritone from the Bolshoi, also sang. It turns out that he is a former deacon from Stavropol. Joined the Stavropol Opera and within three months was singing the part of the Demon - and then, a year or so later, found himself the Bolshoi. Incomparable voice.’

25 July 1924
‘What a day! Spent the morning at home writing a satirical piece for Red Pepper. Then the daily process began of dashing from one editor to another in search of money, without seeing any chink of light ahead. Saw the unspeakable Furman from the newspaper Dawn of the East. Two of my pieces were returned. I had great difficulty getting Furman to hand the manuscript back, since I owed them the twenty roubles they’d already paid me. I had to write him a note that I would return the money no later than the 30th. Then I handed in one of these articles to Red Pepper, together with the one I had written earlier that morning. I’m sure they’ll be rejected. And then, in the evening, Sven rejected my article for Splinter. Was at his apartment, and somehow managed to get a promissory note for 20 roubles, for tomorrow. Nightmarish existence.

To cap it all, I rang Lezhnev in the afternoon to learn that there was no point in negotiating with Kagansky concerning the publication of The White Guard as a separate edition, as he hadn’t got any money at the moment. This was a new surprise. I now regret that I didn’t take the thirty chervonets at the time. I’m sure The White Guard won’t now be published.

In short, the Devil only knows what’s going on.

It’s late, about 12; have been with Lyubov Yevgenyevna.’

5 January 1925
‘The weather in Moscow is something quite extraordinary: in the thaw everything has melted, and the mood amongst Muscovites precisely mirrors the weather. The weather suggests February, and there’s February in people’s hearts.

“How’s this all going to end?” a friend asked me today.

Such questions are asked in a dull, mechanical way, hopelessly, indifferently, any way you like. Just at that moment there was a group of drunken communists in my friend’s apartment, in a room right across the corridor. In the corridor itself there was a foully pungent smell - one of the Party members, my friend told me, was asleep there like a pig, completely drunk. Someone had invited him. and my friend hadn’t been able to refuse. Again and again he went into their room with a polite and ingratiating smile on his face. They kept shouting to him to join them. He kept coming back to me, cursing them in a whisper. Yes, right: somehow this must all stop. I believe it will!
Went specially today to the publishers of the Atheist. It’s situated in Stoleshnikov Alley or, rather, in Kozmodemyanovsky, not far from the Moscow City Council building. M.S. was with me and he delighted me from the first.

“What, aren’t they smashing in your windows?” he asked the first girl we came across, sitting at a desk.

“What do you mean?” (confused). “No, they aren’t” (threateningly).

“What a pity.”

I wanted to kiss him on his Jewish nose. It turned out that there were no copies from 1913 left. All sold, they reported proudly. We managed to get hold of the first eleven back numbers from 1924. Number 12 had not yet appeared. When she found out that I was a private individual, the young lady, if that’s the right way to descibe her, gave them to me reluctantly.

“I should really be giving this to a library.”

Apparently they have a print run of 70,000, and it’s a total sellout. There are some unspeakable swine in the office who keep on leaving the room and coming back in again; and a small stage, curtains, scenery...  On a table on the stage there’s some sacred book, a bible perhaps, with a couple of heads bent over it.

“Just like a synagogue,” said M. as we were leaving the building.

I was very interested to know just how much this had all been said for my special benefit. It would be wrong of course to exaggerate, but I have the impression that some of the people who have been reading The White Guard in Russia use a different tone of voice when speaking to me - with a kind of oblique, apprehensive deference.

I was very struck by M.’s reaction to the extract from The White Guard. It could be described as rapturous, but even before this I’d had this feeling growing inside me, a process that had been going on for some three days. I will be terribly sorry if I’m mistaken and if The White Guard is not an exceptional piece.

When I skimmed through the copies of the Atheist at home this evening I was shocked. The salt was not in the blasphemy, although that was huge, of course, if you’re looking at it just from the outside. The salt was in the idea, an idea that can be historically proved. Even Jesus Christ was being depicted as a crook and a scoundrel. It’s not difficult to understand who’s responsible for this. The offence is immeasurable.’


And here are a few entries from Yelena’s diary (found in Curtis’s biography) concerning the last few days of Bulgakov’s life.

29 September 1939
‘I will go straight to Misha’s grave illness. . . World events are seething all around us, but they reach us only indistinctly, so struck down are we by our own misfortune.’

1 January 1940
‘1939, the most difficult year in my life, has gone, and may God grant that 1940 should not be the same!’

15 January 1940
‘Misha is correcting the novel [The Master and Margarita] as much as his strength will allow, and I am copying it out . . .’

16 January 1940
‘42 degrees below zero! . . . I believe that he will get better.’

10 March 1940
‘16.39 Misha died’

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 10 March 2010.

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