Mikhail Bulgakov: A Dead Man's Memoir
When a writer has written one book that is generally hailed as a masterpiece, it tends to make one view his or her other work with a somewhat critical eye.
Such was the case with Mikhail Bulgakov, whose autobiographical novel, A Dead Man's Memoir (A Theatrical Novel), I just finished reading. Bulgakov began writing this book in 1929, a year that was particularly trying for him. Soviet Party critics had banned all his plays from the stage, and, as he wrote in a letter to his friend, Russian author Maxim Gorky, "I am ruined, slandered, and alone."
A Dead Man's Memoir was never finished, though the 167-page novel still finishes on a complete note. The lead character, Sergei Maksudov, is based on Bulgakov himself. Like Bulgakov, he is a struggling writer. But unlike Bulgakov, he is ultimately unsuccessful at perfecting the art of novel-writing. In Chapter 3, he attempts suicide by putting the barrel of a gun to his forehead. In the following chapter, the editor and publisher, Illya Ivanovich Rufolfi, appears on his doorstep, thereby putting a stop to his plans. After discovering that Maksudov has written a novel, he asks to read it. Rudolfi, whom Maksudov sees as a Satanic presence ("In short, standing there before me was Mephistopheles"), demonstrates no emotion as he reads the manuscript:
"....Rudolfi was swallowing page after page, and I attempted in vain to discover what impression the novel was making on him. Rudolfi's face expressed absolutely nothing."
However, when he finishes reading the novel, he informs Maskudov that "no one" will print it. At the same time, he asks him to delete three words from the manuscript ("Apocalypse," "archangels," and "devil), and proceeds to leave his apartment with the notebooks containing the novel under his arm.
Following this, Muskadov spends a bit of time in Rudolfi's world. He visits him at his place and enjoys meeting and becoming acquainted with many writers, several of whom are quite renowned. But, like many other times of Muskadov's life, this period is somewhat of a blur for him.
"...now all of that has been erased from my memory, leaving nothing behind but boredom; I've forgotten all that."
Although Muskadov's novel is never a hit, it is through his novel that he is inspired to write the play that will catapult him to success. His "breakthrough" comes in such a way that I am reminded of certain passages in Sologub's The Little Demon (see my thread on Sologub, where I speak in more detail about this work):
".....I had to extract the journal with the novel from the drawer after all. And then in the evenings I began getting the impression that there was something coloured projecting up out of the white page. On looking more closely and screwing up my eyes, I became convinced it was a picture. And even more, that it was not a flat picture but a three-dimensional one, like a little box, and in it, through the lines of words, I could see a light burning and the same little figures that were described in the novel moving about. Ah, what an amusing game it was....."
He goes on to say:
"....how could I record these little figures so that they would never go away anywhere again? Then one night I decided to describe this magical chamber. But how was I to describe it?"
From that moment on, he is madly inspired to write a play, though it is not until he has spent three frenetic nights writing it that he is fully aware of this fact. When he finishes the 13-scene play and shows it to a repertoire manager at the theatre, he is told that it is "wonderful." Through this man he is eventually introduced to Ivan Vasilievich, the director of the Independent Theatre--a character who is based on the real-life Russian theatre director, Konstantin Stanislavsky. He is asked by Vasilievich to read his entire play to him aloud. This proves to be an agonizing circumstance for Muskadov:
"Have you ever had occasion to read a play to another person tete-a-tete? It is a very difficult thing, I assure you."
As soon as Vasileivich listens to the entire play, he immediately begins, in a bombastic manner, to give Muskadov advice:
"I'll tell you what kind of play you ought to write....You can earn colossal money in an instant. A profound psychological drama....The fate of an actress. Let us say that in a certain kingdom there lives an actress, and a band of enemies persecutes her, torments her and makes her life a misery....And she only offers up prayers for her enemies...."
When Muskadov explains to Vasileivich that he has too little experience with the stage to write a play of this nature, he tells him to "study it."
Shortly after this, Muskadov has another Sologub-esque spell. It is triggered by a satirical article a writer has written about him, entitled "In someone else's sleigh." For Muskadov, the article "comes to life," and he finds himself in the company of such luminaries of drama as Shakespeare and Chekhov.
"They were laughing at me, there could be no doubt about that. All of them were laughing spitefully. Shakespeare, and Lope de Vega and the malicious Moliere, asking me if I had written anything like Tartuffe, and Chekhov, whom from his books I had taken to be a most sensitive individual....."
As Muskaov continues to become more and more entrapped in the world of theatre, he loses more and more confidence in himself. Though, originally, he was vehement about not changing certain parts of his play, he begins to question his work, feeling as if the advice he is getting from those who know infinitely more about theatre than he does, must be right. At Vasilievich's suggestion, he adds characters to his script that he hates, gritting his teeth as he does so, and exclaiming:
"One has to love one's characters: if you don't have that, I advise anyone not to take up the pen--you will only suffer great distress and it will serve you right."
Because this novel is meant to be a scathing look at theatre, politics, and censorship, it should come as no surprise that Muskadov is never allowed to produce the play he wants to see enacted on the stage. Whenever he voices his objections to the treatment he and his play receive, he is told:
"...you don't know what the theatre's like. There are complicated machines in the world, but the theatre is the most complicated of all."
And, indeed, Muskadov finds that the theatre is intricately complicated. He finds that egos and politics have more
to do with it than talent and hard work. When, ultimately, he reads the "rewritten" version of his play, he is overcome with despair. "Look at the way life rushes along," he says, "and it's as if I've been buried."
Although this novel is not, by any means, on a par with The Master and Margarita, it is essential for those who want to understand Bulgakov. Moreover, it is mandatory reading for those who are interested in the oppression that artists oftentimes face--in the struggle to maintain faith in spite of lack of freedom. It is also interesting in relation to the censorship issues that were once so prevalent in Russia.
All in all, this book is a small, glittering jewel, with many facets that will leave readers room for their own, personal interpretations.
A Dead Man's Memoir was eventually published in Russia in 1965. Bulgakov finished his work on this book in 1937.
"I sometimes have bursts of confidence and strength.
And now I can hear it inside myself, thought taking
flight, and I believe that I am stronger as a writer,
incomparably stronger, than anyone I know."
~Mikhail Bulgakov, excerpt from his diary
Last edited by titania7; 04-Nov-2008 at 21:26.
"All men have the same defect: they wait to live, for they have not the courage of each instant.
Why not invest enough passion in each moment to make it an eternity?" ~E. M. Cioran