Mikhail Bulgakov, for whom “manuscripts don’t burn”
I read a lot of books and I’m always searching for ‘new’ authors to become obsessed by. Once or twice a year I find an author especially to my liking. Preferably they’ve written a fair few books (at least 5) but not as many as 20-30 or it’ll take me forever to read everything they’ve written (see Elmore Leonard). They can be living but it’s all the same to me if they’re dead. At least that way you’re likely to get a biography or two. ‘New’ authors have to follow my ‘1918 Rule’ which simply states that they must have published their books since the end of the First World War (the birth of the modern era). I am especially partial to American authors, but I’ve read writers from all over the (mostly Western) world. In recent years I’ve been especially enamoured with the works of Raymond Carver, Daniel Woodrell and Megan Abbott, to name but three. 2014’s best ‘new’ author for me is Mikhail Bulgakov, who died in Stalin’s Russia in 1940.
I’ve read a bit of Russian literature over the years but it has tended to be single books by famous authors such as Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak. I haven’t really bonded with a Russian author before. At one point I thought I was going to like Andrey Kurkov (okay, so he’s Ukranian) but 3-4 books later my ardour for his work has cooled. I hadn’t heard of Bulgakov until I read an essay on him in Overland magazine, and that inspired me to buy a copy of his best known work, The Master and Margarita.
This novel is like nothing else I’ve read in Russian literature, which normally seems to exclusively consist of bleak realism, not that I have anything against that. Fresh from that novel, I ordered a copy of a volume of Bulgakov’s letters and diaries, which also serves as a quasi-biography. I highly recommend it.
By now I was hooked and determined to read the rest of Bulgakov’s work. Luckily for me, Vintage has six volumes of his novels and stories (but not his plays), meaning that I could get uniform editions which look nice on the shelf with their red spines. A Heart of a Dog (also known, in a different translation, as A Dog’s Heart) was an amusing read, too.
Black Snow: A Theatrical Novel (confusingly, also known as A Dead Man’s Memoir) is an interesting, albeit unfinished and not altogether satisfying satire about the Moscow theatre of the 20s. It was worth a read.
A Country Doctor’s Notebook (or A Young Doctor’s Notebook) is my favourite Bulgakov behind The Master and Margarita. I thought this was some kind of diary from the author’s time as a rural doctor duing WWI, but it turns out that the stories were written in the 20s and are highly polished. This is very good and very accessible, probably a great place to start with Bulgakov. Apparently it’s been made into a TV series, too.
Bulgakov’s only volume of short stories, Diaboliad, was suppressed during the author’s lifetime along with most of the rest of his work. Confusingly, some editions (thankfully not the Vintage) DON’T contain the novella length ‘The Fatal Eggs’ which is also available as a standalone title. Seeing as ‘The Fatal Eggs’ represents about 2/3 of the pages in the Vintage edition, that would really suck. I didn’t much like the three later stories in Diaboliad, but I liked ‘The Fatal Eggs’ (a SF story reminiscent of H. G. Wells) and especially the title story, which is something of a prototype for The Master and Margarita.
The sixth and final book in Vintage (all translated by Michael Glenny) is Bulgakov’s first novel, The White Guard, which is based on the author’s wartime experiences. Bulgakov’s most famous and successful play during his lifetime, “The Day of the Turbins”, is based on this. I haven’t got around to purchasing this sixth Vintage volume yet, but I will.
In addition to these six Vintage volumes, there are a handful of other obscure titles not available in Vintage. There’s something called Notes from the Cuff which I believe to be more short stories, there are collections of Bulgakov’s surviving plays and even a biography of Moliere which seems to be out of print. Hopefully I’ll get to these one day. Let me know if you’ve read any of these more obscure titles (or indeed any Bulgakov). I’m finding it hard to pin down exactly what I like about Bulgakov so much. He certainly seems atypical for a Russian writer, more Continental in character. His work is very dark and very funny, and the story of his life is one of perseverance in the face of the harshest of adversity. There are only a few photos of Bulgakov floating around on the internet. This one of he and his third wife, taken shortly before his premature death in 1940, I find especially haunting.