The Russian master


Mikhail Bulgakov’s razor-edged satire, subversiveness and courage make him the greatest Russian writer of them all, writes LAURENCE MACKIN

NO ONE WRITES a novel quite like the Russians. The austerity, the fatalism, the ability to load a few curt words of narrative with a cartload of meaning; the brutal clinicalism and unabashed romanticism, the torturous analysis of the soul, and the flashes of the exotic that make this continent-sized country seem a world all of its own.

But what about the sheer, unbridled madness? The rampant, broiling chaos, the magical realism, where the trick is, within the opening paragraphs, to make us accept any notion, no matter how preposterous? The subversive celebration of tearing a society apart? Or the celebration of the “other side”, where readers are given a vital insight into those who find themselves on the losing side of battle and, inevitably, on the losing side of history?

For the first lot, the names are familiar: Dostoyevsky, Pasternak, Tolstoy. But with elements of this first group, and for a brimming box-load of the fire-cracking volatile substances that make up the second, we have to thank the greatest Russian writer of them all – Mikhail Bulgakov.

While not exactly obscure, Bulgakov does not enjoy the same popular literary heavyweight status of the other Russian prizefighters. In Russia, he is on the school curriculum and revered, probably more so than Tolstoy. But abroad, he remains something of an enigma, a byword for those in the literary know, who can smile at each other darkly, as if they have tasted a now-extinct vintage of wine. Ah yes, Bulgakov – delicious, isn’t it? Which is all preposterous nonsense, as few writers have had such an impact on western literature as this great Russian icon (he was born in Kiev, but that’s a whole other argument).

In The White Guard(and its subsequent theatrical version, The Day of the Turbins), he tells the story of a privileged family caught in the eye of the storm of the Russian revolution. For perhaps the first time in Soviet Russia, the Whites are depicted as, gasp, sympathetically human.

In Stalinist-era Russia, he pulled at the bridle of censorship and wrote plays that didn’t so much poke fun at the regime as stick their fingers into the open wounds of the state and demand: “Does it hurt much when I do this?” (He got away with this by courting favour with Stalin, about which more later.)

In A Dog’s Heart, he tells the story of Prof Preobrazhensky, a doctor who implants the glands of a dead criminal in an unfortunate mutt. The resulting half-man, half-dog creation becomes something of a monstrosity, and fits right into Soviet society.

In The Fatal Eggs, the state breeds monsters with an advanced “red ray”, and promptly loses control of them. Defending his work against accusations that it was satirising the communist state, Bulgakov wrote to the government saying: “It is impossibleto write a lampoon on an event of such extreme grandeur as the Revolution.” One assumes the tongue was parked firmly in cheek.

However, his seminal The Master and Margarita, is a work of such jaw-dropping intensity and stupendous breadth that it has left its fingerprints over a vast swathe of 20th- and 21st-century culture, from the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses; from the literary tricks of Orhan Pamuk, and the manner in which he blurs the lines between fiction and reality, to the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil.

For every great novelist there must surely be a great life, and Bulgakov’s all-too brief earthly stint is no exception.

He was born in what is now Ukraine to parents of Russian ethnicity on May 15th, 1891. He trained as a doctor and was wounded in the first World War while working as a medic, but in 1919 he abandoned medicine to concentrate on his true calling of literature. His war wounds continued to bother him, and he began self-medicating with morphine, to which he became addicted. This inevitably led to a book describing his experiences.

With the rise of the Soviets, much of his family emigrated to Paris but Bulgakov remained in Russia, and was refused permission to leave. He did not see many members of his family again. Throughout the 1920s, he wrote plays and books, and came under severe criticism for being anti-Soviet, something he tried to rectify by telling Stalin on the telephone that if he was of no use to the state as a writer, he should be allowed to leave.

Stalin had a soft spot for Bulgakov, as he somewhat perplexingly liked The Day of the Turbins, and in a bid to ingratiate himself with the “Gardener of Human Happiness”, Bulgakov had written a play praising Stalin’s early revolutionary years called Batum. Stalin banned it.

Throughout the 1930s, he continued to work largely in the theatre and crafting his masterpiece, but his plays and books were censored or banned, and he died almost 70 years ago, on March 10th, 1940, while still working on The Master and Margarita.

This is a dry account of a colourful existence that was made all the more vibrant by the women of his life. Bulgakov married three times, but it was his third wife, Yelena Shilovskaya, who provided the inspiration for the salutary Margarita, and who was responsible for making sure the manuscript made the light of day. Bulgakov at one stage despaired of it and burned the script. He repented and retyped it from memory, something he depicts in the book itself, noting drily that “manuscripts don’t burn”.

Shilovskaya first met Bulgakov when she was still married to a general, who discovered the affair and threatened to shoot the lot of them. The affair broke down but, months later, after a chance meeting, the relationship was rekindled and the pair eventually married. The Master and Margaritahad been serialised, and even its publication is wrapped in hints of mystery and coincidence.

Apparently, Shilovskaya hid a manuscript in a publisher friend’s luggage. She reasoned that he was going on holidays and would be only too delighted to find some good Russian text to read on holidays. Once he read it, he would be hooked and the rest would be literary history. She was not wrong.

It was Shilovskaya who finished the book for her husband, and as she became increasingly associated with the character of Margarita by a somewhat scandalised public, she took on characteristics of the novel’s heroine, as much to amuse herself as anything else. Moments before arriving at an acquaintance’s house, for example, she would claim to have been on the other side of the city. When asked how she got there, she would reply “on my broom”, with, one suspects, a devilish gleam in her eye.

One of the finest scenes in the novel is when Margarita, transformed into a witch, takes a wild ride above Moscow on her broom.

But what of the novel itself? It begins with the devil appearing in Moscow, with two companions, one of which is an enormous cat that likes to walk on its hind legs. The triumvirate set about wreaking all manner of chaos in Moscow, and the only people who can see through the madness is Margarita, who is love with the Master. He is a writer whose book depicting the last hours of the life of Jesus, and his interactions with Pontius Pilot, has been panned by Moscow’s literary establishment – chapters of it are scattered throughout.

This is a dizzying two-hander of epic proportions, a towering achievement and the salutary apogee of a peerless literary life. Magic and madness, a city on its knees and the triumph of art over the choking hold of the state. They say the devil gets the best tunes. It seems he also gets the best novels.

To mark the 70th anniversary of the death of Mikhail Bulgakov, Vintage Classics is republishing five of his novels, The Master and Margarita, The White Guard, Black Snow, Diaboliadand A Country Doctor’s Handbook