Diaries and Letters by Mikhail Bulgakov: I have rarely read the letters of an artist that were less intrinsically interesting

Some great writers are also great letter-writers, others are not. Bulgakov's letters tell the story, or at least accompany the story, of the young writers journey to Moscow to the publication of The Master and Margarita.

Mikhail Bulgakov: Diaries and Selected Letters
Translated by Roger Cockrell
Alma Classics, 288pp, £18.99

Some great writers, such as Keats and Kafka, are also great letter-writers; others, such as Wordsworth and Proust, are not. You put down the letters of the former as stimulated as you would be by their poetry and fiction and you can enjoy them even if you have never read their other work. You only read the latter for what they tell us about authors we already admire and the times they lived in. Bulgakov belongs firmly in the latter category. I have rarely read the letters and diaries of an artist that were less intrinsically interesting.

Both the diary and the letters start in the early 1920s. Bulgakov, newly married, had given up his career as a doctor in his twenties and had come to Moscow to make his name as a writer. He writes like any fledgling author: “My writing is progressing slowly, but at least it’s moving forward. I’m sure that’s the case. The only problem is that I’m never absolutely certain that what I’ve written is any good.”

Though he states that world events are of such importance that keeping a diary is imperative, most of the time his diary reads less like the Goncourt journals than like that of a minor government official in a story by Gogol or Dostoevsky: “Aftershocks are continuing in Japan. There’s been an earthquake in Formosa. So much going on in the world!” Elsewhere, he writes: “Had a horrible day today. The nature of my illness is evidently such that I’ll have to take to my bed next week. Am anxiously trying to decide how I can ensure that the Hooter does not get rid of me while I’m off sick. And secondly, how can I turn my wife’s summer coat into a fur coat?”

In December 1925, the diary abruptly ends and a note tells us: “There are no further extant diary entries after this. Bulgakov’s apartment was raided by the OGPU [secret police] in May 1926 and his diaries confiscated. This may have discouraged the author from continuing to record his thoughts in his private notebooks.” This was the start of a nightmarish period for Bulgakov. His writings of the early 1920s, including the novel The White Guardand the play he made from it, The Days of the Turbins, though subject to censorship, seemed, if not to be establishing him as a major voice in Soviet literature, at least to ensure that he could make a living by his pen.

But times were changing. Lenin died in 1924 and Stalin soon assumed control of the Communist Party and the country. Bulgakov, who hadnever hidden his sympathies for the Whites in the civil war and his bourgeois origins and leanings (his father had been a professor at the Kiev Theological Seminary), found himself increasingly at odds with the political and literary establishment. Yet he went on submitting plays, some of which were put on and then quickly taken off, some of which were rejected and many of which had him struggling to comply with an increasingly confusing bureaucracy while retaining some vestiges of integrity.

The year 1930 was critical. At his wits’ end and having tried writing to Stalin – thought to be a fan – and to Gorky, Bulgakov wrote an enormous letter “to the government of the USSR”. There, he states that his work is invariably subject to censorship and, if and when it does appear, is greeted by the press with anger and derision. He can no longer work in such circumstances, he says. In Nietzschean fashion, he asks: “Am I thinkable in the USSR?” And since he cannot be anything but true to himself, he writes, would it not be best to allow him to emigrate abroad? If that cannot be, “I ask that I be appointed as an assistant director with MAT – the very best theatre school, headed by K S Stanislavsky and V I Nemirovich-Danchenko. If I can’t be appointed as a director, then I would ask for a permanent position as an extra. And if that is not possible, then as a backstage workman.”

He concludes by begging for some decision to be made about him, because: “At this present moment, I, a dramatist, the author of five plays, having made a name for himself both in the USSR and abroad, am faced with destitution, homelessness and death.”

We do not know if there was any reply to this but nothing very much seemed to change throughout the 1930s. He worked on plays about Molière and Pushkin and on adaptations of Gogol’s Dead Souls and Cervantes’s Don Quixote and managed to eke out a living of sorts for himself and his third wife. Yet the frustrations continue, both in his attempts to emigrate and to have his plays put on. A letter to his friend and literary historian Pavel Popov from 1934 gives a flavour of what he was up against: “My room at the Astoria. I am reading the play to the theatre director, who is also the producer. He listens, professes his absolute – and apparently sincere – admiration for the piece, states that he is prepared to put it on, promises me money and says he’ll come back and have supper with me in 40 minutes’ time. In 40 minutes’ time he comes back, has supper, doesn’t say a single word about the play and then disappears through a hole in the ground and is no more to be seen! There’s a rumour going around that he’s vanished into the fourth dimension.”

The despair into which Bulgakov sank in 1930 was a turning point. Accepting that he would neither be allowed to emigrate nor to publish what he wanted in the Soviet Union, he secretly set to work on a novel that he had been toying with since the late 1920s and that he had just about completed when he died in 1940, at the age of only 48. That novel, The Master and Margarita, taking off from such fantastic stories as Gogol’s “The Nose”, more or less created the genre of magical realism.

Read in the light of these letters, it seems like the perfect riposte to the horrors of those years – neither the meticulous transcription of an unbearable reality (such as we get in the work of Vasily Grossman and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn), nor the sentimental fantasies of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, but a tale of the ambiguous triumph of the spirit in a world where on every side spirit and body are being crushed. Though the novel’s themes are dark, it is written with a lightness that is miraculous, given the circumstances of its creation. No wonder the world welcomed it with open arms when it was finally published in a complete form in 1973.

Gabriel Josipovici’s novel “Infinity: the Story of a Moment” is published by Carcanet (£12.95)

Actors rehearse "The Master and Margarita" in Avignon, France. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad