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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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era