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

Photo: Alamy
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Chain of command: how the office lanyard took over corporate culture

“I realised that I had to sort myself out with a new lanyard or I was going to struggle with my tribe.”

Compulsory lanyards arrived at BBC Broadcasting House in January 1991. Until then, a cursory flash of your staff card to the uniformed commissionaire would do. The Gulf War changed all that.

News trainees like me were pulled back from our regional radio attachments across the nation to serve the so-called Scud FM. In 12-hour shifts, we recorded CNN output on giant reel-to-reel tape machines, cutting packages to feed the rolling news. There were so many new faces, and the bead-chain lanyards gave a semblance of organisation.

Barely out of university, some of us were thinking: emergency civic responsibility. We had only seen lanyards worn in those 1970s and 1980s panic films such as WarGames. We were young outsiders getting access to the establishment.

Two 1990s television shows gave us our figureheads: Agent Dana Scully in The X-Files, flashing her FBI ID at every opportunity, and later Allison Janney’s C J Cregg in The West Wing, who embodied the idea of the female who had broken through, thoroughly qualified to run the operation. The lanyard was their symbol of arrival and as much of a challenge to the old order as their brightly coloured pantsuits were.

In a recent reassessment of the liberal love affair with The West Wing, Current Affairs magazine mocked fans who “think a lanyard is a talisman that grants wishes and wards off evil”. But it’s a good summary of how it felt then.

The novelist Bill Beverly, who grew up in the US Midwest, confirms my suspicion that the lanyard’s 1990s appeal lay in its historic gendered status: “They were for gym teachers and coaches. A lanyard for one’s whistle, for one’s stopwatch, for other elements of communication and control.”

Unlike military dog tags, which remained hidden, the lanyard was about publicly declaring that you belonged. Corporations, introducing them long before electronic scanner-gate entry became the norm, benefited from their identity as a symbol of cool access. Think of the Wayne’s World films, in which the backstage VIP lanyard is a celebratory badge of entry.

Over the years, lanyards have come to reveal so much about status. One charity worker, who asked to remain anonymous, has noticed who does and doesn’t wear them outside NHS hospitals: “I used to get the Tube into London Bridge and you’d see all the young doctors from Guy’s wearing their lanyards, quite proud. You never saw nurses or porters wearing theirs.”

At a big charity with compulsory lanyards for security cards, she saw tribal divisions: “The fundraising and facilities people all wore the work lanyard they gave you. But in public affairs and marketing and design, we all wore our own lanyards and turned our photo ID around. The electronic thing still worked, but no one could see your face. I realised within weeks that I had to sort myself out with a new lanyard or I was going to struggle with my tribe.”

When she moved to a small women’s charity, a more conventional rebellion emerged over corporate conformity: “I noticed they still needed an electronic card to get into the building. I was used to wearing a lanyard with one on, so I took a handful of nice ones in with me and gave them each one, and every one of the women just looked at me and went, ‘We’re not wearing that.’ It was the absolute opposite of command and control.”

At the Labour party conference last September, she saw how lanyards affected the mood. She observes that, as well as the standard union-sponsored lanyard, many members of Momentum were wearing a special lanyard with the Palestinian flag colours. “They really stuck out because they were like a party within a party,” she recalls. “Inside, they moved in packs. It was like the savannah – much more divided, even among the MPs.”

Journalists in the US have a tradition of bonding through novelty press cards on lanyards. One enterprising hack made them during the 1996 O J Simpson civil trial, with mugshots for each significant calendar date: Hallowe’en horror, Christmas, a Thanksgiving one featuring Simpson in a pilgrim hat with a turkey and the slogan “I’ll carve”.

Such small-scale rebellions over how we wear our lanyards are a distraction. Wearing our data around our necks, even displaying it boastfully, seems, in hindsight, a preparation for the normalisation of giving out our personal data online to corporations that can predict where we’ll go and how we’ll consume. If you have nothing to hide, what does it matter?

Twenty-six years on from my first encounter with it, in the new open-plan BBC Broadcasting House, lanyard-based security is much tighter for many reasons (including a break-in by a bunch of teens who found an unmanned door to the newsroom and wandered around posting rather giggly videos online).

There are still gestures of defiance. One colleague used to wear 20 or more lanyards collected from dozens of BBC buildings, twisted into a kind of giant wreath, like a Grand Prix winner.

My defeat lies in the way that I wear a second special labelled lanyard around my neck for the one day in the year that I might need access to a tiny, cordoned-off BBC area outside the Royal Albert Hall to record a line of voice track in an outside broadcast van.

Lanyards may have given us access but in accepting the myth of entry to august institutions, we are tagged and controlled for ever. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder