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

Hugo Glendinning
Show Hide image

The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.