Bulgakov and the Question of Greatness—A Reassessment
by A. Colin Wright
In recent years I have got away somewhat from Bulgakov and turned my attention to my other love, creative writing. I have been occupied with this for most of my life—with stories in literary magazines, articles, and finally a novel published, plus plays still awaiting production, many unpublished manuscripts, various pieces of uncompleted writing, and endless notes for others. Looking through my piles of paper, it occurred to me that in that particular sense (although I would never compare myself with Bulgakov in quality) we were not so very different.
Being myself a writer gave me a somewhat different perspective. I thought of other very different writers whom I admire. Daphne du Maurier was a highly successful and once popular author, with seventeen novels as well as plays, stories, and works of non-fiction published. I recalled another successful but now virtually forgotten writer of mysteries and screenplays, Philip Loraine (the pseudonym of Robin Estridge), who produced one to my mind potentially great novel, Day of the Arrow. While it is unusual in a serious article to compare totally disparate writers, I think doing so helps with the difficult question of what greatness is.
After studying one author in depth, one eventually comes to the question as to whether every single thing he or she wrote is of value. Most authors have a great deal of juvenilia and incomplete works that justifiably remain “in the drawer.” Returning to Bulgakov after a long interval I found I was astonished at how few of his works I remembered in detail, except of course for a few outstanding works, with The Master and Margarita in first place.
Let us imagine Bulgakov without The Master and Margarita. Would we then consider him a great writer? Many an author can produce a “great” book, without necessarily being a “great” writer—which, I think, would apply to Daphne du Maurier with her acknowledged masterpiece Rebecca, and Philip Loraine with the novel I have suggested above.
Bulgakov is not a Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, or a Chekhov, let alone a Pushkin. Or, if we look at other literatures, he is not a Shakespeare, Goethe, Molière or Cervantes (even if the latter’s reputation rests largely on one great book). Bulgakov is certainly a good writer, but so, I am suggesting, are many others. What makes the established “greats” outstanding? What in them was new and different? It is surely not so much their individual works, but their entire opus that creates their “greatness.”
Leaving aside The Master and Margarita, then, let us first look at those works of Bulgakov that may be considered as good. I would immediately select his novel, The White Guard and the satirical Heart of a Dog, plus (perhaps surprisingly) his biographical novel Life of Monsieur de Molière. I would include some of his short stories from the Notes of a Young Doctor series, and in addition perhaps “Elpit House” and “Fire of the Khans.” A Theatrical Romance (with its English title Black Snow) is good as far as it goes but, alas, remained incomplete.
At the same time, there are many other good but “run of mill” works, such as have been produced by other writers too, many of whom (such as Philip Loraine) remain unknown. I would include here Bulgakov’s briefer novels Diavoliada (satirical, based on the theme of the double, but confusing and with little character development) and The Fatal Eggs, whose theme is essentially taken from H. G. Wells. Interesting but still not outstanding is A Chinese story. I am not here criticizing Bulgakov, but simply pointing out that there are many other writers with whom he might justifiably be compared.
The same might be said of his plays, including even Days of the Turbins which, in its original form, is a good adaptation (of The White Guard)—except that because of the history of its performance, with some changes made legitimately by the theatre and others made for political reasons, we are left in uncertainty as to what version we should choose. Flight, to my mind Bulgakov’s best play, was never performed during his lifetime despite the support and hopes of many both in the theatre and in politically influential positions. In later years, however, it became fully acceptable in a virtually unchanged form.
Of the other plays, can any be considered as truly outstanding? Zoyka’s Apartment is amusing and interesting as satire, as is The Crimson Island. Bliss and its more serious counterpart Ivan Vasilievich are entertaining but essentially light comedies. Adam and Eve, which Bulgakov came to profoundly dislike, is too much of a political tract, and we hardly need to consider Batumi, written for political reasons, at all.
Two plays deserve more consideration. Molière (or A Cabal of Hypocrites) is best described as a noble failure, partly as the result of Stanislavsky’s arguments with Bulgakov over the basic concept of the play, showing Molière as an ordinary man rather than as a writer of genius. Indeed, in many subsequent performances directors have added to Bulgakov’s script, either showing Molière writing or inserting passages from his plays, or indeed adding from Bulgakov’s life to make clearer the comparison between Bulgakov and Stalin on the one hand and Molière and Louis XIV on the other. The play also distorts a number of facts of Molière’s life, leaving a viewer in some doubt as to how to interpret it. The Last Days (Aleksandr Pushkin) creates the atmosphere surrounding Pushkin’s death without the distortion found in Molière, but fails in that the central character never appears on stage because of Bulgakov’s view that for a Russian it is impossible to portray the country’s major literary hero—and for the same reason, the portrayal has less meaning for a non-Russian.
There remain three adaptations (again) of great works. Dead Souls has a number of problems with its being a selection of scenes from Gogol’s novel without quite creating the atmosphere of Gogol’s prose, which in any case was an impossible task. War and Peace, however, is surprisingly competent, while Don Quixote is perhaps the most successful as a play in its own right.
So do the plays, then, really stand out from those of others?
Like many writers, Bulgakov has a large number of less important works. There are his publications in the newspapers Gudok and Nakanune: journalistic articles and his autobiographical Notes on the Cuffs—surely minor works although distinguished by Bulgakov’s particular “voice.” There are the (unused) screenplays, for Gogol’s Dead Souls and The Inspector General; the opera libretti, Minin and Pozharsky, Rachel (based on Maupassant), and The Black Sea, a reworking of his own play, Flight. There is a competent translation of Molière’s The Miser, plus a translation/imitation—with a number of structural changes—of Molière’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, entitled Half-Witted Jourdain. Many of these didn’t see the light of day until later editions of Bulgakov’s collected works.
Would we not then (without yet considering The Master and Margarita) consider Bulgakov a minor writer, even though, like many others, he wrote a great deal?
It must be said that in some respects he was lucky, although not in the tragedy of his personal life, when performance and publication of his works was prevented for political reasons and there was little prospect of things changing. But (as in the case of Pasternak too) it was his opposition to the society in which he lived that gave him his themes. He had none of the problems of later writers who, once they were allowed to write almost anything, had difficulties finding what to write about. His critique of the society surrounding him also explains his sudden popularity once his works started appearing. And he was lucky indeed that his third wife, Elena Andreevna, managed to save The Master and Margarita and eventually, with the help of some of his friends, get it published, even if initially in a censored version—without which no one except specialists would know Bulgakov today.
But there is, of course, The Master and Margarita. Astonishingly, if we consider the versions it went through, it seems an almost accidental creation. No one, surely, planning an outline in advance, would have created such an untidy novel, with the two main characters appearing only half way through, combined with the interlaced stories of the devil visiting Moscow and Jesus’s crucifixion. And yet, however clumsy, the novel somehow rises above this to become, in my opinion, the greatest novel of the twentieth century. This will affect how we see Bulgakov as a whole.
Inevitably we come to the major question of a book’s theme. Recommend any book to a friend and the first question will be “what is it about?”—indeed a short sentence describing this provides the opening of any query to a publisher or agent. This can sometimes override “good writing,” and we all know of published books that are poorly written—which I do not wish to explore here. A trivial theme and the book’s value will be equally trivial, while a major theme or themes enhance that value. What, then, is The Master and Margarita about?
Teaching the novel, I found that the best way to approach it was to ask students what they found most interesting, secure in the knowledge that they would find something. For to my mind The Master and Margarita has virtually everything, showing the greatest preoccupations of mankind. It became enormously popular in Russia first of all for its satire of Moscow in the twenties and thirties, and for its tacit comparison of the devil with Stalin himself. There are also many topical allusions and references to identifiable places in Moscow. As satire it is indeed hugely successful—which often creates difficulty for non-Russians without a knowledge of life in the Soviet Union. At the same time, it is tremendously entertaining: exemplified by a student of mine who (typical student!) had delayed reading the book until the evening before class discussion, and had finished it just before breakfast because she couldn’t put it down!
Yet there is far more than just satire. There is the power of love, in the relationship between the Master and Margarita. There is the enduring power of art (expressed in its famous sentence “Manuscripts don’t burn”). There is good and evil, light and darkness, and the whole question of discipleship. Above all, there is the question of what life is all about, starting with Bulgakov’s unorthodox interpretations of the story of Christ and Pilate: all based on a deep knowledge of the bible (including the Old Testament, with Azazel and even the monster “Behemoth,” comically represented in the book as a huge talking cat). Bulgakov shows an encyclopaedic knowledge of religious movements such as the Gnostics and the Cathars in France; and of other great writers, Goethe and the Faust story in particular.
Ultimately, then, are we justified in calling Bulgakov a great writer, or simply a minor one who wrote one great work? Indeed, can there be a great writer after the nineteenth century? There can obviously be a “successful” one, in terms of works published and known. Or can there be a great “Canadian” or “Russian” writer: that is, “great” with qualification? Is Bulgakov then a great Russian writer?
The question is further complicated by writers who have had their “collected works” published, sometimes in several different editions. This would of course include Bulgakov, but do collected works mean that the author is great? What, for example, of someone like Gorky, who has numerous editions of collected works? There are Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, Nobel prize winners into the bargain, in Germany. Editions of collected works are of interest to scholars, but does everything written by a particular author deserve study?
But the question is perhaps a meaningless one, for it all depends on how we judge greatness, which is to a certain extent subjective and can perhaps be decided only in retrospect. In the end are comparisons with other writers pointless? Exactly how do “great” writers stand out? We have to ask where exactly their originality lies. In subject matter perhaps, in quality of writing, and in a unique “voice.”
Bulgakov, at a literary gathering where some hack Soviet writer had been mentioned, suddenly rose to his feet, mockingly read a page from the author’s novel, then turned to the fact that there had been a Tolstoy in Russian literature, which obliged every Russian writer after him “To complete truth of thought and word… To utter sincerity. To knowing why and for what end you are writing! To a merciless intolerance towards every untruth in your own compositions!” Such an attitude, of course, led Bulgakov into difficulty with his political masters because of his refusal to compromise. But it does not mean that one refuses to accept honest criticism. Writers (and there are some) who obstinately insist on the “purity” of what they have written are merely foolish.
It is, however, a complicated question for however much we might agree with it as a general principle it still leads to difficulties in practice. Daphne du Maurier accepted her agent’s or publisher’s criticism of her writing but was also influenced by the need to make money and what she thought readers would expect. I am influenced and restrained by what relatives and friends will think. Other writers such as Philip Loraine or even the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt must take account of the limitations of the particular genre (in this case the crime story) in which they are writing. This is obviously true of writers in other genres also. What is necessary in order for these to be considered great?
The fact is that, while they are writing, most writers do not think of whether something will turn out to be great or not, but only of doing a good and honest job with whatever they are working on. It might not even turn out to be good, as was the case with some of Bulgakov’s journalism and “routine” works. This, however, does not of itself detract from the greatness of any particular individual.
I started this discussion by asking whether perhaps Bulgakov was only a minor writer in comparison with others, but with one great work that stood out. Now I am no longer sure what greatness is. By virtue of this one great novel, Bulgakov certainly remains a great Russian writer. Undoubtedly some of his works are “better” than others, but that is surely the case for every writer. Ultimately my opinion remains that he was also a great world writer. That, though, is a subjective judgement.