Monday, March 31, 2008

A Dead, But Theatrical Man’s Memoir

A Dead Man’s Memoir (A Theatrical Novel)
By Mikhail Bulgakov
Penguin Classics

Sergei Maksudov loves the Independent Theater, even though most of his colleagues there are vain, venal, and often quite mad. Welcome to the world of 1920’s and 30’s Moscow theater, as portrayed in Mikhail Bulgakov’s unfinished roman-a-clef, A Dead Man’s Memoir.

Bulgakov was associated with the unsuccessful Whites during the Civil War, so the period of Bolshevik consolidation was unpleasant for him. Stalin is considered the inspiration for the Devil in Bulgakov’s masterwork, The Master and Margarita. However, Keith Gessen explains in an informative introduction that for a time the future tyrant “would continue to display a keen and oddly friendly interest in his favorite anti-Bolshevik writer.” (p. xvi)

Maksudov, Bulgakov’s surrogate, is evidently not a very good writer. Yet after a dismal publishing experience, his stillborn novel is bought for stage adaptation by a venerable theater. The Independent’s creative director is Ivan Vasilievich, a transparent representation of Stanislavsky, who is broadly satirized. The neophyte playwright comes to the realization that Vasilievich’s exercises are counterproductive, confiding to readers:

“Ominous doubts had begun creeping into my heart at the end of the first week. By the end of the second week I already knew that this theory was not applicable to my play. Not only had [actor] Patrikeev not begun to present his bouquet, write his letter and make his declaration of love any better. Oh no! He had become forced and dry and not funny at all.” (p. 165)

Gessen argues that unlike other Bulgakov works, Memoir rarely touches on political concerns, except briefly issues of censorship, which were inescapable for the Soviet creative community. When describing the reaction to his novel, Bulgakov’s luckless narrator tells us: “As one man, all the listeners told me that my novel could not be printed for the simple reason that the censor would not let it pass.” (p. 9) However, it is tempting to interpret any description of arbitrary abuse of authority in Soviet Russia, such as the absurd whims of a theater director, in allegorical terms.

Through its framing device, we know Maksudov will eventually end in a suicide. Unfortunately, Bulgakov never finished Memoir, deferring work on it in favor of completing Master. He died shortly thereafter. As a result, we will never know what humiliation finally led to Maksudov’s demise, but we can probably assume it had something to do with a fateful scene Maksudov often expresses his emotional attachment to:

“I had wanted people to hear the terrible song of the accordion on the bridge as the patch of blood spread across the snow in the moonlight. I had wanted people to see my black snow.” (p. 158)

Despite all of Maksudov’s disappointments, Memoir is actually a love letter to theater, which ought to be stocked in the specialty bookstores in New York’s theater district. This new translation is particularly readable and the introduction and notes nicely clarify the historical context, well serving Stalin’s “favorite anti-Bolshevik writer.”