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[127] A Dead Man’s Memoir – Mikhail Bulgakov

bulgakovmemoir.jpgRussian Reading Challenge #4

A Dead Man’s Memoir is semi-autobiographical. The narrator, one mishap Sergei Maksudov, who has failed as a novelist and attempts to commits suicide (which turns out to be a farce), shadows Bulgakov’s life that was emblematic of the writer persecuted for his art. Almost all of Bulgakov’s work was censored by the early Soviet regime, including the famous The Master and Margarita (which I know you’re familiar) in which Stalin is portrayed to be Woland the Magician, a.k.a. Satan.

Maksudov is humbly scraping a living as a hack on the Shipping Herald. He does proofreading by day, but performs it mechanically so that his mind does not involve in it. He has a stroke of luck when a leading literary magazine publishes an extract from the novel he has been working on at night. Even though the conceited critics trample on it (some of them don’t even read the book) the exposure brings him to the notice of Moscow’s top theater, to which he signs away all rights in a play based on his novel.

Those who are familiar with the caprice of the entertainment business and brandished with common sense would perceive this liaison too good to be true to begin with. But to Maksudov, this is the hot ticket to the world that he has been striving to enter, the flamboyant theatrical world that bedazzles him—for he has cherished to become a writer. But the odd thing is that he immediately finds it unbearable. Soon he realizes that the inflated egos, the tyrannical theater director, the literary double-dealers, and the communist censors take turn to toy with his fate.

To his utter dismay is the outrageous changes that completely distort his scripts in order to suit the selfish purposes of the theater. Maksudov doesn’t want to perform a play that is so tattered, altered, and meaningless. But as a means to satirize, Maksudov later finds out the truth behind all these ridiculous undertakings. A hoax. Many figures from Russian literary and theatrical circles of the times are satirized, including Stanislavsky, whose method is brilliantly lampooned. The book, unlike The Master and the Margarita and Heart of a Dog, is devoid of political references. It focuses on the life of a struggling writer whose only wish is to be granted the right to exist along with his art.

6 Responses

  1. Thanks for more insights into Bulgakov. I always read them with relish. I read HEART OF A DOG recently then reread your own comments which helped me place the book into context, and that always helps with Bulgakov. Your posts on MASTER AND MARGARITA shepherded me through that novel in which some inside knowledge is very illuminating. I’m confused, however, about your statement in which you said: “Stalin is portrayed to be Wolund the magician, a.k.a. Satan.” I had not connected Stalin directly with the Wolund/Satin character, though I can see a kind of analogy in the earlier part of the book, when Wolund appears–satirically I suppose–in the guise of a magician, seemingly overseeing a great deal of mischief and destruction. But I’m in a muddle with that analogy where the end of the book is concerned, since the reader’s understanding of the nature, effect and purpose of Wolund undergoes a kind of transformation quite at odds with the traditional view of Satin. So I blinked a couple of times and re-read that sentence with it’s reference to Stalin. Perhaps I’m not following your meaning. Or perhaps the literal, historical view of Stalin is too ingrained in my brain. Or perhaps your analogy doesn’t carry over to the novel’s end.

  2. Minor correction on the last line. I meant to say: Or perhaps you did not intend to carry that analogy over to the novel’s end. I didn’t mean to sound so confrontational.

  3. That sounds like a good book. I’ll have to put it on my goodreads list.

  4. That sounds like a very interesting read, one which I will have to find once I read (and finish) “The Master and Margarita”. Hope your trip is going well!

  5. I’ve got another Bulgakov on my reading list as well, after having greatly enjoyed the Master and Margarita. I simply have not got the time to read all the books that are on my various lists – you are doing very well! enjoy the travels!

  6. As I struggle to write my own novel, I might find this novel too depressing. Do you think that Bulgakov would inspire a writer or make a writer give up? A rather simplistic question, I suppose, and generally I think that all good writing, no matter the topic, inspires good writing, but then again, writers are a peculiar group. So, which Bulgakov book would you recommend first to one of your writing friends?

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