Laughter in the Dark

Black Snow: A Theatrical Novel

by Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Michael Glenny
Simon and Schuster, 190 pp., $4.50

The Heart of a Dog

by Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Michael Glenny
Harvest, 146 pp., $1.45

The Heart of a Dog

by Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Mirra Ginsburg
Grove, 128 pp., $3.95

On the 29th of April, Maxudov, the author of a novel, Black Snow, receives a note inviting him to come to the Independent Theatre to “have a talk…about a highly confidential matter” that “may be of the greatest interest” to him. The note arrives at a very low point in his life. That winter, working nights, after days of drudgery at his reader’s job on the Shipping Gazette, he had written his novel, absorbed in it completely, cutting himself off from all people, with only a friendly cat as companion. When it was finished, he read it to a group of literary acquaintances. Their reaction was depressing; a journal refused to publish it; his cat died. Maxudov stole a friend’s revolver, and had the muzzle at his temple, when there was a knock on his door and the editor of an important literary magazine walked in. He had got wind of Maxudov’s novel, demanded to see it, read it there and then, and having excised a few words—“apocalypse,” “archangel,” “devil,”—announced that he would publish it. On the strength of this promise and a small advance, Maxudov gave up his hated job; but after only a fragment of his tale had come out, the magazine folded up, its editors and publisher vanished, and when the note from the Independent Theatre arrived, Maxudov was again with the Shipping Gazette and again staying up nights, writing what he recognized, to his own surprise, was a theatrical version of his work.

Now it turns out that the literary editor of the Independent Theatre, having seen the published fragment of Black Snow, has decided that it will make a good play. And the rest of Maxudov’s manuscript is the story of his dealings with the theater. He is in love with it. All he wants is to be allowed to come there day after day and to have his play produced. He signs a contract full of clauses he does not understand except that all of them, up to the last, begin with: “The Author May Not” and the last with: “The Author Is Obliged.” But the theater is not the magic place it had once seemed to be: its two co-directors have not been on speaking terms for years; there are petty animosities, intrigues, clashing egos, and above all, the absurdities of the theater’s famous Method. Maxudov is obliged to cut, alter, substitute—in short, to change his play beyond recognition; and the rehearsals last so long that, with the off season coming on, he realizes production will never materialize. But according to that last clause, he is not permitted to take his play anywhere else. At this point Maxudov’s story breaks off, but in a prologue—which has become the epilogue in the English version—we are told that his notes are posthumous: their author, the author of Black Snow, has killed himself.

Bulgakov’s novel is clearly a satire on the Moscow Art Theatre; its principal characters are unmistakeable caricatures of Stanislavsky, Nemirovich-Danchenko, and others of…

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