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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 the staff, and Maxudov himself is partly autobiographical. Bulgakov was a consultant of the Moscow Art Theatre from 1925 until 1936, when he left, enraged about the staging of his drama on Molière, A Cabal of Hypocrites, that had been four years in production and was transformed, for political reasons, from a moving tragedy into an innocuous melodrama. “Black Snow: A Theatrical Novel,” as Mr. Glenny remarks, “is Bulgakov’s revenge on Stanislavsky for the failure of Molière.” But ten years earlier Bulgakov’s first success was the dramatization by the Moscow Art Theatre of his civil war novel, The White Guard, which was never brought out in full, because Rossiya, the magazine where it had started to appear, suddenly ceased publication. The play, called The Days of the Turbins, was an immediate hit and has remained, with certain interruptions, one of the most popular productions of the MAT’S repertory. The autobiographical elements and topical aspects of Black Snow are, however, not its main point, but a spring-board, an occasion for Bulgakov to write on one of his favorite topics: the destruction of the artists at the hands of dullwitted, pompous, and malicious men. This is the theme of two of his most poignant dramas, A Cabal of Hypocrites, which is about Molière’s death, and The Last Days, about the death of Pushkin. And it is also a major leit-motif in his complex masterpiece, The Master and Margarita.

THE HEART OF A DOG” is a variation on another of Bulgakov’s recurrent themes. In one of his best known, and most uncanny, tales, “The Fatal Eggs,” a scientist’s discovery of and experiment with a life-giving ray results in the hatching of monstrous reptiles that multiply in uncontrollable profusion and lay waste the land. In The Heart of a Dog, a renowned surgeon, Professor Preobrazhensky (the name suggests “transfiguration”), who specializes in rejuvenating men and women, tries something new. He operates on a stray dog, replacing its testicles by human testes and its pituitary gland by a human one; and the result, a scientific triumph, is a moral and social disaster: out of a pathetic, lovable mutt there emerges an insolent monstrosity that walks like a man and behaves like a cur. Its language is obscene and its manners intolerable. It demands its rights as a citizen, changes its pet dog’s name, Sharik, to the human Sharikov, and gets itself a job with the Moscow City Sanitation Department, which entrusts it with the congenial task of eliminating vagrant cats. It steals, attempts rape, slanders and denounces the Professor himself, and tries to shoot his assistant. At the end, the Professor, recognizing his experiment as a lamentable blunder, turns this “man with the heart of a dog” back to its original state.

Mr. Glenny suggests that the story is a parable of the Bolshevik revolution, that “the ‘dog’ of the story is the Russian people, brutalized and exploited for centuries,” the surgeon “the embodiment of the Communist Party—perhaps Lenin himself—and the drastic transplant operation…the revolution itself.” To my mind, this is only partially true. The parallels cannot be so explicitly drawn. After all, the dog grew up in the Soviet State and was maltreated by Soviet citizens; and if the surgeon returns his homunculus to his original form, does this mean that Lenin wilfully returns the Russian people to their brutalized and exploited pre-revolutionary condition? But the story is indeed a cautionary fable on the menace of crude, illiterate, and unprincipled creatures suddenly exposed to learning and given status and a modicum of power. Sharikov is a kind of Caliban or a grotesque incarnation of Dostoevsky’s Smerdyakov. “What have you been reading?” Professor Preobrazhensky asks him, expecting to hear something like Robinson Crusoe, and getting instead:

That guy…What’s his name…Engel’s correspondence with…hell, what d’you call him…oh—Kautsky.”

And what is his opinion of the book?

I don’t agree.”

With whom—Engels or Kautsky?”

With neither of ‘em.”

That is most remarkable…Well what would you suggest instead?”

Suggest? I dunno…They just write and write all that crap…all about some congress and some Germans…. Makes my head reel. Take everything away from the bosses, then divide it up…”

To Sharikov, it is all perfectly simple: one takes from the haves, like the Professor, and gives to the have-nots, like Sharikov. Preobrazhensky loses his patience. “You belong to the lowest possible stage of development,” he thunders, “You are still in the formative stage. You are intellectually weak. All your actions are purely bestial. Yet you allow yourself in the presence of two university-educated men to offer advice, with quite intolerable familiarity, on a cosmic scale and of quite cosmic stupidity, on the redistribution of wealth….”

In such passages as these the social and political implications of Bulgakov’s parable are obvious. Yet it seems to me that his meaning lies beyond them. Just as Black Snow, through satire on the Moscow Art Theatre, is actually concerned with the broader theme of the artist’s plight, so The Heart of a Dog, through allusive comments on the revolution, is really denouncing the basic concepts that underly the revolution. The meaning is implicit in what Preobrazhensky says to his assistant: “This, Doctor, is what happens when a researcher, instead of keeping in step with nature, tries to force the pace and life the veil.” The human glands Preobrazhensky had used happened to be a drunkard’s and thief’s. Perhaps Sharikov would have turned out better had they come from a worthier man. But, Preobrazhensky asks, what if they had been Spinoza’s? Why perform such an operation at all? “What in heaven’s name for? That’s the point. Will you kindly tell me why one has to manufacture artificial Spinozas when some peasant woman may produce a real one any day of the week?” This is what Bulgakov is writing about: the ominous error, of which the revolution may be an example, in meddling with fundamental processes of nature.

IT IS NOT, that is, the social and political so much as the intellectual revolution Bulgakov is satirizing, that drastic change in men’s attitudes to life and nature which the Bolsheviks tried to instill, their arrogant assumption that fate lies in men’s hands, that they can both know and foresee everything and create whatever they please. It was against this kind of arrogance that Pasternak had also written. “Reshaping life!” he had said through his Doctor Zhivago, “People who can say that have never understood a thing about life…. They look on it as a lump of raw material that needs to be processed by them, to be ennobled by their touch. But life is never a material, a substance to be moulded….” Like Pasternak, Bulgakov also quarreled with the self-exalting assumptions of Soviet ideology, but whereas Pasternak’s work was a lyrical assertion of what he called “the sublimity of life and the unfathomable values of human existence,” Bulgakov’s was fantastic grotesquery satirizing human presumption. This is the core of The Master and Margarita (it was published in English last fall), a humorous, intricate, philosophic work that seems to be a version of Goethe’s Faust, but is really a parody of it, transforming the Goethian conception of a world in which illimitable human striving, whatever crimes it may entail, is the essence of virtue, into a deamonridden one where helpless men are ruled by incomprehensible fate, where the highest good is an artist’s mysterious knowledge of truth and reality, and the finest virtue is self-abnegating devotion.

Bulgakov was unique, with a voice all his own, one of that brilliant group of young Russian writers of the early 1920s who were, most of them, exiled, suppressed, or killed in the Thirties. A humorist and satirist—not so genteel as Olesha, not so light-hearted as Ilf and Petrov, not so Chekovian as Zoshchenko, not so trenchant as Zamyatin—humorous rather than witty, horrifying rather than bitter, he was, in his daemonic fantasy and his uproarious laughter, akin to Gogol, but more intellectual. Interested in rational rather than social man, in man as believer rather than doer, he always began with the actualities of Soviet Russia, but saw them in the context of a larger philosophic scheme, of which The Master and Margarita is his finest and grandest statement.

He was born in Kiev in 1891, the son of a Professor of Theology, finished school in 1909 and received his medical degree at the University of Kiev in 1916. He practiced medicine for three years, then gave it up for the sake of writing, was attached briefly to the Department of Fine Arts in Vladikavkaz, and in 1921 came to Moscow, where he worked for The Whistle, the journal of the Railwaymen’s Union, which, far from being merely a trade paper, was an exceptionally fine literary journal, with such contributors as Babel, Olesha, Ilf and Petrov. In 1925 the first collection of his stories came out in a volume called Diavoliada (Deviltry); in 1926 The Days of the Turbins was first acted. But by 1929 his stories were no longer accepted for publication nor his plays for production. He asked permission to leave the country, but was refused, and he joined the Moscow Art Theatre for which, among other tasks, he dramatized Don Quixote and Dead Souls. (It was his version of Dead Souls that was brought to New York in 1965.) And he did a number of opera librettos. Stricken blind in the last seven months of his life, he dictated to his wife a satiric novel which he did not live to finish. It was called Notes of a Dead Man. He died in Moscow in 1940. Some twenty years later, a commission was appointed to go through his unpublished manuscripts, and thanks to it, we are now discovering how much, how persistently, and how courageously, Bulgakov wrote “for the drawer.” The manuscript of The Heart of a Dog is dated 1925. Black Snow is undated. On The Master and Margarita he worked from 1929 to the year of his death. He is said to have written over thirty plays, of which less than half are known. And even though nothing greater than The Master and Margarita, a major work of the twentieth century, is likely to be unearthed, it is to be hoped that more and more of his writings may come to light.

Mirra Ginsburg is an expert translator. Among other things she has done extremely well Zamyatin’s difficult stories. And her translation of The Master and Margarita, based unfortunately on the incomplete Moscow publication, is much more accurate and sensitive than Mr. Glenny’s; but Mr. Glenny’s has the advantage of being the full unexpurgated text. About the accuracy of their versions of The Heart of a Dog I cannot judge, since I have not seen the original. But both read well and Mr. Glenny’s has perhaps the edge on Miss Ginsburg’s in the vigor of its racy slang which is an important part of the story.

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