Translated by Roger Cockrell
Reviewed by Karen Langley
When Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov’s magnum opus The Master and Margarita was finally published, decades after his death, it took the literary world by storm. Unpublishable during his lifetime owing to the restrictions of the Soviet regime, it finally made its way through the Iron Curtain in the 1960s, a decade which saw many such works leaking out, and it made his name in the West. Bulgakov had, of course, written and published other works, under increasingly difficult circumstances, and these have been translated over the years to the delight of Russophile Anglophones everywhere.
As a monolinguist reader I imagined I’d tracked down just about everything of his that was in a form I could read. However, I was delighted to find out that Alma Classics were bringing out a new collection entitled Notes on a Cuff – particularly as the publicity for the book revealed this it contained previously untranslated works. It’s worth being aware that there is already a collection by Bulgakov entitled Notes on the Cuff (published by Ardis); however, it’s only the title story that the two volumes share, and the new Alma volume contains an additional 11 pieces I’ve never read before. These vary in length from pithy four-pagers like A Scurvy Character to more substantial works like The Fire of the Khans. All, whether short or long, have great depth and much to say.
Is there a common thread? Possibly. Apart from Bulgakov’s singular voice and mode of story-telling (particularly evident in the title piece which features the breathless, almost staccato method of his early works), these works are often satirical, a form in which he excelled. There’s also an autobiographical element in many of the stories: Notes on A Cuff, in particular, is autobiographical, covering similar ground to the later novel Black Snow, telling the tale of the narrator recovering from typhus and making his first steps into the world of literature. The earlier translation captures the abrupt rhythms of Bulgakov’s early prose but interestingly, I found the current Alma version much less fragmented and I felt it read much better. The glimpse it gives of the disorganisation and chaos of Russia during the civil war following the revolution is revealing, and we see people in a constant state of flux, trying to survive and make their way through a life that seems to be falling apart around them. It also, of course, contains a foreshadowing of one of Bulgakov’s best-known statements which would resurface in The Master and Margarita:
Because suddenly, in a flash of uncharacteristically miraculous lucidity, I realized that people who say you must never destroy what has been written are right! You can tear it up, you can burn it…. You can hide it from other people. But from yourself – never! It is finished! It’s been done. You can’t get rid of it. I had written that astonishing piece. It had been done!…
Bulgakov was, of course, a doctor and several of the tales feature medics in difficult situations: The Unusual Adventures of a Doctor takes diary form and follows the fate of a medic who’s forced to treat the wounded during the civil war fighting and is whisked off by Cossacks as well as others; all he wants to do is stay at home and write his thesis. The Murderer features another medical man with a story about his fighting past, although it’s probably not best to read these as autobiography, rather as stories informed by Bulgakov’s experiences but not limited to them.
Then there is the madness of the new regime: A Week of Enlightenment mocks the attempts to educate the masses; A Scurvy Character is dismissive of a scrounger attempting to cheat the system; A Dissolute Man reveals the implacable face of authority; Moonshine Lake bemoans the communal housing and the constant drinking of hooch; and Makar Devushkin’s Story gives a countryman’s view of eternal, unending speeches and meetings. The Cockroach deals with gambling and once again the demon drink, where a workmen is rooked out of his money with dramatic consequences. The Crimson Island is something of an oddity, being a short story which the author later turned into a more successful play. The piece is allegorical, disguising the story of the revolution in a pseudo Jules Verne tale with strangely named characters, battles between natives and lots of picturesque description.
But not all the stories fall into the obvious categories. Psalm is a very moving story, narrated by a man (Bulgakov?) living in a communal house in Moscow who befriends the small son of a neighbour whose husband has left. Much of the story is dialogue and although we are never told who’s talking at any one time, it’s clear that the man wants to make a new life with the woman and her child. It’s beautifully written and says so much in so few pages.
And then there is possibly my favourite. The Fire of the Khans is a powerful story, set in a palace outside Moscow which has survived the revolution and become a museum. The old retainers are now the museum keepers and face a daily influx of tourists from Moscow. On the day in question, the usual selection arrive, led by a loud-mouthed, half-dressed, uncouth man of the new regime. There is also a mysterious foreigner. As the visitors tour the museum, and Iona the old retainer reflects on the illustrious past of the previous owners and his own absent master, there are surprises and drama in store. I don’t want to reveal too much because this would lessen the impact, but it’s a powerful and moving piece of work and it strikes me as one of Bulgakov’s best pieces. Such an emotive story reads as if Bulgakov was writing from the heart here, with a lament for what Russia had lost.
In fact, there is an elegiac quality running through much of Bulgakov’s work; he was obviously someone who preferred the old regime, but you get the impression he smiled grimly and tried to get on under the new system, accepting that some things were fairer. However, he soon came to tussle with the ridiculous complexities of Soviet life and his work is just brilliant at reflecting this: nobody, but *nobody*, can capture the absurdity of trying to cope under early Soviet rule like Bulgakov can!
As the first new Bulgakov of any substance to come out for a while, this book is a real treat; the pieces chosen are all very strong, in fact some of the best of Bulgakov’s short works I’ve read. As usual with Alma, there are pictures at the beginning and extra material at the back, and I found Roger Cockrell’s translations to be excellent, to the extent that I prefer his version of the title story to the other one I’ve read. This is a wonderful addition to the Bulgakov canon and also to Alma’s excellent range of Russian works – if you like Russian satire, or just excellent short stories, I highly recommend exploring this collection.
Mikhail Bulgakov, Notes on a Cuff (Alma Classics: London, 2014). 9781847493873, 192pp, paperback.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and spends as much time as possible dodging bureaucracy.