Posts Tagged ‘Mikhail Bulgakov’

Mikhail Bulgakov couldn’t figure out what the Soviet bigwigs wanted of him.

Saturday, June 24th, 2017
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Our friend Boris Dralyuk of the Los Angeles Review of Books has a fascinating review of J.A.E. Curtis’s Mikhail Bulgakov over at the Times Literary Supplement, and unlike the recent article by Humble Moi, it is not behind a paywall (an excerpt of my review of Andrzej Franaszek‘s biography of Czesław Miłosz is here). We don’t get a chance to write about Mikhail Bulgakov, author of The Master and Marguerita, very often, so this is an opportunity for us:

One of the most revealing episodes in J. A. E. Curtis’s Mikhail Bulgakov, in the Reaktion Books Critical Lives series, itself concerns the writing of a “critical life”. In 1932–3, Bulgakov, a man devoted to the theatre, wrote a brief novelized biography of Molière. The book was commissioned for the hallowed Russian series Lives of Remarkable People, but like much of Bulgakov’s work from the 1920s and 30s, it would not see the light of day until decades after his death in 1940. As usual, the Soviet author had taken a thoroughly un-Soviet approach to the topic, presenting Molière as an individual genius – rather than as a product of his era and class – and fitting the facts of his life into a fictional frame. In his rejection, the series editor explained Bulgakov’s error: “You have placed between Molière and the reader some sort of imaginary storyteller. If, instead of this casual young man in an old-fashioned coat, who from time to time lights or puts out the candles, you had given us a serious Soviet historian, he would have been able to tell us many interesting things about Molière, and about his times”.

This incident captures a central tragedy of Bulgakov’s life: almost all his efforts to win official acceptance, if not approval, were stymied by his inability to produce – and at times even deduce – what was asked of him. The fate that befell the seemingly innocuous Molière biography also befell a number of his plays, including The Last Days, about Alexander Pushkin – timed to coincide with the 1937 commemoration of the centenary of the poet’s death – and Batum (1939), about Stalin’s youth. The Bulgakovs were informed that Batum “received a harshly negative review up there (in the Central Committee, probably)” for making fiction out of a romanticized Stalin; it was also seen as “representing a wish to build bridges and to improve attitudes towards [the author]”. Yelena Bulgakova “indignantly repudiated these latter suggestions”, Curtis writes, “although it is hard to believe that this was not to some extent what had motivated Bulgakov in agreeing to take on this project”. In the 1930s, any Soviet author who craved an audience needed approval “up there” – and Bulgakov certainly craved an audience.

Read the whole thing here

Joseph Brodsky: How the 15-year-old dropout became a university professor

Sunday, May 27th, 2012
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1972: The poet and the Proffers

Curious synchronicity:  On 19 March, drama critic John Freedman, writing in the Moscow Times, remembered Carl and Ellendea Proffer, the critical link in bringing Joseph Brodsky to the U.S.  I discussed this connection in my post a few days ago here.  It’s not like they show up in ink that much nowadays.

Freedman begins with a panegyric:

One of the most inspirational people in my life was a scholar and publisher whom I never met. His name was Carl R. Proffer and I can’t imagine living the life I have without him.

Along with his wife Ellendea C. Proffer, he founded Ardis Publishers in the early 1970s. This was a case of someone taking the idea of a publishing “house” quite literally. The Proffers began printing unpublishable Soviet and Russian literature at home and selling it by mail. Here you could read the latest stories, novels and poems by contemporary writers Joseph Brodsky,  Vasily Aksyonov and Andrei Bitov, to say nothing of banned works by Osip Mandelstam, Mikhail Bulgakov, Nikolai Erdman and many others from the early Soviet period. By the late 1970s I was unloading as much of my meager paychecks on books from Ardis as I was on records by Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and the Kinks.

One of my greatest joys in those years was receiving the latest edition of the Proffer-edited almanac Russian Literature Triquarterly in the mail. This was a scholarly journal like no other, past or present. There wasn’t a stuffy word in it. Each issue was jam-packed with incredible new translations, fascinating essays, groundbreaking memoirs and eye-opening scholarship. Each deliciously fat issue was also accompanied by oodles of rare, historical photographs and fabulous drawings and caricatures. RLT was an unsurpassed treasure trove of Russian letters.

Vintage republished Ardis edition (with commentary by Ellendea Proffer)

I followed one of the journalist’s hyperlinks and found a 1996 article by Benjamin Stolz and Michael Makin, and tells how Carl Proffer diverted the Russian poet to Ann Arbor:

He happened to be in Leningrad visiting Brodsky in May, 1972, when the poet received notification from the authorities that he was being issued an exit visa for emigration to Israel.  After responding that he was not interested in leaving his native land and culture, Brodsky was warned that the coming winter would be very cold — a threat that was not lost on a man who had been convicted of “social parasitism” for living on his poetry and had served a stretch in exile working on a collective farm in the Russian far north.  He decided to discuss the matter with his American friend, and Proffer, in his optimistic way, told Brodsky that he could come and teach in Ann Arbor.  Brodsky accepted the idea, and Proffer contacted Benjamin Stolz, who at the time chaired the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures.  After receiving authorization to hire Brodsky, Stolz obtained an immigration visa personally approved by William Rogers, Secretary of State, and flew to Chicago to get a federal work permit.

Brodsky began teaching for the first time in his life in September, 1972 — a daunting assignment for anyone, but especially for a young man who had dropped out of high school at fifteen, even if he was accustomed to declaiming his poetry to large groups of admirers.  He asked Stolz how he should teach his courses, one of which was a course in Russian titled “Russian Poetry” and other, in English, titled “World Poetry.”  Stolz replied, “Joseph, they’re your courses, teach them the way you want to, you’re the expert, ” — a piece of advice that Brodsky didn’t need but never forgot.  Brodsky was an inspiring and unorthodox teacher, who combined significant demands on his students — he insisted that a person who was serious about poetry must know at least 1,000 lines by heart — with  a sense of the absurd.   He was known, upon listening intently to a long theoretical exposition from a graduate student, to respond with a concise “meow.”  His presence at the University offered the chance, in the words of a former student, to experience the dynamics of the poet’s perspective and his relationship to language.

Freedman recounts a recent visit to my old stomping grounds in the University of Michigan’s Modern Languages Building, to the office of the  Nobel poet:

Ugly building, gorgeous literature

Invited in by Professor Shevoroshkin, I spent a few moments in Brodsky’s former office. It is now entirely the domain of a linguist, but a few items have been left as they were the last time Brodsky stepped out into the corridor in 1980. A random gallery of postcards and pictures that Brodsky scotch-taped to the inside of the door still hang there helter-skelter. They include photos of an old Soviet china plate, the Venice canals, a view of St. Petersburg, and several simple designs that surely had little meaning for anyone but the poet.

Shevoroshkin explained that numerous items have fallen off the door over the years but that he hasn’t gotten around to taping them back up. “I’ve got to do that sometime,” he said with a smile suggesting he may never get around to it.

Important as his service to Brodsky was, bringing the poet to Ann Arbor was only one of Proffer’s many significant contributions in bringing Russian literature to America. I well remember that when Vasily Aksyonov was deported from the Soviet Union in 1980, his first stop was Ann Arbor. By that time, for those of us following events, it was the natural, the only, destination Aksyonov could have had in America. Not New York, not Los Angeles, but Ann Arbor, Michigan. Where Carl and Ellendea Proffer were located.

A year earlier I met the poet Bulat Okudzhava and the novelist Sasha Sokolov in California. Both had been published by the Proffers at Ardis.

I interviewed Sokolov for the Michigan Daily, in the Proffers’ basement, where Ardis was situation, shortly after he emigrated. Ardis was publishing his School for Fools at that time.

I also remember those postcards in the Modern Languages Building office.  As for his claim, “There isn’t that much of substance about the Proffers on the Internet, and that is an injustice” – well, this is a start.

Literary pilgrimages here and there, and Sylvia Plath in Chalcot Square

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011
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Mells, Somerset

Okay. I’ll admit it’s a habit. When I travel, I often check out literary landmarks — the place where a favorite author was born, died, wrote, or was buried.  I’ve seen Mikhail Bulgakov‘s digs in Kiev, Elizabeth Bishop‘s glorious hideaway outside Samambaia, C.P. Cavafy‘s modestly exotic flat in Alexandria, Siegried Sassoon‘s grave in Somerset — I even visited Boris Pasternak‘s idyllic dacha in Peredelkino.

Milton scholar Martin Evans shares my enthusiasm.

His journeys to London are sometimes literary pilgrimages — he’s intrigued by the fact that his beloved John Milton and (my beloved) John Donne were both born on Bread Street.  He wants to show you these and more literary coincidences for your next trip.  Hence his new website,  Authorial London.  Please, do not be daunted.  It’s not complicated at all.  It’s  a really easy site.  And if you’d rather read about it than look at it, try Corrie Goldman‘s description of the site and how it came about here.

One passage intrigued me:

Nice man, odd habit (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Readers may be surprised to learn that Sylvia Plath once lived in the same modest house in Primrose Hill in which W.B.Yeats lived many years earlier. In Plath’s time, it was a working class area beset with blue-collar workers and struggling artists. These days, glamorous socialites like Kate Moss and Sienna Miller have been dubbed by the British tabloids as the “Primrose Hill set.”

The website explains that Plath’s apartment consisted of a small bedroom, a kitchen, a living room and a bath. “Plath loved it, at least at the beginning,” the website explains. Here, Plath wrote her great social commentary of mental illness, The Bell Jar.

I was among the readers not surprised by this revelation — in fact, Plath moved to this flat precisely because Yeats had been a previous tenant.

I remember a trip to London — oh, over a decade ago — when I was writing a piece for the San Jose Mercury on the British reception of Sylvia Plath (a bare-bones, unillustrated version of it is here; the August 20, 2000 piece has disappeared from the Mercury‘s website).

The article opened:

Yeats lived here, too

IN THE Primrose Hill area of London, where Gloucester Road and Prince of Wales Road wind back on each other in a hopeless bend, one arrives at 3 Chalcot Square, a turquoise door on a five-story building painted the color of raspberry sorbet.This summer, a simple plaque was added to the building’s facade:

Sylvia Plath
1932-1963
Poet
lived here 1960-1961

Question: Why has it taken Britain nearly 40 years to offer this first, minimalist postmortem recognition for the American poet who spent her last five years in London?

One answer: The British hardly see the need for it. When it comes to Plath, one of America’s most celebrated female poets, the British just don’t get it.

Alas, since the painting of the building has disappeared over the years, we are left with these newer images.  The torquoise door remains — but raspberry sorbet?  I think not.