When I was a teenager my favourite book was ‘Catch 22’ by Joseph Heller. It was cynical, disillusioned, ambitious and fiercely intelligent, everything I admired and wanted to be. In retrospect I’m very pleased I had not heard of Bulgavok at that age. I’m not sure I could have coped with the competition or prospect of having to chose between my American favourite and ‘The Master and Margharita.’
The good news is that since then I have grown to accept the number of favourite novels a girl can have, while the English publishing world has grown to realise quite how many Bulgakov books they can sell if translation can keep up with demand. Nearly every bookshop I go in to has ‘The Master and Margarita’ on the ‘staff favourites’ shelf (I judge them heavily if they don’t). Many have multiple copies of this masterpiece, frequently with other, less known
For this project I’ve read everything I can. It’s not exhaustive, but below are my current top Bulgakov reads:
I have already written about ‘The White Guard’ as a war book (click here for the post) but I have not explained what a shock to the system it was to read Bulgakov’s realist debut novel. I had expected more of the craziness of ‘The Master’, instead the novel follows in the footsteps of Bunin, Tolstoy and Chekhov. The doomed White forces are depicted as the heirs to Lermontov’s ‘Hero for our Time‘, fiercely patriotic Don Quixotes with their touching yet hopeless wish for things to return to their pre-revolutionary state. This novel launched Bulgakov’s career and gives clear evidence of his confidence and ambition. I was severely disappointed when I first read it, but now it’s a favourite because what can be better than knowing a great writer is not limited to a single tone or genre?
This is the book I’d recommend to those who loved ‘The Master’ and really want more of the same. It is part science fiction, but mostly just bonkers when the scientist Preobrazhensky decides to experiment on a stray dog, transforming him into a human. As Frankenstein could have told him, such ambitions never end well, and Bulgakov brings all of his vicious wit to the Soviet belief in the scientific improvement of human beings. Humans are not shown to be quite as advanced as society might think so chaos soon takes over in what is part comedy of manners, but mostly bitter and biting satire. If you want straight science fiction, you may also want to read ‘Fatal Eggs’ (written in the same year and recently re-published by Alma Classics) in which the scientists get involved in food production, but I think ‘Heart of a Dog’ shows Bulgakov at his genre-bending best.
I could not get through this book when I first tried, not because of the writing but because I’m just too squeamish. I felt slightly more prepared the second time (it helped to be reading shortly after facing the brutality of Babel and Sholokhov). This is the Russian equivalent of the 1952 English medical classic ‘Doctor in the House‘, but there’s a lot more syphilis and a lot less being told off by matrons. Closely based on Bulgakov’s own experiences as a young and ill-prepared doctor working in an isolated village, these stories are more realist and less self-conscious than ‘The White Guard’. If you’re not a fan of fiction and still want to join the Bulgakov fan club, this is an excellent place to start.
‘The Master and Margarita’ is rightly considered to be a modern masterpiece. For a start, it really does have the most wonderful covers. The important thing is to remember that the story inside is equally fantastic. The devil and his companions are wandering the streets of Moscow playing practical jokes on its inhabitants. At the same time, a ‘master’ is re-writing the story of Jesus’s last days. Lots of people are going mad. Although my reading this year has shown me that many of the elements that first impressed me are not as unique as I had though, Bulgakov shows genius in his ability to bring together the mystical, the religious, the political and the psychological. As always, he is drawing on Russia’s rich literary tradition, but this time it is Gogol’s surrealism and madness with a heady dose of Andreyev’s devilry that ground his ambition. If you only read one Bulgakov novel, it really should be this one; once you’ve read it though, I sincerely recommend seeking out the rest, because he was far more than a one book author.