A Dead Man’s Memoir

Essay by David Abrams

Mikhail Bulgakov called 1929 his “year of catastrophe.” Truly, things were not going well for the Russian novelist and playwright.

In his introduction to the new Penguin Classics edition of Bulgakov’s A Dead Man’s Memoir (A Theatrical Novel), Keith Gessen describes the writer’s misfortunes:

A long and brutal campaign against him by Party critics had culminated in the removal of all his plays from the Moscow stage; his prose works had stopped passing the censorship years earlier. “Everything is banned,” he wrote to Maksim Gorky that summer, “and I am ruined, slandered, all alone.” A theatre to which he’d sold a play, since pulled from the repertoire because of the censorship, asked for the advance back. Not long after, visitors to a leading avant-garde Moscow theatre could watch a play that included “Bulgakov” in its “dictionary of dead words” — alongside “bureaucracy,” “bohemia” and “bagels.”

The cornerstone of his reputation, The Master and Margarita, still lay ahead of him, and popular recognition was even decades beyond that, long after Bulgakov was in his grave at Novodevichy Cemetery. Today, if Bulgakov is remembered at all, it is by a devoted cult of readers who believe The Master and Margarita is the funniest piece of literature ever committed to paper (a fervor shared by devotees of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces).

It may not be the funniest, but it certainly stands as an outrageous evisceration of Soviet politics, vividly describing what happens when the devil and his henchmen visit Moscow one spring. To say the least, all hell breaks loose.

First published in the magazine Moskva in November 1966 and January 1967, The Master and Margarita veers between humor and horror, but when the laughs do come, they are well earned. Bulgakov even manages to wring humor from subjects like Communism, Pontius Pilate, and decapitation. If you’ve never laughed at the sight of a man getting his head sliced off by a tramcar, then you obviously haven’t read The Master and Margarita.

A Dead Man’s Memoir, which he set aside to begin work on The Master and Margarita, is every bit as brutal and biting as the more popular work. In one sense, it is more genuine because it was written close to the bone and resonates with thinly veiled autobiography on nearly every page. Though Bulgakov started writing A Dead Man’s Memoir in 1936, it was not published in Russia until 1965, a quarter century after his death. The book compresses about a decade of Bulgakov’s association with the Moscow Art Theatre into a year; but if you set the writer’s biography next to the novel, it’s easy to see the parallels.

A Dead Man’s Memoir is a portrait of the artist as a badgered young man. As the novel opens, we meet Sergei Maksudov (Bulgakov, wearing a paper-thin mask), who, we soon learn, is a failure as both a novelist and a suicide. He is “a lowly employee of the Shipping Herald newspaper” and spends his nights in a garret writing a novel which he conceives one night after a bad dream. Eventually, the novel itself turns out to a nightmare: when Maksudov reads portions of it to his friends, they become bleary eyed and tell him the book is poorly written, though amusing in parts. A melancholy Maksudov then steals a revolver but is interrupted just as he puts the barrel to his temple. In the kind of bizarre irony that Bulgakov can pull off without breaking a sweat, the interruption turns out to be an editor of a literary journal who is keenly interested in reading the “bad novel.”

One thing leads to another, and in a matter of pages, Maksudov has quit his day job and signed a publishing contract, only to learn he’s been swindled by the editor, who flees the country with his manuscript. “Like a worm, there began gnawing at my heart the appalling thought that I would never actually make any kind of a writer.”

But then a ray of sunshine breaks through the bleak Moscow winter: the despondent Maksudov receives a note from the director of the Independent Theatre — modeled after the Moscow Art Theatre, co-founded by Konstantin Stanislavsky, the father of Method acting. In the novel (as in real life), the theatre is keenly interested in turning Maksudov’s novel into a stage production.

It’s at this point that A Dead Man’s Memoir takes off at full gallop as Bulgakov leads us on a scathing tour of the Russian theatre, censorship, and Communism in general. When Maksudov enters the world of the theatre, it’s as if he’s setting foot into a jungle full of madmen, clashing egos, and rampaging idiocy. It’s enough to drive him mad, he says. His friend Bombardov tells him not to take it to heart: “It’s just that you don’t know what the theatre’s like. There are complicated machines in the world, but the theatre is the most complicated of all?”

As the Penguin edition’s cover illustration aptly indicates, Maksudov finds himself being ground between the cogs of the machinery. In time, he will barely recognize his own work. After a reading of his rewritten play, Maksudov writes, “I was immediately overcome by horror and despair; it seemed to me that I had built a house and had only just moved into it when the roof had collapsed.”

He should have known something (or, everything) would go wrong from the moment he signed the contract with the theatre: “I recall that the phrases ‘should there be’ and ‘insofar as’ occurred quite frequently in the contract and that every point began with the words: ‘The author does not have the right?’ “

A Dead Man’s Memoir, though a short novel, is big on ideas — not the least of which is how writers all too easily surrender their work to serve the whims of others. Rights are stripped away, compromises are made, and politics determines the course of art.

It was something with which Bulgakov was all too familiar. A Dead Man’s Memoir nimbly captures the theatre’s clashing egos, the sudden disasters (financial, political, and otherwise), and management’s absurd decisions in a way that can only come from someone who has worked the floorboards and sneezed away the dust of heavy curtains. In 1928, Bulgakov appeared to be on top of the heap: three of his plays were running in three Moscow theatres — Zoya’s Apartment, The Crimson Island, and The Days of the Turbins, dramatized from his novel The White Guard. He was an overnight success, and his name was mentioned in the same breath as Chekhov’s.

One year later — the “year of catastrophe” — everything had come crashing down around him. One critic savagely suggested that someone should take Bulgakov and “just bash him over the head with a basin” and that Soviet citizens had no more need of Bulgakov’s work “than a dog needs a brassiere.” Bulgakov wrote to Gorky: “Not a line of mine is being printed anywhere; I have no work ready, and not a kopeck of royalties is coming in from any source; not a single institution, not a single individual will reply to my applications….”

For a writer like Bulgakov, bringing him low only made the bile rise and that vitriol spilled out onto the page. A Dead Man’s Memoir is a bitter roman à clef, yes; but it does not go down heavy. It has the breathless intensity of a screwball comedy and, at times, recalls the terror and absurdity of the Coen Brothers movie Barton Fink, in which John Turturro sells his soul to the devil in 1940s-era Hollywood. A Dead Man’s Memoir also wears the tooth marks of Nathanael West’s acidic novels Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts.

More than anything, what the novel displays, unseen beneath the rushing current of satire, is the author’s courage to take a stand against his critics — from Stalin on down — and to poke a stick at his own self-image. It takes a talent with a healthy dose of self-confidence to pull off something like that. Writers, Bulgakov maintains, must believe in themselves because no one else will. It’s a theme that also runs throughout The Master and Margarita and can be summed up in this sentence near the end of A Dead Man’s Memoir: “There is nothing worse, comrades, than cowardice and lack of faith in oneself.”