Bulgakov: Diaries and Selected Letters

July 15, 2013
Bulgakov: Diaries and Selected Letters trans. Roger Cockrell (Alma, £18.99)

“Of course, it’s so interesting to read about my foot! I’m sorry,” Mikhail Bulgakov wrote to his wife in the stifling Moscow heat of July 1938, straying too far, he thought, into complaints about the torment of his mosquito bites. The Soviet writer had survived the darkest year of Stalin’s Terror. His health was in steep decline. That summer his secret work on the novel The Master and Margarita had reached a crucial stage.

For us, it is indeed interesting to read about the itch on Bulgakov’s foot, interwoven with exclamations about the “unbearable itch in [his] fingers” as he tried to convey the “spirit” of his novel as it emerged onto typed pages. The most epic personal histories and the greatest works of art emerge from the scratchy texture of everyday experience. Alongside letters to his wife are Bulgakov’s agonised entreaties addressed to the Soviet government and Stalin himself, begging for leave to travel abroad, railing at the repeated banning of his plays.

Twenty years ago, the scholar Julie Curtis first revealed Bulgakov’s life through his letters and diaries in Manuscripts Don’t Burn. Recently, his lesser known works have caught the English imagination. John Hodge’s phantasmagoric play Collaborators conjured Bulgakov’s own unrealised fantasy about a meeting with Stalin. Last year, Daniel Radcliffe starred in a TV drama based on Bulgakov’s semi-autobiographical A Young Doctor’s Notebook. A good moment, then, for Roger Cockrell’s fine biographical addition to the new translations of Bulgakov’s fiction that Alma Classics have published in recent years.