Inaugural welcoming speech at the first dinner of the Bulgakov Society
30 May 2019
Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the inaugural dinner of the Bulgakov Society. I have heard it said that the world is divided into those who like Bulgakov’s works and those who do not. I know that all here this evening fall into the former category and I hope that you will all feel yourselves among friends! So why a Bulgakov Society? Why in Hong Kong? My answer to this is why not? – no justification is needed for bringing Mikhail Bulgakov and his works to the attention of a wider number of English speakers and for bringing together those who already love and appreciate the works of Bulgakov. The experience of reading The Master and Margarita, or Heart of a Dog, leaves one with the sense that it is quite unlike anything one has read before. They provide both a wonderful window into a very real historical setting that is now wholly remote to most of us, and visions of the transcendent, the sublime, and the comically absurd. Satire can rarely have achieved such a perfect literary form, in any language or tradition, though Bulgakov had another master to draw upon in the work of Nikolai Gogol, whose also fantastical and keenly satirical and absurdist Dead Souls (1842), Bulgakov adapted for the Moscow Art Theatre in a production which opened in 1932. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brother’s Karamazov (1879) also involved demonic visitations and discourses on the divine. Bulgakov himself makes explicit his drawing upon Goethe’s (1831) dramatic version of the Faust story, and its trope of a costly pact with the devil. Unfortunately, when it comes to the genre of ‘magic realism’, western readers are more likely to be familiar with the Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez’s 100 Years of Solitude (1967) which contributed to his winning the Nobel Prize in 1982, or the British Indian writer, Salman Rushdie’s, controversial Satanic Verses (1988) in which one of the characters physically transforms into a devil, but which principally came to our attention as a result of the fatwa issued by the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini, decreeing a death sentence upon its author for blasphemy, which led Rushdie to live in hiding under the protection of the British police for many years.
Books may be banned whether they are good, middling or bad in a literary sense – but they are nearly always banned because they say things that those in authority would rather not be said, usually in regard to a political, ideological or religious system, ruling class, or leader. In both imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, even under Stalin, there were twin cultural traditions which afforded some protection. The first was the ‘holy fool’ who might speak profanities and curses to the Tsar but ought to be tolerated as a person who, though behaving as though mentally unsound, was thought to embody some mystical connection to channel unpalatable revelations from God. The second was the veneration of the great writer or poet as a cultural treasure of the nation, someone whom even a seemingly all-powerful ruler would hesitate to be seen to condemn to death or exile. This had allowed the spiritually and politically subversive Count Leo Tolstoy – whose ideas on non-violent resistance, agricultural life, and anti-statist anarchism contributed to shaping Mahatma Gandhi’s beliefs and tactics, after the two engaged in correspondence – to defy both the Orthodox Church and the Tsar, and face consequent harassment from the Tsarist secret police. In the Soviet Union being excluded from the Union of Writers, having one’s work suppressed, and facing even worse threats to life and freedom are of course, part of the repressive context which gave rise to Bulgakov’s great works – his satirical attacks on that system, imbued as they were with his own bitter experience, could not have been as biting or witty otherwise.
Yet both Bulgakov and Boris Pasternak – whose Doctor Zhivago (1957) – my late mother’s favourite novel – was catapulted to international fame and the silver screen by the offer on a Nobel Prize as well as the clandestine efforts of the CIA to print and circulate the book as a tool of Cold War propaganda – were given some crucial leeway by Stalin, who was far less forgiving to those he perceived to pose any kind of threat in other walks of life. Stalin personally spoke to both men by telephone, and based his relative clemency on his esteem for their prior literary works, or in Pasternak’s case his translations of poems from Stalin’s native Georgia. It is said that Stalin crossed Pasternak’s name off an execution list during the Great Purge, and was variously attributed to have said ‘Do not touch this cloud dweller’ (i.e. dreamer) or ‘Leave that holy fool alone!’ Yet whatever the intrinsic merits of Pasternak, as poet, author, and literary translator, it appears a mere accident of history that his work should be so well known and Bulgakov’s should be as little known as it has been outside of the Russian-speaking world. For if there are two Russian writers whom the world ought to know better, they are Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Bulgakov. The case for Pushkin, who played a role comparable to Shakespeare in shaping the modern Russian language, we must leave to another society. But when you spend more time with Bulgakov I hope you will agree with us that he makes the case for himself. Bulgakov recognises the absurd and the profound, the profane and the sacred, the comic and the poignant.
“Manuscripts don’t burn” he says to us in The Master and the Margarita. Although unfortunately we shall never be able to see the first manuscript of the novel which he had succeeded in burning in 1930, and even more sad is that Gogol burned the second part of Dead Souls shortly before his death, perhaps because his increasing religiosity led him to perceive it as sinful. How slender are the chords which bind us to the past, and how easily they may slip from our grasp. It is often said in internet memes these days that the mark of a true reader is that they still mourn the loss, by fire, of the ancient library of Alexandria. We feel for those thousands of lost works, across the chasm of time and space, through the prism of the imagination. How fortunate we are then, that in the crucible of one of the severest censorship regimes of the 20th Century, amidst the strangeness and dysfunctionality of an unprecedented societal experiment in social, political and economic organisation, Bulgakov could speak so clearly to the absurdity of that moment, but also the universality of the human condition, by injecting the transhistorical perspective of one who claimed witness to the exchange between Pontius Pilate and Christ. If there has been a turn in how Russians see their own history in recent times, it has been a deemphasizing of the violent historical disjunctures of the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Soviet collapse of 1991, in favour of a more profound recognition of the continuity of Russian history and culture from the imperial, through the Soviet, to the contemporary. Within this attempt to reconcile the various pasts with one another and with the present, we can place Bulgakov and his writing as a timeless exemplar of the great forces of Russian history and the sublime heights achieved within the Russian literary tradition across the centuries.
I wish you all an enjoyable evening and many more stimulating Bulgakov Society events to come!