“Notes On a Cuff”, Chapter XII – Weekly Reads
Chapter XII of Notes on a Cuff is entitled “Run! Run!” It reflects the strong desire of Bulgakov to leave Soviet Russia, which did not leave him throughout his life. More details in the text below.
Chapter XII. MUST RUN. MUST RUN!
“A hundred thousand… I’ve got a hundred thousand! , I earned it!
A barrister’s clerk, one of the natives, taught me how. He arrived one day when I was sitting silently, head in hands, and said:
“I’m broke too. There’s only one solution — we must write a play. A revolutionary play. About the life of the natives. And sell it…”
I stared at him vacantly and replied: “I can’t write anything about the life of the natives, revolutionary or counter-revolutionary. I know nothing about their life. In fact I can’t write anything at all. I’m tired, and I don’t think I’m any good at writing anyway.”
“You’re talking nonsense,” he answered. “It’s because you’re hungry. Be a man. The life of the natives is a cinch. I know it inside out. We’ll write the play together. And split the money fifty-fifty.”
So we started to write. There was a round hot stove at his place. His wife would hang up the washing on a line in the room, then give us some beetroot salad with vegetable oil and tea with saccharine. He told me some common names and customs, and I made up the plot. So did he. And his wife sat down and advised us too. I realised at once they were much better at it than me. But I didn’t feel envious, because I had already decided this was the last play I would ever write…
And so we wrote it. He basked by the stove saying: “I love creating!” I scratched away with my pen…
A week later the three-act play was ready. When I read it through to myself in my unheated room at night, I’m not ashamed to admit that it brought tears to my eyes! In terms of crassness it was unique, remarkable! Something obtuse and insolent stared out of every line of this collective creation. I couldn’t believe my eyes. What could I hope for, imbecile, if I wrote like that? Shame stared at me from the damp green walls and the terrible black windows. I began to tear up the manuscript. But then I stopped. Because suddenly with remarkable, unusual clarity I realised the truth of the saying: once written, never destroyed. A work can be torn up, burnt, concealed from others. But never from oneself! It was the end of me! It could never be erased. This astounding thing had been written by me. It was the end!..
The play caused a sensation in the native Sub-Section. They bought it at once for two hundred thousand. And a fortnight later it was performed on the stage.
Eyes, daggers and cartridge pockets flashed in the mist of a thousand bated breaths. After heroic horsemen rushed in and grabbed the chief of police and guards in the third act the Chechens, Kabardians and Ingushes yelled: “Zere! Serves him right, ze cur!”
And following the Sub-Section ladies they shouted: “Author!”
There was a lot of handshaking backstage.
“Vairy gut play!”
And invitations to visit their mountain villages.
Must run! Must run!
Quickly. A hundred thousand is enough to get out of here. Forward. To the sea. Over one sea and another to France and dry land — to Paris!
A driving rain lashed my face as, hunched up in my greatcoat, I ran along the alleys for the last time — home…
You — prosewriters and playwrights in Paris and Berlin — just you try. Try, for the fun of it, to write something worse. If you are as talented as Kuprin, Bunin or Gorky you will not succeed. It is I who hold the record! For collective creativity. The three of us wrote it: me, the barrister’s clerk and hunger. At the beginning of nineteen twenty one…
Source: “Notes On the Cuff – And Other Stories”, Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Alison Rise, Published December 31st 1991 by Ardis Publishers, 0875010571