Bulgakov is best known for his longer magical realism works “The Master and Margarita” and “The Fatal Eggs”, which we have already sent to you during our previous weekly reads. But Bulgakov has many other remarkable masterpieces, including Notes on a Cuff, which was written in the early 1920s. The Notes reflect the early years of Bulgakov`s writing and deal ironically with the Bolsheviks’ policy of educating the masses. The Notes are not long, but fascinating to read. Please find below the first chapter of the Notes. Enjoy the read!
Notes on a Cuff
Chapter I. Caucasus
An editor of the deceased Russkoye Slovo, in gaiters and with a cigar, snatched the telegram off the desk and read it through swiftly from beginning to end with a practised professional eye.
One hand automatically jotted down “two columns”, while the lips unexpectedly rounded and whistled “Phew-ew!”
He paused for a moment. Then abruptly tore off a sheet of notepaper and scribbled:
Tiflis is forty miles away,
Who can sell me a car today?
“Short feuilleton” at the top, “Long primer” at the side and “Rook” at the bottom.
Suddenly he muttered like Dickens’s Jingle:
“Uh-huh! Uh-huh! I guessed as much. Might have to beat it. Never mind! I’ve got six thousand lire in Rome. Credito Italiano. What? Six… And actually I’m an Italian officer! Yes, sir! Finita la comedia!”
And with another whistle he pushed back his cap and hurried out of the door — telegram and feuilleton in hand.
“Stop!” I yelled, coming to my senses. “Stop! What Credito? Finita ? What? Catastrophe?”
But he had vanished.
I was about to run after him… but then shrugged my shoulders, frowned limply and sank onto the divan. What was bothering me? The Credito , whatever it was? The commotion? No, it wasn’t that… Ah, yes. My head! It was aching like billyho. The second day running. First a strange chill ran down my spine. Then just the opposite: my body felt all hot and dry, and my forehead unpleasantly clammy. My temples were throbbing. I’d caught cold. That wretched February fog! But I mustn’t get ill! I just mustn’t get ill!
Everything’s unfamiliar, but I must have got used to it over the last six weeks. How good it feels after the fog. At home. The cliff and the sea in the golden frame. The books in the bookcase. The carpet on the sofa is too rough for comfort and the cushion’s terribly hard. But I wouldn’t get up for anything. I feel so lazy! Can’t be bothered to lift a hand. I’ve spent half an hour thinking I must stretch it out to get the aspirin powder on the chair, but even that’s too much trouble.
“Pop the thermometer in, Misha!”
“Oh, I couldn’t bear to! I haven’t got a temperature anyway!”
Oh, my goodness, my goodness, my goo-oodness! Thirty-eight point nine … could it be typhus? No, of course not. Where from? But what if it is typhus! Anything you like, only not now! That would be awful. It’s nothing. Hypochondria. I’ve just got a cold. Influenza. I’ll take an aspirin tonight and be as right as rain tomorrow!
Thirty-nine point five!
“It isn’t typhus, is it, Doctor? Not typhus? I think it’s just influenza? Eh? The fog…”
“Yes, yes… The fog. Breathe in, please. Deeper… That’s it!”
“I’ve got to attend to some very important business, Doctor. It won’t take long. Can I?”
“Are you crazy!”
The cliff, the sea, and the sofa are blazing hot. The pillow’s already hot, as soon as I turn it over and put my head on it. Never mind. I’ll stick it out one more night, and leave tomorrow. Leave for good if necessary! For good! Mustn’t let this get me down! It’s only influenza. Nice to be ill and have a temperature. Forget about everything. Lie in bed and rest. Only not now, for Heaven’s sake! There’s no time for reading in this diabolical chaos… How I long for… What do I long for? Yes. Forests and mountains. Only not these damned Caucasian ones. But ours, far away… Melnikov-Pechersky (1). A hermitage in the snow. A light in the window and a nice hot steam bath. Yes, forests and mountains. I’d give half my kingdom to be sweating in a steam bath. That would do the trick-Then dive into the snow with nothing on… Forests! Dense pine forests. Good for making ships. Peter in a green caftan (2) chopping down trees. What a fine-sounding stately word — inasmuch! In-as-much! Forests, ravines, carpets of pine-needles, a snow-covered hermitage. And a choir of nuns singing in sweet harmony:
Victorious leader of triumphant hosts!
Hang on! What nuns! You won’t find any nuns there. Where are they now, nuns? Black, white, slender Vasnetsovian (3) nuns?
“Larissa Leontievna, where are the nuns?”
“He’s delirious, poor thing!”
“I certainly am not. Not in the slightest. Nuns! What’s the matter, don’t you understand? Give me that book. Over there, on the third shelf. Melnikov-Pechersky…”
“You mustn’t read, Misha, dear!”
“What’s that? Why not? I’ll be up tomorrow! And go to see Petrov. You don’t understand. They’ll leave me behind! Leave me behind!”
“Oh, alright then. Get up if you must! Here’s the book.”
“Lovely book. With that old, familiar smell. But the lines are hopping about all over the place. I remember. They were forging banknotes at the hermitage, Romanov banknotes. What an awful memory I’ve got. It was notes, not nuns.
Sasha basher, tra-la-la!
“Larissa Leontievna… Larochka! Do you like forests and mountains? I’ll get me to a monastery. Yes, I will! Some remote hermitage. With forest all round and birds twittering, and not a living soul… I’m sick of this idiotic war! I’ll go to Paris and write a novel first, then get me to a monastery. Only tell Anna to wake me up at eight o’clock tomorrow morning. I was supposed to see him yesterday. Can’t you understand?”
“Yes, yes, I understand. Only you must keep quiet.”
Fog. Hot reddish fog. Forests, more forests … and water trickling slowly from a crevice in a green rock. A taut crystal thread. Must crawl up and have a good drink. That’ll do the trick. It’s hard crawling over pine-needles, they’re all sticky and prickly. I open my eyes, and there’s just a sheet, no pine-needles.
“For heaven’s sake! What’s the matter with this sheet. Have they sprinkled sand on it? I’m thirsty!”
“Yes, yes, I won’t be a moment.”
“Ugh, it’s so warm, what horrid water.”
“…Forty point five again! How dreadful!”
“Doctor! I insist on being sent to Parisrightaway! I don’t want to stay in Russia any longer… If you won’t send me, kindly hand me my Brow… Browning! Larochk-a-a! Go and fetch it!”
“Yes, yes, we’ll fetch it. Only don’t get excited!”
Darkness. A ray of light. Darkness … a ray of light. I can’t remember for the life of me…
My head! My head! There are no nuns or triumphant hosts, just demons trumpeting and tearing at my skull with their red-hot hooks. My he-ad!
A ray of light… darkness. A ray … no, it’s gone. Nothing awful, just couldn’t care less. Head not aching. Darkness and forty-one point one…
1. Melnikov P. I. (the pseudonym of Andrei Pechersky, 1818-1883), a Russian writer and the author of In the Forests and In the Hills, novels about Old Believers.
2. “Peter in a green caftan…” A reference to the Russian tsar Peter the Great who founded the Russian navy and used to build ships with his own hands.
3. “Black, white, slender, Vasnetsovian…” Victor Vasnetsov (1848-1926), a Russian artist who painted legendary subjects and also decorated the Cathedral of St. Vladimir in Kiev.
Source: “Notes On the Cuff – And Other Stories”, Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Alison Rise, Published December 31st 1991 by Ardis Publishers, 0875010571