Monday, October 22, 2007

A review of Black Snow by Mikhail Bulgakov

Black Snow is a novel by Mikhail Bulgakov. This apparent platitude is full of contradiction. The book is perhaps better described as an autobiographical episode, with Bulgakov renamed as the book’s central character, Maxudov. It’s also a satire in which the characters are precise, exact and often vicious caricatures of Bulgakov’s colleagues and acquaintances in the between-the-wars Moscow Arts Theatre, including the legendary Stanislawsky. In some ways, Black Snow is a history of Bulgakov’s greatest success, the novel The White Guard, which the theatre company adapted for the stage under the title The Days of the Turbins. The play ran for close to a thousand performances, including one staged for an audience of a single person, one Josef Stalin who, perhaps luckily for Bulgakov, liked it.

Black Snow is also a sideways look at the creative process, itself. Maxudov is a journalist with The Shipping Times and hates the monotony and predictability of his work. Privately he creates a new world by writing a novel in which the author can imagine transcending the mundane. But the product of this and all creation is useless unless it is shared. Only then can it exist. Only then can the author’s relief from the self he cannot live with be realised. But when no-one publishes the novel, when no-one shows the slightest interest in it, the author is left only with the isolation that inspired the book, but now this is an amplified isolation and more devastating for it. So he attempts suicide. But he is such an incompetent that he fails. It’s the same middle class Russian incompetence that Chekhov celebrated in Uncle Vanya where no-one seems able to aim a shot.

But then this unpublished book is seen by others, for whom it seems to mean something quite different from the author’s intention. Instead of a novel, they see it as a play. They ask for a re-write, complete with changes of both plot and setting. Effectively, the only way the work can have its own life, its own existence, is for it to become something that denies the author’s own intentions and thus nullifies the reason for writing it. And so Maxudov goes along with things and thus in effect he is back again doing what he does for The Shipping Times, in that he is writing things that others want.

And here is where Black Snow becomes a parody of what was happening later in Bulgakov’s own career. He wanted to write a play about censorship and control. This, obviously, was impossible in Stalin’s Soviet Union, so he set the play in France, basing it upon the historical reality of Moliere. After four years of tying to prepare the play for performance what finally emerged was a costume drama from which all allusions to censorship had been removed or watered down. So Bulgakov’s intended comment on Soviet society was lost. And the play flopped.

So the satirical caricatures are truly vicious. We have an impresario who is incapable of remembering the playwright’s name. We have the opinionated arty intellectual, full of biting criticism and dismissive posturing until he realises he is speaking to the author and then he does an instant, blushing volte-face. We have a character that is so sure about every detail of organisation and experience that they are almost always wrong.

Ultimately, Black Snow is about a creative process where a writer can create whatever is imaginable. But then in communicating it, the receivers change it, transform it into what they want it to be. The writer makes the snow black, the recipients read it as black but change it to white and then probably argue whether it has already turned to rain. Black Snow is an enigmatic, super-real and surreal satire.

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