An ingenious and well-written biography of a 17th century playwright, by a 20th century writer. Their lives were fraught with similar vicissitudes and that enabled Bulgakov to understand Moliere. Early parts of the book are best and the latter chapters become a bit repetitive. However, being a short book makes it a very good one.
Mikhaïl Bulgakov’s novel is not a hagiography of Molière, but the work of a sympathizer. The author follows the journey (for a long time a calvary) of the playwright, who had courageously chosen to become an actor, a profession condemned by the first Estate in France, the clergy. When Molière began to produce his own plays with his theater company, the insults were flying all over the place. The clergy called him a demon in flesh and ‘men of letters’ a vulgar buffoon. But he was saved by his public, which filled profusely (not always, because there were obviously also failures) the coffers of his theater company. Bulgakov exposes Molière’s venomous fights with a sometimes comical censorship (the king, the clergy), with prejudiced critics and with jealous colleagues. But, the fable writer Jean de la Fontaine stood always on his side. Another sticking point was the copyright of his plays. The composer J. - B. Lully, for example, did receive a royal privilege for the copyright of all the pieces for which he had written music. This meant that he had the full copyright of many of Molière’s plays.
In addition, there were Molière’s personal battles: his responsibility for his theater company (organization, financial management, actors, staff, sets and machinery), his illness (hypochondria) and his troubles with women, including an incest affair. The disputes continued even after his death. As an actor, Molière could not be buried, because before he died, he had not abjured his profession which was banned by the Church. No priest would accompany his body, and no cemetery would collect it. But in order to prevent that his body was thrown into the street, the king himself circumvented the clerical law by an astute maneuver.
Obviously, Mikhaïl Bulgakov had much sympathy for Molière. The latter was in fact a mirror of his own difficulties: censorship by a secular king (the first secretary) and by a laical ‘clergy’ (the ideologues), financial and relationship problems and the inveterate jealousy of some of his colleagues.
This wonderful novel should be read by all lovers of world class literature.