This book has left me with a strange combination of thoughts. The story is split into 2 parts and an afterward. The first part tells the story of the central character Mauxdov's attempt to write and then publish a novel, his introduction to the famous Independent Theatre and his tribulations in adapting his novel for the stage and the apparent failure when he falls fowl of the internal politics of the Independent Theatre. The second part is about the pandemonium of the theatre once the production starts (against rthe odds) to get of the ground. The afterward flips the story on its head again in a new and unexpected way.
Part 1 had the feel of Alice in Wonderland about it. In Alice’s adventure she moves from room to room and scene to scene, likewise Mauxdov has a series of mini adventures. Initially despondency as he writes a disappointing novel, an inept attempt to commit suicide (this adventure does result in some good comic writing), partial success in getting it published, being introduced to the Independent Theatre, mixing with some of the interesting characters who work there. Like Alice his adventures are little set pieces and the action becomes increasing surreal the deeper down the rabbit hole, which is the Independent Theatre, Mauxdov goes. Also like Alice the wonderland Mauxdov find himself in has its strange and perplexing rules way beyond his ability to comprehend, however unlike Alice Mauxdov cannot apply his honest commonsense and see the madness for what it is because, in a more Kafkaesque theme, he need to negotiate the madness to try an remain in control of the production of his play.
Part 2 is more Kafkaesque, focusing exclusively on the preparations before the play Black Snow is put on. There is no sense of moving from room to room anymore as we have arrived at our destination and the rules for getting things done start to become the focus of the story. This gives opportunity to poke fun at the discord within the theatre and to have some fun with method acting. Although Kafkaesque the sense that there are rules that seem to govern what can be done and that people like Mauxdov do not seem to be in control of there own lives, it is unkafkaesque in the sense that those unseen forces are just bullying senior members of the theatre and Mauxdov is attempting to get his first play produced. As an ingénue it is not surprising he lacks the skill to play the game well and get his way.
I am not going to comment on the afterward other than to say it seemed to come out of nowhere and was bit of a shock
I have a few reservations’ about this particular edition. Most of what I have read of Bulgakov before was published by One World Classics (now Alma Classics). I liked these editions the prose seemed somehow lighter, more flowing and fun. There were also helpful end notes that helped acquaint me with jokes and reference I might not haven got. When I red the White Guard (published by Vintage classics) I wasn’t too put out by the difference in style as it was a very different type of novel, more historical and serious than the satires I had previously read. I would have liked end notes but I guessed the publisher didn’t think them necessary or was pressed for space; having now read this Vintage Classic edition of Black Snow I am having that same feeling about the prose and likewise no end notes. There is one footnote that is included and an essential one to make sense of the joke about the “changing room”, but that is all. I just have that feeling I would have enjoyed an Alma Classics edition better. Perhaps compare are contrast if you are tempted to buy.
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.
Bulgakov examines the Moscow literary and theatrical scene under Stalin with customary irony. This heavily autobiographical novel draws on the author's own experiences with Stanislavsky. Whilst perhaps not in the same league as other Bulgakov works it is an interesting and amusing vignette nevertheless.
Portrays State interference with the Arts. Farcical and, at points, hilarious. For a non-Russian speaker the character's names were hard to follow. Glad when I'd finished but glad I've read it. Will try another Bulgakov at some point.