Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Black Snow, by Mikhail Bulgakov

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A completely zany, out-of-the box comedy gem, Black Snow brilliantly savages the Soviet theatre of the 1930s and the goons that ran it.

A hack writer for the Shipping Gazette, Sergei Maksudov has been working after hours on a novel. It’s really his aim to be seen as a writer of some distinction. Through sheer luck, he manages to get his novel published in a literary journal. This turns out to be just the start of his problems, as the bitchy world of literature is full of people who aren’t shy about giving their opinions. Soon Maksudov is seeing his work derided everywhere as lacklustre and not up to scratch. This creates a mood of great self-doubt, even self loathing.

The wheel of fortune then turns again. An editor approaches Maksudov and says he wants to turn his novel into a play. The novelist is now thrust into the exceedingly fickle world of the Independent Theatre. Run by eccentrics, egomaniacs and several complete loons, Maksudov watches as his novel, now a play, is absolutely mutilated beyond recognition by the autocratic director Ivan Vasilievich.  

Written in the late 1930s, Black Snow never saw publication in Bulgakov’s day. It’s in fact an unfinished work. Part one ends about two thirds of the way in, with part two running for about 40 pages. Clearly Bulgakov had intended to develop the story further. The novel, as it stands, simply falls off a cliff on the last page. None of this really matters, as the style is that of a rolling series of comic set pieces, ridiculing every aspect of the theatre, its bureaucracy and by extension, the Soviet government. It’s every bit as good as some of the finest Russian writing: sharply written, beautifully simple and devoid of any literary clutter. This is all backed up by the novel’s sharp-edged purpose: Bulgakov clearly has an axe to grind, but he turns his rage into exquisite comedy.

Black Snow satirises many real people that Bulgakov had to deal with in the theatre world. There’s even an index at the back, a who’s who of those lampooned. For the modern reader, Black Snow reads like a surreal farce, a mini-masterpiece of Alice in Wonderland-like nonsense.

Black Snow, by Mikhail Bulgakov. Published by Alma Classics. ISBN: 9781847493538  RRP: $19.99

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