Saturday, December 28, 2013

Why do you want to write? It must be so upsetting!

"Leontii Sergeyevich" remarked Ivan Vasilievich, "has brought me a play."

"Whose play?" asked the old woman, gazing at me sorrowfully.

"Leontii Sergeyevich has written the play himself."

"What for?" asked Nastasya Ivanovna anxiously.

"What do you mean — what for?... H'm... h'm..."

"Aren't there enough plays already?" asked Nastasya Ivanovna in a tone of kindly reproach. "There are such lovely plays and so many of them! If you were to start playing them you couldn't get through them all in twenty years. Why do you want to write? It must be so upsetting!"

She was so convincing that I could find nothing to reply, but Ivan Vasilievich drummed his fingers and said:

"Leontii Leontievich has written a modern play!"

This disturbed the old lady and she said: "We don't want to attack the government!"

"Why should anyone want to?" I said in her support.

"Don't you like The Fruits of Enlightenment?" asked Nastasya Ivanovna shyly and anxiously. "Such a nice play... and there's a part in it for dear Ludmilla..." She sighted and got up. "Please give my respects to your father."

"Sergei Sergeyevich's father is dead," put in Ivan Vasilievich.

"God rest his soul," said the old lady politely. "I don't suppose he knew you were writing a play, did he?"

Black Snow, by Mikhail Bulgakov, is a very funny novel. Bulgakov never finished it, and it was not published for more than thirty years after his death.

It starts off as a book about the creative process, and veers off into the surreal (weird). There's a failed suicide attempt (funny) and a Mephistophelean editor (funny!), and before long it's a nightmare of financial dealings, with characters, offices, and assets disappearing over night (funny, in a dark way). Most of the novel, however, has the pacing and tenor of a 1930s screwball comedy, befitting the theatrical farce that it is.

For example, the theatre itself is opulent, the foyer hung with portraits in gilded frames, including depictions of Sarah Bernhardt, Molière, Shakespeare, various actors and other theatrical personages, and the Emperor Nero (hilarious!).
"By order of Ivan Vasilievich," said Bombardov, keeping a straight face. "Nero was a singer and an artiste."

The business of the theatre is chaotic and has a logic all its own. Bulgakov captures the mystique with an almost filmic precision:
The three telephones rang incessantly and sometimes the little office was deafened by all three ringing at once. None of this disturbed Philipp in the least. With his right hand he picked up the receiver of the right-hand telephone, clamped it between his shoulder and his cheek, with his left hand he picked up the other receiver and pressed it to his left ear. Freeing his right hand he used it to take one of the notes being handed to him and began talking to three people at once — into the left-hand telephone, the right-hand and then the visitor again. Right-hand telephone, visitor, left, left, right, right. Dropping both receivers back on to their rests at once and thus freeing both hands, he took two of the scraps of paper. Refusing one of them, he picked up the receiver from the yellow telephone, listened for a moment and said: "Ring up tomorrow at three o'clock." He hung up and said to the petitioner: "Nothing doing."

In time I began to understand what they wanted from Philipp Philippovich. They wanted tickets.

Black Snow is based on Bulgakov's own experiences with writing for the Moscow Art Theatre. Bulgakov mercilessly satirizes the theatre milieu and its famous director, Konstantin Stanislavski (he of the eponymous acting method). It is much less political than I might have expected, but it does deal with censorship of a kind — how a playwright's work ceases to be his own.

Despite feeling uneven, like three or four different novels rolled into one though they might have wandered off in different directions, Black Snow is a highly entertaining insider's view of the workings of the theatre.
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