When I decided to conduct my classics challenge (to read fifty classic in five years) in the same haphazard and chaotic way that I conduct the rest of my reading – without creating a list or plan in advance – there were still one or two writers I was determined to include. Foremost among these was Mikhail Bulgakov – a writer I had mysteriously managed to avoid up to this point. Given that so much of his work is readily available in English – Alma Classics, and translator Hugh Aplin, are to be particularly praised here – I was bereft of excuses and decided to make a start with Diaboliad, a collection of four stories originally published in 1925 (the Alma Classics edition makes a point of mentioning that it does not include The Fatal Eggs – which they publish in a separate volume – leading me to assume it originates from the same place).
The title story is by far the longest, taking up around half the volume, giving it plenty of time to move through the gears from satire to insanity. Briefly, Korotkov feels secure in his position as Chief Clerk at the Main Central Depot of Match Materials, having “completely expunged from his soul the idea of the existence in the world of the so-called vicissitudes of fate”; his new role as the protagonist of a Russian short story will quickly put him right. Bulgakov begins with some pointed satire of the Soviet system: first Korotkov and his colleagues aren’t paid, then they are paid in the goods they produce. Korotkov heads home weighed down with armfuls of match boxes hoping to sell them only for his neighbour (surrounded by her own wages in communion wine) to tell him they don’t work:
“…without losing a moment, he grabbed a box, unsealed it with a snap and struck a match. It hissed and flared up with a greenish light, broke in two and went out. Choking at the pungent smell of sulphur, Korotkov had a nasty fit of coughing and lit a second. This one gave a bang and two sparks spurted out from it. The first hit the window pane, the second Comrade Korotkov’s right eye.”
With his bandaged eye, Korotkov misreads a memo at work the next day and is sacked. The rest of story concerns his attempts to win back his job, a task which is not aided by the usual labyrinthine Russian bureaucracy, and the involvement of not one, but two sets of doubles. At times the story moves with the frantic pace of a car chase, driven by Korotkov’s desperation to understand and be understood, lurching on two wheels between farce and fantasy.
The other three stories go some way to demonstrating Bulgakov’s range, though all are infused with the same grinning despair. ’No. 13 – the Elpit Workers’ commune Building’ is exactly that, the story of a building – but one used to illustrate the changes that Communism has wrought. Once the residence of the well-to-do, it is now a Workers’ Commune:
“In all seventy-five apartments, unprecedented folk appeared. Pianos fell silent, but gramophones were alive and often sang in ominous voices. Lines stretched across the drawing rooms with damp linen on them. Primus stoves hissed snake-like, and acrid fumes floated up the staircase day and night. The lamps disappeared from all the brackets, and gloom would descend each evening.”
The new inhabitants are canny enough to keep on the building supervisor, Christy, who is able to maintain some semblance of order until the heating fails. The third story, ‘A Chinese Tale,’ concerns a Chinese man who drifts into the Red Army but is accepted due to his skill as a machine-gunner. The man remains a rather opaque racial caricature but the focus here is on the ironic ending. The final story borrows its title, epigraph and characters from Gogol. ‘The Adventures of Chichikov’ was what Gogol had originally planned to call Dead Souls, Chichkov being the novel’s main character. Bulgakov makes use of him and other characters from Gogol’s works to create a story of greed and corruption in Soviet Russia which also seems to foreshadow the Russian oligarchs of today. That the story transfers so easily is a sign that Bulgakov’s main aim was to expose humanity’s flaws, whether individual or institutional, rather than simply satirise one political system.
Its seems clear from this slim volume that Bulgakov saw himself to be connected to the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century like Gogol and Dostoevsky, walking a high-wire reality with madness always lying a misstep away. His imagination may be more drawn to farce and slapstick, more likely to make you laugh than cry, but that does not disguise the same darkness lying beneath.