Bulgakov is one of my favourite authors so it was with a pleasure to pick up his biography of Moliere. Produced beautifully by One World Classics, which specialise in publishing hard to find texts from Russian authors, the look and feel wins you over straight away.
Although in many respects this is a straight forward biography, after an opening chapter that is full of invention and brilliance, there are a few things that stand out about it.
Firstly, you have to remember this is a book being written in Russia by an author who clearly adores Moliere. That fact reminds you of just how outward looking those stuck in the middle of Stalin’s USSR actually were. It is all too easy to think of the Soviet literary scene as being a closed world.
Secondly, there are clear parallels that are being drawn by Bulgakov between his own position as a writer dependant on the whim of a dictator and the French playwright who had to constantly win over the King’s favour. There are several key moments in his life and career where the role of the King is crucial to Moliere.
Thirdly, Bulgakov is also drawing your attention to the longevity of great art. As he points out to the mid-wife at the start of the book the baby turned into a man whose work is still read, performed and enjoyed long after his death. That message above all others is one that would appeal to a great writer like Bulgakov who got little appreciation in his own life time.
For those that don’t like biography and I count myself in that category, this book provides an alternative to the exhaustive day-by-day accounts. The key moments are highlighted showing how Moliere developed both artistically and personally. He managed to poke fun at aristocracy and various sections of society, including doctors, sometimes skating very close to the edge in terms of censorship.
But he managed to stick to his principles and the art he produced still speaks and many of those who barbed and blocked his success at the time have long since crumbled to dust and been forgotten by history.
Great writers live on, provide inspiration and can provide lessons for others thousands of miles away and living in a different era.
So this biography written by one writer with a great deal of passion and care about another comes to an end.
The role of the King is vital throughout Moliere’s life with the patronage of the monarch needed on the numerous occasions where he manages to provoke the rage of various sections of the aristocracy.
But what is clearly amazing is the sheer volume of work that the playwright managed to produce. Not only that but the quality of his comedies were such that they have of course let the name Moilere live on through history.
The postscript at the end by Bulgakov is sad in that he know he will never get to Paris to see the monument of his hero. In many ways Bulgakov also had an existence dominated by a King the problem is that his was not so supportive and in the end almostr crushed the writer.
A review will come soon…
Pushing it too far, with the backing of the King who seems to be happy to see Moliere score a few points as he goes down in flames, fortune starts to run out for the famous writer.
On a professional front he reacts rather childishly to criticism of his play and writes a response that then sparks similar plays that provide those looking to fan the flames of a spat between Moliere and his enemies with plenty of ammunition. But of course Moliere goes further and doesn’t just round on the critics but goes for those that have up to that point been neutral towards him.
On a private front he marries someone who is suspected of being his own daughter after a determined courtship only to find once he has his bride home that their relationship is doomed. His personal life becomes one of suffering.
After years of success the reaction to his embroilment in arguments with critics and other actors shows just how thin the veneer of regard was for Moliere. But he has taken up his pen and saved the day and you sense he will do so again.
More next week…
What starts to become clear about Moliere is just how talented he was not just in penning comedies that were box office hits but in terms of the relationships he made. By befriending the King’s brother he was able to keep at bay his critics and get plays published and performed despite complaints.
His days of travelling were behind him and he settled into Paris lampooning on stage the women with their social salons and the cuckolded husbands of the very rich. He managed to keep the King laughing even when he went for Dukes. Of course because of the author you are perhaps trying too hard to draw parallels with Russian society but you can well imagine the dependence that an author of plays or novels would have on the King (Stalin) and his court.
But he was not a young man and it had taken years for him to find this success and Bulgakov, who continues to have a friendly and in obstructive touch, points out the growing tensions in French society.
Once you reach the top there is of course only one way to go…
What you have to admire about Bulgakov and his treatment of this biography is the light touch. He manages to get from birth to 30 in as many pages but chooses the facts to concentrate on very carefully.
It is perhaps a consequence of the fact that Moliere himself did not appear until he left home and turned his back on his father’s world of being court upholsterer. The young actor headed out into the highways and byways of France determined to make his name with his troop.
The moment of truth came after his attempts to play tragedies were disastrous so he switched to comedies, which he started to write himself. That was the key, the decision not just to write but to act to his strengths, and it started to turn his fortunes around.
The other stylistic touch that you appreciate from Bulgakov is the way he throws in all the information he has at hand without making it stodgy. In that respect it reminds you of the Shakespeare biography produced a couple of years ago by Bill Bryson.
Although this is very much a first impression, simply the introduction and the author’s first chapter, it is worth blogging about. If you want to know why Bulgakov is such a delight to read then look at the way he starts a biography of Moliere. He could opt for the dry details of the background of his mother and father and their location and class status. he could opt for a 19th century style used by most of his famous Russian contemporary writers and start even further back with great grandfathers.
Instead he starts with a midwife who is picking up a freshly born Moliere and informs this startled woman in a two-way dialogue that the baby she is holding in her arms is destined to be more famous than the Sun king and one of the most admired and mimicked playwrights of all time. She is shocked but listens as Bulgakov informs her, and his reader, just how important and deserving the babe in her arms is of the labours he has spent on the rest of the book.
The reviewing catch-up continues, and will do until next week, so here is another from the tail-end of last year.
This is a strange book that is framed with a sense of bitterness. As a writer and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov knew more than most about the tightrope that you walked in Soviet Russia. Deliver something too sycophantic and your peers would condemn you but deliver something too critical and you would be cast out into the wilderness or even worse sent through the Gulag system.
The character in this story is caught in the trap of the position of writing a book that is deemed to be not only of mediocre quality by the literary establishment but something that is also on the wrong side of the censor. But despite that situation, which drives the writer to suicide, he still manages to get his work published and is invited to put on a play.
The combination of Kafka type madness swamping the literary world and a heightened sense of politics that the writer never manages to grasp produces a nauseous feeling of madness. For instance in his play he has written in a scene involving a gun shot but the head of the theatre specifically dislikes the use of gun shots so this has to be turned into a knife being brandished. The casting is also a political minefield and the initial failure to get it right undermines support for the play among the theatrical troupe.
But if there is one thing that will stick with me from this book, which can be awkward and depressing to get through, it will be about the impact that a deeply oppressive system has on creativity.
As he starts to write the play Bulgakov describes the writer sitting down and watching characters he has invented come to life on a stage. All he has to do is curl up with them night after night and capture the dialogue and stage directions. It appears almost like magic with the writer peering over the actors as they dance around a tiny stage weaving their stories.
But as the rewrites are demanded and the pressures to please various factions get put on the writer those magical figures disappear and his writing becomes uninspired and politically motivated. He loses the soul from his work and that is ultimately the quality the attracted him to the theatre in the first place.
Although the main character can be accused of being naïve the consequences of working in a country where creativity has to meet a long list of strict requirements take their toll and reduce him to a broken man whose vision has been destroyed.