Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Master in Café Morphine

Ex Occidente recently published a tribute volume to the great Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov. I was delighted that one of my own stories was chosen for inclusion... Bulgakov was an amazing writer, one of the finest of the 20th Century. Best known for the satirical novel The Master and Margarita, his oeuvre in fact encompasses a huge variety of styles.

Anyway, the tribute anthology is limited to only 100 copies. It is probably the finest book I have ever been published in. It's available from the publisher
here. Originally it was planned that each of the contributors would write a set of notes explaining why they decided to write the stories they did. In the end, it was felt that such notes might prove a little distracting. After all, the main focus of this anthology is Bulgakov!

However, I here take the liberty of posting the notes I prepared for my own contribution, a story entitled 'The Darkest White'.

Notes for 'The Darkest White' (Bulgakov tribute story)

I once had a Russian girlfriend named Margarita; and it was she who was responsible for introducing me to the work of Bulgakov. The coincidence of names isn't a mandatory requirement of some fussy God of Literature. We don't need girlfriends named Thérèse or Eugénie to discover Zola and Balzac, and indeed it might even prove a hindrance.

But one result of my initiation in this manner was that I came late to Bulgakov. A dreadful shame! From the very beginning of my discovery that reading novels is an important pastime, I worshipped the Russians. I devoured Tolstoy's War and Peace when I was fourteen, following it with more Tolstoy and works by Pushkin, Gogol, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky and Sologub. The old Russians were authentic masters.

But I was suspicious of the Soviets, the moderns, for I had made the curious mistake of assuming that any writer who lived and worked in the USSR must, like Gorky, Sholokhov or Paustovsky, be a propagandist for an abhorrent political system. It simply never occurred to me that an author who remained inside the nightmare (through the ill luck of being born at the wrong time or lacking the resources to flee) might only appear on the surface to be working for the state, and that their true, secret work might be against the insanity and injustice.

Thus I was blind to a great deal of courage and genius; and I remained ignorant of the words of Kharms, Mandelstam, Vvedensky, Zamyatin, Babel and all the others. So when I did finally come to Bulgakov it was somewhat in the manner of a penitent, on my mental knees, so to speak. And that is still my posture. When I was asked to write a tribute story to him, I was intimidated: he was too great to look in the eye. I considered missing the chance to write a tale in his honour. I lacked the effrontery; at least I thought I did.

My answer was to be found in an oblique approach. I used Bulgakov as a frame around a different kind of tale, a story inspired by yet another great writer of that era: Lev Nussimbaum (alias Essad Bey, alias Kurban Said). After all, Bulgakov was fond of the framing device, and he spent time in the Caucasus during the tumultuous events that Nussimbaum also endured. I like to imagine they met in some café on the shores of the Caspian. Probably they didn't; but the picture is pleasing to me. I wanted my framing device to lead to a story that led back to the framing device; so Bulgakov and Nussimbaum do meet at last, indirectly, across time as well as space, and almost on the page.

'The Darkest White' is perhaps the most overtly political story I have ever written. I am strongly anti-communist, for I have travelled widely in lands that once groaned under communist regimes, and from Albania to Angola I have seen the damage caused. Had I lived during the Russian Civil War I like to think I would have had the courage to fight on the side of the Whites; and yet I am not pro-Tsar, and the belief that all opponents of Bolshevism were supporters of the monarchy is indolent and ignorant. Bulgakov himself has been cited as a Tsarist. This accusation is absurd. The Whites were a loose gathering of anti-Bolshevists who came from a very broad spectrum of political positions, some of them more genuinely 'socialist' than the Reds. I hope my story helps to show the sheer diversity of the resistance to the nightmare.

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