I don’t believe your head: Mikhail Bulgakov’s A Dead Man’s Memoir

Many years ago I read and loved Black Snow, Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire on the literary and theatrical world of Moscow in the 30’s, so A Dead Man’s Memoir (A Theatrical Novel) caught my eye in the local library. And it turns out to be a new translation (a livelier one) of the same book. It arose from Bulgakov’s fraught dealings with the Moscow Art Theatre and its famous actor/director Constantin Stanislavski. They had had a fruitful relationship after Bulgakov’s very successful first play, but Bulgakov was bitterly disillusioned with Stanislavski and the MAT when they did a hatchet job on his last play Molière, trying not to offend the censors. But it was condemned anyway as anti-Soviet, and Bulgakov’s literary career was in ruins. He wrote this unfinished roman-à-clef and read it to his friends, who would have known all the characters, and then turned his attention in the last 3 years of his life to The Master and Margarita. A Dead Man’s Memoir wasn’t published until 1965.

It really is an enchanting work, which seems a surprising thing to say of a satire written in such personal bitterness. That bitterness doesn’t taint it; the voice of its hapless narrator Maksudov, seduced, bewildered, frustrated, terrorised, bewitched by the world of the theatre, is wonderfully funny. Here is his  reaction to a spiteful story written by someone he thought was a friend, in which he recognises himself:

The trousers were the same, the head pulled down into the neck and that lowering look…In short, it was me! But I swear by all that I have ever held dear that I was described unfairly. I am not in the least bit cunning nor greedy, nor sly, nor mendacious, nor a careerist, and I have never uttered the kind of nonsense that there is in this story. My sadness at reading Likospastov’s story was indescribable, and I decided after that to take a stricter look at myself from the outside, for which reason I am greatly indebted to Likospastov. (39)

Maksudov, a lowly employee of a shipping magazine, writes a book that attracts the attention of Rudolfi, a Mephistophelean figure who edits a prestigious journal, and his publisher Rvatsky, a shady character based on a publisher who had ripped Bulgakov off. Alas, the literary world that he is so thrilled to be invited into proves to be full of bores, egotists, sycophants and spongers, and Maksudov is at a very low ebb when out of the blue the Moscow Arts Theatre takes an interest in making his novel into a play. He falls totally in love with the theatre and its personalities, but is kept on a seesaw of hope and despair as a bewildering array of opinions on his play hit him from all directions. Some say it’s no good at all, some say it’s very good but needs to be completely rewritten. Another problem is that his characters are young but all the stars of the MAT are middle-aged or more, and there’s no possibility that they’d give the roles up to younger actors. Some of these big names are frightful hams who massacre the roles. Periods of frenzied activity are succeeded by long periods in which the MAT doesn’t even contact him. Most of the time they can’t even get his name right. One day he seems to be in favour with Ivan Vassilievich, the godlike director of the MAT, another he’s convinced that Ivan Vassilievich loathes him. And Ivan Vassilievich’s way of working is frustrating, to say the least.

By the end of the third week of exercises with Ivan Vassilievich I was overcome by despair…(165)

Ivan Vassilievich is Constantin Stanislavski. If you google Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theatre, you’ll find a parade of  reverential articles. Stanislavski was the inventor of Method acting:

He believed that actors needed to inhabit authentic emotion while on stage and, to do so, they could draw upon feelings they’d experienced in their own lives. Stanislavski also developed exercises that encouraged actors to explore character motivations, giving performances depth and an unassuming naturalism while still paying attention to the parameters of the production. This technique would come to be known as the “Stanislavski method” or “the Method.”


Here is Bulgakov’s version of a Stanislavski exercise with an actor playing the part of a man in love. Maksudov thinks the actor, Patrikeev, is just perfect in the role. But Ivan Vassilievich does not.

‘A man in love does everything for his beloved,’ Ivan Vasilievich declared loudly, ‘eats, drinks, walks, rides…’

 A bicycle is brought out from the wings and Patrikeev is told to ride it for the girl he loves.

 Patrikeev pushed on the pedals and set off uncertainly around the armchair, squinting with one eye into the prompter’s box, into which he was afraid of falling, and with the other at the actress.

The people in the hall began to smile.

‘Quite wrong,’ Ivan Vasilievich remarked when Patrikeev stopped. ’Why were you gaping at the prop-man? Are you riding for him?’

Patrikeev set off again squinting with both eyes at the actress, failed to turn and rode off into the wings. When he was brought back, leading his bicycle by the handlebars, Ivan Vasilievich declared this ride to be wrong too, and Patrikeev set off for the third time, with his head turned toward the actress.

‘Terrible!’ Ivan Vasilievich said with bitter reproach. ‘Your muscles are tense, you don’t trust yourself. Let your muscles go, relax them. Your head’s unnatural, I don’t believe your head.’ (160)

 Maksudov’s intense capacity for hero-worship, his flights of romantic fancy, his perplexed gentleness and his Chaplinesque tumbling from exhilaration to despair make him a very loveable figure. And every detail of this little man’s life is given the same absorbed attention by Bulgakov: his cat, his next-door neighbour’s soup, the office of the MAT’s ‘Head of Internal Order’ (a man whom the awed Maksudov compares to Julius Caesar for his capacity to do so many things at the same time), another writer’s grandmother, a spoiled fat boy with a ‘slack waddle’, an old nurse sleeping on a trunk during a noisy party. It’s just a beautiful piece of writing. Give yourself a treat and read it.



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