White Guard, Mikhail Bulgakov (trans. Marian Schwartz). Yale Press. 352pp, 27.00.
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Mikhail Bulgakov is best known for his Soviet-era satire The Master and Margarita, although he also has the infamous distinction of writing a favorite play of Stalin’s, The Days of the Turbins. This play and Bulgakov’s 1924 debut, White Guard, were both based on the author’s personal experiences in Kiev during the tumultuous years of the Revolution. While Stalin blessed The Days of the Turbins, White Guard was kept from publication until 1966, 26 years after Bulgakov’s death. The book was then quietly picked up by Russian scholars, meticulously studied, and inserted into its proper place among other works of Russian revolutionary literature. Many years later it has crossed the scholarly seas, and is now translated into English for the first time, bravely offered by Yale University Press. Is White Guard worth the wait? Most definitely.
The essay “Writing Judgment Day” by Russian literary scholar Evgeny Dobrenko is included at the start of White Guard, and for those unfamiliar with the Russian Revolution and, specifically, its impact on Kiev between 1918 and 1919, this essay is essential reading. Whites? Reds? Cossacks? Germans? Poles? Each had a loaded gun pointed at Kiev during these years. There are many references to these warring factions, which, without this essay, non-Russians might find very confusing. Even Schwartz admits that one of the greatest challenges she faced with this novel was “recreating Bulgakov’s kaleidoscopic whirl,” where, for example, “because specific dress carried with it crucial social and political connotations, precision and clarity are particularly essential to the translation.”
An excellent example of this precision and clarity is found at the start of White Guard. Amidst the chaos of a German/Ukrainian retreat from Kiev and the invasion of (more) Ukrainian nationalist troops, Bulgakov establishes the lives of his protagonists (the Turbin brothers) against the backdrop of Russian history.
This tile stove, as well as the old red velvet furniture, the beds with the shiny knows, the worn carpets—parti-colored and crimson, with Alexei Mikhailovich holding a falcon on his arm, or with Louis XIV lolling in a garden paradise on the banks of a silky lake, and Turkish carpets with the marvelous flourishes on an Oriental ground that had haunted little Nikolka in the delirium of scarlet fever—the bronze lamp under its shade, the world’s best shelves of books, which smelt like mysterious old chocolate, with Natasha Rostova and the Captain’s Daughter, and the gilded cups, silver, portraits, and hangings—all seven full and dusty rooms that had raised the young Turbins, all this, in her darkest hour, the mother had left to her children, and as she gasped for air and weakened, she clutched the arm of Elena, who was weeping, and implored her, “Live . . . in friendship.”
The tile stove is a symbol of Russian domesticity. The carpets depict Alexei Mikhailovich, a 17th century Czar, and Louis XIV, a reference to the Russian-French connections of the 18th century. A Turkish carpet reminds us of centuries of Russo-Turkish conflict that infected Nikolka’s dreams while he fought scarlet fever. On the bookshelves are War and Peace (Natasha Rostova) and The Captain’s Daughter by Pushkin (more references to war). And then, among all these Russian relics, Bulgakov drops in the Turbins’ mother’s death, registering the passing of one generation to the next and reminding us that her wish for all to live in friendship is now being beset by war: “Walls would tumble, the frightened falcon would fly from the white sleeve, the light would go out in the bronze lam, and the Captain’s Daughter would be burned in the stove.”
One of the signal accomplishments of this novel is the way Bulgakov’s details and language bring Kiev itself to life, as it, too, suffers the consequences of war:
Madam Anjou’s shop, Le Chic Parisien, was located in a large multi-storied building, right on the first floor, in the City’s center on Teatralnaya Street, which passes behind the opera theater. Three steps led from the street through a glass door and into the shop, and on either side of the glass door there were two windows hung with dusty lace curtains. No one knew where Madam Anjou herself had gone or why her premises were being used for purposes that were anything but commercial. A colorful lady’s hat was painted on the left-hand window with the words Le Chic Parisien in gold; and behind the glass of the right-hand window a large poster on yellow cardboard had two crossed Sevastopol cannons on it, like the ones on gunners’ epaulets, and above them and inscription:
You many not be a hero but it’s your duty to volunteer.
And beneath the cannons:
Volunteers for the Mortar Battalion sign up here.
See the Commanding Officer.
Parked by the shop entrance was a sputtering, exhaust-stained motorcycle with a sidecar. The door on a spring, was constantly slamming shut, and each time it opened, a magnificent little bell rang overheard—rrring-rr-ring—recalling the happier times recently past of Madame Anjou.
Then Bulgakov returns to this shop. As the battle is underway, Alexei Turbin is trying to find out to whom he should report for duty. He runs to Anjou’s, where he first received his orders.
Here was Anjou’s. No cannons in the windows and no gold epaulets, either. A fiery, rubber sheen was trembling and shimmering in the windows. A fire? The door rattled but did not yield when Turbin tried it. Turbin knocked cautiously. He knocked again. A gray figure flashed on the other side of the door’s glass and opened it and Turbin found himself inside the shop. . . . The stove was howling furiously, consuming sheets of paper. The whole floor was scattered with paper. The figure who had had let Turbin in without explaining anything immediately looked from him to the stove and squatted, and crimson flecks played on his face. . . . The precarious fire was devouring the paper, and the stove’s mouth changed from cheerful flames to a quiet red, and all at once the shop went dark. The shelves clung to the walls in the gray shadows. Turbin surveyed them and thought listlessly that Madame Anjou’s still smelt of perfume. A faint, gentle smell, but nonetheless.
War provides the dramatic arc of White Guard, so much so that the members of the Turbin family are frequently lost to long passages on troop movements, mortar fire, and street skirmishes. Battalion commanders and foot soldiers appear, scatter some dialogue and action into the plot, then move on. White Guard is not a family-during-war saga; rather, this slim novel is an ongoing indictment of war: the pointlessness of power skirmishes, the senselessness of deaths, the destruction of homes. Although Bulgakov will repeatedly return to the Turbin household, it is Kiev, and all it represents about hearth and home, that Bulgakov seems to truly mourn the loss of in White Guard.
Oblomov and White Guard offer readers fresh chances to feel the rhythms of the Russian language pulsating beneath the surface of English texts, and to remember Russia as it was during two very different times. Russian literature is riddled with drama and soulfulness, as well as vibrant displays of language. Two excellent examples of these qualities can be found in Schwartz’s new translations.
Karen Vanuska is a freelance writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a regular contributor to Open Letters: A Monthly Arts and Literature Review. Her fiction has appeared in UC Irvine’s Faultline and her creative non-fiction in a recent issue of The Battered Suitcase.
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