Wednesday, January 07, 2009

book review - A Dead Man's Memoir (A Theatrical Novel)

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.


Ridhi Gupta said...

Hi Simon,

I came in to tell you just how much I appreciate your reviews and the website. Lovely place :)

Simon, with your keen interest in books and literature I wish to tell you about an initiative I believe you will find to be interesting.

We recently started a website based club called the Culturazzi Club .

The club is a non profit organization that was recently started and strives to bring people in literature, cinema, arts, music and theater etc from across the world together on a common platform, where they can share their thoughts, opinions, and interact with each other.

With the extensive knowledge of books that I'm sure you have, I'd really like to invite you to write for our website.

The website is quite young and was started in April 2008 with its base in India. We're currently a team of people who are spread across India and UK, contributing to the website whole-heartedly.

So far we're lucky to be looked upon as a genuine effort. We understand that you have your own blog running pretty intensely, but we'd absolutely love it if you could take some time out to write for our website.

Do go through the website and drop us a mail at to tell us what you feel about it.

Hope you enjoy visiting!

Simon Quicke said...

Thanks I will email you.