Saturday, December 12, 2009

book review - The Life of Monsieur de Moliere - Mikhail Bulgakov

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.

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