Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita is now about 50 years old. How have readings of the work changed and developed during that time, and has the novel revealed all its secrets? A talk by Dr Julie Curtis, Professor of Russian Literature and Fellow of Wolfson College, University of Oxford and author of several books on Bulgakov, most recently a biography that was published last year by Reaktion books.
Julie Curtis is Professor of Russian Literature and Fellow of Wolfson College, University of Oxford. Her doctoral research on Bulgakov led to the publication of her first book about him, a study of the theme of the writer in his works (1987). In 1991 Bloomsbury published her biography of Mikhail Bulgakov based on extensive research in Soviet archives, Manuscripts Don't Burn. Mikhail Bulgakov – A Life in Letters and Diaries, which has since been translated into five languages (and pirated in Farsi). In 2017 she decided to write a new biography of Bulgakov for Reaktion Books, reflecting 25 years of archival revelations in the post-Soviet era. More recently she has completed A Reader's Companion to 'The Master and Margarita', to be published by Academic Studies Press (Boston, Mass.) in 2019.
She has also written the first full biography of Evgeny Zamiatin (Boston, Mass.: ASP, 2013), and has co-edited the definitive scholarly edition in Russian of Zamiatin's novel We, published in St Petersburg in 2011 on the basis of a unique original typescript she discovered in an American archive. She teaches a course at Oxford on Russian drama, and and is currently working on two parallel projects funded by the AHRC OWRI research grants awarded to the Universities of Oxford ('Creative Multilingualism') and Manchester ('Cross-Language Dynamics: Reshaping Communities'). These projects investigate Russian-language drama of the 21st-century in Russia under Putin, and also in Ukraine and Belarus, and Bloomsbury will be publishing a volume of essays and interviews about these topics, edited by her, in 2019.
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Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) has become the most popular Russian writer of the twentieth century, even though his works were banned for decades after his death due to the repressive Soviet censorship of literature. His great novel, The Master and Margarita (published only in 1973), was written in complete secrecy during the 1930s for fear of the writer being arrested and shot. In her revelatory new biography J.A.E. Curtis provides a fresh account of Bulgakov's idyllic childhood and youth in Kiev, which was swept away in the turmoil of the First World War, the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Early biographies of Bulgakov were limited in scope by the difficulty of gaining access to archives in the ussr in the 1970s and '80s. Since that time archives have become more accessible, and Curtis makes use of new historical documents, tracing Bulgakov's absolute determination to establish himself as a writer in Bolshevik Moscow, his three marriages and his triumphs as a dramatist in the 1920s. They also reveal how he struggled to defend his art and preserve his integrity in Russia, and the intensely close interest Stalin took in Bulgakov's work, personally weighing up each time whether his plays should be permitted or banned. Based upon many years of research, and taking in previously unpublished family papers and Soviet Politburo discussions, this is an absorbing account of the life and work of one of Russia's most inventive and exuberant novelists and playwrights.