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“a totally Bulgakovian story”: UnMemoirs, Part V

November 18, 2011

In true Tartu style, the doors of the house that we (that is, Zara Grigorievna, our children, and I) lived in never locked. In Tartu this was unexceptional. Entering from the street through a tiny little hallway, you could go straight through the largest of our rooms, which was our dining room, our living room, and my office at the same time.

One Sunday morning, when Zara Grigorievna, the children, and I were sitting down to breakfast, someone with energetic footsteps came in from the stairs and knocked on the door with a fist. In the doorway stood a tall man with energy in his face and figure, energy that expressed his total readiness to start a fight. We were besieged by correspondance students. After they failed their exams, they usually wouldn’t go away, because they would only receive their travel allowance upon successfully completing their coursework. I decided that this was a regular old D- student, who would now attempt to prove that he deserved a C. But the situation turned out to be different.

The newcomer introduced himself. It turned out to be Solzhenitsyn, who had just thundered out his first short story, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” I don’t remember how he introduced himself, but it followed from his words and gestures that he had come to punch me in the face. In order to explain, let’s go back a little in time. At this point our senior courses were pretty strong. Zara Grigorievna took enthusiastic advantage of the expanding possibilities of introducing innovations to the program. The course on Soviet Literature quickly got more interesting. We managed to squeeze the “Laureates” a bit and stick in some émigré literature and some repressed writers. This was all entirely new. There was nothing like it either in Leningrad or in Moscow.

So a small group of students formed in the department, and they actively studied the works of Bulgakov under Zara Grigorievna. One promising student who took part in these activities was a very capable young man from small-town Russia, but he had been an alcoholic and a kleptomaniac since childhood (which we didn’t know). On the recommendation of Zara Grigorievna and myself, he was hospitably received by Elena Sergeevna Bulgakova, and allowed to read a typewritten copy of the not-yet published novel Master and Margarita. After a while he began showing up in our department with a manuscript of the novel (it wasn’t a perfect draft; it had some of the author’s corrections penciled in). He assured us that he’d gotten the manuscript legally from Elena Sergeevna.

Hence unfolded a totally Bulgakovian story. Elena Sergeevna anxiously reported to us that the draft of Master and Margarita had been stolen, and that she was extremely worried because of negotiations with Simonov about the publication (the negotiations were hopeless and protracted, and they never ended) and if the manuscript slipped away and was published abroad, then the possibility of publishing it in the USSR would be closed forever (it seemed like forever). I went to the house of the student in question—he lived on the very edge of Tartu in a solid, quite extravagant house, probably built in the ’10s, with an abundant fruit orchard and a tall gate that locked. Inside, my eyes immediately fell on a number of my books that had gone missing. I took up a few of them, theatrically, in the spirit of Marquis de Posa—which is shameful to recount now, but you can’t leave lyrics out of a song. I made a theatrical gesture and in the voice of a Schiller hero I uttered, “You have need of these books? I bestow them unto you!” (Of course, I should have behaved more simply, but that was how I did it, and this theatricality did apparently have some kind of effect.) After that I whirled around and said, I think again in the voice of Marquis de Posa, something to the effect that if any honor at all remained in his heart, he should bring me Bulgakov’s manuscript before dusk, and that I wasn’t about to rummage around in his things and do a proper search. After that I left.

I waited for the thief at home but he didn’t show up. At night (Zara Grigorievna and the children were already asleep), I sat with my desk lamp in the dark room and waited. Sometime around two in the morning, footsteps resounded on the stairs. Through the slightly open door a hand slipped in and dropped a letter onto the hall table (this letter should be in my archive). After that the steps retreated and the door slammed shut.

The letter was absolutely horrible. Only a mixture of Svidrigailov and Marmeladov could write such a letter. It was reptentant, with disgusting details and a touch of the holy fool—entirely in the spirit of Dostoevsky. The letter reported that the manuscript was returned to Elena Sergeevna (detail: the packet was sent by unregistered post, even though the difference in cost was just a few kopecks, and unregistered mail often got lost).

This episode effectively shut off the possibility of a place in a graduate program for our hero, which would have doubtless belonged to him. According to the rumors, he went off to a suburban school near his home, where he soon drank himself to death. He had been a very handsome guy.

But this story has an unexpected sequel. I already knew from Elena Sergeevna that the incident was settled (she was offended that it had been sent by regular mail, and since I was the involuntary accomplice to this whole dirty story, it was hard for me to see her, although I never heard any recriminations or accusations from her side). But it turned out that that Elena Sergeevna didn’t know for some time that the manuscript had been sent to her. And it was during this “some time” that I heard that energetic knock on the door one Sunday morning. Fortunately, I was able to calm Solzhenitsyn down in the very first words that I spoke, with the news that the manuscript had already been sent to Elena Sergeevna and that if it hadn’t already arrived, it should get there today or tomorrow.

Our conversation immediately took a different direction. I don’t remember what we talked about, but at the center of it was “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” and the issue of arranging the brilliant astronomer N. N. to come to the Estonian Observatory or the Physics Institute—he had wanted to empirically test the theoretical calculations on the allocations of the elements of air (or some kind of gas?) on the moon, and on the possibility of some form of simple life—the astronomer was out of work. We parted entirely calmly, and on that same day I went to go see him in his hotel and we walked around Tartu for a long time. Later we exchanged letters for a while. Unfortunately, we never met up again.

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