Sunday, May 23, 2010

Two Theater Novels: Bulgakov & Akunin

Reading, Act I: Mikhail Bulgakov’s short, unfinished novel Театральный роман: Записки покойника (known in English by such titles as A Dead Man’s Memoir: A Theatrical Novel and Black Snow: A Theatrical Novel)

Reading, Act II: Boris Akunin’s too-long but too-tidy novel Весь мир театр (literally All the World’s a Theater or All the World’s a Stage)

My reaction: Polite, restrained applause, an indifferent shrug, and a quick exit.

I enjoy a good theater production from time to time but I realized after these two books that I’m not wild enough about the stage – despite having helped present Russian theater here in Portland, Maine, back in the early ‘90s – to read fiction about it. It doesn’t help that I don’t think either of these books is its author’s best… I knew the Bulgakov might be an unsatisfying unfinished novel. (Check!) And I suspected the Akunin might be an unsatisfying potboiler. (Check!) So.

A Theatrical Novel fictionalizes Bulgakov’s experiences working with the Moscow Art Theater (МХАТ) but I’ll focus on summarizing my impressions of the novel rather than decoding “кто есть who” (who’s who). Wikipedia has a full Russian-language plot summary and list of prototypes for characters here. (Google Translate transliterates the list of characters and renders the entry’s narrative into something moderately readable.)

For me, the best fun of A Theatrical Novel was reading about the reactions of the narrator, an unknown writer who admits he’s written a lousy novel, to a director’s demands for revisions to the stage adaptation of the novel: a dagger, for example, must replace a gun. I also thoroughly enjoyed the humor, dialogue, outlandish names (e.g. Poliksena Toropetskaya), and, yes, theatrical behavior in many of the set pieces. Despite the combination of some good laughs and Bulgakov’s scathing portrayal of censorship and theater figures, though, A Theatrical Novel felt uneven and unfinished enough that it left me indifferent. I suspect theater buffs will appreciate its characterizations and situations more than I did.

Alas, Akunin’s book was even more disappointing, despite my low expectations: I think only the first nine Fandorin detective novels are readable. All the World’s a Theater finds Erast Petrovich Fandorin in his fifties in 1911; Petr Stolypin has just been shot in, yes, a theater. Fandorin is soon to go gaga over an actress, Eliza, whom he meets through Olga Knipper. Knipper thinks Eliza, who is much younger than Fandorin, needs Fandorin’s help. Fandorin, ever the Renaissance man, obliges, turning dramaturge to write a play with parts for Eliza and himself and then, of course, investigating when corpses start appearing.

What’s most unfortunate about All the World’s a Theater is that it lacks the verve and narrative drive of the initial Fandorin books: the book feels weighted down with Fandorin’s romantic thoughts and Akunin’s clichéd attempts at contrasting and overlapping art/theater with life/reality. (Like Bulgakov, Akunin has also had dealings with adaptations.) The “Бедная Лиза” (“Poor Liza”) connection of the very first Fandorin novel is made yawningly obvious this time, and Fandorin’s play is included in the book. I’ll confess: I skipped it. I plodded through the pages as I plodded through the miles on the treadmill but the book didn’t made the walk feel much shorter. I guess I hadn’t missed Fandorin that much.

Level for non-native readers of Russian: A Theatrical Novel might have been a bit more difficult than All The World's a Theater, for 2.5/5 and 2.0/5 respectively.

Next up: Мультики (Toons), Mikhail Elizarov’s rather odd follow-up to the Booker-winning Библиотекарь (The Librarian) (previous post)… I think my reading slump is ending, though: I’m loving Oleg Zaionchkovskii’s Счастье возможно: роман нашего времени (Happiness Is Possible: A Novel of Our Time).

Photo: weatherbox, via

Various versions of A Theatrical Novel on Amazon

Boris Akunin on Amazon

(The small print: As an Amazon "affiliate," I receive a small commission when readers click on my Amazon links and make purchases. Thank you!)


  1. "Despite the combination of some good laughs and Bulgakov’s scathing portrayal of censorship and theater figures, though, A Theatrical Novel felt uneven and unfinished enough that it left me indifferent. I suspect theater buffs will appreciate its characterizations and situations more than I did."

    I felt exactly the same after reading this Bulgakov. I don't know, perhaps, I even felt a bit short-changed (books being quite expensive here in our country - for me at least).

  2. Thank you for your comment, Karlo. "Short-changed" is a good way to describe my feeling, too, even though my copy was quite cheap! It's always disappointing to read a book that doesn't fulfill its promise.

    Karlo's blog entry on A Theatrical Novel is here. Also: The Guardian reviewed Michael Glenny's translation, Black Snow: A Theatrical Novel here.

    One thing that I should have mentioned in my post: the word "роман," the second word in the Russian title of the novel, means both "novel" and "romance." There has even been a stage adaptation with that name.

  3. What a wonderful blog.
    Kelly Bookend Diaries

  4. and this is why an american should NEVER EVER read anything from a foreign author. face it, you come from a different world.

  5. Thank you, Kelly, for your kind comment!

  6. 1) Bulgakov's "Theatrical Novel" was never finished---literally, by the author, which is why it feels unfinished.
    2) This work is autobiographical: about the author's relationship with Stanislavsky while staging his play, "Days of the Turbins" ("Дни Турбиных").
    3) It is one of the greatest works of literature in the Russian language.

    1. I appreciate your comment, Anonymous, and your enthusiasm for the Bulgakov book. As I mentioned in my post, I found a lot to enjoy in the novel even if I didn't enjoy it as much as you do. I noted that I knew that the novel was unfinished and alluded to its autobiographical nature but perhaps I wasn't clear enough.