A book I love that I don’t see very often, and that few people I mention it to have heard of, is Mikhail Bulgakov’s Life of Monsieur de Moliere. The manuscript is dated 1932-33, but it was not published until 1962, twenty-two years after Bulgakov’s death. In America it wasn’t published until 1970, thirty years after his death. The edition I have is a 1986 New Directions paperback, the translation by Mirra Ginsburg, who provides a good, short preface. Apparently this translation was published the same year in Canada by Penguin, but I have never seen the Penguin edition.
It was Bulgakov who said, “The artist must love his subject,” and his own love for Moliere is manifest on every page of the Life: love so great as to enable him, in his spontaneous, naked, enthusiastic way, to be fully present to the reader at the same time as he provides a vividly-lit, completely authentic and yet uncluttered-by-research, account of Moliere and his troupe of actors moving through Paris and the countryside of seventeenth-century France. Here, to choose a passage at random, is Bulgakov on the failure of Moliere’s Jealous Prince:
The public prepared itself eagerly to view Monsieur de Moliere’s new work, and listened with benevolent attention to Elvire’s first monologue, delivered by Marquise-Therese du Parc. Then the Prince appeared and began his flowery monologues about glorious dangers, Donna Elvire’s shining eyes, and other elevated subjects. The monologues were so long that the audience found ample time for an unhurried examination of the azure sky and gilded loges of the Palais Royal. Moliere played on, but his heart was uneasy . . .
This is less like a biography than like a novel filled with surprises, gaps, asides, buffoonery, and spare elegance. Moliere the subject is a human marvel, deserving and receiving from his biographer kindness and sympathy and a merciless eye. In some ways the Life reads like a treatment for a play. Here is Bulgakov on Moliere himself:
The man stutters and breathes improperly when he speaks. I can also see that he is quick-tempered and subject to abrupt changes of mood. He easily passes from moments of gaiety to moments of dark reflection. He finds ridiculous traits in men and likes to make them the butt of his jests.
On occasion he carelessly slips into frankness. At other times he tries to be secretive and cunning. He can be recklessly brave, but he can also shift within the moment to irresolution and cowardice. You must agree with me that with these characteristics he will not have an easy life, and will make many enemies!
But let him live his life!
By 1930 Bulgakov, whose works met consistently with criticism, censure, and abuse, had been barred by the Stalinist regime from all publication and all production for the stage. The Life of Moliere was written by a writer who should have been without hope, a writer who yet was continuing to write, for–as Woland, or Satan, in Bulgakov’s cosmically-glorious comic masterpiece The Master and Margarita, puts it–“Manuscripts don’t burn.” Here is what the author of the Life Of Moliere says about the banning of Tartuffe: “And what did the author of the luckless play do? Did he burn it? Or hide it? No. . . . the unrepentant playwright sat down to write the fourth and fifth acts.” Thirty pages later, Bulgakov asks, “Who can illuminate the tortuous paths of a comedian’s life? Who will explain to me why a play that could not be performed in 1664 and 1667 could be performed in 1669?”
The answer is, only the true comedian, who must know those paths so well, can explain such mysteries. I love Bulgakov’s courage and generosity and emotional accuracy, and I love his utter lack of pretension. When I read his Life of Moliere he makes me feel for him and his enterprise what he so clearly lets us know he feels for Moliere.
“Life of Monsieur de Moliere,” Brick: A Literary Journal, 61 (Winter 1998). Pp. 11-12. Also in Lost Classics. Eds. Michael Ondaatje, Michael Redhill, Esta Spalding, Linda Spalding. Knopf: Toronto, 2000.