Mikhail Bulgakov

Mikhail Bulgakov

Mikhail Bulgakov2Writer, Fiction, Drama
(1891 – 1940)

Considered one of the foremost satirists of postrevolutionary Russia, Mikhail Bulgakov is best known for his novel The Master and Margarita (1966), which is recognized as one of the greatest Russian novels of the century. Many of Bulgakov’s works concern the adjustment of the Russian intellectual class to life under Communist rule. Due to official censorship of his manuscripts during his lifetime, Bulgakov’s best works remained unpublished until after his death.

Bulgakov was born on May 2, 1891, in Kiev to a middle-class intellectual family. Music, literature, and theater were important in the family life of the young Bulgakov, as was religion. His father, a professor at the Kiev theological academy, instilled in his son a belief in God and an interest in spiritual matters that he would retain throughout his life.

Bulgakov attended Kiev’s most prestigious secondary school, then continued his education as a medical student at the University of Kiev and graduated with distinction in 1916. At the time, Russia was undergoing immense change. The country was embroiled in World War I while the last Russian czar, Nicholas II, was facing opposition to his rule through rebellions in 1905 and 1917 that ultimately led to his loss of power. Assigned to noncombat duty in the Russian army during World War I, Bulgakov worked for several months in frontline military hospitals until he transferred to a remote village, where he served as the only doctor for an entire district. His trials as an inexperienced doctor working under primitive conditions, and the difficulties he faced as an educated man among the ignorant, superstitious peasants, are recorded in the autobiographical stories of A Country Doctor’s Notebooks.

Wrote Amidst Turmoil

Upon his discharge in 1918, Bulgakov returned to Kiev in time to witness the Bolshevik Red Army, the anti-Bolshevik White Army, German occupation forces, and Ukrainian nationalists struggle for control of the city, which experienced fourteen violent changes of government in two years. While Kiev was part of several Ukrainian states that were shortlived, the city became part of the Soviet Union in 1921. By the time Nicholas II and his family were executed in 1918 by Communist Party representatives, Vladimir Lenin, a Bolshevik party leader, had assumed power and Communist-controlled Russia had become the Soviet Union. In 1919, Bulgakov published his first story, and the following year he abandoned medicine to devote his time to writing feuilletons (light, popular works of fiction) for local newspapers and plays for local theaters in the Caucasian city of Vladikavkaz. In 1921, he moved to Moscow, where he struggled to support himself and his first wife by editing and writing for various newspapers, a task that he described as ‘‘a flow of hopeless grey boredom, unbroken and inexorable.’’ With the partial publication in 1925 of the novel The White Guard in the magazine Rossiya, Bulgakov gained sufficient respect and popularity as an author to abandon newspaper work.

Political Controversy

Mikhail BulgakovThe realistic novel The White Guard (1924) was Bulgakov’s first major triumph and is notable as one of the few works published in the Soviet Union that sympathetically portray the supporters of the anti-Bolshevik cause during the Russian revolutions. This outstanding novel was never reprinted in Russia, but Bulgakov’s dramatic adaptation of it, The Days of the Turbins (1926), became a fixture on the Soviet stage. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who took power in the late 1920s after the death of Lenin, attended the production fifteen times, viewing the play as ultimately favorable to the Bolsheviks. From 1925 to 1928, Bulgakov worked in close association with the Moscow Art Theater as a writer, producer, and occasionally an actor. His plays were all well received by audiences but denounced by party critics. In 1929, Bulgakov’s works were banned for their ideological nonconformity.

For the next two years, Bulgakov was unable to earn a living, and in 1930, frustrated, depressed, and penniless, he wrote to the Soviet government asking to be allowed either to work or to emigrate. Stalin personally telephoned Bulgakov three weeks later and arranged for his appointment to the Art Theater as a producer. By this time, Stalin’s repressive policies led to his iron-fisted control of all aspects of society, including severe policies in the arts. Yet, in 1932, reportedly at Stalin’s request once again, Days of the Turbins was returned to the stage, making it possible for Bulgakov to have other works published and performed. He remained with the Art Theater until 1936, when he resigned in protest over what he saw as the mishandling of his drama A Cabal of Hypocrites, at which time he became a librettist for the Bolshoi Theater. Though publishing little, Bulgakov wrote steadily despite suffering from poor health and becoming blind the year before his death from nephrosclerosis in 1940.

Posthumous Fame

It was not until the 1960s that Bulgakov was fully rehabilitated by the Soviet authorities. At that time the manuscripts of numerous stories and plays and of three novels were discovered and published. These works established him as one of the finest twentieth- century Russian writers. The first of the novels to appear was Black Snow, written in the late 1930s and a satire on the Soviet theatrical world. The second, The Heart of a Dog (written in 1925), is a science fantasy in which human organs are transplanted into a dog, giving it the most disgusting qualities of mankind. Bulgakov’s acknowledged masterwork, The Master and Margarita, developed over a period of twelve years through the drafting of eight separate versions. According to biographers, Bulgakov knew that the novel would be his masterpiece and set aside all other projects during the last years of his illness to finish it before his death. Read the rest of this entry

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Andre Gide

Andre Gide

andre_gideWriter, Fiction
(1869 – 1951)

Andre´ Gide, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947, saw a writing career that spanned over six decades and ranged in style from symbolist to classical to biography to political tract. His work often focused on a central character, usually a thinly veiled version of Gide himself, who struggled with reconciling two vastly different sets of morals. Today he is chiefly remembered for his extensive journals and his frank discussion of his own bisexuality at a time when such subject matter was strictly taboo.

A Divided Nature

Andre´ Gide was born in Paris on November 22, 1869, to Paul Gide, a professor of law at the Sorbonne, and his wife, Juliette. They were both of the Protestant upper middle class. After the death of his father when Andre´ was eleven, the boy grew up in a largely feminine environment. In later years Gide often attributed his divided nature to this mixed southern Protestant and northern Norman Catholic heritage. His fragile health and nervous temperament affected his education, which included both formal schooling and a combination of travel and private tutoring. At the age of fifteen he vowed a lifelong spiritual love to his cousin, Madeleine Rondeaux.

In 1891 Gide published his first book, The Notebooks of Andre´ Walter. In it, dream is preferred to reality, spiritual love to physical. It did not succeed in winning Madeleine over, as Gide had intended. During this period he was introduced into the symbolist salons intellectual gatherings of followers of the symbolist movement of Ste´phane Mallarme´ and Jose´ de Heredia by his friend Pierre Louy¨s. The influence of the salons and symbolist thought can be see in Gide’s next works, Treatise of the Narcissus (1891) and Le Voyage d’Urien (1893).

In 1893 Gide set out for North Africa with his friend Paul Laurens hoping to harmonize his sensual desires with his inherited puritanical inhibitions. Gide fell ill with tuberculosis there and was forced to return to France, where he was shocked to find the symbolist salons unchanged. He retired to Neuchaˆtel for the winter and wrote Marshlands, a satire on stagnation that broke with symbolism.

Unconventional Lifestyle

220px-Gide_by_LaurensAfter returning to France, Gide married his cousin Madeleine. Gide described their attachment as ‘‘the devotion of my whole life,’’ but the marriage was traumatic for them both. Gide expressed an overwhelming spiritual need to share his life with his cousin, and she provided him with a source of stability, but her strict Christian values often conflicted with his unconventional lifestyle. He specifically separated love and sexual pleasure.

In 1895 Gide returned to North Africa, where he met Oscar Wilde and Lord Douglas. Wilde encouraged Gide to acknowledge his love of young men, and Gide passionately gave in. This was a pivotal year for Gide as it also brought the death of his mother and his marriage to Madeleine, who continued to symbolize for him the pull of virtue, restraint, and spirituality against his cult of freedom and physical pleasure. Gide’s life was a constant battle to strike a balance between these opposing imperatives.

Middle Years

Gide wrote his doctrine of freedom in 1897. Fruits of the Earth is a lyrical work advocating liberation through sensuous hedonism. Five years later, Gide published The Immoralist (1902), a novel consisting of many autobiographical elements. In it, the author dramatizes the dangers of his male protagonist’s selfish quest for freedom and pleasure at the cost of death to his pious wife. In this, perhaps Gide’s greatest novel, as in many of his other works, the portrait of the virtuous, devoted heroine was inspired by Madeleine. Conceived at the same time as The Immoralist, Strait Is the Gate (1909) is a critique of the opposite tendency toward excessive restraint and useless mysticism. Also patterned after Madeleine, the heroine renounces her earthly love to devote herself entirely to God and the spiritual life. Read the rest of this entry

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Isak Dinesen

Isak Dinesen

isak-dinesenWriter, Fiction
(1885 – 1962)

Isak Dinesen is best known for Seven Gothic Tales (1934) and the autobiographical novel Out of Africa (1937). Acclaimed for her poetic prose style, complex characters, and intricate plots, Dinesen was concerned with such themes as the lives and values of aristocrats, the nature of fate and destiny, God and the supernatural, the artist, and the place of women in society. Hailed as a protofeminist by some critics, scorned as a colonialist by others, Dinesen is chiefly regarded as a masterly storyteller. Ernest Hemingway once remarked that the Nobel Prize in Literature he received in 1954 should have been awarded to her.

Born Karen Christenze Dinesen on April 17, 1885, in Rungsted, Denmark, Dinesen led a happy childhood until tragedy shattered her comfortable existence. In 1895 her father, Wilhelm, hung himself. Dinesen had always been very close to her father, and his suicide was a shock. Dinesen later reflected: ‘‘It was as if a part of oneself had also died.’’ Dinesen’s brother Thomas, with whom she remained close as an adult, later speculated that their father had suffered from syphilis, a disease that Dinesen herself would contract years later.

Literature for Fun

Tutored at home by a series of governesses, Dinesen showed early artistic promise and as a teenager studied drawing, painting, and languages at a private school in France. In 1903 she was admitted into the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. There she developed her affinity for painting, an interest that would later be reflected in the rich descriptive style of her writing. Dinesen dropped out of the academy after several year’s study and soon thereafter took up writing. Mario Krohn, an art historian Dinesen had met at the academy, read her work and encouraged her to take writing seriously. Krohn also arranged to have some of her stories read by Valdemar Vedel, editor of one of Denmark’s most distinguished literary magazines, Tilskueren.

During these years Dinesen spent much of her time in the company of her upper-class relatives and soon found herself deeply but unhappily involved with her second cousin, Hans Blixen-Finecke. The failed love affair had a great impact on Dinesen. Extremely depressed, she left Denmark in 1910 to attend a new art school in Paris. When Mario Krohn visited Dinesen in Paris and asked her about her literary ambitions she answered that she wanted ‘‘all things in life more than to be a writer travel, dancing, living, the freedom to paint.’’ When she returned to her family estate at Rungstedlund several months later, Dinesen turned to writing as a pleasant diversion.

When Blixen-Finecke abandoned her for a fiance´e eight years younger, Dinesen decided to marry Hans’s twin brother, Bror. Bror is said to have been competitive, the kind of man who would enjoy winning his brother’s sweetheart. This rash determination to reach the object of her desire through a substitute would later be represented allegorically in many of Dinesen’s stories, which deal with the theme of vicarious achievement.

Africa and Syphilis

stiahnuťWith the encouragement of relatives, Dinesen and Bror embarked on a grand plan to start a pioneer coffee farm in East Africa. Little is known about their courtship, except that Bror later gave Dinesen credit for the idea of going to Africa. They were married in 1914 in Mombasa, on the coast of British East Africa. They set up housekeeping on seven hundred acres of woodland, twelve miles southwest of Nairobi. The farm lay at an elevation of sixty-two hundred feet, near the Ngong Hills, a range of low mountains forming a barrier against the Rift Valley. Only a year after her marriage, sometime in the early months of 1915, Dinesen learned she had contracted syphilis, a venereal disease. Later she told her family that her husband had given her the illness; he had evidently been unfaithful to her.

The couple separated for a time after this incident. Her letters suggest that she made a suicide attempt in February of that year. Several weeks later she turned up in Paris, looking for a specialist in venereal diseases. She eventually made her way through war-torn Europe back to Denmark, where a venerealogist found her to be suffering from syphilis and poisoning from the treatment (mercury tablets, an earlier form of syphilis treatment) given to her in Nairobi. Through a series of injections of intravenous arsenic Dinesen grew better. Reexaminations in 1919 and 1925 revealed no further evidence of syphilis; however, despite the doctor’s assurances, Dinesen continued to believe she would never recover from the illness. Syphilis appears time and again in Dinesen’s writings and features prominently in the popular myth that gathered around her after she rose to literary prominence. She could not escape the irony that she had been victimized by the same illness that had led to her father’s suicide. Read the rest of this entry

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Robert Campin

Robert Campin

Robert_Campin_PortraitPainter
(1376 – 1444)

Robert Campin (d. 1444) exemplifies the late medieval urban artist, with his middleclass connections and civic activism. A highly respected resident of Tournai, in Flanders, Campin held the positions of dean of the Guild of St. Luke (the guild of painters), member of the stewards (a committee entrusted with the accounts and finances of the city), warden of his parish, bursar of his church, and captain of the city militia. He was probably already a recognized painter in 1406 when his name first appears in the city archives.

He received commissions from the local bourgeoisie, city officials, and clergy members, and he also lent his talent to the city by creating banners, coats of arms, and costumes for civic events. Formerly referred to by modern scholars as the Master of Flémalle (from a set of paintings wrongly ascribed to the Abbey of Flémalle on the Lower Rhine), Campin is well known for the realism of his work and especially for his inclusion of domestic details, such as those in his Salting Madonna of about 1430.

Merode Altarpiece(Merode Altarpiece)

His best known work, a triptych (three-panelled altarpiece) called the Merode Altarpiece (dated about 1425, now in the Cloisters Museum in New York), presents significant aspects of Flemish art. Filled with religious symbolism, this work comprises a wealth of domestic details painstakingly depicted with special care for realistic textures, surfaces, and portraits, generous draperies, and an intuitive use of perspective. In placing his religious subjects in domestic interiors, Campin brought a sense of actuality and reality to the divine that spoke more directly to his lay audience. This innovative way of treating religious scenes also echoes the contemporary piety that required a more “down to earth” and tangible experience of the divine.

Campin collaborated with other important artists such as Jacques Daret and Rogier van der Weyden, whose careers flourished respectively in France and Flanders during the fifteenth century. His work remained influential well into the sixteenth century when a number of his compositions were still being copied or imitated.

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Orlando di Lasso

Orlando di Lasso

LassusPortraitComposer
(1530 – 1594)

The Flemish composer Orlando di Lasso was born in Mons in what is today modern Belgium, where he received his early musical training and served as a choirboy. Lasso’s beautiful voice resulted in him being kidnapped on three occasions by wealthy families desiring his services; after the third incident, his parents finally relented and allowed him to stay in the household of the viceroy of Sicily. As part of the viceroy’s household he traveled to Palermo, and over the next ten years, he also spent time in Milan, Rome, and Naples.

His years in Italy were critical for his later development as a composer, and while there, he adopted the Italian name that he continued to use for the rest of his life. Following the death of his parents in 1554, he took a position in Antwerp, but several years later became a chorister in the chapel of Albert V, duke of Bavaria. He remained in the duke’s household at Munich for the rest of his life. Although Munich was a small and rather provincial capital at the time, Bavaria was a large and important state, a center of the Counter-Reformation in Northern Europe.

In his Munich years, Lasso published a number of his compositions, and he became, in fact, the first composer in European history to establish his reputation primarily on the basis of his printed work. In the last forty years of his life Lasso printed more than 600 works, and usually a new composition appeared in the press about once each month. He favored musical printing houses in France, Italy, and the Netherlands, as well as those in Germany.

Works

Lasso wrote more than 1,000 works and he was a master of most of the musical forms of the period. He produced a number of excellent compositions in all genres except instrumental music. His Latin motets form his largest group of compositions, totaling more than 500. He also composed almost sixty masses and about 100 magnificats.

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