The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

May 15, 2017

May 15, 1891

Mikhail Bulgakov (May 15, 1891 to March 10, 1940) published Heart of a Dog in 1925. A recent book review argues the novel is still relevant:

Mikhail Bulgakov was 33 years old, a former doctor and an up-and-coming playwright and short-story writer when he invited a group of people to a reading of his new novella, The Heart of a Dog. He had held a similar soiree the previous year to launch another novella, The Fatal Eggs, and though the earlier reading had gone well, it had made him anxious enough to muse in his diary: “Is it a satire? Or a provocative gesture? … I’m afraid that I might be hauled off … for all these heroic feats.”

His premonition proved right. Among the 50 or so people who gathered in the Moscow apartment in March 1925 to be introduced to Sharik, the humanoid dog, and the arrogant surgeon who created him, was an informer who took violent exception to his send-up of Soviet society. Bulgakov’s flat was searched and the manuscript seized. Though it was returned to him four years later, and was widely read in samizdat, it would not be officially published in Russian until 1987, nearly half a century after Bulgakov had died.

Sharik makes his first appearance as a mangy mongrel, cringing in a blizzard after being ...[doused] with boiling water by a cook. Out of a brightly lit shop walks a man (“definitely a citizen, not a comrade, or perhaps even – most likely – a gentleman”) with a nasty smell of hospital and cigars. Philip Philipovich also smells of the sausage he has just bought to lure Sharik back to his apartment, a seven-room suite in a building that has been requisitioned by a committee of zealous young revolutionaries.

This opening scene conveys ...much about the early Soviet Union as Bulgakov saw it: the State Food Store selling cheap horsemeat sausage, [and] the middle-aged professional “gentleman” hanging on to his privileges in an edifice that has been turned over to a proletarian command which struggles to keep the boilers working and the galoshes from being stolen from the communal hallway.

Into the middle of it all bounds the cat-hating Sharik, who literally shatters the glass between the two orders of society before being hauled on to an operating table and subjected to Philip Philipovich’s latest experiment, described in gruesome medical detail: to see what happens when a dog is implanted with the testicles and pituitary glands of a human.

The creature that emerges from the operation walks on two legs, drinks, smokes, and is “familiar with every known Russian swearword”. Issued with identity papers in the name of Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov, he is placed “in charge of the Moscow Cleansing Department responsible for eliminating vagrant quadrupeds (cats, etc)”, but not before he has stolen from gentlemen and comrades alike, brought vagrants in from the street and attempted to have his wicked way with the women of the house while they slept.

A year before the fateful reading of The Heart of a Dog, Trotsky published an essay collection, Literature and Revolution, which argued for a people’s art capable of creating “a higher social biologic type, or … superman”.

But if Bulgakov the political commentator was sending up Soviet theories of human perfectibility though communism, Bulgakov the former physician was also poking fun at the western Europeans who were flocking to Paris-based celebrity quack Serge Voronoff in the belief that he could restore virility with an injection of monkey glands. ....
[The Heart of a Dog] is..... a riotous science-fiction comedy that anticipates the current vogue for political dystopias, while harnessing the gothic archetype of the overreaching scientist to the task of lampooning vanities that are too easily recognised in the age of cosmetic surgery and cryonics.

In some senses Bulgakov himself was Philipovich, the sceptical dandy in a communist ...[world]. He didn’t publish another novel in his lifetime, polishing and re-polishing his masterpiece The Master and Margarita until he died. But intriguingly, after some time in the doldrums, he seems to have had a special dispensation from Stalin to keep working as a dramaturg and playwright. I like to think of his life as a triumph of passive resistance.

Mikhail Bulgakov is now classified one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

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