Manuscripts Don’t Burn

The phrase “manuscripts don’t burn” in Russia is a rallying cry for oppressed writers and books that are considered dangerous by the authorities. Soviet government efforts to confiscate and eradicate unauthorised literature was thwarted by authors using various methods between the 1920s and 1970s: secretly circulating samizdat copies, the memorising of texts, the hiding of manuscripts, making and secreting carbon copies, the smuggling of microfilm versions out to publishers in the West. Several classics of world literature have survived to tell their tale, among them Solzenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago, Grossman’s Life and Fate and Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago.

Mikhail Bulgakov’s seminal novel The Master and Margarita, from which the phrase “manuscripts don’t burn” is taken, is in this company too. He wrote it furtively at night during one of the darkest decades of the century, the 1930s. The last revisions to it he dictated to his wife just before his death in 1940 and it survived in secret until its publication in 1967 (in censored form). This marvellous novel is a comic Faust, a philosophical allegory, a riotous satire, an examination of guilt and cowardice, an absurd, dark and funny work. The Devil disguised as Professor Woland visits Stalin’s Moscow and unleashes mayhem. It is one of the great imaginative novels of the century. In one scene the Master, a writer imprisoned in a mental asylum, destroys in a fire his treasured unique manuscript of his novel about Pontius Pilate and the trial of Jesus, in an effort to cleanse his own troubled mind. Professor Woland astonishingly returns the manuscript to him, after it is produced unharmed from under his talking cat Behemoth, saying the words “Don’t you know that manuscripts don’t burn?” The phrase has come to signify the imperishability of art, its indestructible power and defiant integrity.

An early draft of the manuscript of The Master and Margarita had been burnt by Bulgakov himself and had to be rewritten later from memory. He was unwilling to write in the service of the state and was suppressed by the authorities. In 1926 the secret police raided his apartment and confiscated his diary and the manuscript of Heart of a Dog, a satirical novel about a professor who transplants the testicles and pituitary glands of a recently deceased man into a stray dog (it can be read as a high-spirited parable of the Russian Revolution). He wrote to Maxim Gorky in 1930 “All my plays have been banned, not a line of mine is in print. I have no work ready, and not a kopek of royalties is coming in from any source. Not a single institution, not a single individual will reply to my applications. And, briefly, everything that I have written in the USSR has been destroyed. All that is left is for the last remaining thing to be destroyed – me.” In 1931 he requested to be allowed to emigrate, but Stalin refused the application. When his diary and Heart of a Dog were returned to him, Bulgakov promptly burnt the diary never to see it again. In fact it was discovered in 1990 in the archives of the KGB: a functionary had copied the pages, unknown to Bulgakov, whilst it was in the possession of the authorities. This manuscript had not been destroyed by its burning either.

As a matter of fact manuscripts can burn. The necessary temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns is 451 degrees fahrenheit. Fahrenheit 451 (1953) is the title of Ray Bradbury’s distopian novel set in an oppressive future in the USA. Books are regarded as a source of discord and unhappiness, in the novel, and have been banned for all citizens. All novels are regarded as sick and society lives by the maxim “ignorance is bliss”. The authoritarian government use a trained force, known as Firemen, to seek out and burn literature and so suppress dissenting ideas. Firemen, of course, normally extinguish fires, here they start them. The protagonist Guy Montag is a fireman, but through reading books surreptitiously he liberates himself from the oppressive conformity and joins an underground reading sect. They flout the law by memorising a work of literature each to keep it alive for a future when the authoritarian government is defunct. Montag becomes one of these fugitives for reading and memorises a work by Edgar Allen Poe.

In an early chapter of the novel Montag attends, with his crew, the house of a woman that contains contraband books. They are piled up and soaked in kerosene. “The woman knelt among the books, touching the drenched leather and cardboard, reading the gilt titles with her fingers”. She is beseeched to leave so that the blaze can be started. She refuses, and says these words to an uncomprehending Montag “Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, In England, as I trust shall never be put out.” One of the fireman slaps her across the face. She lights a match and burns herself alive on a pile of her novels. The quote is not attributed by Bradbury in the text, but the words come from John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Hugh Latimer declaimed them to Nicholas Ridley as the two protestant martyrs were burnt at the stake in Oxford on 16th October 1555 in the Marian persecutions. Latimer, during his ecclesiastical career, had preached publicly on the need for the translation of the Bible into English, a dangerous move given the first translation of the New Testament by William Tyndale had been banned.

On 10th May 1933 students gathered in Berlin’s Unter Linden Square to publicly burn books. Just before midnight a brass band played, there was an Brown Shirt (SA) guard of honour, the unpublished novelist and non-staged playwright Joseph Goebbels presided over proceedings and Nazi songs were heartily sung. The students intoned a fire oath (Feuerspruche) and then cast 25,000 volumes into the flames in front of 40,000 cheering people. The spectacle was imitated in thirty four other university cities all over Germany in the following days. Goebbels gave a speech: “During the fourteen years which you, students, have had to suffer in silent shame the humiliations of the November (Weimar) Republic, your libraries were inundated with the dirt and filth of Jewish literature…Surrender to the flames the evil spirits of the past. There the intellectual bias of the November Republic is crushed to the ground.

Into the fire went books that built the modern world, Darwin, Einstein and Freud, and non German literature, Joyce, Dostoyevsky, Nabokov and Tolstoy. Into the fire went books by Jewish German writers, Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Heinrich Heine and books of the Weimar period, Bertolt Brecht , Karl Kraus, Heinrich Mann and the Bauhaus. Erich Kastner was present as an observer in the Square just before midnight. He is the author of the children’s novel set in Berlin Emil and The Detectives (1929) and he watched as copies of it were tossed onto the pyre. The texts were burnt in a symbolic attempt to extinguish their contents. But the ideas and images, words and arguments that they contained were defiantly imperishable.

On his deathbed in 1924 Kafka wrote to his great friend Max Brod: “Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me … in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and other people’s), sketches, and so on, are to be burned unread”. Brod ignored this request and published the novels and collected works between 1925 and 1935. He smuggled the manuscripts out of Europe when he fled to Palestine in 1939. The Nazis tried to burn what Brod refused to. Yet, notwithstanding their authors desires, we have in print today The Trial and not Goebbels’ self-indulgent novel Michael.

The Nazis, of course, would have preferred to have destroyed the Jewish Kafka and Brod rather than manuscripts. That rubicon had yet to be crossed in 1933. Goebbels, a man of education and culture, was familiar with the works of the Romantic German poet Heine. Goebbels said in Unter Linden Square to the crowd that night: “Revolutions that are genuine stop at no boundaries.” This is a quote from Heine’s play Almansor (1821): ‘Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.’ (Wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen).


One thought on “Manuscripts Don’t Burn

  1. I don’t know which is more incredible, the lengths some will go to for power or the resilience of people and their art in the face of tyranny. Thanks for the post.

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