Mikhail Afanasevich Bulgakov

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Mel Dadswell (University of Exeter)

In an autobiographical sketch written in 1924, Bulgakov claimed that his first adult writing was done on a train one night in 1919, by the light of a candle in a bottle. The resulting sketch was sold to a newspaper in Vladikavkaz, appearing as his first paid work, but Bulgakov had been writing creatively from a very early age, amusing family and friends with imaginative story telling and drama. As to his background, the story has depended on the audience being addressed. This is not surprising given that one's “class” status at the time of the Revolution could tip the scales for or against survival.

Mikhail Afanasevich Bulgakov, the eldest of seven children, was born on May 15th, 1891 in Kiev. His father, the son of a rural priest from Orel province, rose to become a professor of divinity at Kiev University. Bulgakov's mother, too, a sometime provincial schoolteacher, was the daughter of a clergyman from the same province. After graduating from Gymnasium No 1 in 1909, Bulgakov entered medical school at Kiev's St Vladimir University. His studies seem to have been disrupted by his attraction to theatre and literary conversation. Consequently, his second year had to be repeated, but he emerged in April 1916 with a distinction.

While at university, in 1913, Bulgakov married Tatiana Nikolaevna Lappa, four years his junior, whom he had known since she was fourteen. The marriage was made, apparently, against the wishes of Bulgakov's mother, who disapproved of Tatiana having been pregnant, and undergoing an abortion. Bulgakov was to distil these tensions into a play performed by members of the family at the dacha in Bucha. Although she was Bulgakov's constant companion through the most difficult and dangerous times in their lives, Tatiana Bulgakova is all but invisible in her husband's work.

World War One had begun during Bulgakov's studies. On graduation from medical school, he served for a month at the front before being invalided out. He spent the summer working in Kiev hospitals, which were struggling to cope with a stream of injured from the battlefields. Whilst awaiting a post in a provincial hospital he served as a Red Cross volunteer in field hospitals adjacent to the front at Kamenets Podolsk and Chernovitsy. In September Bulgakov became doctor in charge of a remote rural hospital at Nikolskoe, a village in Smolensk province. Although not supplied with electricity, the hospital was well equipped with surgical instruments and a medical library. The Russian Revolution began in February/March, 1917, while the Bulgakovs were at Nikolskoe.

Together with his team of one surgical assistant, two midwives and his wife as nursing assistant, during his one-year residence, Bulgakov struggled nobly with extremely challenging surgical crises, as well as the primeval “darkness” and superstition of his peasant patients. These experiences are reflected in Zapiski iunogo vracha [A Young Doctor's Notes; translated as A Country Doctor's Notebook]. Horrified at the proliferation of venereal disease, even among children, Bulgakov resolved to specialise in this field. His next post, in the town hospital at Vyazma, was head of infectious and venereal diseases. It was a great relief to be able to share responsibility with colleagues and to work in a hospital supplied with electricity. Paradoxically, we know less of this brief period in Bulgakov's life, than we do of his remote rural posting.

At Vyazma, thanks largely to the “bullying” of his wife, Bulgakov finally got a grip on his growing predilection for morphine. This had begun at Nikolskoe with a painful reaction to the diphtheria vaccine taken as a precaution after accidentally ingesting tissue from a patient. Morphine eased the pain… Something of this episode is conveyed, in the third person, in the short story Morfiy [Morphine].

In December 1917 Bulgakov travelled to Moscow, seeking to be relieved from his post on grounds of health. His discharge came in February 1918, along with permission to relocate to Kiev. Thus, in March, he returned to the family home, setting himself up in private practice as a venerologist. He availed himself of quiet moments to write, producing an early version of A Young Doctor's Notes (with the provisional title of Zapiski zemskogo vracha). Over the 18 months spent in his home town, Bulgakov finally rid himself of his morphine habit.

During this period Kiev underwent much turmoil. As with later episodes during the Civil War, there are some elements of uncertainty concerning Bulgakov's involvement. To establish a context, the salient features can be summarised thus: the Ukrainian Rada which took power in March 1917, after the Tsar's abdication, was ousted in February 1918 by the Bolsheviks, who in turn were overthrown by Hetman Skoropadsky, backed by German forces. At this time Bulgakov was drafted for work in the town hospitals. Later, Petliura's Ukrainian nationalists pressed him into service as a regimental surgeon.

When in February 1919 Petliura was being driven out by the Bolsheviks, Bulgakov managed, apparently, to extricate himself from the nationalists. It would seem improbable, for all that they had instigated and participated in pogroms, that Bulgakov would want to desert Petliura's army at the time of a Bolshevik incursion, particularly as the Reds too had carried out atrocities, including the killing of over 300 military students at the start of their first hold on the town. Did Bulgakov desert in August to Denikin's White army, who took the city from the resurgent Petliurites? The Whites held the city until the 16th December, when the Reds returned. Their hold would subsequently be broken by a Polish occupation from the 6th of May till the 4th of June, 1920. Years later, in his written application for work at the Bolshoy Theatre, Bulgakov said that Kiev, in the period between Tsarism and the establishment of Bolshevism, had suffered a total of fourteen changes of power. He had experienced ten of them. Petliura's arrival and its impact on life in Kiev are the theme of what is arguably Bulgakov's best work, the novel Belaia gvardiia [The White Guard]. Aspects of Petliura's retreat are reflected in the short stories V noch' na 3-e chislo [On the Eve of the 3rd] and Ia ubil [I Killed].

During Denikin's incumbency, in September 1919, according to one story, Bulgakov was called up by the White Volunteer Army to fight in the Caucasus. Another version is that he wished to find his two brothers and two cousins fighting on that front and, at his mother's insistence, bring home the youngest son. Travelling with his wife by train to Piatigorsk, he went on to Grozny and then Beslan, serving as field surgeon with the 3rd Cossack regiment. Episodes from the months in the Caucasus are outlined in Neobyknovennye prikliucheniia doktora [The Remarkable Adventures of a Doctor] and Krasnaia korona [A Red Crown]. Bulgakov shares with Isaak Babel the ability to communicate the most paradoxical scenes with minimal verbal brushstrokes, as if portraying a series of flashbacks. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the extant Russian texts of these pieces show considerable excision or omission.

In December 1919, having escorted injured White Guardists to Vladikavkaz in an ambulance, Bulgakov resigned from military service on the same health grounds as in 1916. About this time, his two injured brothers were evacuated to Romania. The following two or three months in the biography are somewhat shrouded in mystery. There is once again a sense of lacunae, possibly filled retrospectively. However, we do know that a short story, Dan' voskhishcheniia [A Tribute in Admiration], was published in Kavkazskaia Gazeta [The Caucasian Gazette] in early February 1920. By mid February, Bulgakov had decided to give up medicine and pursue a literary career. The first and only edition of Kavkaz [The Caucasus] lists Bulgakov as a staff contributor, along with established journalists who had fled Bolshevik Petrograd. The editor, Nikolai Pokrovsky, may have been a relative.

Bulgakov's White volunteers in The Remarkable Adventures end their struggle with the cry, “To the sea! To the sea! To the sea!” And it was from the Black Sea ports that Denikin's army escaped, along with foreign interventionists whose political masters knew the game was up. It would appear that Bulgakov's escape was precluded by the typhus ravaging southern Russia at the time. The first person narrator of Zapiski na manzhetakh [Notes on the Cuffs] lying abed with fever says: “But what if it is typhus?! Whatever, only not now!” There are hints, too, in the much later play, Beg [Flight], in which it is a young woman suffering typhus whose escape is put in doubt.

When Bulgakov recovered from typhus, Vladikavkaz, where he stayed with a friend of a relative, had fallen to the Bolsheviks, who closed down Kavkaz. In April, together with Yurii Slyozkin [Slezkin], an established writer whom he had earlier treated for typhus, Bulgakov was taken on by the Vladikavkaz People's Education Dept to lead the literary section of the Department of Arts, headed by Slyozkin. Bulgakov tried to give lectures on 19th-century Russian writers, but was at a loss in dealing with soldiers' and workers' leg-pulling. He was seriously offended when the editor of Kommunist, for whom he wrote comic and satirical sketches, dismissed Pushkin as a bourgeois and a lackey. At the end of May, Bulgakov set up the theatre department, teaching drama, and inviting local Ossetians to participate. Frustrated by a dearth of suitable material, he wrote his first play for the Vladikavkaz theatre, the one-act comedy, Samooborona [Self-Defence]. Bulgakov was initially pleased with this piece, but, as with the other plays written during his Caucasian period, his attitude changed and the manuscripts were later, apparently, destroyed. It was about this time that sniping, some of it anonymous, appeared in the local press. This would dog Bulgakov throughout his career. After a second bout of typhus, Bulgakov returned to find most of his colleagues sacked and himself threatened with eviction from his accommodation.

Next, Slyozkin and Bulgakov collaborated in an evening of comedy in the style of Chekhov. There followed evenings devoted to other 19th-century writers, and lectures. Further press criticism stopped these efforts too. A four-act play, Brat'ia Turbiny [The Turbin Brothers], about the fate of two brothers, one a revolutionary, the other a drug addict, in the 1905 unrest, although panned by critics as a meaningless piece of lower middle-class snobbery, nevertheless enjoyed popular success. Bulgakov clearly despised the efforts of his actors and the applause of his “provincial” audience. But he soon produced another play, a drawing-room comedy, Glinianie zhenikhi [The Clay Bridegrooms]. In March 1921, the 50th anniversary of the Paris Commune was marked in Vladikavkaz with a series of cultural events, including Bulgakov's play, Parizhskie Kommunary [The Paris Communards]. Efforts to draw soldiers, sailors and workers into theatre visits gave rise to a lampoon which was taken as a slur on the armed services. Threatened with arrest, Bulgakov, for whom this was the final straw, resolved to emigrate. Meanwhile he had sent The Paris Communards to Moscow, hoping to win a competition, but was unsuccessful. In some of these productions both Bulgakov and his wife acted. The first part of Notes on the Cuffs evidently draws on these episodes.

At the suggestion of his landlord and friend, who supplied the local realia, Bulgakov co-authored a play about the effect of the Revolution on life in an Ingush aul. Synov'ia Mully [The Mullah's Sons] enjoyed considerable local success and led to Bulgakov's appointment as dean of the new People's Art Institute, formally opened by Sergei Kirov. This success also provided Bulgakov with some money, so he stayed in post for two days, before setting off on the 26th of May for Tiflis, where he had some role at the theatre. Joined by his wife, he moved on to Batum, in pursuit of the former editor of Kavkaz, Pokrovsky, who had written suggesting emigration. In fact, Pokrovsky sailed without Bulgakov, who appears to have made half-hearted attempts to board ships before suffering a further relapse of typhus, after which he abandoned the attempt to emigrate in favour of seeking work in Moscow. This change of heart is expressed at the end of the first part of Notes on the Cuffs: “Enough! Let the Golden Horn gleam. I shan't get there. … Home… To Moscow! To Moscow!!” Bulgakov had hoped to write a large play on the fall of the Russian Empire, to be his debut in the new capital, but researching the published material he lost interest and, according to the critic, V. Lakshin, “abandoned his tsarist illusions”. The one literary outcome of these researches is Khanskii ogon' [The Khan's Fire], which begins with beautifully written descriptive prose, only to degenerate into lurid melodrama.

Following his wife, Bulgakov arrived in Moscow at the end of September, 1921, via Kiev, where he saw his mother for the last time. He claimed to have walked some 200 kilometres along the railway track. His first accommodation was in a student hostel and then the Bulgakovs moved to a komunalka, Flat 50 at 10 Bolshaia Sadovaia Street, made famous in several of Bulgakov's works. The nightmarish circumstances at this address are sketched in Samogonnoe ozero [Moonshine Lake]. The New Economic Policy (NEP) was now in full swing, and, much like the 1990s, a frenetic atmosphere of sink or swim pervaded. An entrée from an official in Vladikavkaz procured a short stint as a secretary for LITO, the literature and theatre section of the political education department. Bulgakov also obtained work as a journalist for Torgovo-promyshlennyi vestnik [Trade and Industry Herald]. Both these undertakings were closed at the end of the year as vestiges of War Communism. The following two months were said by Bulgakov to be the worst in his life. Aside from walking the city in stylish but threadbare clothes, searching for copy, he and his wife appear to have come close to starvation.

Early in 1922 Bulgakov's Caucasian tale, The Remarkable Adventures of a Doctor, was published in the journal Rupor [The Megaphone]. His luck was changing. 1922 also saw the beginning of a three-year association with the literary section of Gudok [The Whistle], organ of the Railway Workers' Union, and Nakanune [On the Eve], a Berlin-based émigré journal edited by Aleksei Tolstoy. Nakanune was the mouthpiece of the Smena vekh group who, whilst accepting the 1917 revolution, favoured evolutionary development over radical change. Bulgakov adhered to this position throughout his adult life. Bulgakov described the hundred or so humorous pieces he wrote for Gudok as “slapdash”, but his best Gudok sketches outdo some of his lesser contributions to Nakanune, to which he contributed from mid-1922, when the first part of Notes on the Cuffs was published, until the journal's closure in late 1924. At the same time, his work as a journalist for Rabochii [The Worker] provided the “tea and sugar”. He also wrote pieces for an educational journal, Golos rabotnika prosveshcheniia [Voice of the Education Worker] and for numerous, often ephemeral, Moscow and Petrograd publications. In addition to journalism and creative writing, Bulgakov served wherever there might be a square meal, even sitting on a committee as an engineer!

Bulgakov's Nakanune pieces helped consolidate his reputation and pave the way for his first separate publications, the stories D'iavoliada [The Diaboliad] and The Khan's Fire in 1924. Although Bulgakov was paid for the work in full, the promise by Nakanune to publish the whole of Notes on the Cuffs was not fulfilled; however, the second part was published in the journal Rossiia in 1923.

During 1924 Bulgakov's first marriage broke up and he married Liubov Belozerskaia whom he found more intellectually compatible. That same year Bulgakov completed his novel The White Guard, excerpts of which were published in Nakanune and Krasnyi zhurnal dlia vsekh [Everyone's Red Journal]. He also produced a superb piece of science fiction which still has resonance, Rokovye iaitsa [The Fatal Eggs], a story about overenthusiastic political meddling in science. This work was published in Nedra [The Depths] the following year. All of part I and an excerpt from part II of The White Guard were published in Rossiia in 1925. Unfortunately, Rossiia folded before the rest of the novel could appear.

A new phase in Bulgakov's career began in 1925 with an invitation from the Moscow Arts Theatre (MKhAT) to dramatise The White Guard. At the insistence of K.S. Stanislavsky, both the final scene and the name of the play were changed. Dni Turbinykh [The Days of the Turbins] was premiered in October 1926 at the Moscow Arts Theatre. On the day of a general rehearsal, Bulgakov was being interrogated by the OGPU (State Security) as a result of the internal uproar arising from Sobach'e serdtse [Heart of a Dog], which had been rejected by the censor in the spring of 1926. During the accompanying search of his accommodation, Bulgakov's diary was confiscated. On its return, Bulgakov burnt it and resolved never to keep such a record again. He did, however, ask his wife to keep one. It is a nice irony that the only record we have of Bulgakov's diary is that part which was copied out by OGPU staff and subsequently released from the KGB literary archive after the Soviet collapse.

Whilst it is true that Bulgakov was initially a writer trapped on the wrong side of the fence and therefore, to a degree, in internal emigration, it is clear that by the time he arrived in Moscow he had resolved to do his bit for the common wheal in return for his portion. For all that he was perceived by contemporaries to be a foppish, almost camp figure and a difficult person to get to know, there is a solidly decent streak in Bulgakov that will speak up against boorish, overbearing or dishonest behaviour, particularly by those with authority or power. His lampoons, often seen as anti-Soviet, are really a series of wry observations on such phenomena, but he was also scathing about Nepmen and other people on the make as depicted in, say, Zoikina kvartira [Zoya's Apartment], also premiered in October 1926. On the other hand, The Heart of a Dog seems to entail the bleak idea that the Russian peasant is a sub-human species that cannot be improved or developed.

Two collections of Bulgakov's tales were published in 1926: Rasskazy [Tales], eight humorous pieces published by Smekhach in Leningrad, and Traktat o zhilishche [A Treatise on Housing], published by ZIF in Moscow. During this period, 1925-27, a number of Bulgakov's tales from A Young Doctor's Notes, were published in the journal Meditsinskii rabotnik [The Medic]. These years were the best in Bulgakov's literary and theatrical career, but during 1927, with the approaching transition from NEP to planned socialism, the tide was moving against him. That year Days of the Turbins was banned, but Stanislavsky appealed to the commissar for enlightenment, A.V. Lunacharsky, saying the whole year's theatre program would be in disarray and the theatre might as well close. The ban was rescinded pro tem.

Having drawn the wrong attention to himself with The Heart of a Dog, Bulgakov was to find that this would not go away. In October 1928 his play Flight, illustrating the plight of White Guardists and others fleeing the Revolution, during their exodus and as émigrés in Istanbul, was banned during rehearsals. But Bagrovyi ostrov [The Crimson Island] was premiered in December at the Kamernyi theatre. It is said that Stalin had a private reading of Flight. In February 1929, responding to a submission from a party critic, Stalin said that concepts like “right” and “left” were only appropriate for intra-party positions and should have no resonance in literature and theatre. He would have nothing against the staging of Flight if Bulgakov, in addition to the eight “dreams” making up the play, were to add a couple more to illustrate the social origins of the Revolution. Bulgakov declined this advice. In the same letter, Stalin observed, in passing, that The Crimson Island was “pulp”, a view shared by many people with no political affiliations. Around this time Bulgakov began writing what many consider to be his crowning achievement, a play about the Devil visiting Moscow, which would emerge as Master i Margarita [The Master and Margarita].

In March 1929, all three of Bulgakov's current plays, Days of the Turbins, Zoya's Apartment and The Crimson Island, were banned, as was a song and dance review parodying the Soviet censorship which was under rehearsal. A similar fate befell Bulgakov's other literary productions. The last work published in his lifetime was A Young Doctor's Notes in 1927. In response to the ban, Bulgakov wrote to the government asking permission to go abroad with his wife “for as long as the government saw fit”. He received no reply. He also wrote to Maksim Gorky to enlist his support. At the end of 1929, Moscow Arts Theatre asked Bulgakov to return the advance on Flight. When his play devoted to Molière, Kabala sviatosh [A Cabal of Hypocrites], was also turned down, despite several alterations, by the main repertory committee, Bulgakov destroyed all his manuscripts, including the initial draft of The Master and Margarita.

In March 1930 Bulgakov wrote his now celebrated letter to members of the government, saying that he was now faced with destitution and no way forward. He could not write some shabby disavowal of his previous views in the form of a communist or fellow-travelling play, as many had advised. He asked to be given work in the theatre, even as an extra, and if there was nothing for him anywhere in the Soviet Union – could he be allowed, with his wife, to emigrate? Bulgakov, for all his apparent weaknesses, like his former drug addiction, was to show on a number of occasions the courage of despair, with a revolver in the desk as back-up. One month later Stalin rang and asked him whether he was “thoroughly fed up with us?” (This was shortly after Maiakovsky's suicide.) Stalin recommended that Bulgakov apply again for a directorial post at Moscow Arts Theatre: “I think this time they'll accept”.

In the event, Bulgakov's first appointment was to Teatr Rabochei Molodezhi (TRAM), “The Theatre of Working Youth”, as literary consultant. TRAM was a semi-professional, somewhat ad hoc theatre attached to Komsomol, the communist youth movement. In May he was appointed assistant director at MKhAT, working on a stage adaptation of Gogol's Mertvye dushi [Dead Souls]. In March 1931, Bulgakov resigned his post at TRAM, saying there was nothing he could usefully contribute. Later, in July, he was commissioned by the Red Theatre in Leningrad and the Vakhtangov in Moscow, to write Adam i Eva [Adam and Eve], a far-sighted analysis of potential war between the Soviets and the capitalist world, but once again the result failed the test of political corectness and the contracts were cancelled. On the other hand, the Leningrad Drama Theatre contracted a staged version of Lev Tolstoy's Voina i mir [War and Peace]. When in October, a further revised version of Cabal of Hypocrites was given general approval, it too was provisionally taken up by the Leningrad Drama Theatre, but sniping in the press led to its rejection the following year.

Stalin was to intervene a second time on Bulgakov's behalf, in early 1932, asking at the theatre why they weren't presenting Days of the Turbins. By mid-April it was on stage again. Bulgakov wrote that a part of his life had been restored to him. Stalin is said to have seen this play 15 times. In October of that year Bulgakov married Elena Sergeevna Shilovskaia. Early in December, after some 300 rehearsals and much alteration, Dead Souls was staged. March 1933 saw the completion of a biography of Molière, Zhizn' Gospodina de Mol'era, however, the editor of the biographical series, Aleksandr Tikhonov, objected to its humorous tone and “allusions to Soviet reality”. Bulgakov declined to rewrite the book. During the summer of 1933, accompanied by his wife, Bulgakov spent ten days in Leningrad, where he met Anna Akhmatova. During this time he began rewriting The Master and Margarita.

In February 1934, Bulgakov and his wife took a flat in a house occupied largely by writers, at Nashchokinskii pereulok. Bulgakov undertook a film script of Dead Souls for Mosfilm. After much alteration the film was authorized in 1935, but never produced. Also in 1934, Bulgakov completed a three-act play for the Leningrad Music Hall, Blazhenstvo [Bliss], based on the musical being prepared in 1929. On May 1st, Bulgakov again wrote to Stalin seeking permission to go abroad. There was no reply. When Zamiatin set off abroad for medical treatment, Bulgakov accompanied him to the station but then fell ill himself. In October a film script for Gogol's Revizor [The Government Inspector] was completed for the Ukrainian film studio. Although some scenes were shot, criticism and wrangling led to the film being abandoned in 1936.

Rehearsals for Molière, as Cabal of Hyppocrites was renamed, were directed by Stanislavsky, but endless conflict with Bulgakov, who felt that his play was being re-written, led to Bulgakov's request to have the play returned to him. Finally, Nemirovich-Danchenko, Stanislavsky's co-director at MKhAT, took over. The play was not staged until February 1936, after 290 rehearsals, but there were attacks in Pravda and other publications. Bulgakov's play was described variously as “typical philistine melodrama”, “false and worthless”, and “outwardly brilliant but false in content”. Consequently, Molière was removed from the repertoire after only seven performances. Ivan Vasil'evich, a reworked version of Bliss, was shortly thereafter removed from the Moscow Satire Theatre. In September the Bolshoy Theatre, for whom Bulgakov had written the libretto for a putative opera, Minin and Pozharsky, offered him the position of consultant librettist. The following day he resigned from MKhAT. In November he began writing Teatral'nyi roman: prikliucheniia pokoinika [A Theatrical Novel, translated into English as Black Snow]. In essence this is a satire on the Moscow Art Theatre and its staff. It has been described as Bulgakov's revenge on Stanislavsky.

During 1937 Bulgakov's collaboration with V. Veresaev, author of a biography of Pushkin, came under strain. Their joint staging of Pushkin, Poslednie dni [Pushkin, The Last Days] was eventually terminated by Veresaev. Nonetheless, the play was completed for the Vakhtangov theatre by September. Also in September, Ivan Vasil'evich (the renamed and reworked Bliss) was completed.

Right through the ‘30s Bulgakov reworked The Master and Margarita. In 1938 he completed his sixth draft of the novel. Meanwhile, his career at the Bolshoy was as frustrating as his theatre career. Not only was Minin and Pozharsky never performed, but Petr velikii [Peter the Great] had to be rewritten for ideological reasons, and Chernoe more [The Black Sea], was abandoned, as was Bulgakov's last contribution to the opera, Rashel'. In September the play Don Kikhot [Don Quixote] was completed for the Vakhtangov. In July 1939 a play concerning Stalin's early revolutionary life, Batum (originally Pastyr), was finished. This was Bulgakov's last effort for MKhAT. While the theatre group was heading for Batum to get background location, Stalin got wind of the play and declared it unnecessary (“…all young people are the same. Don't single out Stalin”). In September of that year, during a visit to Leningrad, Bulgakov fell ill. He was diagnosed with sclerosis of the kidneys, the same disease that had killed his father.

On the 10th of March, 1940, two weeks after dictating his final corrections to The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov died. He was 49 years old. His ashes were interred at the Novodeviche cemetery.

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Citation: Dadswell, Mel. "Mikhail Afanasevich Bulgakov". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 22 December 2008 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=634, accessed 06 February 2023.]

634 Mikhail Afanasevich Bulgakov 1 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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