March 2013

Daniel Shvartsman

fiction

A Country Doctor's Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Michael Glenny

In talking about Mikhail Bulgakov's A Country Doctor's Notebook, I should mention that I come from a starting point that borders on reverence. It's not an uncommon starting point for dealing with Bulgakov; go to Moscow and you will find that the author and, especially, his masterpiece, Master and Margarita, are still held in the highest esteem some seventy years after he finished working on the book (and died) and some forty-five years since the book finally erupted onto the unexpecting Soviet literary scene. Young readers will gladly give visitors a tour of Moscow based on the book's events, some sure they've pinpointed the very bench where Berlioz and Homeless have their first fateful encounter with the Devil. Romantics can ride on the Annushka, a circular dining tram inspired by the book. In some Russian-speaking families, reading Master and Margarita is a rite of passage, a vital step toward adulthood and an initiation test for prospective spouses to prove their mettle (okay, maybe that's just my family). Other writers are loved, admired, respected, quoted, or appreciated in Russia, but Bulgakov is still spoken about, still present.

While Master and Margarita was Bulgakov's magnum opus, it was also the quixotically triumphant conclusion (if publication twenty-six years after he died can be considered a triumph) to a fine and varied literary career. Starting to write during the first bloom of the Soviet era and continuing through the horrors of the Purges and early Stalinism -- and only spared his life because Stalin took a personal affection of unclear inspiration for Bulgakov -- Bulgakov was a successful playwright as well as a major novelist. His Heart of a Dog was a sharp satire of the Soviet project, while White Guard narrated with historical and emotional immediacy the chaos of Civil War Kiev.

Both those books were written and released in the mid-1920s, at roughly the same time Bulgakov wrote the stories that comprise A Country Doctor's Notebook. The collection is of nine stories contemporaneously published in either a literary monthly or a trade journal for doctors. Like Chekov, Bulgakov started in medicine before moving on to his literary career.

The specific inspiration for these stories comes from Bulgakov's experience as a novice doctor sent to a provincial village during World War I and entrusted to his own practice for two years. The collision of a well-educated but green city boy and the rustic atmosphere of the Russian wilderness makes for many a comic moment, and Bulgakov delivers in his most straightforward and agreeable tone; it's easy to hear the narrator sitting by the fireside, shaking his head and laughing as he recounts some of his stranger encounters.

Bulgakov spares no one in his approach. We meet peasants who apply skin plasters directly to their coats, or who place grains of sugar in the birth canal during childbirth to entice a reluctant baby out to the light of day. The narrator labors to convince his patients of the dangers of syphilis, cursing them until they stay long enough to receive proper treatment.

But the funniest bits are directed at himself (or the narrator, at least) and his mildly pompous naiveté, or else his blind pessimism about his work. There's the story wherein he doesn't know how to perform a complicated operation during childbirth, so he runs off to his room to look at his instruction book. The first two stories find him sure he's brought death on each of his patients, only to receive uncomfortably strong praise when the two girls survive amputation and tracheotomy, respectively. Then when his confidence arrives after a year of successful practice, the narrator is humbled anew by his own misdiagnosis -- instead of having to scoop a child's eye out, he is shown by his patient that it was just an overlarge abscess causing the problem.

Underneath these funny incidents is a struggle between darkness and light, or better perhaps between enlightenment and medieval beliefs. That struggle grows more elemental and darker as the book continues (the stories appear to be arranged in roughly chronological fashion covering Bulgakov's two years in the village). Winter, ignorance, and failure drive the narrator and other characters to madness, to morphine, to murder. Bulgakov dispenses with the humor and sticks to artless narration, which leaves theses stories all the more harrowing.

While it's tempting to read A Country Doctor's Notebook as a document on the way to Bulgakov's greater things -- an Ur-Bulgakov work, as it were -- the timing of these stories, written in one of his most fruitful periods, renders that reading inaccurate. It might be better to look at this as an unvarnished Bulgakov, stripped of the parables, the fantastical elements, and the artful effort. One finds notes of all of Bulgakov's best work in here, with its humor, human element, and historical heft, but set in a realistic, easygoing backdrop, even at its darkest. This collection isn't one to revere for its brilliance. Instead, it's a quieter book worth appreciating for its craft. The book stands both on its own and as a reminder of why Bulgakov's still spoken about, again and again.

A Country Doctor's Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Michael Glenny
Melville House
ISBN: 978-1612191904
160 pages