A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov

A Country Doctors Notebook A Country Doctor’s Notebook is the book that was selected for me in the last Classics Club Spin. I was happy when I discovered that I would be reading this one, not only because it’s much shorter than most of the others on my Classics Club list, but also because I loved Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita which I read four years ago in 2011. I knew this book was going to be very different from The Master and Margarita, but I hoped I would still enjoy it…and I did.

A Country Doctor’s Notebook is a collection of semi-autobiographical short stories originally written in Russian in the 1920s (the edition I read uses Michael Glenny’s English translation from 1975). Like the protagonist of this book, Mikhail Bulgakov was a ‘country doctor’. After graduating from Kiev University he became a physician and from 1916-1918 he worked at a small hospital near a remote village in the province of Smolensk.

The fictional doctor in the book, Vladimir Bomgard, is clearly based on Bulgakov himself and in the first story we see him as a young, newly-qualified doctor of twenty-four arriving at Muryovo Hospital, a full day’s drive from the nearest town. He is pleased to find that the hospital is clean and well equipped, but with no practical experience and nobody to turn to for advice (apart from a feldsher, or partly-qualified assistant, and two midwives) the thought of bearing sole responsibility for the lives of his patients terrifies him.

During his first weeks and months at Muryovo, the country doctor faces all sorts of problems for which his university education had completely failed to prepare him. With no electricity, no telephones, poor roads, the risk of being cut off from the world during snowstorms, and the ignorance of peasants regarding simple medical matters, life at Muryovo is primitive and isolated. Most of all, the young doctor lives in fear of encountering a strangulated hernia, a case of peritonitis or a difficult birth and he comes to dread hearing a knock on the door in the middle of the night.

“It’s not my fault,” I repeated to myself stubbornly and unhappily. “I’ve got my degree and a first class one at that. Didn’t I warn them back in town that I wanted to start off as a junior partner in a practice? But no, they just smiled and said, ‘You’ll get your bearings.’ So now I’ve got to find my bearings. Suppose they bring me a hernia? Just tell me how I’ll find my bearings with that?”

As the book progresses the doctor slowly begins to gain confidence and discovers that true knowledge comes with experience.

It was fascinating to read about conditions in a remote Russian hospital at the start of the twentieth century and the medical procedures and treatments that were used. I had a lot of sympathy for the doctor, being thrown in at the deep end with so little experience and being expected to operate on patients with no supervision and no advice other than illustrations in his textbooks. If you’re squeamish I should probably warn you that some of the operations he performs are described in full, gory detail (the tracheotomy particularly sticks in my mind). But this is also a book with a lot of humour and there are some very funny moments as the doctor panics, guesses and muddles his way through each crisis.

As I mentioned above, I read the Michael Glenny translation which I was quite happy with and found perfectly readable. I enjoyed all of the stories in A Country Doctor’s Notebook and I’m so pleased the Classics Spin motivated me to pick up this book at last.

Classics Club Spin #9: The Result

The Classics Club

Last week I decided to take part in the Classics Club Spin. The rules were simple – list twenty books from your Classics Club list, number them 1 to 20, and the number announced today (Monday) represents the book you have to read before 15th May 2015.

The number that has been selected this time is 2, which means the book I’ll be reading is:

A Country Doctors Notebook

A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov

I added this book to my Classics Club list because I loved The Master and Margarita and wanted to read more of Bulgakov’s work. All I know about it is that it’s a collection of short stories based on Bulgakov’s experiences as a young doctor in Russia, but I’m looking forward to reading it. I’m happy with my result as I’ve managed to avoid the longer books on my list!

Did you take part in the spin? What will you be reading?

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

I’d been wanting to read The Master and Margarita for a long time but had always felt too intimidated to pick it up. I expect there are probably other people who feel the same, so I want to reassure you that there’s really no need to be scared! Yes, it’s Russian literature, but it’s a lot easier to read and understand than I thought it would be. After just a couple of pages I could tell I was going to love it – isn’t it great when that happens?

It’s best if you know as little as possible before you begin, so to put it as simply as I can, The Master and Margarita imagines that the devil, in the guise of Professor Woland, arrives in Soviet Moscow and proceeds to wreak havoc on the city’s literary world. Woland is accompanied by a retinue of memorable characters including his assistant, Koroviev – a tall, skinny man in a jockey’s cap and broken pince-nez glasses – and a giant, talking black cat known as Behemoth. This storyline is interwoven with the story of Pontius Pilate, giving us an insight into Pilate’s thoughts and feelings in the period leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. A third thread of the novel, closely connected to the other two, features a romance between the writer of the Pontius Pilate story, a mysterious man who is referred to only as ‘The Master’, and his lover, Margarita.

This was a fantastic book – it was breathtakingly different and original, with so many different layers to it. There were some scenes that were so surreal and bizarre I had to read them twice to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood. I’m sorry I can’t give any examples of what I mean, but I don’t want to spoil any of the fun for you! Admittedly there were a few parts of the book where the story seemed to lose its way for a while, but the engaging writing, weird and wonderful characters and the dark humour all helped to keep me interested. There were some excellent set pieces too: the séance in the theatre, Margarita’s moonlight flight, the Great Ball at Satan’s, to name just a few that have stuck in my mind.

A quick note on the translation: the version I read was the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation which, as far as I can tell from reading other reviews, may not be the best one. Personally I didn’t have any complaints about this translation, though obviously I can’t compare it with the others because I haven’t read them.

This is a book that I would definitely like to read again in the future; I might not find it as stunning the second time round but I’m sure I’ll be able to pick up on lots of little details that I missed the first time. I hope I’ve convinced you to give it a try too!