Saturday, September 1, 2012

Mikhail Bulgakov

September, 2012:  I find myself reluctant to begin reading a new book, as I have seven books read from July to now (November) that I haven't yet written about for my 'Book of the Moment'.  These books are: 
Vanity Fair (1847-8), William Makepeace Thackeray; 
A Country Doctor's Notebook (mid-1920s), Mikhail Bulgakov; 
Victoria (1898), Knut Hamsun; 
Anna Karenina (1873-7), Leo Tolstoy; 
Still Life With Woodpecker (1980), Tom Robbins; 
The Woodlanders (1887), Thomas Hardy;
Mrs Robinson's Disgrace (2012), Kate Summerscale.

Clearly, the trouble started with Vanity Fair.  It was such a wonderful novel, it deserved a long and detailed essay the like of which I hadn't written since high school.  But I had to postpone it, as I had left my dog-eared copy in Sydney, unable to justify lugging it back to Melbourne on the train.  So I began to read (for the second time) Anna Karenina.  A writer could spend her whole life studying this novel - it demanded an equally detailed essay as Vanity Fair.  Now I've just finished The Woodlanders.  Among these three monuments, I interspersed the other 'lesser' works; although they were good in their own ways, they're not so daunting.  I'll break the log-jam by starting with the first* of them, A Country Doctor's Notebook.

While looking myself up on the Google, I read an unfavourable reader's-review of my first novel, The Showgirl and the Brumby; the part I remember was, "lurid with every possible unpleasant smear of snot, sex, and mastication."  Fair call, I thought.  As truth is often found in the fine detail, I like writers who examine people closely - the workings  of their psyches, bodies, any part of them.  This is why I like doctor-writers.  They don't shy away from things like eyeballs covered with a sac of pus, or head-ectomies on babies stuck in birth canals.  They find it all interesting.  A Country Doctor's Notebook is a collection of accounts of cases that came to Bulgakov while he was an inexperienced doctor at an outpost in the wilds of Russia.  Although each story is discrete in itself, and presumably published separately along the way, as a collection they plot the course of a young man growing to fit the responsibilities he has (somewhat prematurely) taken on.  The phrase "you have to start somewhere" takes on a different shade when you're talking about amputations.  As he faces the leg he has to cut off, Bulgakov seems almost as ignorant and unconfident as I would be if I had to do it.

It makes me think about twenty-year-olds in our time; older people consider them spoilt, lazy, like overgrown children.  The cure is to give them responsibility and leave them to their own devices, but the oldies seem reluctant to do this, either because they want to hold onto the responsibility (and power) themselves, or else because they enjoy fussing over their big babies.

The collection ends with the diary (fictional?) of a young doctor who had preceded Bulgakov as the local doctor in this huge, snowbound wilderness.  He found relief in morphine from loneliness, and the stress of being solely responsible for his patients' lives; he rapidly became addicted, tried to wean himself off it by taking cocaine, and finally killed himself.  His parting advice, having used himself as a test-case, was: don't try to cure a morphine addiction with cocaine.  This might be another lesson for our youngies in Bulgakov's book.

*Alas, the remaining six are as yet still unblogged.