A Country Doctor’s Notebook
Mikhail Bulgakov is of course best known for his extraordinary work The Master and Margarita, which I first read in Athens nearly 30 years ago but which remains vividly with me to this day. However, before reaching that stage of his life, Bulgakov wrote a series of short stories about his experiences as a young medical doctor in rural Russia in 1916-17, just before the time of the revolution and published after it took place. The stories tend to focus on the inadequacy of the teaching of the doctor and, to a greater extent, the ignorance and superstitions of the peasantry. The ability of science to shine a light on this ignorance and banish it was clearly popular with the authorities and the stories were published in various journals, as pointed out in the short but useful introduction, if slightly old-fashioned, from the translator Michael Glenny. The records of those journals have helped to contribute to the nine stories in this quite slender volume. It is helpful to have the stories collected together because of the difficulties Bulgakov faced in getting published for most of his subsequent life. It is published by Vintage Books in London, which company also publishes his other works as part of the Vintage Bulgakov series which has the company’s trademark and rather pleasing bright red spine.
The early stories follow a common theme and style, which is not very surprising given that the young writer was still finding his voice and because of the power of his subject matter, not to mention the fact that he could place stories in a variety of different markets. At first, the young doctor, fresh out of medical school, is introduced, against the background of remote Russian villages, with their lack of facilities, punishing snowstorms and emotional and intellectual isolation. He is then challenged by a patient who presents with a medical condition he has not treated before and may never even have seen. He feels overawed and unable to cope but, having little choice but to take action (and possibly assisted by his feldsher helper and two midwives) he finds the knowledge obtained from studying textbooks and attending lectures becomes transformed into actionable knowledge when push comes to shove. Later stories reflect on endemic problems among the peasant families, such as the generational persistence of syphilis within a family, the danger of morphine addiction and the role of a doctor within revolutionary action.
The stories are short, slight, complete and quite conventional in structure. Each has a beginning, a thickening of the plot and then a resolution and there is no hint of modernist or post-modernist trickery in their construction They are rooted in the material conditions of the time and it is notable that this attention continues in works such as The Heart of a Dog, which is centred on the fantastical eponymous hero. The translation of the stories is clear and unfussy and Glenny does the most important work of a translator, which is to keep out of the way of the text.
This is a book which is of interest not only in its own right but also as a historical document and an indication of the development of one of the more significant Russian writers of the twentieth century. I read through it very quickly and would have been happy with more.