A Country Doctor’s Notebook (1963) by Mikhail Bulgakov 

(published elsewhere as A Young Doctor’s Notebook).

Do I express my thoughts lucidly?

I think I do.

What is my life?

An absurdity.

Now that Our Mutual Friend is well and truly behind me, I fancied moving on to something a little shorter, a little less taxing on the brain, for my next read. P read this book last year, not long after the TV show finished in fact, and has been raving about it ever since.  It seemed pretty ideal; not too lengthy, relatively light hearted (in places) and set in Russia. And we all know how I feel about novels set in Russia.

Back in 1916, Bulgakov was twenty-four years old and had just graduated with a medical degree from the University of Kiev. With frightening swiftness he was dispatched to his first practice, in an isolated spot in the heart of rural Russia, 35 miles from the nearest town and staffed with just two midwives and a feldsher. This book, written several years later, is a semi-fictionalised account of his two years in rural practice told in a series of short vignettes. In it, the inexperienced, overworked narrator must deal with emergency amputations, childbirth complications, syphilis epidemics and the wary distrust of the local peasant population. There’s no electricity, the roads are impassable except by cart, they’re frequently snowed in, and eventually there’s a revolution and a civil war raging in the background too.

“And there was I, all on my own, with a woman in agony on my hands and I was responsible for her. I had no idea, however, what I was supposed to do to help her because I had seen childbirth at close quarters only twice in my life in a hospital, and both occasions were completely normal. The fact that I was conducting an examination was of no value to me or to the woman; I understood absolutely nothing…”

The young Bulgakov seems to have viewed his time in the sticks as a necessary prison sentence, a step on the path towards finding a more respectable practice on his eventual return to the city. His stories are shocking and gruesome and horrifying to the modern reader but thankfully he never shies away from describing everything he sees in all its bloody gory. It makes for an engrossing and slightly unnerving read at times, particularly because he tells all his stories with a sort of dry, deadpan humour. This is especially noticeable when he recounts examples of his own panicked inexperience under all this responsibility. In one early scene he abandons a patient shortly before an operation so he can run back to his room and find a textbook with the necessary instructions for performing the procedure. In another he becomes completely enraged by the ignorance of a patient who refuses to accept that he’s suffering from a dangerous medical condition. These anecdotes are told so simply and matter-of-factly that as a reader you find yourself feeling quite glad that Bulgakov put himself through such hell since his experiences inspired such great tales.

The last two chapters of A Country Doctor’s Notebook shift away from Bulgakov and tell the stories of two other doctors of his acquaintance. The most gripping is the first of these – entitled ‘Morphine’ – and it’s the story of his successor at the hospital, a young man who sank into a crippling addiction shortly after taking up his first practice. It’s told in a series of diary extracts and, unlike other parts of this book, there’s not a lot of humour to be squeezed from his situation. However, it’s genuinely moving and provides an interesting shift away from the frantic chaos of the first half of the book.

All in all, I thought this was pretty perfect. It’s put me in half a mind to have another stab at Master and Margharita. Maybe in a few months’ time anyway. Probably not right now.

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3 thoughts on “A Country Doctor’s Notebook (1963) by Mikhail Bulgakov 

  1. I really enjoyed this when I read it, but you’re right, it’s extremely unnerving! The Morphine story shows all to clearly how things could have worked out for Bulgakov. It’s fascinating but I’m glad I wasn’t one of his patients….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Top Ten Tuesday: My favourite books of 2016 | the blue bore

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