'As is always the case in Russia, the legend is beautiful. History is terrible.'
The scour of the shelves for some new Russian reading unearthed a very nice copy of White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov published by Yale University Press, incidentally Mikhail Bulgakov's first and most autobiographical novel, and in this edition complete with an incredibly insightful introduction by Evgeny Dobrenko. I discover that he is a professor in the Department of Russian Studies at Sheffield University and therefore knows what he's talking about when he elaborates on the suggestion above and further that,
'To live in history is always disagreeable. In Russian history it is unbearable.'
Mikhail Bulgakov another of those writers I'd read bits of but never quite completely immersed myself in. A Country Doctor's Notebook was about the extent of it plus the knowledge that he was a trained doctor. I hadn't realised that Bulgakov had given all that up in 1920 to devote himself to literature thus bringing with him that rare doctor's eye view of any given situation.
Increased and regular Russian reading is proving fruitful and very rewarding because I'm finally starting to get my bearings, albeit still a bit shaky, within the time frame of Russian history. I'm sure Miss Spencer didn't cover this at school back in the 1960s; with the Cold War at its height she probably thought it was safer to stick to the Egyptians and throw in some Tudors, which she did with gusto and which I loved.
Evgeny Dobrenko's introduction therefore became something of a frequent reference point for the reading of this book, because it provides both backdrop and explanation often not evident within the narrative of White Guard and without it I would surely have floundered. However the shaky grasp on who's who and what's what possibly forgiveable given Bulgakov's own experience of ten out of fourteen coups, but all the same Evgeny was a godsend.
So to Kiev and 'Great was the year and terrible the Year of Our Lord 1918,' and prepare to live through the turbulent days of revolution when it was virtually impossible to know which side was winning, and if you did discover who was in charge it was likely to have changed within days, often hours.
The life of the Turbin family is surrounded and infiltrated by this chaos and confusion, replete with misinformation and terror, and thanks to Mikhail Bulgakov's wonderfully immediate writing style it was akin to being at the epicentre of the earthquake with a very astute but chatty friend as events unfolded. As the leaden atmosphere starts to descend on the city, flagstones boom under footsteps, people are distraught and crushed and every so often a blanket of snow submerges all, but the fear and sense of doom are palpable,
'In the north, the blizzard kept howling, and here, under the their feet, the earth's belly, alarmed, rumbled forlornly and growled. The year 1918 was rushing to a close, and each day it was even more terrible and bristly...the city was noisy but in a muffled, evening way...'
Bulgakov adopts a matter-of-factness, almost a detached eye to the wider violence and I wonder whether that was a combination of the doctor's eye for black humour combined with the sheer quantity of heads leaving bodies neath rattling sabres, yet when it comes to delineating illness or injury to a member of the family I quite thought I was in the room too. The descriptions of pain defy description, if you see what I mean. Bulgakov clearly capable of bringing both a medical and a literary element to these moments thus creating something immensely powerful
'...it read 39.6...Great he said licking his dry lips from time to time...I hope the arm can be saved because without my arm...a dry stinging fever reached from his wound all the way to his armpit and spread through his body. Sometimes if filled his entire chest and muddled his head, while his feet turned numb with cold...the dense silver ball had climbed and reached the 40.2 mark...'
Hats off to the translator Marian Shwartz who helpfully explains the difficulties of preserving the language of a text that is something of a 'kaleidoscopic whirl' and one which,
'teems with imagist sights and sounds, which not only give the page an exciting experimental texture but form a web of connections.'
I for one picked up all of this and more as I read, so for me this translation was a huge success and I knew I'd read a classic when I turned the final page but talking of Mikhail Bulgakov's superlative imagery how about this,
'The world's best shelves of books, which smelt like mysterious old chocolate'
Go and sniff one now...he's right.