As Though They Had Been Flooded With Light

When Mikhail Bulgakov died in 1940, at the same age and of the same kidney ailment as his father, his works effectively died with him. The Great Soviet Experiment did not encourage wide release of his plays and novels; indeed, it was only in 1966, a generation after its near completion, that his most-loved, most-famous story, The Master and Margarita, introduced herself (books are feminine, aren’t they?) to Western readers. Whisper the name of this novel to any quiet crowd and it’s London to a Brick that a small but important minority of the group will, if not swoon, remind themselves that they must read it again. Complex, mystical and funny, and allegorical, this is his greatest work.

He gave us other manuscripts. Some deserve a crash-course in Russian history before enjoying. Others are better experienced on stage than read. But Bulgakov, like Chekhov, was also a doctor, well, a short-lived doctor, enjoying medical practice for 2 years before he was consumed by full-time writing. His A Country Doctor’s Notebook, written in 1925, has nine vivid descriptions of medical cases in rural Russia, mostly fact but part-fictionalized, and is most rewarding. Indeed, even in this “modern” age of medicine, I would still prescribe this book as required reading for medical students. For its human rather than clinical lessons.

One story in the book, Baptism By Rotation, describes the young doctor deep in the Russian steppe, in the middle of the night, called to a woman in labour with a transverse lie of child, lethal to both mother and baby if not corrected by version of the baby. He had graduated with honours in Obstetrics, but needs the help of an experienced midwife, and a couple of peeks of his textbook, before both patients are saved, just. Afterwards, in the early hours, in his room, sipping his “cooling tea” and flipping through the textbook chapter on “Dangers of Version”, he realises “all the previously obscure passages became entirely comprehensible, as though they had been flooded with light“. He had learnt it, then done it, then learnt it again, with deeper understanding. I guess that’s what experience does: it shines a light on what you’ve been taught.

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