Notes of a Young Doctor

Adir Sodré, Yellow [acrylic on canvas, 30 x 20 cm, 1992]
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By EFIM ETKIND*

afterword of the book Mikhail Bulgakov newly published

Mikhail Bulgakov – along with Marina Tsvetayeva – is one of the Russian writers of the last century that for a long time nobody wanted to know, neither here nor there – neither intra-muros nor extra-muros of the Soviet Union –, and whom, now, both sides they extend their hands. For twenty years now in the Soviet Union they have been saying: “he is ours and has always been ours”, in an attempt to erase the appreciation received in 1927 by the author of the white guardwhen Great Soviet Encyclopedia noted that “Mikhail Bulgakov's work positions this author on the extreme right flank of contemporary Russian literature, making him the artistic spokesman for the most right-wing bourgeois strata of our society”.

Extreme right flank… Right-wing bourgeoisie circles… So it was said in the most official publications of the single party. A few years later, a similar formula would be his death sentence. But in 1927 the bureaucratic empire was just beginning to be established: Leon Trotsky had just been expelled, autocracy had just been installed. The author of Great Soviet Encyclopedia had romance in mind the white guard and the play Zoya's apartment. Meanwhile, Bulgakov began to publish journalistic pieces in the newspaper vespers, from Berlin, and was already the author of the cycle of narratives Notes of a Young Doctor, printed from 1924 to 1927 (but mostly in 1926, when seven of the nine stories were published). A Great Soviet Encyclopedia does not mention this cycle: it had nothing to do with politics.

It is commonly accepted that Notes of a Young Doctor is the work of a budding writer, an attempt from the pen of a doctor to zemstvo who is still groping his literary path... He who yesterday was a medical student recounts stories from his practice: in them, for the first time he sees with his own eyes diphtheria, miscarriage, syphilis, a girl mutilated by a stripper who is dying of blood loss. At the university they taught him, offered him lectures, demonstrated typical cases; but now this newly matured youth must himself make the decisions on which human lives depend. And those decisions, every time, he makes them for the first time.

It is believed that these stories are only partially fictional, that they are really “notes of a young doctor”. Contributing to this reputation is the fact that, with the exception of one, all of them were printed in a publication in the medical field: the magazine the medicine worker. But all this is a misunderstanding. By the same logic, we could consider that the Memoirs of a Hunter, by Turgenev, are writings of restricted interest, conceived for the companions of the autumn hunt, or else that the novel Money, by Zola, is a guide for beginning bankers.

Notes of a Young Doctor is a complete book by a mature writer. Of course, it is based on autobiographical material, but this does not make it different from Bulgakov's other works, as well as from other works of world literature. The explanation for its publication in the journal the medicine worker it's simple: printing prose like that, already in 1926, was difficult, almost impossible. Bulgakov made a first experiment: he sent a short story to the magazine red panorama, but then did not try again. All the rest appeared in medicine worker, and all the stories (except “I killed”) were divided into two, sometimes three issues of the magazine. In the Soviet Union, the printing of “dubious” works in specialized publications is a time-tested way to circumvent censorship. One of the most curious examples is the appearance of poems by the French Romantics and Parnassians — Vigny, Musset, Leconte de Lisle, Heredia, Gautier — in the Campos de Caça almanac (1960, 1st semester).

The entire selection (translated by Mark Gordón) constituted an entire section of the almanac, entitled… “Foreign Hunting Literature”. These French poets, execrated at the time as “purely aesthetic” bourgeois and followers of “art for art's sake”, were transformed, in the pages of this specialized publication, into simple portraitists of animals, and therefore harmless to the Soviet reader. It is possible that something similar happened with Bulgakov's “doctor's tales”. In the Soviet Union, the cycle Notes of a Young Doctor was only published in a book after forty years, in the series “Bibliotiéka Ogoniók” (1963) and in the collection Izbrannaia proza ​​(Assembled Prose, Moscow, 1966 and 1980), but not in its entirety.

For example, the works “Stellated Exanthema”, “I killed” and “Morphine” did not enter there. For what reason? Hard to say; perhaps the first, which deals with a syphilis epidemic, seemed to paint Russian rural life in too cruel a colour; the second is bloody; the third is pathological. But to indulge in such conjectures is pointless: it is impossible to understand the logic of Soviet editors. The complete cycle was only published in the first volume of the Collected Works of MA Bulgákov edited by Ellendea Proffer in 1982, by the North American publisher Ardis.

In this edition, the stories are arranged in a different sequence from that published in the Worker of Medicine. The publisher explains: “We have taken the sequence of the short stories from Notes of a Young Doctor according to their internal chronology, so that they read almost like an autobiography, which, to a large extent, they are”. Perhaps they are. However, the order in which the author printed his stories brings its own logic, another causality, which is not autobiographical, and different artistic effects. By publishing the stories according to chronological time, the publisher sticks to the plot — in the belief that the author's intention is to tell everything in sequence: thus, in November 1917, he arrives at the hospital in Múrievo and on the same day a practically irremediable surgery (“The towel with a bump”); after this surgery, he becomes famous and receives a hundred patients a day (“Snowstorm”); So, in the short story “Garganta de aço” the date of November 29 appears and, in “A plague das tardes”, December 17…

Time moves forward. But is this what the author wanted? In Worker of Medicine, “Snowstorm” and “The plague of darkness” appeared first, then “Starry rash”, and only after these three stories comes “The towel with a rooster”, where the reader returns to the beginning of the plot: the Arrival of the young doctor at the hospital. It is possible to assume that this inversion of time was conceived by Bulgakov, and that, by eliminating it and lining up the events, the publisher altered the plot, replacing it with a plot. (Just imagine a rearrangement in chronological order of parts of Lermontov's Hero of Our Time!) If the cycle opens with “The towel with a rooster”, then what is at the center of it all is a narrator who starts his story. medical practice in the quiet and desolate town of Murievo. But if we imagine that the cycle begins with “Blizzard”, then the starting point is Russia itself; this story has an epigraph by Pushkin: “Sometimes howls like a wild beast,/ Sometimes cries like a baby”, and in the text itself there are constant echoes of Pushkin: “— Is it possible that you lost the road? My spine froze. — What road? said the coachman, in a distressed voice. — For us now the road is this whole white world there. We took a detour and it wasn't a little… We've been walking for four hours now, but where… What can be done…” (pp. 69-70)

In this dialogue with the coachman, one can hear echoes of the short story “Blizzard” and “The Captain's daughter”. And also from the poem “Demons”: — Hey, coachman, let's go! — Now, boss, there's no way, It's too heavy for the horses The blizzard gets in my eyes, The whole road has already been buried. By God, you can't see a hand. I don't understand... What do you want me to do?...

From Pushkin to Blok, the blizzard is the most traditional symbol of revolutionary Russia.

The squall, the blizzard and the snowstorm are constant metaphors in the novel. the white guard. Right at the beginning, it is possible to catch an echo of the Pushkinian epigraph in the description of the fate of the Turbins: “Life ended them even in its dawn. That Norse vengeance had long since begun, blowing without ceasing, and the farther the worse. […] In the north, the blizzard howls louder and louder, and here, under our feet, the belly of the earth echoes its dull rumble…”

This was published in 1925. A year later, the story “Blizzard” continues to develop these metaphors: in that sense, this could be the first story in the cycle, the beginning of a new book that follows on from the white guard. Bulgakov did everything to free himself from the narrator's Notes of a Young Doctor: his name is Vladimir Mikhailovich Bomgard, his birthday is December 17th (not May 3rd), he is single (unlike the author) and physically does not look like Bulgakov; In the last two narratives, the author distances events even further from himself: first, Doctor Bomgard publishes the letter and diary left him by the late Doctor Poliakov, then he retells the story of Doctor Yashvin. Some information has reached us about Bulgakov himself being addicted to morphine, but does this biographical fact have any relation to the writer's aesthetic intention?

One must know in detail the life of the author studied, but one cannot place biography above creation, one cannot place the facts of life, occasionally discovered, above the artist's intention. In his preface to Bulgakov's prose, Konstantin Simonov insists that the author belongs "to the great body which, in its entirety, is called Soviet literature." Five years earlier, in 1968, Vladimir Lakshín made a sarcastic allusion to the critics who could not find a place for Bulgakov in their courses and handouts, “just as, not so long ago, there was no place for Yessienin, Babel or Tsvetayeva”. about Bulgakov in recent years, but Lakshín's words are nonetheless fair.

Notes of a Young Doctor it is drastically different from the works that constitute the “Soviet literature” of the 1920s, and even more so that of the 1930s. The main property of this literature is the monopoly on the theme of social conflict. Man does not exist outside of society, in which class conflict operates without ceasing, assuming various forms and faces: what constitutes the plots is the confrontation of kulaki with batraki, or whites with reds, or landlords with serfs, or else, simply, rich with poor, or Western European agents (spies, saboteurs) with vigilante Soviet citizens. Based on this conflict, novels, novellas and plays by Gorky, Cholokhov, Fadeyev, Fedin, Pilnyak, Leonov, Pogodin, Lavrienyov, Katayev, Olyécha, and even poets such as Mayakovsky, Tikhonov, Sielvinsky, Pasternak, Yessienin were constructed. , Bagritsky... Against this background, Bulgakov's prose—for all the modesty and discretion of the Notes of a Young Doctor—takes on a defiant aspect.

Doctor Bomgard arrives at the hospital in Múrievo on September 17, 1917. Two months later, on November 29, he performs a tracheotomy on little Lidka, who suffocates as a result of diphtheria. On December 17, he celebrates his birthday by prescribing quinine to a malaria-stricken miller. And what happened in the meantime? There was nothing; neither the young doctor nor the muzhiks who came to him noticed the great Revolution. No, it was of no importance compared to the torments of the sick and the bitter experiences of the doctor who tries to help them, doomed to loneliness, failure and involuntary murder. Bulgakov's descriptions of patients are cruel and difficult to forget, although their most sordid and bloody details do not repel the reader: “I looked, and what I saw was far beyond what I expected. The left leg, as it were, did not exist. Beginning at the shattered knee lay bloody rags, crumpled red muscle, and white crushed bones poked out sharply in all directions.” (“The towel with a rooster”, p. 27)

Or else the young doctor is trying to feel the patient's pulse and is overcome with incomparable joy at finding "a rare wave": "It passed... then there was a pause, during which I managed to get a look at the bluish nostrils and pale lips … I was almost saying: it’s over… but luckily I contained myself… Once again the wave passed, like a thin thread.” (“The towel with a rooster”, p. 28)

That little thread is more important than anything else in the world; it was precisely he who muffled the rumble of the Revolution. We follow in detail each of Doctor Bomgard's operations, seeing them through the naive eyes of a novice doctor: for us readers, the doctor's merit is that he sees everything for the first time, often not understanding, not recognizing what see, not being able to combine the theoretical knowledge obtained at the university with that unprecedented reality.

“They laid her naked on the table, washed her throat, smeared it with iodine, and I picked up the scalpel, all the while thinking, 'What am I doing?!' I took the scalpel and drew a vertical line across the plump white throat. Not a drop of blood came out. I traced a second time with the scalpel the white stripe that appeared in the middle of the skin that had opened. Again, no blood. Slowly, trying to remember one of the drawings in the textbook, I began to separate the thin tissues with the help of the grooved probe. And then, from somewhere beneath the incision, dark blood began to gush, which instantly flooded her and trickled down her neck.” (“Steel Throat,” p. 53)

The power of the impressions evoked by Bulgakov's description derives, in particular, from the freshness of this inexperienced surgeon's gaze, his ignorance of the results of his own actions and his invariable surprise at the success of his own techniques, success that even he doesn't know where it came from. he comes. Each of Bulgakov's medical stories could serve as an illustration of the position taken by Viktor Shklovsky when formulating the essence of verbal art from Lev Tolstoy's prose: “He does not call things by their names, but describes them as if he saw them through their eyes. first time, and incidents, as if they occurred for the first time; and in describing things he does not use the already accepted names of their parts, but calls them by the names of corresponding parts of other things.”

Here is how the young doctor recounts the first time he had to pull a tooth: “I also remember very well the decayed tooth, strong and colossal, solidly embedded in the jaw. Squinting my eyes sagely and making squawks of concern, I placed the tweezers on the tooth […]. There was a pop in the mouth and the soldier promptly howled: 'Oho-o!'

After that, resistance under my hand ceased, and the pincers popped out of the mouth still clutching a bloody white object. Then my heart stopped with fear, because the object surpassed any tooth in volume, even a soldier's molar. At first I didn't understand anything, but then I almost started to sob: in the pincers, it is true, a tooth with very long roots protruded, but from the tooth hung a huge piece of bone, irregular, vividly white. 'I broke his jaw', I thought, and my legs gave out…” (“The Missing Eye”, pp. 96-7)

Or the description of a suicide who put a bullet in his chest: “My hands, the nursing assistant's hands and Maria Vlassievna's hands began to run quickly over Poliakov's body, and a white gauze with yellowish-red spots came out of his chest. under his coat. His chest rose and fell weakly. I felt the pulse and shivered: the pulse disappeared under my fingers, it dragged and leveled out in a thin thread with small knots, frequent and not lasting. The surgeon's hand was already reaching for the patient's shoulder, holding it between his fingers to inject camphor into that pale body. At that moment, the wounded man detached his lips, causing a pink streak of blood to appear on them, slightly moved his blue lips [...]. Violet, grayish shadows, like those of sunset, were coloring the cavities next to the nostrils more and more vividly, and in the shadows, a tiny sweat was sprouting like dew, like mercury balls.” (“Morphine,” pp. 139-40)

Nas Notes of a Young Doctor a renewal of reality takes place through the incomprehension of its mechanisms. The description of how, along with the tooth, a white object was also broken is intense and dramatic, since the dentist, who is the author himself, does not know exactly what he has just done and feels fear and remorse, considering himself even a criminal.

Bulgakov pursues tenuous discrepancies between the various layers of the “inner man”, which reveal themselves in conflicts, sometimes between reasoning and feeling, sometimes between thought and speech, sometimes between reality and dream. Often the narrator is startled to perceive a voice that comes from within, that murmurs words that are unexpected to him, that contradict what seem to be his thoughts and intentions. These inner dialogues can be found in the Notes, and are sometimes predominant; for example, in the short story “The towel with a rooster”, in which the “internal action” occupies much more space than the external one, which is already extremely intense. I will delve into just three episodes of this “internal action”.

The young doctor arrives at the courtyard of the Murievo hospital and looks at his future residence; suddenly he utters, astonished, a quote that springs to mind in his memory, regardless of his will: “And at that moment, instead of Latin words, a sweet phrase, sung, passed vaguely through my head in my brain, dizzy due to to the cold and shaking, by a fat tenor in light blue pants: '… Hello… sacred refuge…'” (“The towel with a rooster”, pp. 18-9)

An internal dialogue ensues, in which thoughts alternate about a fur coat, an overnight stay in Grabílovka, the slow journey, the rain, the landscape. Then there is the doctor’s first contact with the hospital and its team, followed by a long reflection on the meaning of the expression “feeling at home”: “In addition to fire, human beings also need to feel at home.” (p. 22)

The doctor looks at the textbooks and manuals and is happy with what he sees: “The night went on, and I started to feel at home. 'I'm not to blame for anything', I thought, with affliction and stubbornness. 'I have a diploma, I closed the averages with fifteen grades “five”. I told him, when I was still in the big city, that I wanted to work as an assistant doctor. No. They smiled and said, "You'll feel right at home." Make yourself at home! What if they come with a hernia? Explain, how am I going to feel at home with her? And in particular, how will the patient whose hernia I have in my hands feel? You'll feel at home in the other world (at that moment a chill ran down my spine)…'” (p. 23)

In both passages, the dialogue occurs because of the involuntary emergence of a quotation: a verse from an opera and the expression “feeling at home”, used by someone at the university. Further ahead, the dialogue materializes, becomes completely intelligible: the narrator talks to himself, evaluates or condemns himself, within him comes a kind of “severe voice”, which mocks the young aesculapius; it turns out that this is not exactly the voice of Fear, or of Fatigue, nor a product of the dream. This whole episode deserves to be quoted; it is characteristic of Bulgakov's growing interest in the irrational processes flowing in the "inner man":

“In melancholy and in the twilight I walked around the cabinet. When I reached the lamp, I saw my pale face appear momentarily in the boundless darkness of the fields, next to the flames reflected in the window. 'I look like False Dmitri,' I thought suddenly, stupidly, and sat down at the table again. I tortured myself in solitude for two hours, and tortured myself until my nerves could no longer bear the fears I had created. So I started to calm down and even make some plans. Let's see… The number of queries, they say, is now negligible. They are threshing flax in the villages, the roads are impassable… 'That's why they'll bring you a hernia', a stern voice in my brain let out, 'because, when the roads are impassable, whoever catches a cold (a simple illness) doesn't come, but a hernia will inevitably bring it, you can rest assured, dear colleague doctor.' That voice wasn't dumb at all, was it? I shuddered. 'Hush,' he said to the voice, 'not necessarily a hernia. How about a neurasthenia? Whoever invents can handle it.' 'He who speaks sustains,' replied the voice sarcastically. Let's see… I'm not going to part with the guide… If I have to prescribe something, I can think about it while I wash my hands. The guide will be open right on top of the medical record book. I will give useful but simple recipes. Well, for example, salicylic acid three times a day, 0,5 per dose… 'You can prescribe baking soda!' replied my inner interlocutor, obviously sneering. What does baking soda have to do with it? If you want, I will even prescribe ipecac infusion… in 180 ml. Or in 200. Excuse me. And so, even though no one demanded ipecac from me, in solitude by the lamp I cowardly leafed through the recipe manual, checked the ipecac, and even read in passing that there was such a thing as 'insipine' in the world. It was nothing more than 'quinine diglycolic acid ether sulfate'… Apparently it doesn't taste like quinine. But what is it for? And how to prescribe it? What is she, a powder? May the devil take her! 'Insipine is insipine, but how is it going to be with the hernia, anyway?', stubbornly pestered the fear in the form of a voice. 'I'll send the patient to take a bath', I defended myself, exasperated, 'a bath. And I'll try to put it back in place.' 'A strangled hernia, my angel! To hell with the baths here! A strangled one', fear sang in a demon's voice, 'you have to cut it…' So I gave up and nearly cried. And I said a prayer to the darkness beyond the window: anything you want but a strangled hernia. And weariness sang: 'Go to sleep, unhappy aesculapius. Sleep well, and in the morning everything will be visible. Calm down, young neurasthenic. Look: the darkness beyond the window is quiet, the frozen fields sleep, there is no hernia. And in the morning things will be visible. Sleep… Drop the textbook… You won't understand anything now anyway. Hernia ring…'” (pp. 23-5)

The principle of maximum astonishment when face to face with the world that has become strange, be it interior or exterior, is the foundation of the Notes of a Young Doctor, and is deepened by the premises of the plot, which is often very important in Bulgakov's work. Needless to say, this is the stylistic essence of the grotesque novel. a dog's heart. In it, the whole world is seen through the eyes of a hungry mongrel who, upon noticing a certain citizen in a coat, thinks: “A smell rejuvenated me, revived my belly, squeezing the empty stomach two days ago, a smell that supplanted the like a hospital, the heavenly smell of horse mince with garlic and pepper. I feel, I know, that in the right pocket of this fur-lined coat there is salami. He will trip over me. O my lord! Look at me, I'm dying! Our soul is servile, our burden is infamous!…”

Afterwards, the dog Charik will transform into Comrade Charikov, but he will maintain his canine way of looking at the world and society. One more example: the peculiarly satanic way of looking at Moscow and the Muscovites who have Woland and his aides in The Master and Daisy. However, this is already another topic, a very extensive one: the different types and levels of strangeness in Bulgakov's prose, a prose that is certainly innovative, although it may seem traditionalist.

Doctor Bomgard missed the Revolution and missed the Civil War: there were far more pressing concerns. Bulgakov also wrote about the social upheavals of his time, but these pages tend to have a humorous or grotesque character — such are the journalistic pieces of his time. vespers and other periodicals, so are the chapters on the housewife Vassilissa in the white guard, and so is the novel a dog's heart.

The romance The Master and Daisy it is built in the opposition between the eternal and the ephemeral; hence his ironic-grotesque chapters on society and its mischief, on the Moscow farce, with its communal apartments and its petty passions of greed, and hence the sublime chapters, full of pathos, about the eternal, about the Good, that Yeshua ha-Notzri brought with him to Jerusalem. Relating in a serious and profoundly dramatic way with oneself does not belong to social man, whose passions are ephemeral and transitory, but to physiological and psychological man, who belongs to nature and, through it, to eternity.

1 – Lakchín notes, with great sagacity, that there are two “silent witnesses” who are always present in The Master and Daisy: “the light of the Sun and the light of the Moon, flooding the pages of the book”, and that, in his opinion, “is not simply the most spectacular lighting apparatus for a historical setting, but something that functions as scales of eternity … They mark the links that connect time, the unity of human history”.

This is the key to Bulgákov's poetics, in whose work Lakchin sees “a particularly keen interest in questions related to moral choices, personal responsibilities”, and sums up: “the victory of art over dust, over horror in the face of of an inescapable end, on temporality itself and on the brevity of human existence”.

I must add something that Lakchín, even writing as early as 1968, could not say: the predominance of universal problems – physiological and moral – over social ones, of the eternal over the perishable. That's the meaning of the full lines of pathos that close the novel the white guard, written at a time immediately preceding the Notes of a Young Doctor: "Everything will pass. Suffering, torment, blood, famine, and pestilence. The sword will disappear, but the stars will still remain when our bodies and deeds no longer leave a shadow on the earth. There is not a single person who does not know this. Why, then, do we not turn our eyes to them? Why?"

*Efim Etkind (1918-1999), a philologist and translation theorist, was a professor at the Leningrad State Pedagogical Institute; persecuted for political reasons, he left the Soviet Union in 1974.

Translation: Danilo Hora.

Reference


Mikhail Bulgakov. Notes of a Young Doctor and Other Narratives. Translation, preface and notes by Érika Batista. Afterword by Efim Etkind. São Paulo, Publisher 34, 2020.

 

 

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