A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov

A Country Doctors Notebook A Country Doctor’s Notebook is the book that was selected for me in the last Classics Club Spin. I was happy when I discovered that I would be reading this one, not only because it’s much shorter than most of the others on my Classics Club list, but also because I loved Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita which I read four years ago in 2011. I knew this book was going to be very different from The Master and Margarita, but I hoped I would still enjoy it…and I did.

A Country Doctor’s Notebook is a collection of semi-autobiographical short stories originally written in Russian in the 1920s (the edition I read uses Michael Glenny’s English translation from 1975). Like the protagonist of this book, Mikhail Bulgakov was a ‘country doctor’. After graduating from Kiev University he became a physician and from 1916-1918 he worked at a small hospital near a remote village in the province of Smolensk.

The fictional doctor in the book, Vladimir Bomgard, is clearly based on Bulgakov himself and in the first story we see him as a young, newly-qualified doctor of twenty-four arriving at Muryovo Hospital, a full day’s drive from the nearest town. He is pleased to find that the hospital is clean and well equipped, but with no practical experience and nobody to turn to for advice (apart from a feldsher, or partly-qualified assistant, and two midwives) the thought of bearing sole responsibility for the lives of his patients terrifies him.

During his first weeks and months at Muryovo, the country doctor faces all sorts of problems for which his university education had completely failed to prepare him. With no electricity, no telephones, poor roads, the risk of being cut off from the world during snowstorms, and the ignorance of peasants regarding simple medical matters, life at Muryovo is primitive and isolated. Most of all, the young doctor lives in fear of encountering a strangulated hernia, a case of peritonitis or a difficult birth and he comes to dread hearing a knock on the door in the middle of the night.

“It’s not my fault,” I repeated to myself stubbornly and unhappily. “I’ve got my degree and a first class one at that. Didn’t I warn them back in town that I wanted to start off as a junior partner in a practice? But no, they just smiled and said, ‘You’ll get your bearings.’ So now I’ve got to find my bearings. Suppose they bring me a hernia? Just tell me how I’ll find my bearings with that?”

As the book progresses the doctor slowly begins to gain confidence and discovers that true knowledge comes with experience.

It was fascinating to read about conditions in a remote Russian hospital at the start of the twentieth century and the medical procedures and treatments that were used. I had a lot of sympathy for the doctor, being thrown in at the deep end with so little experience and being expected to operate on patients with no supervision and no advice other than illustrations in his textbooks. If you’re squeamish I should probably warn you that some of the operations he performs are described in full, gory detail (the tracheotomy particularly sticks in my mind). But this is also a book with a lot of humour and there are some very funny moments as the doctor panics, guesses and muddles his way through each crisis.

As I mentioned above, I read the Michael Glenny translation which I was quite happy with and found perfectly readable. I enjoyed all of the stories in A Country Doctor’s Notebook and I’m so pleased the Classics Spin motivated me to pick up this book at last.

The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope

The Eustace Diamonds Today is Anthony Trollope’s 200th birthday! When I saw that Karen of Books and Chocolate was hosting a special Trollope Bicentennial Celebration this month, I knew I wanted to take part and I knew exactly what I would be reading. Having read and enjoyed Trollope’s first two Palliser novels, Can You Forgive Her? and Phineas Finn, it made sense to continue with the third in the series – The Eustace Diamonds.

Unlike Trollope’s other set of six novels, the Chronicles of Barsetshire, which revolve around a cathedral town and the lives of the clergy, the Palliser novels have plots involving politics and featuring the Palliser family – the politician Plantagenet Palliser, his wife Lady Glencora, and his uncle, the Duke of Omnium. In The Eustace Diamonds, though, these three characters are pushed into the background. Our heroine this time (although, as Trollope himself tells us at the beginning of the book, ‘heroine’ is maybe not the right way to describe her) is Lizzie Greystock, who quickly becomes Lady Eustace when she marries the wealthy Sir Florian.

After less than a year of marriage, Sir Florian dies, leaving Lizzie a rich widow in possession of a valuable diamond necklace which she claims her husband had given to her before his death. However, the Eustace family lawyer, Mr Camperdown, insists that the diamonds belong to the Eustace estate and that Lizzie has no legal right to them. The question of the ownership of the necklace forms the central plot of the novel, as the people around Lizzie are forced to take sides. Her cousin Frank vows to support her no matter what, while Lord Fawn, who has recently proposed to her, is horrified by the scandal surrounding his fiancée and searches for a way out of the marriage.

Lizzie is selfish, she tells lies, she manipulates people and situations to her own advantage and her own aunt describes her as “false, dishonest, heartless, cruel, irreligious, ungrateful, mean, ignorant, greedy, and vile”. She is a difficult character to like (and I was sorry that Trollope doesn’t give her more redeeming features) but she is a fascinating character to read about and I loved following the twists and turns of her story.

But The Eustace Diamonds also follows other characters and other storylines. There’s Lucy Morris, a governess in the service of Lord Fawn’s mother, who is love with Lizzie’s cousin, Frank Greystock. Frank, however, is preoccupied with Lizzie and her ordeals, and it seems he is unable to give Lucy the commitment she deserves. And there’s also Lucinda Roanoke, a young woman with strong views of her own on the subject of marriage – views which don’t always agree with those of her aunt, Mrs Carbuncle.

I’m finding it difficult to decide exactly what I thought of The Eustace Diamonds. In some ways I loved it even more than the previous two Pallisers, but in others I found it the weakest of the three. I struggled a little bit with the amount of political detail in Phineas Finn, but in this book there is far less focus on politics. Instead, Trollope concentrates on relationships, on marriage, on the law, and on attitudes towards money, property and reputation. In the middle of the book, the dispute surrounding the jewels begins to go in a more sensational direction, which I did find interesting, but I couldn’t help thinking that this type of plot might have been better suited to an author like Wilkie Collins rather than Trollope.

At 800 pages I did think the book felt too long for the story that was being told. Most of Trollope’s novels are long, of course, but I’m not usually conscious of the length while I’m actually reading; this time I was. Despite being absorbed in the story, I found the plot very repetitive at times and the controversy over the ownership of the diamonds seemed to go round in circles for a while – maybe a result of the novel originally being published as a serial and needing to be drawn out over a long period of time.

I did enjoy The Eustace Diamonds overall, though – and can honestly say I haven’t read a Trollope novel yet that I haven’t enjoyed. Now I’m looking forward to catching up with Phineas Finn again in the fourth Palliser novel, Phineas Redux.

The League Of The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel After reading The Scarlet Pimpernel a few years ago I was pleased to find that Baroness Orczy had written a whole series of Pimpernel books. I slowly (very slowly – this is only the third one I’ve read in three years) began to work my way through them in chronological order, but as I haven’t been particularly impressed by either this one or Sir Percy Leads the Band, I’m now wondering if I really want to read all of the others.

The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel was published in 1919 and is a collection of short stories, unlike the first two books I read which were both full-length novels. I don’t often choose to read short stories but as I’m also in the middle of some longer, heavier books at the moment, I thought this collection would be ideal for dipping into when I needed something lighter.

There are eleven stories in this book – all set during the French Revolution – and each one involves a family or group of aristocrats whose lives are in danger. It falls to Sir Percy Blakeney and his friends (known as the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel) to rescue them from the guillotine, often with the help of some clever disguises, cunning deceptions and daring rescue plans. Although all eleven stories are entertaining, they do become very repetitive, and once you’re familiar with the way Sir Percy works they are also very predictable.

Most of the stories are too short to have much of a plot and their main purpose just seems to be to highlight Sir Percy’s various masquerades and tricks, but there are a few stories that are longer and more complex. My favourite was probably the first one, Sir Percy Explains, in which our hero agrees to help rescue a little boy who has been captured by the revolutionary Jean Paul Marat. Almost all of the stories are written in the third person, but there are one or two with a first person narrator, which I liked because it added some variety to the book. How Jean Pierre met the Scarlet Pimpernel, narrated by the loyal servant of an impoverished noblewoman, was one of these and another of my favourites from this collection.

I was a bit disappointed that, given the title of this book, none of the other League members apart from Percy have a big part to play in any of the adventures. Tony and Ffoulkes make a few brief appearances, and one story deals with the subject of a traitor in the League, but that’s all. There’s no Marguerite either – Percy’s wife only has a one-sentence mention in one of the stories – but we do see a lot of the Pimpernel’s enemy, Citizen Chauvelin.

From what I’ve heard about the Scarlet Pimpernel series, the quality varies quite a lot from book to book. This one is worth reading, especially if you like short story collections, but it certainly doesn’t compare to the original novel. If I do continue to read the series, the next book I come to chronologically will be I Will Repay, which I’m hoping I’ll enjoy more than this one.

Romola by George Eliot

Romola I’ll admit that I didn’t feel very enthusiastic about starting to read Romola. I had added it to my Classics Club list because I loved Middlemarch and because the Italian Renaissance setting sounded appealing to me. Then I came across some reviews that said it was very difficult to read, overly detailed and boring, and I began to wonder what I had let myself in for. Luckily, now that I’ve read the book, I can say that none of these things were big problems for me. Yes, it was challenging, and yes, the amount of historical and political detail was overwhelming, but none of that mattered because I was so caught up in the story and the lives of the characters.

Romola is set in Florence in the final years of the 15th century and I wonder if this could be one of the reasons it’s not more widely read as it isn’t what you would typically expect from a Victorian novel. There’s no doubt that Eliot must have thoroughly researched the setting and the historical background, although it sometimes seemed that she had been determined to include every little fact and detail she uncovered during that research. Apparently Anthony Trollope wrote to Eliot after reading the first instalment and praised her for her descriptions of Florence, ‘wonderful in their energy and in their accuracy’, but warned her not to ‘fire too much over the heads of your readers’. Well, a lot of it did go over my head, and although I loved the book overall I won’t pretend that I understood everything I read.

The title character, Romola, is the daughter of an elderly scholar, Bardo de’ Bardi. Romola’s brother has left home to join the church and Romola is doing her best to take his place in helping their father with his classical studies. This work does not really interest Romola, however, so when they are introduced to a young man called Tito Melema who agrees to become Bardi’s assistant, this seems to be the perfect solution.

Tito, a Greek scholar, has just arrived in Florence after surviving a shipwreck and is looking forward to building a new life and career for himself. When he learns that his adoptive father, Baldassarre, has been sold into slavery in Antioch and needs his assistance, Tito must decide whether to put his own comfort above his duty to his father. Meanwhile Romola is beginning to fall in love with Tito, but knows nothing of his relationship with Baldassarre – or of his entanglement with a pretty young Florentine girl called Tessa.

The story of Romola and Tito unfolds against the backdrop of a very important period in Florentine history. Piero de’ Medici has been driven from Florence as the French prepare to invade and religious fervour is sweeping through the city under the leadership of the Dominican preacher, Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola is an important character in Romola – along with Niccolò Machiavelli he is one of several real historical figures to appear in the novel – and is portrayed here as a complex human being with both good points and bad.

The fictional characters are even more interesting than the historical ones; the villain in this novel is the equal of almost any in Victorian fiction. He is particularly fascinating because when we first meet him he doesn’t appear to be villainous at all; his character undergoes a slow descent into deceit and treachery so that I went from liking him to loathing him. Romola sometimes feels more like a typical virtuous and dutiful Victorian heroine than a 15th century one (she reminded me of Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch) but I liked her and enjoyed watching her character develop.

I think how much you take away from Romola depends on how much effort you put in. You can look up every reference if you want to, or you can just be swept along by the story – like a lot of classics it works on more than one level. I certainly didn’t understand it all and I got very confused by the political intrigue towards the end of the book but as long as I could keep track of who was on which side, who was being betrayed and who was doing the betraying I was happy.

This hasn’t become a favourite classic but it’s one of the best I’ve read for a while. I was gripped by the plot, fascinated by the characters and loved the portrayal of Florence, its buildings, its art and culture and its people. Having only read Middlemarch, Silas Marner and now Romola so far, I’m looking forward to reading George Eliot’s other novels!

The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome

The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do. There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do. Wasting time is merely an occupation then, and a most exhausting one. Idleness, like kisses, to be sweet must be stolen.

Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. I still pick it up from my shelf at times to re-read certain passages when I want to cheer myself up. The sequel, Three Men on the Bummel, wasn’t quite as funny but I did enjoy reading that book too and was looking forward to trying this one, The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (published in 1886, a few years before Three Men in a Boat).

Unlike the other two books I’ve read by Jerome, this is not a novel but a collection of short essays covering topics as diverse as Cats and Dogs, Eating and Drinking, Being in Love and Being Shy. The tone of his writing varies from essay to essay – sometimes he is melancholy and poignant, sometimes satirical and hilarious (I should warn you that if you read any of Jerome’s books in public, you won’t be able to stop yourself from smiling and should be prepared for people asking you what’s so funny).

A few examples:

On the vanity of cats…

I do like cats. They are so unconsciously amusing. There is such a comic dignity about them, such a “How dare you!” “Go away, don’t touch me” sort of air. Now, there is nothing haughty about a dog. They are “Hail, fellow, well met” with every Tom, Dick, or Harry that they come across. When I meet a dog of my acquaintance I slap his head, call him opprobrious epithets, and roll him over on his back; and there he lies, gaping at me, and doesn’t mind it a bit. Fancy carrying on like that with a cat! Why, she would never speak to you again as long as you lived.

On babies…

There are various methods by which you may achieve ignominy and shame. By murdering a large and respected family in cold blood and afterward depositing their bodies in the water companies’ reservoir, you will gain much unpopularity in the neighbourhood of your crime, and even robbing a church will get you cordially disliked, especially by the vicar. But if you desire to drain to the dregs the fullest cup of scorn and hatred that a fellow human creature can pour out for you, let a young mother hear you call dear baby “it.”

On buying an umbrella…

I bought one and found that he was quite correct. It did open and shut itself. I had no control over it whatever. When it began to rain, which it did that season every alternate five minutes, I used to try and get the machine to open, but it would not budge; and then I used to stand and struggle with the wretched thing, and shake it, and swear at it, while the rain poured down in torrents. Then the moment the rain ceased the absurd thing would go up suddenly with a jerk and would not come down again; and I had to walk about under a bright blue sky, with an umbrella over my head, wishing that it would come on to rain again, so that it might not seem that I was insane.

I did enjoy this book, but I didn’t like it as much as the two Three Men…novels. I found it very uneven – there are some great lines and anecdotes, but it’s also quite boring in places, especially when he becomes very sentimental. It’s worth reading (and the lack of a plot makes it a perfect book to dip in and out of when you have a few spare minutes) but I wouldn’t describe it as an essential, must-read classic. On the other hand, this is what Jerome himself says about the book in his Preface:

What readers ask nowadays in a book is that it should improve, instruct, and elevate. This book wouldn’t elevate a cow. I cannot conscientiously recommend it for any useful purposes whatever. All I can suggest is that when you get tired of reading “the best hundred books,” you may take this up for half an hour. It will be a change.

It was certainly a change!

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

David Copperfield Since I started blogging I have been trying to read at least one Dickens novel a year – I read A Christmas Carol in 2009, Bleak House in 2010, Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 2011, Great Expectations in 2012 and A Tale of Two Cities in 2013. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to read any Dickens at all in 2014 so decided to make him a priority this year. With plenty of his books still to choose from, I picked up David Copperfield on the first day of January. It took me most of the month to read it – it’s a long book – and it has taken me almost as long to decide what to say about it!

How do you begin to write about a book like this? The plot is not the sort that you can sum up adequately in a paragraph or two. In fact, there really isn’t a central plot at all, but rather, lots of subplots all circling around the narrator, David Copperfield – or Trotwood, Trot, Daisy or Doady as he is called at various points in the novel…usually anything but David!

At the time of David’s birth, his father has already been dead for six months. Growing up in the small Suffolk town of Blunderstone, his early years are relatively peaceful and uneventful, until his mother marries again and David is sent away to boarding school. As he progresses through school and on into adulthood, a host of fascinating and eccentric characters pass in and out of David’s life. These include:

  • Betsey Trotwood, David’s formidable but kind-hearted great-aunt, who never quite recovers from the disappointment of David being a boy instead of the little girl she’d set her heart on.
  • Mr Murdstone, David’s cruel and brutal stepfather.
  • David’s beloved childhood nurse, Peggotty, her brother Daniel and his nephew and niece, Ham and Little Em’ly.
  • James Steerforth, a handsome, charming and manipulative schoolfriend of David’s.
  • The villainous ‘humble clerk’, Uriah Heep.
  • Wilkins Micawber, with whom David lodges in London, always in debt but never giving up hope that ‘something will turn up’.
  • And Dora Spenlow and Agnes Wickfield, two very different young women who enter David’s life.

All of these characters, as well as many others, have an important role to play in David’s story, helping to shape the man he grows up to be.

Of all of Dickens’ novels David Copperfield was apparently the author’s own favourite. In his own words, “like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield.” It’s also supposedly the most autobiographical of his novels – and having read Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life, I can see where he drew on some of his own personal experiences in writing David’s story. Even the style of David Copperfield is autobiographical, with David himself narrating the events of his life, sometimes in retrospect from an unspecified point in the future.

Although, as I’ve explained, the story is made up of a set of complex and closely linked subplots, this is very much a novel that is driven by the characters. As with any book with such a large cast of characters, there were some that I loved (such as Betsey Trotwood and Peggotty), and some I disliked (such as Steerforth and the Murdstones) but all were so well-drawn they seemed to jump out of the pages. The one character I really couldn’t stand, though, was Dora Spenlow! Dickens gets a lot of criticism for his female characters, but Dora is the worst I’ve encountered in any of his books so far: a woman who happily calls herself a ‘silly little thing’ and asks to be thought of as a ‘child-wife’. Thank goodness for Agnes Wickfield – I suppose she could also be criticised for representing the Victorian ideal, but I found her a much more likeable and far less infuriating character than Dora!

David Copperfield, as I mentioned at the start of this post, is a very long book. My edition had more than 900 pages, which seemed quite daunting at first, and I fully expected it to take much longer than a month to read, especially as I like to have one or two other books on the go at the same time. Once I started reading, though, I found it surprisingly addictive and it was actually a much quicker read than I imagined it would be. Of the seven Dickens novels I’ve now read, A Tale of Two Cities is still my favourite, but I think this one ties with Our Mutual Friend for second place.

Bellarion by Rafael Sabatini

Bellarion This was the book chosen for me in the Classics Club Spin last November. I was supposed to post my review by the 4th January, but Christmas, other books and life in general got in the way of finishing it on time. Well, better late than never!

Rafael Sabatini is best known as the author of Scaramouche, Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, but he also wrote more than thirty other books including this one, Bellarion – or Bellarion the Fortunate, to give it its original title. Bellarion was published in 1926 but, like most of Sabatini’s novels, it is set much earlier – in Renaissance Italy, in fact: a world of warring city states, tyrannical dukes and beautiful princesses, of powerful condottieri and bands of mercenary soldiers, of sieges and battles, poisonings and conspiracies.

Our hero, Bellarion, is an intelligent but naïve young man who has been raised in the monastery of Cigliano and believes that there is no such thing as sin. Shocked by his heretical ideas, the abbot sends him off to university in Pavia, hoping that he will learn something about the world while he is there. Almost as soon as Bellarion leaves the abbey, he becomes the victim of a bandit pretending to be a friar. With his money and letter of introduction stolen from him, and wrongly accused of being the bandit’s accomplice, Bellarion flees to the Palace of Casale in Montferrat where the Princess Valeria agrees to protect him.

Montferrat is currently under the rule of Valeria’s uncle Theodore, who is acting as Regent until her brother, Gian Giacomo, is old enough to take his rightful place as Marquis. When Bellarion uncovers a plot by Theodore to destroy his nephew and keep the throne for himself, he becomes entangled in a complex web of conspiracy and intrigue that will lead him to the Duchy of Milan and the court of its cruel and brutal young duke, Gian Maria Visconti.

Under the command of the famous condottiero (mercenary leader), Facino Cane, Bellarion quickly rises to become one of the greatest military captains of his time, finding that brains and quick wit can make up for a lack of physical ability and clever strategies and trickery can often work where strength and force fail. Even as he becomes more and more deeply involved in the affairs of Milan, Bellarion never forgets that everything he does is for the benefit of Montferrat and his beloved Princess Valeria. Unfortunately, Valeria has completely misinterpreted his motives and is convinced that Bellarion is her enemy rather than her friend. It seems that all his efforts could be in vain…

I loved this book, as I expected to, having enjoyed two of Sabatini’s others. Scaramouche is still my favourite, but I think I preferred this one to Captain Blood, mainly because I find stories set on land easier to read than stories set at sea! You do still need to concentrate, though, to be able to untangle the complicated political situations in Milan and Montferrat, to follow the rivalries between the two factions, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, and to keep track of who is conspiring against whom. Also, because Bellarion is building a career for himself as a military leader, there are lots of battle scenes (large scale battles rather than the more intimate one-on-one sword fighting scenes in Scaramouche). If you’re like me and are often tempted to skip long battles and discussions of military strategies, you can’t do that here – you need to read them all carefully so that you can appreciate Bellarion’s genius!

I did have mixed feelings about Bellarion himself. There’s no doubt that he’s a fascinating character; his rapid transformation from a naive, unworldly young man to a great military commander and political mastermind is great to watch. At the beginning, with his mixture of youthful enthusiasm, innocence and intelligence, he reminded me of d’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers; later, after rising from nowhere to become a trusted leader and master schemer, he reminded me not just of d’Artagnan but also Nicholas de Fleury from Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series. (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dunnett had read this book; there’s a scene with a captured supply train that made me think of The Game of Kings.)

However, there was something about Bellarion that stopped me from really warming to him as a character. I thought he was a little bit too clever and too aware of his own cleverness. You could say the same, I suppose, about Sabatini’s other heroes, Andre-Louis Moreau and Peter Blood, but they also had flaws and vulnerabilities that made them feel more human and more believable. I never felt that I really needed to fear for Bellarion; whatever difficult situation he got himself into I had no doubt that he would come out of it unscathed. I didn’t like Valeria much either – she annoyed me with her total misreading of Bellarion’s motives and the way she always thought the worst of him. To be fair to Valeria, though, she didn’t have the knowledge that we, the reader, had!

Bellarion is a fictional character, but many of the others in the novel are based on real historical figures. Characters such as Theodore of Montferrat, Facino Cane and his wife Beatrice, Gian Maria Visconti of Milan, and Bellarion’s rival condottiero, the Count of Carmagnola, are all people who really existed – although as I don’t know much about this particular period of history I wasn’t sure how much of the story was based on fact and how much on fiction until I did some research after finishing the book!

Despite not really caring for the main characters I did enjoy this book (another Classics Spin success!) and am looking forward to reading the other Sabatini novel on my Classics Club list, The Sea Hawk.