Great and terrible year: Bulgakov, The White Guard

Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) The White Guard (Alma Classics, 2016)

I bought a half-price bundle of Bulgakov novels from Alma as I’d never read his work before, and thought I’d show some solidarity with war-scarred Ukraine. I started with the surreal-satirical The Master and Margarita (posted about last month HERE).

The White Guard is an early, largely autobiographical novel begun in the early 1920s. It took Bulgakov years to complete, and went through many redactions. A final version in Russian proofread by Bulgakov was published in Paris in 1929 – there was a substantial émigré Russian population there. It wasn’t published in a complete version in Soviet Russia until 1966. Again it’s highly relevant to the terrible situation in Ukraine today.

It’s set in Kyiv in the harsh winter of 1918-19, a ‘great and terrible’ year, as the novel’s opening words describe it, when the city was shelled and besieged by right-wing nationalist forces exploiting the departure of the German troops who’d defended it until their defeat in November in WWI. There’s a scattered, ineffective defence by raw cadets and a few officers – most of whom had deserted. They’re under-equipped, disorganised and overwhelmed by superior opposition forces – similar in many ways to the tragic events that are taking place in Ukraine now.

Everyday life in Ukraine’s capital has become terrifyingly dangerous. Then, as now, its citizens hear the awful sounds of artillery shells bursting ever nearer the centre of the city. Their attackers show no discrimination in their assault: then as now the tactic is to annihilate the fabric of the cities attacked, and to drive out the inhabitants or kill them if they remain. Arbitrary acts of anti-Semitism and cold-blooded murder are frequent.

The plot centres upon the Turbins, a cultured bourgeois White (pro-Tsar, with allegiance to pre-revolutionary Russia) family and their close circle of friends. Alexei, a young military doctor (as Bulgakov was) is wounded in the conflict and narrowly escapes death (possibly after a mystical intervention by the Virgin Mary). His sister Yelena’s husband, an officer in the Ukrainian forces supposedly defending them, has (like most of his peers) deserted his city and his wife.

It’s a stirring, gripping account of ordinary city folk enduring terrible hardship at the hands of a cruel and murderous enemy – the nationalists are about to be succeeded in their onslaught by the Bolsheviks (Reds). This is perhaps why Bulgakov’s stage play based on this novel was said to be Stalin’s favourite, and why the author was not sent to a gulag or executed, rather than just censored: he portrays the invincible, crushing might of the Bolshevik revolution, against which the Chekhovian bourgeois-liberal ignorance and dreaminess of the likes of the Turbin family and their friends are inevitably doomed to be eliminated.

The style has a modernist, fragmented approach (songs, poems, dreams) and tone that reminded me of Döblin’s Alexanderplatz, among others (maybe Dos Passos, too, with its random snippets of newspaper stories and unattributed dialogue). Eisenstein’s montage technique in film also comes to mind – especially in a parade/religious service scene near the end when the nationalist forces are celebrating victory.

Amid all the savagery Bulgakov shows love and hope in this family and their friends. There are some apocalyptic and literary allusions (especially to War and Peace and more generally to the fiction of Dostoevsky), strange symbols and magical/surreal moments, as in The Master and Margarita – see the link above to my post. Some of these contribute to the sense that none of the factions in this terrible war is perfect; the focus on the White Turbin family presents them with all their illusions, prejudices and flaws, while the nationalists and Reds who are about to crush their lives and culture are portrayed more as ruthless ideologues rather than the romanticised saviours that Stalin would normally have preferred in such representations. It’s all, as Stephen Blackpool says with characteristic stoical bafflement in Hard Times, a muddle.

I read it while suffering from a heavy cold, which added to the sense of weirdness in the narrative. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the dreadful news from Ukraine that fills our airwaves daily, then you might prefer to give this novel a miss. On the other hand, it provides vivid historical context to these events, a salutary reminder that Soviet-sympathetic Russia has always had designs on Ukraine’s territory and people, and is convinced that it has an imperialist (if not divine) right to sovereignty over a nation whose separate, independent and autonomous existence it refuses to recognise or respect.

 

Spies and misdemeanours: le Carré, Boyd, Hill, Beirne

Time for a survey of recent reading.

John le Carré Silverview (Viking, 2021) This was passed on to me by Mrs TD: le Carré’s final published novel before his death two years ago. It’s a complicated story involving an ex city trader turned (non-bookish) bookshop owner who gets tangled up with spies, double agents and conspiracies. It’s entertaining as far as this kind of thing goes. The title is the name of the house where a shady former MI5 agent lives, imitating the name of Nietzsche’s house, of all people. I’d always thought the rural county of Suffolk was a peaceful, serene place to live (my parents and sister lived or still live there), but according to this novel it seems pretty much everyone in that part of East Anglia is involved in espionage and skulduggery.

William Boyd Love Is Blind (Penguin, 2019) I read this on the way back from Italy and left it on the plane, so rely on memory for this note. Brodie is a Scots piano tuner with a monster of a tyrannical father (a firebrand vicar-preacher, implausibly). Brodie falls in love with a Russian opera singer who’s also involved with a virtuoso concert pianist and his brutish brother. After hair-raising scrapes in various European cities Brodie finds himself in a remote jungle island assisting a pioneering woman ethnologist. As one does. The plot is even more complex than the le Carré. When Brodie discovers he has TB it gets even more tangled. The characters are a bit flat, but the descriptions of piano tuning are strangely engaging. This competent novel would have benefited from some editorial pruning.

Susan Hill The Comforts of Home (Vintage, 2019) Another handed on by Mrs TD. It’s one of a series, apparently, with the central character called Det. Chief Inspector Simon Serailler. It seems inevitable in this cop-centred genre that he’s a maverick rule-breaker and loner, despite being a serial flirt. The main crime (a murder on a Scottish island) at the heart of the plot is the least interesting part of the novel – it’s the relationships between Serailler, his GP sister and her husband, who’s also his boss, and her sons, that are the most entertaining aspect. There’s also a cold case (another nasty murder) that Serailler is put on to by said boss to ease him back into work after a horrific accident in which he’d lost his arm – an incident presumably from the previous novel in the series. I can’t say I’ll rush to read another one, though it’s all efficiently done, if a bit predictable.

Luke Francis Beirne Foxhunt (Baraka Books, 2022: ARC courtesy of the Canadian publishers). A cold-war thriller rather like early le Carré. In 1949 a Canadian writer called Lowell moves to London to edit a new magazine intended to promote Western literature, values and culture and its artistic freedom compared with the repressive regime of the Soviet Union. When a Canadian colleague is murdered he begins to realise all is not as it seems: the magazine’s backers are as sinister in their way as their enemies. The politically naïve Lowell undergoes a painful education in the amoral games played by these characters who lurk in the shadows. I’m not a huge fan of espionage novels, but this one is skilfully crafted and has an original premise and richly drawn characters. The revelation at one point that the Soviets were experimenting with advanced nuclear weapons is eerily pertinent given recent news about the brutal war/invasion in Ukraine and related developments.

There’s a foxhunt at one point, hence the title, but it’s not one as Trollope would have depicted it.

Rome visit 2: including a Mary of Egypt

Last time I wrote about the gorgeous mosaics in the basilica San Clemente that we visited during our short break in Rome recently. Today I’d like to say a few things about some of the other outstanding places we saw.

Bernini elephant I particularly liked the Bernini elephant near the even more spectacular Pantheon. Revealed to the public in 1667 in the Piazza della Minerva, the animal bears on its back one of thirteen huge Egyptian obelisks dotted around the city’s squares. This one was probably brought to Rome in the first century for a temple to Isis located here. It dates from c.580 BC. He has an admirably long, curling trunk, and a slightly worried expression. Probably the effort of holding up such a heavy load.

We walked across the Tiber – which was criss-crossed by swooping swallows feasting on insects just above the surface of the water (still haven’t seen any in Cornwall) – to Vatican City and the impressive avenue leading up to St Peter’s. Visitors were told to wear FFP2 face masks. A young woman ahead of us had passed through bag checks but then been turned back by the next level of security. She was asking people if they had a spare mask. She was so distraught we took pity on her and found a spare in our rucksack. It was worth it for the beatific smile she gave us.

Inside the basilica was jaw-dropping. It’s the largest structure I recall being in – including the massive hangar where Concorde was built in Filton (I’ve mentioned my student vacation job there before). It’s not necessary to relate what’s to be seen there. It starts with Michelangelo’s Pietà just inside the main doors – then the wonders continue.

I was expecting a rather more ostentatious, opulent interior, having seen so many Baroque churches in our wanderings in Rome, but St Peter’s is relatively restrained, even austere in comparison. It’s still sumptuous, of course, but my expectations of distasteful excess were not fulfilled. It was a genuinely spiritual experience. We even joined a service of mass. Mrs TD was raised a Catholic, so was thrilled to take communion in such a place. We didn’t understand too much of the sermon, but I gathered it was about good and evil, and renouncing the devil. Not surprisingly. We watched the film The Two Popes on Netflix when we got back: made a lot more sense having experienced the place for ourselves.

Bernini's baldacchino St Peter's I would single out for special mention the enormous baldacchino over the high altar under the basilica’s dome. Completed by Bernini (again) in 1634, it’s twenty-six metres high – as high as many palazzi in Rome. Rather like the more portable palanquins, these structures would originally have been tent-like cloth canopies; this more grandiose, architectural example is made of bronze. The name derives from ‘Baghdad’, because the cloth used in early versions of these canopies originally came from there.

Mary of Egypt St Peter's Regular visitors to TDays will know of my interest in hagiography, and in the legend of St Mary of Egypt in particular. Rome has several representations of this penitent ascetic saint, and even a temple that was once a church dedicated to her. Time didn’t permit a visit to all of these, and I stupidly neglected to research properly where to locate the statue of her among the 140 figures perched on top of the grandiose portico-terrace curving round the square in front of the basilica. Hers is one of a group of 24 in the north colonnade , and they’re so high up it’s hard to identify them from ground level. So now I’m home I’ve returned to the online image (link HERE) and can pick it out properly from the dozens of others – next time I’ll know exactly where to find her and can take my own pictures.

There were so many other places in Rome that I could enthuse about, but I think I’ll leave it there. I’d single out for passing mention the moody Caravaggios in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi near where we were staying by the Piazza Navona, and another in the neighbouring San Agostino church.

I could write a whole post just on the Piazza Navona itself. One of its three beautiful fountains – the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (1651) – depicts symbolically four great rivers: the Nile, Danube, Ganges and Plate. Bernini crops up again here: he designed it, and did one of the carvings. Legend has it that the figures facing his arch-rival Borromini’s church façade opposite are shielding their eyes from its horrors!

This is the church Sant’Agnese in Agone. As a former student of hagiography I’m thrilled to think that the relics of this saint, martyred when she was just thirteen, are enshrined here – on the site where the martyrdom took place.

So many places to return to or see next time. The Keats-Shelley museum by the Spanish Steps was closed, but it was good (and sobering) to see its exterior and think of poor Keats wasting away inside. The Trevi Fountain was thronged with tourists, but still breathtaking. As for the Colosseum – those Romans were brilliant architects and engineers. We’ll go inside next time.

 

 

Rome visit 1: a beautiful mosaic

We returned on Monday from a five-day visit to Rome – our first holiday abroad (apart from visiting family in Spain) since the pandemic began. We loved the city, and in particular the overlaps seen everywhere between sites and artefacts of different periods of history: step off a busy modern shopping street and stumble upon a first-century theatre or temple.

One of the most interesting examples of this layering of history is seen in the basilica of San Clemente, just a few hundred meters from the marvels (and tourist crowds) of the Colosseum. Friends had recommended a visit, and we’re so pleased we did. There are hundreds of beautiful churches in the city; there seems to be one on every corner (or tucked in the middle of an otherwise unassuming block). This one stands out.

St Clement lived towards the end of the first century; he was the third Pope, and is said to have been consecrated by St Peter. During the emperor Trajan’s anti-Christian persecution he was exiled to Chersonesus (near modern besieged Kherson) in the Crimea, and put to work in a quarry. Legend has it that he angered his captors by ministering to his fellow prisoners (and performing miracles). He was martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the Black Sea.

St Cyril, a scholar born in Thessalonika, who developed the glagolithic alphabet (later adapted into the Cyrillic one), and translated the gospels as part of his mission to evangelise the Slavic peoples, found Clement’s relics (and the supposed anchor to which he’d been tied) and had some of them brought to Rome in about 867. They are still preserved in a shrine beneath the basilica’s high altar. St Cyril’s own relics are also preserved in this basilica, along with those of his brother and fellow author, theologian and missionary, Methodius.

A relic of Clement’s head was claimed by a cave monastery at Kiev. It’s sobering to think of these events as Ukraine suffers now at the hands of the same Russians who plundered and destroyed much of their Christian heritage over the centuries (and rewrote their history), and in particular under the Soviet regime of the 1920s-30s.

The existing building dates from about 1100, with 17C alterations. What’s fascinating is that it stands on a subterranean layer of earlier structures. Just beneath is a 4C church, converted from an earlier Roman nobleman’s villa. Underneath this is an even earlier space that had been used as a mithraeum – an altar and temple for rituals in honour of the Roman god (adapted from Persian practice) Mithras. From the 1C this area would have been used for clandestine Christian worship when this was still forbidden by the Roman authorities.

You have to book online to see these lower levels and their famous 11C frescos; unfortunately we weren’t able to do so when we were there – but it’s easy to find out about them (and find interesting images) online.

But it’s worth visiting just for the medieval basilica at street level. It’s stunningly beautiful. You enter through a nondescript door in a plain façade into a charming cloistered open courtyard, once used by the Irish Dominican monks who took over administration of the basilica in the 17C when they fled Protestant persecution in their homeland (see the pattern emerging here?)

San Clemente apse mosaic

Source Wikimedia Commons, licence CC-BY-SA 3.0; my own pictures weren’t very good

Apart from the sumptuously decorated ceilings and walls (with some lovely 15C frescos by Masolino in the chapel of St Catherine), the eye is drawn most to the gorgeous 12C mosaics and wall paintings in the apse.

The central image is of a vine growing out of a tree surmounted by a crucifixion scene. Figures of Mary, Jesus’ mother, and John stand beside the cross. Twelve doves (perhaps symbolising the apostles, as well as peace) perch on the cross. Paradise is represented, but also the earthly church and its people.

Various figures appear in the curved, gilded mosaic: various saints and prophets, but also, charmingly, peasants sowing seeds being eaten by birds, and others with their livestock and fowl. Two stags drink from the rivers flowing from Eden – an allusion to the opening line of Psalm 42.

Beneath these images stands a row of twelve sheep, representing the apostles, all facing the agnus dei in their centre. At each side are symbolic representations of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. On the walls beneath the apsidal dome stand figures of the apostles in human form.

The style and iconography are a mix of Byzantine and western tropes – a fitting blend for this city of historical congruences, cultural influences and historical layers.

More images and details of this mosaic can be found at this site.