Recent reading: Mann, Bulgakov, etc.

It’s been a busy month. Two trips to London to visit friends (went to see My Fair Lady at the ENO – terrific) and in Worthing (saw Gershwin’s Crazy For You at the Chichester Festival theatre -also good). I’ve also had a big work project with an improbably close deadline. So this will be a very quick round-up of recent reading.

Alison Moore, The Lighthouse Salt Publishing, 2012. I’d expected a novel about lighthouses, but this isn’t that novel. The timid protagonist does stay in a German pension called Hellhaus, which apparently translates as lighthouse, and his most treasured possession is a silver perfume holder in the shape of one – but that’s it. Otherwise it’s a slightly strange story about loveless marriages, disappointments of other kinds, all told in a flat, affectless style. I wasn’t overwhelmed, but it was ok.

T Mann Felix Krull coverThomas Mann, Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man. PMC 1973; first published in German in 1954. Translated by Denver Lindley. I’d expected a novel called ‘Confessions’ to show some contrition, but there’s not much of that here. It’s more of a boastful fictional autobiography of Felix’s life to the age of about 21. He’s a bit of a male Becky Sharp: lives on his wit and good looks. It’s an enjoyable romp involving swapping identities, travels to Paris and Lisbon, and some passionate affairs that Casanova would have approved of. There were digressions and purple patches that slowed things down too much, but it was all good fun. I was inspired to read this late Mann by Colm Toibin’s The Magician. I thought I’d posted about that, but just checked: I haven’t, so must do so.

Bulgakov Dr's Notebook coverMikhail Bulgakov, A Young Doctor’s Notebook Alma Classics, 2012. First published 1925-26. Translated from the Russian by Hugh Aplin. Another from the set I bought recently from Alma to support, in some very small way, the current terrible struggle of Ukraine (Bulgakov was born in Kiev in 1891). It’s a short collection of short stories about the clearly autobiographical doctor’s experiences, straight out of medical school at the tender age of 24, in his first job in a small hospital in a remote peasant village in Russia. A common theme is his encountering difficult cases that he’s never dealt with before except in the university teaching room. A young girl’s leg is badly mangled in an agricultural accident, and he has to perform his first amputation; a pregnant woman needs a tricky procedure to save her unborn child, and so on. Each time he’s racked with doubts about his ability to succeed without damaging or even killing his patient. He even rushes out on a pretext to quickly consult his medical books before starting his procedures with patients. He doesn’t always get it right, either. Peasant ignorance is also highlighted, not very sympathetically – but the doctor can be forgiven for finding their apparent stupidity vexing. The final tale is a gripping, scary account of another doctor’s morphine addiction – a problem Bulgakov  also struggled with. It’s all a bit like a grim Dr Finlay’s Casebook without the cloying charm. This collection enabled me to spend a long train journey entertainingly.

Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019. I stupidly forgot to note the translator’s name, having left the book behind for one of my London friends to read. I’d read positive reviews of this Man Booker International prize winner, but it left me more perplexed than satisfied. It’s an engaging enough story about an eccentric woman in her sixties, living in a secluded forest in Poland near the Czech border, who’s grieving for her lost ‘girls’ – her two dogs, and who becomes involved in the mystery about a series of murders of hunters in the forest. I found the long sections where she muses on astrology, one of her other obsessions (apart from animals), tedious, and never really got into her mind. Some of her philosophical asides are more interesting, but for me the whole thing was just too implausible. Maybe I shouldn’t have read most of this one on another long train journey.

Larkin Jill coverPhilip Larkin, Jill Faber, 1975, first published 1946. Larkin wrote this when he was just 21. I chose it from my friend’s shelves, having finished the books I’d taken to London and Worthing with me (see above), because we’d been to Chichester Cathedral (before the theatre) and seen the Arundel tombs that inspired Larkin’s famous, lovely poem. It’s a painful read. Another timid protagonist, John Kemp, lacking in self-esteem; this one goes up to Oxford in 1940. He’s from a humble working-class (or lower middle-class) background in industrial Lancashire. He finds he has to share rooms with a drunken, oafish cad from a minor public school who patronises and uses him disgracefully (John even lets him copy his essays to pass off as his own, and lends him money he can ill afford to lose, for of course the swine will never pay him back), but the poor lad is too lacking in confidence and experience to stand up for himself; he even admires and tries to emulate this brat. The Jill of the title is an imaginary version of his sister who he invents as a desperate way of ingratiating himself with the boorish roommate. It doesn’t go to plan. It’s a brilliant, salutary antidote to the languid, rose-tinted nostalgia in other Oxford novels like Brideshead.


23 thoughts on “Recent reading: Mann, Bulgakov, etc.

  1. I envy you your visit to Chichester, my home city. We haven’t managed to get to the theatre this season, I have, however managed to attend some services in the Cathedral, and make a point of saying ‘hello’ to the Arundel tomb whenever I visit..
    I have also recently read Mikhail Bulgakov’s stories about when he was a doctor. The writing guru Shaun Levin suggested the stories for a series of his ‘Zoom’ meetings for fellow writers, of which I am one.
    I have also read ‘Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead’ I must admit it was some time ago so I have forgotten some of the details. I shall have to!
    So, thank you for bringing Chichester a little bit closer today.

    • How nice to hear from you, Monica. Thanks for taking the time to comment. The Arundel tomb is so touching, especially the detail Larkin mentions of the knight having removed his gauntlet in order to hold his wife’s hand skin to skin. I don’t agree with Larkin, however, that the snoozing dog at their feet is ‘absurd’.

  2. So wonderful to receive a posting from you Simon! I am sure you will ace your “fire drill” work project (hope that is not coming out condescending, it is very sincerely meant). Took a quick look as I am working on a trifecta of a.) getting left eye cataract out Wednesday and doing lots of heavy book packing tomorrow (can’t lift or bend over for a week and I don’t trust myself not to do too much and tear something), moving on Sept. 15th within my apartment complex (same great landlord); and once both eyes can actually see print on a computer screen, going for contract work and perhaps something full time in legal project management from my new apartment. I did not plan it this way, but nothing like a fresh start!!

    Am still planning on haunting my old law firm (a la “The Woman In Black”) for getting rid of us over-60’s under cover of Covid, and providing dignity of being allowed to retire at 65 when we can get government health care and perhaps even provide a nice lunch and a testimonial with flowers. But nope. Laid off ,after a good decade, by phone, and personal effects held hostage until we return our “work from home” computer. I am joking about haunting them and my hottest anger has been redirected into making a lot more $$ than I did working for those fools. Funny thing is since they let us oldsters go in Spring 2020, many of the old work slots have already gone through 2 to 3 younger and cheaper people who either didn’t work out or quit in horror!. Ha ha. Hope this isn’t duplicate message. I am planning on totally erasing them from my mined on Sept. 1.

    Enough complaining, I am thinking of England and the coming winter, and worried for the most vulnerable… is there any chance of any relief or caps? I have heard Spain is actually capping fuel costs and providing some help. The Tories there remind me of our Trumpites. Take care, and will be back (perhaps after move) interested in reading several of your picks here. Cheers! Maureen M.

    • Sorry to hear about your cataracts- I just had an eye test and was told I have early signs. Something to look forward to! Lay-offs like yours were replicated here during the height of the pandemic- bosses usually take advantage of the ones considered expendable. There’s a lot of worker unrest here now because of the soaring cost of living and stagnant wages. Our zombie government goes on holiday and bickers about tiny tax cuts – which will mostly benefit the better off. Good luck with the move and I hope your eyes heal quickly.

      • Good day!

        Hope my comment wasn’t an avalanche of “TMI” (“too much information”). I know there are certain UK/USA cultural differences! Ta for kind response. A very different side of Philip Larkin indeed. He is always worth investigating. Cheers!

  3. I confess to feeling a little reprieved from my guilt about not finishing Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Everyone I know raved about it, and it lost me with all that astrology stuff. I admit to being intolerant of mumbo-jumbo in all its manifestations, and am even less tolerant of the contemporary fad for murder mysteries, but I can usually put up with a bit of it.
    But both in the same book? Nope, not for me.

    • I’m so glad to hear my cool response to Drive Your Plow was also yours, Lisa. In my reading journal I see I described it as ‘daft’. And I don’t like murder mysteries or astrological ramblings.

    • It was good to have a change of scene, and the Gershwin was wonderful; songs included I Got Rhythm and Someone to Watch Over Me. Chichester Cathedral is unusual in that it has a separate bell tower. Interesting modern art exhibition inside and out, too.

  4. “Daft” is an excellent word. And so relevant to much of what is going on in the world at the moment for those tomes when “horrific” or “corrupt” are not quite appropriate.

        • Just looked up the etymology of ‘daft’. In OE it meant mild mannered, becoming, then changed to mean boorish, dull, awkward (1300), perhaps by association with humble, then in the 1500s to foolish, stupid, possibly by analogy with daffe , halfwit, fool (hence daffy). The words nice and silly underwent similar shifts in meaning. So it seems the daffy branch of these related words took precedence in early years of America, as with so many usages, developing a related but different linguistic life.

  5. Hi Simon: an interesting post about some very interesting books. And, like others, I envy your visit to Chichester Cathedral. But then, I got to visit vicariously, so — thanks for sharing. I just finished re-reading the Larkin poem, which is, as you say, lovely.
    I was surprised to see your reaction to Drive Your Plow. It seems so wildly popular I’ve felt positively guilty about avoiding it. No more guilt for doing so after your review.
    I’ve yet to try Bulgakov although The Master and Margarita has been waiting on the shelf for several years now. So many books, etc. I was totally unaware that Larkin had even written novels, so now I have something new to check out. As for The Lighthouse, I read it many years ago (when it was — surprise — shortlisted for the Booker); I remember only that I liked it, without being overwhelmed by it, but I did find it rather grim and depressing.
    As an aside, I left a comment on your most recent post, which hasn’t shown up. Hope I didn’t press the wrong button!

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