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.


B.Moore, HH Richardson, E. Bowen, G. Gazdanov. Update pt 1

After an illness (still persisting) and short break visiting family near Barcelona, there’s been something of a hiatus on TD. Here’s a quick update (part 1) on reading since last time:

Brian Moore, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn coverBrian Moore, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn, Harper Perennial, 2007; first published 1955. This was Moore’s first novel published under his own name. Set in his birthplace, Belfast, it deals with what were to become some of his key topics: (loss of) RC faith, sex, solitude and the difficulties of connecting. It tells the sad story of a 40-ish spinster’s decline into serious problems as she struggles to deal with her isolation and inability to forge relationships. She’s lost and desperate. Moore shows impressive ability to inhabit the  troubled consciousness of this lonely woman. I was inspired to read the novel by JacquiWine’s post last year; she has an excellent, detailed post about it here

HH Richardson, The Getting of Wisdom coverHenry Handel Richardson, The Getting of Wisdom. VMC 1981; first published 1910. Born in Australia under the name Ethel Florence Lindesey Richardson, the author moved to Europe as a young woman and studied music in Leipzig. This semi-autobiographical novel relates the development of spirited, mercurial Laura Tweedle Rambotham from her move to boarding school in Melbourne at the age of twelve to her final days there aged sixteen. Unlike the other girls she comes from a poor background. Richardson subverts the usual girls’ school kind of narrative – this is no Chalet School. The teachers are bored, incompetent or vindictive, or all three. The other girls are much the same. Too impetuous to curb her spontaneity, Laura tries desperately to conform and be liked; she fails. She even stoops to aping the peevish snobbery and factional squabbling and bullying of her privileged peers, but acceptance and friendship elude her. As her sexuality awakens, she develops a passion for an attractive older girl – but as usual her judgement is faulty and she is destined for painful experiences. It’s a fascinating, lively account, partly marred by too much detail about Laura’s attempt to find some kind of solace in religious faith.

E. Bowen, Friends and Relations coverElizabeth Bowen, Friends and Relations. Penguin Modern Classics, 1984; first published 1931. I disliked this. Maybe it was the illness I was in the throes of. The basic premise is promising: two sisters marry, but one is in love with her sister’s husband. I simply had no interest in what would happen to these otiose, bloodless upper-class characters – they live in huge houses and have little to do but lust after each other. Elfrida is interestingly done: non-conformist, passionate. The prose is over-ornate, mannered and look-at-me ‘fine writing’. Disappointing; I’d read other Bowen novels long ago and enjoyed them.


Gazdanov Spectre A Wolf coverGaito Gazdanov, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. Translated by Bryan Karetnyk. Pushkin Press, 2013. First published in Russian 1947-48. Another novel with semi-autobiographical tendencies. A sixteen year old lad fighting for the White Russians in the civil war following the Bolshevik Revolution thinks he’s murdered a man. Later he reads a story which seems to tell that story. Further coincidences and fusions of what he considers his reality and some other order of experience take place. It’s an intriguing blend of war narrative, bildungsroman, down and out in Paris account with murders, lowlifes and gangsters (there’s even a reference to ‘apaches’ in the slang French sense), blended with a Proustian memory theme and existential duplications. Reminded me (in a good way) of Blaise Cendrars’ Dan Yack novels – not just the content I just summarised, but the mix of gritty urban noir with surreal narrative shifts.

Mikhail Lermontov, ‘A Hero of Our Time’

Portrait by P. Zaborotsky 1837 Wiki commons source

Portrait by P. Zaborotsky 1837 Wiki commons source

I bought the New English Library (Mentor) paperback edition of A Hero of Our Time, translated by Philip Longworth, many years ago for 12 pence (I know this because the price has been scrawled on the front cover in black ballpoint), but only got round to reading it this summer.  This translation was first published in 1962, and was issued by Mentor in 1975.  The pages have yellowed and the cover is battered, but none of this detracts from the astonishing quality of the novel.

Born into a noble Moscow family Mikhail developed a love of the Caucasus region from the age of ten, when he was taken there by his grandmother for the sake of his health.  He entered military service after an abortive spell at the University of Moscow.  A Hero was published in 1840; that same year he was banished to the Caucasus (for the second time – a punishment he surely relished) after duelling with the son of the French Ambassador.  A year later he fought another duel with a fellow officer and was killed; he was only 27.

The novel is curiously modern in its fragmented structure: it can be seen as five loosely linked short stories and novellas, arranged out of the chronological order in which the events narrated took place.  The unifying feature is the central character, the Byronic young officer Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin.  He first appears in the opening story – ‘Bela’, a first-person narrative by an unnamed young travel writer (possibly Lermontov himself) in which a middle-aged ‘staff captain’ called Maxim Maximich recounts the tale of how some years earlier Pechorin, a recently arrived young officer at Maxim’s Caucasian fort, bribed a young Circassian chieftain’s son to help him abduct his sister in return for a horse.  He slowly wins princess Bela’s heart, then abandons her, and she dies, devastated by grief.  This is our first glimpse of the cynical attitude of Pechorin towards women.  There’s no apparent motive for his fickleness; he says Bela bores him, that this makes him ‘a fool and a knave’, but he feels more pity for himself than for her.  In the first of many Byronic self-portraits (Byron is mentioned several times in the novel) Pechorin says

I have a spirit that has been spoiled by the world, a disturbed imagination, and a heart that can’t be satisfied; everything means so little to me; I get used to sorrow as easily as I do to pleasure, and from day to day my life becomes emptier.

Made restless and deeply saddened, despite his pose of indifference, by this episode with Bela, he resolves to travel – to nowhere specific; ‘perhaps I shall die on the road somewhere’; he appears to have lost his will to live.  Maxim upbraids him for his nihilism and hints that Pechorin has caught the fashionable society malaise ‘disillusionment’; Pechorin simply jokes that it must have been the English who invented this ‘fashion of tedium’ – Maxim notes that some believed Byron was ‘nothing more than a drunkard’.

Pechorin is a compellingly conflicted, arrogant, melancholy character, and A Hero is one the earliest ‘superfluous man’ novels; it foreshadowed the existential, angst-ridden anti-heroes of the type that became popular from the 1940s with Sartre, Camus and then, in the USA, Kerouac and the Beats.

In the second story, ‘Maxim Maximich’, Pechorin reappears, and is described as evincing a sense of ‘nervous weakness’, with a ‘childlike’ smile and feminine demeanour.  His eyes suggest either an ‘evil temper’ or ‘constant melancholy’, and his glance is ‘indifferently calm’.  Maxim, who has awaited this meeting with expectant excitement, is brushed aside insouciantly by Pechorin, who says he can’t stop – he’s off to Persia, once again motivated solely by boredom.  Maxim is almost as heartbroken as the betrayed Bela; he sadly describes Pechorin as ‘a lightminded fellow’ on whom ‘one couldn’t rely’.  He bitterly hands Pechorin’s journal, lightly given over to his charge by its author, to the young narrator, and it forms the basis of the remaining three stories.  One now sees from where the excellent literary blog ‘Pechorin’s Journal’ derived its name!  The narrator, in an aside, insists on the ‘innocence’ and heroism of Pechorin, who, he says, ‘brought his own weaknesses and vices so mercilessly to light’.

‘Taman’ is the third story.  Here Pechorin relates how he is robbed and nearly murdered by a blind boy (whom he suspects is ‘not as blind as he appeared’) and a bewitching young Caucasian girl, both smugglers.

‘Princess Mary’ is the longest story, almost 100 pages.  In this novella Pechorin ruthlessly seduces the eponymous heroine, while continuing an affair with a former, infatuated lover, Vera, motivated like the libertines in Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons largely by a desire to besmirch a haughty, pure woman who initially resists him, but also to spite his foppish friend Grushnitski, whose dandyish ennui piques him because he recognises there a parody of himself.  In a plot of exciting suspense, treachery and deviousness Pechorin kills his rival in a malicious duel.

M. Vrubel's illustration of the duel with Grushnitski

M. Vrubel’s illustration of the duel with Grushnitski

‘The Fatalist’ is a strange coda to the collection.  Set at a time either shortly before or after the events in ‘Bela’, a crazed gambler bets on the date of his own death.  Having initially appeared to defy fate by surviving a bout of Russian roulette, he succumbs to a random act of insane violence.  Pechorin appears towards the end and risks his life to apprehend the assassin.

The futility of existence and of love seem to be the central features of Pechorin’s world-view.  In ‘Princess Mary’, the most complex and satisfying section of the novel, he spends a lot of time examining his nature and motives.  He knows that women find him irresistible, but this serves only to confirm his contempt for them and his puzzlement about himself and the world:

Why is this? – why is it that I have never really set much value on anything?…I must admit that I do not like women of character really: but that is their worry.

Vera seems to understand him, but is unable, like all the others, to resist; she is his ‘slave’ and knows he will be untrue.  This also causes him to question his motives in pursuing other women, like the Princess, when he knows Vera’s love is superior to anything Mary is capable of.  It’s not, he thinks, just the thrill of the conquest or the difficulty of the seduction; neither is it the ‘restless need for love’ of our youth or the gratification of frustrating a romantic rival:

I feel I have that insatiable hunger which will devour everything which crosses its path.  I see the joys and sufferings of others only in relation to myself, I see them as food to sustain my spiritual powers.

It’s a form of ‘lust for power’, he concludes.  ‘My chief satisfaction is to subject everything around me to my will…What is happiness but satiated pride?’

‘Can it be’, he reflects later on, ‘that my only purpose on earth is to destroy the hopes of others?’  His ‘miserable role’ in life, he concludes, has always been that of ‘executioner or betrayer’.  He toys with the notion that he has much in common with the Vampire.

A Hero of our Time is then that very modern type of novel: the self-analysis of the protagonist’s motives.  As William E. Harkins says in his Afterword to this edition, Pechorin is ‘narcissistic and neurotic’, unable to love, addicted to ‘empty posing’,  pettily manipulative, ‘opportunistic’ and ‘at times even vindictive’ in his treatment of women and men – the sad figure of Maxim is unforgettable when Pechorin spurns his friendship.  He might today be described as sadistic – like so many other flawed, anguished and alienated Romantic heroes, from Schiller’s The Robbers (1781) to Eugene Onegin and the proud, jaded heroes of Byron, and shortly afterwards, the Bronte sisters’ Heathcliff (who also liked to make ‘the worms suffer’) and Rochester, and Dostoevsky’s Stavrogin.  Harkins points out that Pechorin is full of contradictions: heroic and neurotic, sensitive to injustice and callously indifferent to the suffering of others, a worshipper of women’s beauty and a narcissistic self-adorer.  He is the forerunner of countless existential outsider heroes in later fiction, the nauseated figures disgusted by other people and by their own ennui, filled with indifference and hostile to the matching indifference of an irrational world.  This novel prepared the way for the more profound explorations of psychological depths of character portrayed in the masterpieces of Turgenev, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.