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.

 

Flaubert, Alcibiades, and Laelaps the dog

“Mastiff, greyhound, mongrel grim.” Shakespeare, King Lear (III.6)

ALCIBIADES – Famous on account of his dog’s tail. A kind of debauchee. Visited Aspasia. (Flaubert, Dictionary of Received Ideas, Oneworld Classics edition, 2010, from the Alma Classics website).

Flaubert made the notes for this ironically banal spoof of the platitudinous mentality of the bourgeoisie of the Second Empire in the 1870s; it remained unpublished until 1913. 

The Jennings Dog (also known as The Duncombe Dog or The Dog of Alcibiades) is a Roman sculpture of a dog with a docked tail.  Named after its first modern owner, Henry Jennings, it is a 2nd-century AD Roman copy of a Hellenistic bronze original, probably of the 2nd century BC.

The Jennings Dog at the British Museum

The Jennings Dog at the British Museum

Jennings (1731-1819) saw it in a pile of rubble in a workshop in Rome between 1753 and 1756, bought it and took it back to Britain.  The sculpture became famous on its arrival in Britain, and its importer became known as ‘Dog Jennings’.  The sculpture was praised by Horace Walpole; copies proliferated and were said to make “a most noble appearance in a gentleman’s hall”, according to Dr Johnson.

A story in Plutarch’s life of Alcibiades tells of the Athenian statesman, orator and general owning a large, handsome dog; he cut off its tail so as to invoke pity from the Athenians and distract them from his worse deeds. The broken tail of his sculpture led Jennings to link it to this story, calling it “the dog of Alcibiades”.

Under this title a pair of copies were installed by Robert Adam at Newby Hall, Yorkshire, about 1780, and in the later 19th century a pair was set in the gardens at Basildon Park, Bedfordshire.

The Basildon Park dogs

For 150 years the sculpture stood guard in the entrance hall of Duncombe Park, the family mansion in Yorkshire of its next English owner.  It remained there until 1925, when the Duncombes rented out the hall to a girls’ school, whose pupils were rumoured to feed the dog unwanted sandwiches.  It was acquired by the British Museum in 2001, where it was identified as a Molossian guard dog, so it is assumed to have been associated with some civic monument in Epirus, and to have been brought to Rome.

The Molossian hound, according to Nicander (quoted by Pollux, Onomasticon, XXXIX) was a descendant of a dog (Laelaps, “Whirlwind” or “Tempest”) forged in bronze by Hephaestus and given to Zeus.

In Greek mythology the Teumessian fox or Cadmean vixen was a gigantic animal that was impossible to catch.  It was one of the offspring of Echidna, a draikana– a female dragon with the face and torso of a beautiful woman and the body of a snake. This fox was said to have been sent by the gods to punish the people of Thebes for some crime.  Creon, the ruler of Thebes, assigned Amphityron the impossible task of destroying this animal. He called upon the services of the magical dog Laelaps.

This prodigious hound was said to have been a gift from Zeus to Europa.  He was passed down to Europa’s son, King Minos of Crete, and then to Procris, whose husband, Cephalus, had been seduced by Eos the goddess of dawn while he was out hunting.  She handed him back to his wife after an interval of eight years because he was pining for her so much – but made disparaging comments about Procris’ lack of fidelity as she did so.  Once reunited with Procris, Cephalus tested her by returning from the hunt and seducing her while in disguise.  Procris fled in shame to the forest to hunt.  On her return, Procris brought two propitiatory magical gifts, a spear that never missed its target, and Laelaps, who never failed to catch his quarry.

Piero di Cosimo, Death of Procris, with Laelaps and faun

Piero di Cosimo, Death of Procris, with Laelaps and faun

Zeus, faced with a paradox in the mutually cancelling qualities of Laelaps and the fox, turned the two animals into stone so that the one might not catch the uncatchable and the other not escape the inescapable. The pair were petrified and cast into the heavens as stars.

The Molossus (Μολοσσὸς) is a breed of dog that is now extinct, but which gave its name to the modern group of dogs known as Molosser, solidly built, large dog breeds that all descend from the same common ancestor.

From the Encyclopedia Romana: “The Molossian is mentioned in the literature more often than any other breed…[including] Aristophanes (Thesmophoriazusae, 416), where it frightens off adulterers; Aristotle (The History of Animals, IX.1), where as a sheep-dog, it is considered superior to other breeds in size and courage; Plautus (Captivi, 86), where the parasite is like a greyhound (venaticus) when business is put aside and a Molossian when it recommences; Statius (Thebaid, III.203), where the maddened hounds do not recognize Actaeon, their master; Lucretius (De Rerum Natura, V.1063ff), where the dog growls and bays, fawns over its pups, howls when left alone, and whimpers when threatened with the whip; Horace (Satires, VI), where the country mouse has his fill of the city when the house resounds with the barking of Molossians. 

The Molossian hound may have similarities to the Alaunt, the dog of the Alans- a group of nomads of the first millennium AD.  The Alans were known as superb warriors, herdsmen, and breeders of horses and dogs.

The Ayran Flock Guardian or Sage Koochi Asian steppe breed was used to domesticate the horse and control and defend large livestock preceded these types. The steppe nomads, such as the Kurgan, introduced the use of the horse and chariot, as well as the Mastiff-Alaunt war dogs.

J. del Sallai, Alaunt sheep guard

J. del Sallai, Alaunt sheep guard

The Molossus reached Epirus in about 1200 BC.  They differed from the Mastiff prototype, having a long nose of a narrow type, and a long mane. Varro, however, described a herding dog of Epirus which was white and large headed, used to defend sheep and goats.  Molossis of Epirus is located in Southern Albania. It is most plausible the Alaunt gave rise to the fighting dogs of the Molossi, which were introduced to Britain by Roman Invasion in 55BC. The Alans provided cavalry for Rome and in 50AD, 5,500 Alans were sent to Britain to guard Hadrian’s Wall.  In this way the Alaunt  were probably the genetic ancestors of the British Pugnances, fighting dogs which English Mastiffs and Bulldogs descend from.

Mastiffs are often referred to as Molossus dogs or Molossers. It is one of the best-known ancient breeds; however, its physical characteristics and function are questionable. Though the Molossus breed no longer exists in its original form, it is noted as being instrumental in the development of modern breeds such as the St Bernard, Rottweiler, Great Dane and Newfoundland. (Some of this text is derived and adapted from Wikipedia).

Alma Classics edition of Flaubert's 'Dictionary of Received Ideas'

Alma Classics edition of Flaubert’s ‘Dictionary of Received Ideas’