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.