There are some books, like places, that it's better not to encounter too soon in life. I visited Venice for the first time recently and was moved to tears. Perhaps it was the contrast of so much shimmering colour after the grey-green architecture of Geneva, where I was living, but I prefer to think of it as the impact of beauty, an effect that might have been missed had I been younger.
Geneva turned out to be unhelpful when it came to imagining the life of the 18th-century Aberdonian doctor I was writing about. The living was too easy. But the gods of writers can be surprisingly kind. Events took me to Provence, where Michael Ondaatje suggested I take a look at A Country Doctor's Notebook. It was the right book at exactly the right moment.
Bulgakov wrote these short stories between 1924 and 1927, when he was fast making a name for himself. He is best known now for the surrealist high-jinx of The Master and Margarita, and the stories here are utterly surprising: raw, realistic reworkings of his experiences as a 24 year-old doctor in remote north-west Russia, where he was put in charge of a small hospital and left to get on with it.
In the middle of his first night, he's woken by shrieking: a little girl had fallen into a machine for breaking flax. "Her calico skirt was torn and stained with blood in various shades from brown to oily scarlet... On her white face, motionless as a plaster cast, a truly rare beauty was fading away before my eyes." The child's left leg is completely smashed. The right is fractured at the shin. Tips of bones puncture the skin.
Isolation is a constant theme in these stories: the distance from civilised society weighs heavily. Alone at night in his study, with only his oil lamp for comfort, he reflects: "The midnight express to Moscow rushes moaning past and does not even stop... The nearest street lamps are 32 miles away in the district town."
This is a world of grinding hardship and violent contrasts: vodka-induced warmth, the frozen wilderness outside; months of darkness, the fragile light of the kerosene lamp. The brutal, impersonal force of the physical world not only endangers his patients, but threatens to extinguish the metaphorical light of reason, knowledge, social progress. At first, Bulgakov's "university-trained" mind is his sole weapon against the ignorance, cunning and superstition of the peasants, but as the months pass, he grows increasingly cunning himself, learns to outwit their objections with displays of confidence he does not feel and knowledge he does not always possess.
Over all of this, Bulgakov casts a wonderfully wry, self-deprecating humour. His compassion for human folly is unfailing, and he nails his own foibles as unflinchingly as everyone else's. These stories stand testament both to human resilience and a remarkable literary talent.
' Touching Distance' by Rebecca Abrams is published by MacmillanReuse content