A Country Doctor’s Notebook: Bulgakov & Rural Russia in 1916.

A Country Doctor’s Notebook: Bulgakov & Rural Russia in 1916.

*grabs a fictional pipe, lights it up and looks moodily towards the horizon*

It really is an odd story how I got to this book. It all begun with Mad Men. It was the end of season four of one of my favorite TV shows. Matthew Weiner (creator of Mad Men) and his team were producing one great episode after the other and, like all great shows, the writing was always elevated by the excellent performance of the cast and the main character Don Draper, expertly played by Jon Hamm. It was this acting masterclass that led me to his IMDB page to learn more about his work. Mind you, it is important to point out that between seasons four and five of Mad Men there was a two-year gap when the show was halted, and that it was during those years that IMDB kindly informed me of a new TV show that Jon Hamm was doing in the UK with Daniel Radcliffe (the Harry Potter kid). Finding nothing of interest in his filmography and curious to see if Don Draper was the only character that he could play, I stayed alert for the first season’s release of A Young Doctor’s Notebook in Christmas 2012.

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The premise of the show is as follows: a young doctor fresh out of the Imperial Moscow University of Medicine & Dentistry receives his first assignment in a small one-doctor hospital found in the middle of nowhere, otherwise known as rural Russia in the nineteen tens. It ran for two seasons, the first one taking all of the materials from the book of the same name and adapting it in very creative ways – more of that later – and the second one continuing the story arch set in season one but taking inspiration on other Bulgakov works– the white guard is featured in season two quite heavily so it is not too much of a stretch assuming that some elements may be taken from the novel The White Guard –. Once season two finished there was a small Making of episode where Daniel Radcliffe mentioned that one of the reasons he agreed to do the show is because one of his favorite books is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov and that he had become obsessed with it since he first read it. This led me to learn about the book’s cult-classic status and the premise -the devil’s visit to 1930’s Moscow and the mischief he causes on the Russian elite- intrigued me. So, I bought The Master and Margarita instead of A Young Doctor’s Notebook.

But wait a second! If you loved the show so much, why on earth didn’t you buy the book? Well… *puffs again on the fictional pipe* Pay attention because here is where the story gets really stupid juicy:

There is one additional factor I skipped. I wanted to read A Young Doctor’s Notebook and not The Master and Margarita, but apparently they only released the book with that title to make use of the shows popularity (this unfortunately backfired because it came and went and nobody mentioned a word about it). So much to my surprise, when I went to purchase a book that was decades old I found it priced like a brand new release and, because I am indeed a very cheap man and back then I did not spend so much time looking into the details of books, I ultimately decided for the more affordable and cultish The Master and Margarita. The real stupid funny part is that a few months ago I remembered reading that the book had been retitled to use the show’s popularity and that previously it was simply named A Country Doctor’s Notebook. So, guess what happened when I searched abebooks under that name? Prices lower than three pounds! (Oh, sweet cheapness how I embrace thee)

But hold up! The real stupidity punchline is that Bulgakov originally wanted to release it as The Notes of a Young Doctor, thus making the two titles chosen for the English translations quite poor and, to add another yet another twist in this already-too-long story, I found out thanks to a dear friend of mine that the Spanish release is titled Morphine after one of the stories in the book. I wonder if there is a worldwide conspiracy to avoid naming the book like Bulgakov wanted? It seems like it.

Now that I’ve mesmerized you with the absurdly long way to explain how I came to get my hands on the book best purchasing story ever, let’s get to the novel.

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The Harvill Press edition additionally contains the story “The Murderer”

The book is divided in chapters each one narrating the events of the young doctor: from his arrival to the hospital and his very first amputation on a little girl who damaged her legs with a brake used to process flax (I actually found the ending of the chapter rather sweet despite the horrible scenario) to a visit in the midst of a blizzard to a woman with a fractured skull or the use of a steel windpipe on a little girl’s closed throat. All these events are based on Bulgakov’s own experience as a young doctor -a position that he eventually left to dedicate himself to journalism and, after finding success, a fulltime writer and playwright- and it is very interesting to see how he analyzes and reflects on past experiences.

I have to give a special mention to Michael Glenny’s excellent translation of the original Russian text. I didn’t feel anything unusual about the flow of the text and, whilst I don’t speak Russian, I didn’t notice anything estrange about the expressions or dialogue of the characters which are usual telltale signs of a poor translation. He also provides a very good introduction to Bulgakov, his experience as a doctor and the nature of the stories (I didn’t know they were serialized upon publication in two monthly magazines).

Has my opinion changed on the TV show having read the book?

Yes. For the better.

The TV show is oddly faithful to the book all throughout season one and it is very clear that the writers did their job to make sure that they stayed true to Bulgakov’s story. However there are a few deviations worth noticing:

– The show is told from the perspective of an older doctor reading the journal he began writing when he first arrived to the rural setting where the story unfolds. The older doctor begins interacting with the younger doctor as events unfold which is a very smart way to turn the observations taking place in the book to a dialogue exchange between characters.

– There is also very twisted humor. The event of the amputation I previously mentioned is played rather comically on the show and the same approach is taken with the steel wind pipe story. Both stay true to the book despite the fact that it is not written as if it is meant to be funny. It is almost as if someone with a very weird humor read the book and decided that the events narrated must have been hilarious. To be fair Bulgakov does poke fun at himself in the novel but it is done subtlety whereas the TV show is very at ease with dark humor.

– The biggest deviation in the TV show is caused by the adaptation of the chapter titled Morphine. In the book, Morphine is a transcript of the notes taken by the replacement of the young doctor in his previous practice. His replacement begins to fill sick and makes the mistake of using morphine, thus becoming an addict. He then proceeds to keep a log of his addiction and, in an ultimate act of despair, shoots himself the day after sending a letter begging for help. The TV show makes this the main driver of the narrative. The old doctor is being investigated for the forgery of prescriptions to maintain his supply of morphine and it is through the investigation that the story unravels. It is his reflection upon the events that first got him hooked on morphine all those years ago that eventually leads to his incarceration in the present(an event that was created exclusively for the show). I think merging this story with the others works very well to move the plot forward, but I can understand purist disliking this change. Thankfully, I’m not a purist so I’m OK with it.

I don’t recall any events of season two being taken from the book except maybe a very loose adaptation of the story “The Murderer” in one of the subplots. To be fair, the title at the beginning of each episode was changed to “A Young Doctor’s Notebook & Other Stories” in season two and I was just happy to get more episodes; and -as previously mentioned- since some of the other subplots may be taken from the first Bulgakov novel, The White Guard, I think it may be worth keeping that book in mind if I ever want to read more from Mikhail Bulgakov.

I finished reading A Country Doctor’s Notebook on the 1st of May 2017.

Additional notes of interest:

About the book: The new edition released with the title of the TV show A Young Doctor’s Notebook does not include the story “The Murderer” which you can find in the version titled A Country Doctor’s Notebook. So, Michael Glenny’s introduction aside, not only you’ll be getting the book cheaper but also you will get one additional short story. If you’ve missed the footnote below the bookcover this new story is in the edition published by Harvill Press. (Random Trivia: and because I have too much free time I’ve corrected the Wikipedia English entry which did not include this piece of information.)

About the show’s DVD: I’ve only found both seasons being sold together in the Spanish version of amazon (direct link). Fear not, it has the English language option.

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