Tag: Mikhail Bulgakov

Understanding my Fascination on Russian Literature

Posted January 31, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literature / 0 Comments

I am not entirely sure where my interest in Russian literature came from. I think it started with a fascination with the Cold War, which lead to a desire to understand the complex nature of the Soviet Union, both its politics and the people. The first Russian novel I read was Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, however my obsession with Russian literature came soon after. When I first became a reader I was using the 1001 Books You Must Read before You Die list as a guide to work out what to read. While I would love to complete the full list, it has served its purpose, which was to expose me to good literature in all genres, allowing me to find where my literary tastes lie.

My Russian literature obsession grew from my interest in satire, beginning with Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, which is a dystopian tale of globalisation. However under all that, it is an autobiographical novel of a Russian immigrant. I loved discovering the story underneath the plot, and I quickly discovered that Russian literature was a treasure trove for that. Russia has a very complex history; this is often reflected in its literature and makes it a big part of Russian culture.

Just a brief history on Russian literature, which has its roots in Chivalric romance, epics and chronicles on the Russian life. It is here at its roots where we establish the importance of irony and satire in the literature. It was Peter the Great’s efforts to modernise Russia that gave way to Russian literature in the 18th century. While I have not read any of these authors from this time, authors like Antiokh Kantemir and Vasily Trediakovsky were notable contributors to its literature. The 19th century is the golden age for Russian literature with Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekov, Ivan Turgenev and Leo Tolstoy creating some of Russia’s greatest pieces of literature. It was also where the literary movement Russian Romanticism was established, which explores metaphysical discontent with society and self, from notable authors like Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov. The silver age in the beginning of the 20th century was focused around poetry and the avant-garde. Poets often associated with the silver age include Marina Tsvetaeva and Boris Pasternak.

This was then followed by the Soviet era, which was the rise of Socialist realism, Russian formalism and futurism. While the Soviet era was an extremely complex period for literature, and covers so many different literary styles, it is easier to put all of the work from the Soviet Era together. If you want to break out the soviet era, you could do that by Samizdat, Tamizdat and Gosizdat. Samizdat ‘self-published’ is the distribution of literature illegally published (often by carbon copies of typescripts) and distributed among other Russians. This is similar to a method used in the Tsarist era, and allowed uncensored literature by authors like Mikhail Bulgakov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to reach an audience. Tamizdat ‘over there’ is when a soviet writer has their works published in the West because they could not publish in Russia. Most Soviet authors had to rely on this method to have their works published, most notable example of Tamizdat is Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Gosizdat ‘State publisher’ was the term used for officially sanctioned publications. In all honesty, I cannot think of a single modern classic from the Soviet Era that was published originally by the state. Although the Russian literature magazines where many works were first published would have been state run.

The post-Soviet era covers all literature published after the collapse of the USSR. Although the censorship of the soviet era was officially lifted, writers still approached sensitive subjects in a similar fashion. In part by the political/economic chaos of the post-Soviet era and partly to follow the traditions of great Russian literature. Although authors like Boris Akunin enjoy huge success in popular fiction, writing a historical detective series. This does not include the authors that fled Russia or the Soviet Union and became authors after gaining citizenship elsewhere, such as Ayn Rand, Isaac Asimov, and Vladimir Nabokov.

While there is a rich history of Russian literature, often there are common themes that appear throughout the ages. Most notably is the struggle for stability; Russian history has been a whirlwind of war and tyranny. This struggle often translates as redemption through suffering. This could be a struggle with religion, philosophy, society or even one’s self. That struggle can be seen in novels ranging from the likes of The Brothers Karamazov to Vladimir Sorokin’s 2006 science fiction novel Day of the Oprichnik. Although my wife might agree with Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky, who said “Russian literature is devoted to the description of unsuccessful love affairs.”

Authors within Russia often fall into the social class (I don’t think I need to explain the role class plays in Russia) known as the intelligentsia. This class of intellects are tasked to guide or critique society’s culture and politics. This is why Russian literature plays such a huge role in Russian culture, and also explains why literature was so controlled in the Soviet era. Union of Soviet Writers was formed by Stalin to control the field of literature in the USSR. Membership was not mandatory but if an author was not a member, they would have very limited opportunities for publication. Despite their best efforts, thankfully we still have a rich selection of Soviet literature critiquing the culture and politics of the time.

In both Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, authors had to be careful of what they said, many were exiled to a labour camp for what they wrote. So literary devices were often deployed to say what needed to be said in a more creative way. Literary devices often found in Russian literature include metaphors, allegories, irony, satire and even propaganda to express the author’s views. Which is why many Russian classics are very philosophical or political in nature. It is the dangerous writing that seems to have stood the test of time.

There is so much to offer in Russian literature, I know I have so much I need to learn and read but I am excited about the prospects. I find it sad when I see “Russian novel” used as shorthand for lengthy or turgid; I never understood that. While War and Peace is often considered a challenging book due to its length, there is a reason why it is considered a masterpiece. I would love to gain some recommendations on Russian literature I should check out. My personal favourites include Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov and for something really weird, Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin.


A Young Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov

Posted May 14, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Russian Lit Project, Short Stories / 0 Comments

A Young Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail BulgakovTitle: A Young Doctor's Notebook (Goodreads)
Author: Mikhail Bulgakov
Translator: Hugh Aplin
Published: Alma Classics, 1926
Pages: 155
Genres: Short Stories
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook Depository (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

A Young Doctor’s Notebook (also known as A Country Doctor’s Notebook) is a semi-autobiographical collection of short stories published early in Mikhail Bulgakov writing life in Russian medical journals. Bulgakov was educated at the Medical Faculty of the Kiev University, though his interest lied in theatre. When World War I broke out, he volunteered with the Red Cross. He was sent directly to the front lines to work as a medical doctor and was badly injured on two separate occasions.

In 1916 Mikhail Bulgakov graduated and was quickly appointed as a provincial physician to the Smolensk province. He found himself performing procedures he had only seen once or twice while at medical school. The seven stories in this collection explore the ignorance or stubbornness of people towards medical treatment, an issue that is still very relevant today. While A Young Doctor’s Notebook was set in the small village doctor in revolutionary Russia, the stories were all written in the 1920s.

Like most editions of A Young Doctor’s Notebook, my copy of the book came with one extra story called ‘Morphine’. This was also published in a medical journal and is much different to the other stories. ‘Morphine’ is yet another semi-autobiographical story that explores Mikhail Bulgakov’s own struggles with a morphine addiction. His injuries in the war lead to chronic stomach pains and the easy access to pain relief quickly lead to a morphine addiction. Bulgakov did end up leaving the medical profession to pursue a career in writing stage plays and was able abandon the use of morphine.

A Young Doctor’s Notebook is a wonderful collection of stories that illustrate Mikhail Bulgakov’s humour and writing style. If you have seen the TV adaptation, you may notice some similarities to the story, blending the seven short stories and his other story ‘morphine’ together to deliver a fabulous dark comedy. I binge watched the show over a weekend and I was not ready for it to end, so I picked up this collection and this quickly started an obsession with the life of Bulgakov.

While Mikhail Bulgakov is mainly known for his book The Master and Margarita (a book I recently re-read), A Young Doctor’s Notebook may be a more accessible book. It allows you to get a taste of Bulgakov’s style and humour with the seven short stories. I read an edition that was translated by Hugh Aplin and he is quickly becoming a favourite of mine and I will be hunting down everything he has translated (he translated mainly Bulgakov and Dostoevsky). Learning more about Mikhail Bulgakov’s life does give me extra enjoyment and context when reading his books. I am slowly reading a collection of his letters and diaries in a book called Manuscripts Don’t Burn, so you may see a lot more about Bulgakov on this blog.


The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Posted March 10, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic, Magical Realism / 2 Comments

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail BulgakovTitle: The Master and Margarita (Goodreads)
, 1967
Pages: 403
Buy: AmazonBook Depository (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

When I first read The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov back in 2012 I had no idea how to review it. Now that I have re-read the book, I am still at a loss. The Master and Margarita is often considered as one of the best novels of the 20th century by critics and cited as the top example of Soviet satire. Like most of Mikhail Bulgakov’s bibliography, this author never saw the effect that this novel had on the world; it was written between 1928 and 1940 but was first published in 1967, long after his death.

One of the things I love about Russian literature is the social commentary and satirical nature found in a lot of their books. During the Soviet era there was a lot written about the political state of the country but these were often heavily censored before publication. There was a distribution practise happening at the time call called samizdat, which is when individuals reproduced censored publications and passed them out to readers. The term samizdat comes from the Russian words, sam which roughly means “self” and izdat “publishing house”, so possibly the first use of self-publishing. If it wasn’t for this underground practice we may never have the uncensored editions of Russian classics like Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, the majority of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn books and of course The Master and Margarita.

The novel starts out with Berlioz and Bezdomny talking at the Patriarch ponds when a mysterious professor appears and strikes up a conversation. This professor is actually Satan and he was talking to them about the existence of God, the idea being if God doesn’t exist, can Satan?. Russia at the time was an atheist state, in fact communism and religion often do not go hand in hand. During the Stalinist era the Soviet government tried to suppress all forms of religious expression. Bulgakov’s commentary on religion and the government is an interesting one and while there are other interpretations of the novel this was what I took away from the novel this time round.

The ideas of censorship of religion continues with the Master’s book about Pontius Pilate, which was rejected and he was accused of pilatism. Though pilatism is found throughout the book The Master and Margarita as well, Pilate is not only in the Master’s novel but appears in Satan’s stories as well as dreams. The Master has poured his heart and soul into it his novel and having rejected sent him into a tailspin. This satirisation of censorship and religion plays though out the entire novel.

The idea of pilatism is an interesting one since in Christianity Pontius Pilate is the seen as the one that sentenced Jesus (referred to by his Hebrew name Yeshua Ha-Nozri in this novel) to die on the cross. Pilate becomes a symbol of humanity’s evil within religion and The Master and Margarita but you can argue that it is possible that he was a victim of society. Pilate’s ruling on Yeshua Ha-Nozri was due to pressure from the people and the high priests, he literally (and symbolically) washed his hands of the situation. I got the impression that Mikhail Bulgakov was comparing this idea of pilatism with the soviet government at the time. Human nature is apparently evil but it is also very influential of society, and what does that say about the atheist state?

There is so much going on within this novel and I would love to talk about the influences of Goethe’s tragic play Faust on the book. However I think I would need to re-read Faust to be able to compare it with The Master and Margarita. I would have also liked to explore the constant changes on narration, from an omniscient observer to the characters within the book but not sure what else to say about that. I re-read this book as part of a buddy read, my first buddy read in fact and I had a lot of fun doing this but I think I wasn’t a good reading partner. This time I read the Hugh Aplin translation of The Master and Margarita and I think I enjoyed it more than the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation I read last time. This may have been because I got more out of the book or maybe there is something about Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translations I didn’t like, I tend to avoid their translations.

I hope I have made a coherent review, I focused mainly on censorship and religion because this book is weird and all over the place so I needed to stick to one topic to make sense of what I have read. I do plan to re-read The Master and Margarita sometime in my life, I might even try a different translation again (any suggestions?). I got so much out of this book this time around and has really made me appreciate the value of re-reading. I ended my last review of this book telling people to ‘just read it’ and I think that sentiment still stands.


Five Must Read Memoirs from Bibliophiles

Posted October 23, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Top 5 / 26 Comments

As a book lover, I found that I get a lot of pleasure out of reading books about books. There is something about a book that revolves around other books that really works for me. Judging by the popularity of books like The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón and more recently The Collected Works of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin I know I am not alone. I made a conscious effort to read more non-fiction this year and I quickly discovered a whole new genre that I enjoy; the bibliophile’s memoir. What could be better (also meta) than reading about someone reading, but be warned, it could also be damaging to your TBR list. So I thought I might offer five memoirs that people should read about reading and the reading life.

Memoirs from Bibliophiles

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The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

Posted September 28, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 0 Comments

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy MillerTitle: The Year of Reading Dangerously (Goodreads)
Author: Andy Miller
Published: Harper Collins, 2012
Pages: 252
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Hardcover

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

It is no secret that I am a fan of books about books; I especially enjoy a bookish memoir. The idea of reading and learning about someone’s bookish life is fascinating to me. Let’s be honest, I blog about books because I think I have an interesting bookish journey to talk about and I want to capture that for posterity sake. I would love to learn how to write a bookish memoir, so I read anything I can get my hands on. I have even written a post asking for recommendations for books about books and I am always on the look out for more.

I am not sure how I discovered Andy Miller’s memoir The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life but I do remember being really excited about it. I ordered the book and it sat on my shelf for a little too long. With a holiday to America planned, I packed the book in my suitcase and was determined to read it. Turned out Simon Savidge from Savidge Reads started talking about this book about the same time and now I look like I was just following him in an effort to be as cool as he is.

Andy Miller worked as an editor at the time of writing this book (I assume he still does) and found himself only reading for work. On impulse he picked up a copy of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov and something just clicked for him. He set out to read ten books, which he called The List of Betterment, which consisted of books he has once lied about reading or felt he should read. This list obviously expanded over the course of the year but it was his starting point into rediscovering a passion for reading.

My discovery for reading was not unlike Andy Miller’s except mine involved Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, the 1001 Books Before You Must Read Before You Die list and it wasn’t a lost passion. I loved this book, I was so happy to read about all the awesome books Miller was reading in the course of the year. While this memoir is not healthy for my TBR and judging by Andy Miller’s glowing praises for Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes, I really need to get onto this novel first.

My only problem with this memoir is that Miller didn’t spend enough time talking about my favourite novels, like Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Iwas happy to see that The List of Betterment not only includes canon but also involves books like The Essential Silver Surfer Vol. 1 by Stan Lee. It is just good to see a memoir that doesn’t just involve highbrow literature. He even considered calling this book How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life referring to Dan Brown.

There is so much to talk about within this memoir, especially when talking about the fifty books mentioned in the book. I’m hoping that I can find some more great bookish memoirs to follow this one. The Year of Reading Dangerously is essentially a book about connecting with great books and the positive effects reading has on a reader. I highly recommend the book and I hope the Andy Miller will write a follow up about his continuing bookish journey.


Monthly Review – August 2012

Posted August 31, 2012 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Monthly Reading / 0 Comments

As August comes to a close I would love to hear what people’s thoughts were of the monthly book; The Master and Margarita. It’s a classic novel but it was a really bizarre book to read, that stayed with me for a very long time before I could finally write my thoughts on the book. But I tend to enjoy books that stay with me like that; I like books that are thought provoking. Reminder that next month we well be reading another classic for our Southern Gothic theme. While some people argue this book isn’t technically Southern Gothic, I’m sure we will have some interesting discussions on William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. If you’re not aware, this book will be discussed over on the Goodreads forums, so feel free to join in there.

My monthly reading for August has been really great, I went into the month thinking I’ll be busy trying to read all the books I wanted to read, but while I read most of them, I surprised myself by managing seventeen books this months. I’ve read some amazing books including The Dinner, The Angel’s Game and The Age of Miracles. But the highlights for me were Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a satirical look at the war of terror and how we support the troops and The Colour of Milk, an adorable little book about a strong minded girl in 1831 trying to learn to read and write.

August’s Books

  • Mystic River by Dennis Lehane 
  • Redshirts by John Scalzi 
  • This Dark Endeavour by Kenneth Oppel 
  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell 
  • Thirst by L.A. Larkin 
  • Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen 
  • True Grit by Charles Portis 
  • Geekomancy by Michael R. Underwood 
  • The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon 
  • Fifty Shames of Earl Grey by Fanny Merkin 
  • A Life with Books by Julian Barnes 
  • The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 
  • The Dinner by Herman Koch 
  • The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón 
  • The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker 
  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain 
  • The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon