Home Stretch

May 20, 2010

Under a month left here in Belfast now. That’s a weird thing to try to internalize, to be honest. My guess is that I’ll feel the same leaving here as I did leaving Russia the first time. That is, I’ll be glad to be home, and so relieved to see the friends I’ve left in the states that I won’t have time to dwell on the friends I’ve left behind in Northern Ireland. Give it a month or two, though. I’ll be desperate to get back. As far as school work is concerned I’ve just got one test left. The weather here is gorgeous right now, so I’m having trouble motivating myself to study. That’s going to have to change. I’ve got two other pieces that I wrote for my conflict intervention class that I haven’t put up online yet. I’ll get around to that… sometime. As far as the dissertation goes, I had a meeting with Neo on Wednesday, and he gave me some very positive feedback. I gave him a draft of the first chapter of my dissertation, which was mostly history. He cautioned that I get a bit out in the weeds, talking about stuff that non-Russia experts will find confusing– but mostly he liked it. For the record, that’s roughly 5,500 words of my dissertation done at this point. On the 14th– so, one day before I leave– I’m having a last meeting with him. There he’s expecting a revised first chapter, and drafts of my next two. That will take my total word count up to 11,500. So, just the conclusion to write after that. Mad. I’ll have the whole thing just about written before I leave. So that’s school.

(And… whoa. I just got an email from Neo saying that he’d like me to submit one of my papers for publication. Holy crap. Time to revise.)

If you don’t follow UK politics, it has been NUTS here for the past month or so. Just in Northern Ireland there have been some pretty significant developments. In the parliamentary elections the First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson, lost his seat in the UK parliament to Naomi Long from the Alliance party– an upset to say the least. Additionally the parade season is approaching and dissident republicans are making menacing noises. A report was recently released about poor conditions in a prison, and some are likening it to the sort of stories that touched off the Troubles in the first place, others are saying it reminds them of the climate right before the Hunger Strikes of the 80s. The very fact that things are being framed that way is disconcerting.

I’ve taken most of this week off from serious school work since I spent the last one furiously writing and reading for class. Happily, this means I’ve spent most of this week reading for fun. I’m just about half-way done with Dostoevsky’s Demons, which I’ve been working through since just before Easter break. This is a hard read; much more difficult than anything else I’ve read by him. Then again, it took me almost 300 pages to like Crime and Punishment, and then I couldn’t put it down. More immediately rewarding has been Bulgakov.

I’m currently about a third of the way through White Guard, and I’m trying to figure out how to square this one with his other works. Earlier this term I read A Country Doctor’s Notebook and Heart of a Dog, and I’ve mentioned before how much I like The Master and Margarita. There’s an interesting progression at work here in Bulgakov’s work. A Country Doctor’s Notebook is very much like Chekhov. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say Bulgakov was influenced by him. Perhaps there’s something about being a doctor that lends itself to this sort of writing (both Chekhov and Bulgakov were doctors), but the spare nature of Chekhov’s writing, the sense that absolutely no word is ornamental, extends into this first work by Bulgakov.

Chronologically White Guard is next in Bulgakov’s career, and while the precision of the writing remains, the content has begun to stray from the stark realism of A Country Doctor’s Notebook. This is a story of the first days of the Bolshevik Revolution, and the turbulence of the time is evident. Still, the dream sequences and surrealism of White Guard would have been inconceivable in the previous book. Bulgakov goes further down this rabbit hole as his career progresses. Heart of a Dog is a pretty fantastic scenario; a stray dog is given the testicles and pituitary gland of a deceased convict, and proceeds to transform into an irascible human. Pretty crazy stuff, right there. And The Master and Margarita is a full on hallucination. A wonderful, page turner of a hallucination, but, well, when you’re writing about the Devil walking the streets of Moscow, how can a sense of the surreal not permeate every sentence?

All this to say, I very much like White Guard and would recommend any of Bulgakov’s works without reservation. He’s great.

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