The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov – I couldn’t resist the Melville House cover – is set in Kiev during the Russian Civil War / Revolution. It’s probably one of the few portrayals of the “Whites”, or the Tsarist Russians and various counterrevolutionary groups that existed in Russia between 1917 – 1920.
This book is also interesting because it’s a fantastic book that was nonetheless written by a Soviet author for Soviet censors and a Soviet audience. It was made into a play, which Stalin obsessed over. He went to go see it something like seventeen times. So there are lots of reasons to find this an interesting book.
I’ve also noticed a high level of cover production value. Maybe that’s a bad sign. Oh, well.
Bulgakov’s writing is at its best and most unique, most powerful when he describes sweeping scenes that cover a wide geographical and character-extent. If this sounds weird, yet intriguing, it is. He does it well; he’ll set the scene, usually the morning in Kiev, then the “scene” rushes out to say, a rebel commander waking up in the field, then back to a glimpse in Kiev of one of the main characters, then he well end with a rhapsodic movement comprising a large crowd. I’ve probably done a poor job describing it; but it’s different and pretty damn cool when you think about it.
At times, his writing reminds me of the South American “magical realists” or just a whiff of Murakami. But just a whiff, nothing more. His writing is very visual; one gets the sense that Bulgakov would have made a great movie director. No wonder they made it into a play.
It’s humorous, even if most of the humour was lost on me.
There are clearly many passages written for the censor. And while odd, it is fascinating. In probably the most cloying bit, a communist sentry – guarding Trotsky’s train – sees the Red Star fill the night sky. It’s subtly unsubtle.
All this being said, I found his writing to be disjointed, and I could never quite figure out why we or anyone else might be interested in the Turbins – the Tsarist family that makes up the main characters. At one point, you think Bulgakov is heading towards a Shakespearian comedy happy ending (where everybody gets married at the end) but all that peters out before the end of the book.
I could’t really discern any overarching point, theme, or object, like you can do for Tolstoy or Dovstoyesky. This I found disappointing.
All in all there is some good action, some good dialogue. And it takes place in a fascinating time and place, one that I wish I knew more about. There are a whole lot of episodes that took place during the Russian Revolution just begging for a novel or a movie or something.
This book is good but not great.