The Process of Self-Deletion

In pediatrics, we don’t encounter patient deaths very frequently, and I’m grateful for that. But they are also sometimes inevitable and learning to process them has been a new concept for me. Given the opportunity of another golden weekend, I wanted to read something I could commit to and finish before the work week started. Perhaps five or six years ago (at the peak of my Nabokov fandom), I had had my eye on his final published –but incomplete– work, The Original of Laura, which danced heavily around the topic of death. Nabokov worked on this piece while hospitalized (and before dying) in 1977, and despite my obsession with this book’s backstory, I had never actually read it cover to cover. It must have been fated for today’s gray Sunday.

Aside from its fragmented and unfinished nature, this book is special for many reasons. The book’s introduction by his son, Dmitri, (who has inherited his father’s colorful narration style, by the way…) details the events leading up to the publication of the book. Per Dmitri’s account, Nabokov was working on The Original of Laura while ill, but he feared that “in the claustrophobic microcosm of a hospital room … his inspiration and his concentration would not win the race against his failing health.” And so, before his death, Nabokov had insisted to his wife, Vera, that any of his unfinished work be burned after his death. Vera of course, could not bring herself to do so as her “failure to perform was rooted in procrastination – procrastination due to age, weakness, and immeasurable love.”

The work was stored in a bank vault for many years. However, with the death of Vera in 1991, the work was passed on to their only son. In the introduction, Dmitri recounts his inner struggles to destroy the work, his admiration for his father and his writing, but also his eventual decision to publish the work due to “an otherforce he could not resist.” Needless to say, Dmitri was fully aware of the palpable ethical dilemma he was in. Publishing the work meant posthumously disrespecting his father’s wishes, but it was also a way of honoring his work and sharing his final thoughts. (For now, I will refuse to consider the assumption of an ulterior financial motive, as I’m sure plenty of other people must have accused him of it at the time…) Surely, after the work’s publication, Dmitri did find himself criticized heavily for his decision, but he was also praised and thanked for sharing Nabokov’s final pages.

Regardless of the predicaments around its publication, the book itself is a beautiful construction. Nabokov was known to write some of his works on index cards, including this one. To preserve his originality (and I suspect, to deal with the incomplete nature of the piece), the book is a publication of each index card, as was written in the original handwriting, with a typed text of each right below. Each index card is titled with a method of categorization, whether it’s by numbers, letters, or a combination of the two. Although the first half of the book follows a somewhat straightforward grouping and plot about a girl named Flora, the cards later become more and more fragmented in terms of the story, the labeling, and sometimes even the texts. Nabokov begins to write small excerpts about different characters, in different points of view, and it is easy to imagine that he would have rearranged and shuffled them infinitely to allow the words to find their rightful places. The cards, which are perforated for the reader to remove and store in a box (as the author did), contain typos, scratch and eraser marks, arrows to insert words and phrases, etc. As a writer, seeing your favorite author’s rough draft in his own handwriting is not just heartwarming, but also humanizes him and his relatable writing process. Would Nabokov have liked that? Maybe not. He was known for his perfectionism and the care with which he wrote, and given his request for its destruction, I can only assume that he considered it a literary imperfection.

Despite the partial story and incomplete sentences, the cards still leave us with memorable imagery and prose only unique to Nabokov. One of my favorite excerpts includes a character’s recommendations for how to prepare for death: “The student who desires to die should learn first of all to project a mental image of himself upon his inner blackboard. This surface which at its virgin best has a dark plum, rather than black, depth of opacity is none other than the underside of one’s own eyelids.” Nabokov then describes how after drawing an image of himself, this character slowly erases and removes each body part as a “process of self-deletion.” This excerpt likely reflected Nabokov’s own thoughts and actions as he spent his final days in a hospital room, and I believe that this is how he must have prepared for his own creeping death.

I cannot say whether Dmitri made the right or wrong decision. But I can sympathize with the difficulty of the conundrum, and I can appreciate the work for what it is. In light of the difficult past few weeks, this book provided my inner monologue with creative, raw companionship. And it gave me a glimpse of one of my favorite authors in his most tangible and lively form yet.

The final index card – a list of synonyms for the word “efface”

Kafka’s Medicine

Thin, without fever, not cold, not warm, with empty eyes, without a shirt, the young man under the stuffed quilt heaves himself up, hangs around my throat and whispers in my ear, “Doctor, let me die.”

Post-call days have become my sacred days alone with literature. After a long and sleepless night in the hospital, I love coming home, picking out a good story, and translocating myself into a different time and space. Today, wanting to read a story along the same themes as my last post (re: narrative medicine), I remembered a bookmarked chapter in my collection of Franz Kafka’s short stories called, “A Country Doctor”. Curious to compare it to the similarly named book I last wrote a blog post on (A Young Doctor’s Notebook by Bulgakov) I began reading.

The first page describes a scene I jokingly mentioned in my last post – a doctor in a rural area frantically looking for a horse-carriage to get to an ill patient … in the middle of a snow blizzard. The similarities between Kafka’s doctor, Bulgakov’s Bomgard, and even Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago – the heroic rural male doctors who must overcome great natural hurdles by carriage for their patients – were not lost and definitely made me laugh. But, despite the cliché imagery, the rest of Kafka’s story is anything but banal.

Unlike Bulgakov, Kafka was not a doctor, but the two writers share the special trait of being masters of the bizarre. I love surreal stories. Borges, Murakami, Marquez, Allende, talking cats, faceless men, devils who make pacts – the more bizarre a story, the better. In that regard, Kafka of course did not disappoint. This story tells the tale of a physician who must attend to the care of a “seriously ill” child, only to be faced with rogue horses, bite marks, a maggot-infested wound, an echoing children’s song, and a threatening family. Within only six pages, Kafka’s story is packed with creepy acts, charming quotes, and existential monologues. I really couldn’t do it justice by trying to review it; so I’ve attached a link to the story at the end of this post.

However, my escapade didn’t end there. Not long before I closed the book with the unnamed feeling one gets after reading a great story, I stumbled onto an online reference to Kōji Yamamura’s 2007 animated short film on this very story (see video below). Within a short 20 minute Japanese animation, Yamamura captures the very essence of Kafka’s peculiar characters and plot. The animation is so beautifully weird (and a little terrifying), and it leaves you feeling haunted and pensive. 

Kafka’s doctor says, “To write prescriptions is easy, but to come to an understanding with people is hard.” I hope that I have convinced you that a little Kafka in your day goes a long way. 

The Story: https://www.kafka-online.info/a-country-doctor.html

A Young Doctor’s Blog

15956705 2As I finished my first and dived into the second year of my pediatrics residency, I tried to find more ways to marry my two favorite interests: medicine and literature. (As Anton Chekhov, a Russian writer/doctor, says, “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress.”) Last year, I learned about the flourishing (but by no means novel) field of narrative medicine – the concept of using written or spoken narratives in clinical practice to promote healing, communication, understanding, and much more. As I read casual and academic articles on the topic, I ran into several quotes by none other than one of my favorite authors, the aforementioned Chekhov. Imagine my delight upon finding out that some of the biggest names in Russian literature were also physicians (see the many references to my love of Russian literature in previous posts…). Upset that I did not know this much about the private lives of my favorite authors, but intrigued by this new niche genre I had discovered, I began to do more research.

I soon learned that, along with Chekhov, Mikhail Bulgakov, most known for his beautifully absurd novel, The Master and Margarita (another one of my favorites), was also a physician. I quickly ordered his collection of short stories A Young Doctor’s Notebook, and after a long and busy 24-hour call, reading these stories were, in a sense, therapeutic. The collection, mirroring some of Bulgakov’s own experiences as a doctor, recounts the tales of the newly graduated Dr. Bomgard, who has just moved into a small rural town to practice at the Muryino Hospital. Filled with fear at the thought of encountering medical emergencies alone (strangulated hernias, purulent appendicitis, need for tracheostomies, or God forbid… a childbirth!) and distracted by his own self-doubting, inexperienced inner voice, Bomgard settles into the new hospital where he meets a loyal physician’s assistant and two experienced midwives, who remind him quite frequently of the big shoes he needs to fill.

Despite his desperate attempts to self-soothe his worries, Bomgard does, in fact, face the terrifying clinical scenarios that would make any resident in this age shake in his/her boots. Faced with transverse-laying pregnancies, diphtheria, and venereal disease outbreaks (treated with “black ointment”, I might add), our endearing hero shuffles for any and all breaks he can get. (In my favorite scene, Bomgard announces that he will step out for some cigarettes during an operation’s prep time – when in fact, he runs back to his office to shuffle the pages of medical books to remind himself how to perform the procedure… He also gets lost in a blizzard at night with his horse-carriage – a must have act in any Russian piece, but that’s a blog post for another time.) The final chapter of the book details the diary entries of one of Bomgard’s colleagues with a crippling morphine addiction (an autobiographical chapter for Bulgakov). Although the entries describe the physical and emotional features of addiction, they also hint at the taboo effects the medical field can have on physicians’ mental health.

Despite our protagonist’s signs and symptoms of “impostor syndrome” and his coworkers’ curiosity of the knowledge behind his young looks, Bomgard learns that carrying himself with confidence and persistently learning are key to his survival as a new doctor. He begins to see a hundred (yes, one hundred!) patients a day, manage inpatient and outpatient services, and even confidently perform the dreaded podalic versions, amputations, and tracheostomies. He even delivers a baby on a bridge in the woods. When he begins to reflect on and boast about his accomplishments, he encounters another puzzling and scary case that quickly snaps him out of his arrogance. Written almost a century ago, this whimsical collection is full of funny anecdotes and humbling lessons that could apply to all of the young physicians of the EMR-era. Aside from its relatable monologues, hilarious witticisms, and fascinating view into the early 1900s rural medical practices, it is written in a beautifully descriptive and colorful fashion fit for a Russian author.

And as I settle into my second year of training, Bomgard’s words strike a particularly familiar tune: “As one year has passed, so will another, and it will be just as rich in surprises as the first one… And so I have to go on dutifully learning.”

Bend Sinister

kIt’s not really a secret that my favorite author is Vladimir Nabokov – I think I’ve (explicitly) implied it each time I’ve mentioned him on this blog. But how could it not be, when every sentence he writes is an intricate string of syntax describing the most minute details of his characters’ appearances, thoughts, and surroundings, in the most linguistically beautiful way possible? *insert schoolgirl googly eyes*

So of course, for my first vacation a few months in to my pediatric residency, I chose to read the first novel Nabokov wrote after moving to America. That in and of itself was not really the deciding factor; to be perfectly honest, I chose it because it was on my bookshelf, and I thought about how much I’d missed reading his novels. However, I was curious about what kind of ramifications this move would have on his writing. After all, as a writer whose familiarity with Russian, German, and even British cultures had clearly influenced his previous works, writing in a completely new environment (America) would surely also impact his future ones.

On that note, imagine my peaked interest when I found with each passing page of Bend Sinister that his first novel in the States was in fact a dystopian novel (jokes regarding our current political climate aside…). The story is that of a grieving philosophy professor who tries to maneuver his way through the new regime of a dictator while trying to protect his young son. The synopsis on the back of the novel warns that the book carries a political theme throughout; but I guess I was taken aback when I read Nabokov as a dystopian writer – someone I’d never thought of him as. This novel almost read Orwell-esque; it is eerily dark, has an infamous dictator, and has gruesome imagery that is unlike the Nabokov I know. That being said, I haven’t read all of Nabokov’s works (but I am working on it!), and I might find that he surprises me even more as I continue to read his other works.

Aside from the surprise in genre, the language he uses is still the one I fell in love with in college. It is obvious that he chooses each word with precision, tries them on within sentences, and replaces them with just as much care if they do not fit correctly the first time. However (and perhaps it’s because I’m on vacation and have a low threshold for overlooking philosophical ramblings), I found myself often getting lost on the long stream-of-consciousness thinking of our beloved author. Some of the passages are excruciatingly riddled with metaphors and imagery (I counted at least 10 in one sentence), including a lengthy analysis of Hamlet in a conversation between two characters. In those tiring passages, where I found myself getting a forehead-wrinkle headache from trying to decipher the author’s underlying messages, I reached an understanding with myself that I would read those sections for the sake of literature and not hang on to the details that did not necessarily change the plot. After all, I am still on vacation.

But of course, a few lengthy paragraphs can’t deter me from my favorite author’s (have I already mentioned that?) novels. Up next, I have Pnin, another Nabokov novel about another professor living in the US. It will be a nice chance to compare the two characters, and I know that I will be equally pleasantly surprised, whatever it may bring! 

 

A Clockwork Orange

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Although I had several book suggestions from my friends up next on my “to read list”, I started this book until I could get the chance to acquire those. Having heard its name multiple times, I got this novel last year without knowing any more about it. I excitedly started it as soon as I brought it home, but right from the first page, I was faced with multiple odd words like “droogs, rassoodocks, mesto, vesch, mozg, peet, deng” and became frustrated with not being able to understand most of what I was reading. Although the novel is mainly in English, these strange words prevented me from understanding the entire meaning of the sentences, and unfortunately, being too eager to dive into a new fictional world, I moved on to a new book. Few months in and having forgotten why I stopped the first time, I thought I’d give A Clockwork Orange another try – nope!

Finally, I picked it up for the third time a few days ago – this time, expecting what was coming. So, I did some more intensive research beforehand. These “gibberish words” were none other than Anthony Burgess’s own made-up Nadsat language: a Russian-inspired, secret slang language used by the teenagers in this dystopian setting. For the first few pages, I tried to guess the meanings of the words based on the context. While it worked for some of the simpler ones, I couldn’t quite figure out all of the words and had trouble moving along. At that point, I started using an appendix of all of the Nadsat words I found online (Appendix). I read the first couple of chapters with my book in one hand and my phone with the glossary open in the other hand. There were instances where I did have to look up the same word several times as there were too many to remember in such a short time. But, with each page, I began to become familiar with more and more of the words, and by the last third of the book I was able to read 99% comfortably without needing to look up any. By the end of the novel, Burgess not only told me a story, but he also taught me a whole new language – one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen an author do with his/her literature.

As for a quick recap of the plot: the story revolves around a group of teenagers who terrorize the public after dark with robberies, assaults, and even murder. The rest of the story focuses on the dystopian government’s unconventional methods of “curing” our antihero. That is the most I should say so as not to ruin the rest. However, the novel focuses on themes like good & evil, free will, and violence – a lot of violence. The book is very dark with many graphic scenes (the main reason for getting banned from multiple high schools). However, it does have a lot of dark humor that makes up for some of the more heavy themes.

I wanted to use the book’s own title as the name of the blog post since it is strange enough to begin with (its meaning is more fun to discover while reading the novel). Described online as a form of metafiction (“fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality”), the title is actually the name of a book written by a character within the novel itself. Simply put, this book is filled with many dark twists and turns, including lots of secrets the author has hid along for us to find! For those who have read the book, I would love to hear your perspective and thoughts about it! What started as an infuriating piece of literature has definitely become one of my new favorite books.

Barrabás came to us by the sea

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Surprise! This blog post is NOT about a Russian novel! Maybe I’ll start with how I came to put a hold on my quest to read all the Russian classic novels. I mentioned many, many moons ago that I was spending the 23rd year of my life exploring NYC by reading novels on the trains and teaching middle school science classes. Fast-forward nearly five years: I am finishing up my last few months of medical school (hence, why I’ve suddenly started updating my blog after so many years!). I spent the majority of my fourth year working on applications for residency programs, which meant not only a lot of traveling for interviews, but also having many opportunities to discuss books with people I met along the road – including my interviewers. When I mentioned to one of my interviewers that the last book I had read was by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, she asked whether I had ever read The House of The Spirits by Isabel Allende, an author who (like Marquez) uses predominantly magical realism themes in this novel. Although I immediately jotted down the name of the book in my black portfolio so as not to forget, the excitement/stress of the application process got the better of me, and I did end up forgetting it. However, a few months later, while running my fingers along used-book shelves at the bookstore, I coincidentally ran into the only copy of this book there. Without thinking twice, I grabbed it, excited to have woken up so lucky that morning.

Having really enjoyed several of Marquez’s works in the past, I was excited to enter another magical realm with this book. What I did not expect was to be pulled into a page-turner. The general plot focuses on several generations of the del Valle family, their familial and romantic relationships, the turbid political environment they live in, and the unspeakable secrets they hide from one another (similar to those of the Buendia family of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude). However, Allende begins the story with magical elements right from the first page with an introduction to Clara, the family clairvoyant, and Rosa, the unearthly beautiful (mermaid-like) older sister. From there, she pulls in her readers with further mystical (or odd?) events such as an uncle with an exceptional adventurous spirit and an abnormally large pet dog, Barrabás. These are just a few of the initial oddities the readers face. The rest of the book addresses ghosts, mummies, and other paranormal activity, but the natural and effortless incorporation of these elements into the story (as if the abnormal is expected or easily accepted) distinguishes the story as belonging to the magical realism genre rather than horror or supernatural fiction.

As I mentioned, the story deals mainly with the familial dynamics of several generations. There are themes of love, loyalty, betrayal, justice, feminism, revenge, political resistance, punishment… I could list at least ten more. Because this is a longer novel, Allende explores all of these themes eloquently. Her writing is engaging, poetic, and flows effortlessly. In fact, it has helped me create such a vivid visual of the settings and characters that I am sure I will keep these mental snapshots for years to come (see my first post!!). In order to express these ideas effectively, she does use strong (and even a bit graphic) descriptions. Some of the treatments of her heroines were painful and upsetting to read, and I wondered how difficult it must have been for an author to put her leading characters in those situations. But I understood the importance and necessity of it in the end.

Before I wrap up, I will mention that the name of this post is the first half of the first sentence of the novel. Although it has contextual significance, I simply loved the way in which the words just seemed to complement each other so perfectly, and it is the first phrase to pop into my mind when I think of the prose itself. I realize I could keep talking about how much I enjoyed this book, but I’ll leave this post short(ish). I hope that it at least gives you an idea of what the book is about and has gotten you curious enough to jot its name down on a corner of the nearest sheet of paper.

Евгений Онегин

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I planned out my Sunday as soon as I woke up this morning: After breakfast, I would go to Taylor Books (my favorite local bookstore in town), grab a coffee, find a comfy couch, finish reading my “novel in verse” –Eugene Onegin– and then head to a couple of stores to run some errands and buy some groceries. All of it played out as I planned, except for the last bit. After finishing this book, I had so many thoughts about the ending that I came straight back home, opened up my computer (after an avocado toast lunch, as I’m more of a millennial than I care to admit), and began to type. How can a man, who lived 180+ years ago, still change the course of my life today?

To rewind a little, I’ve been really drawn to poetry for the past couple of months. This was an interest that started with watching hours of spoken-word poets featured on the Button Poetry youtube page. The more I listened to upcoming poets, the more I was reminded of my love of words and syntax. I spent hours rummaging through multiple boxes in my parents’ basement a few months ago to find my poetry notebooks from my elementary/middle school years. My 3rd grade notebook had rhymes in Turkish about fruits, school, Leyla and Mecnun, and my mother; whereas my 6th grade journal had more developmentally appropriate verses about peace, love, and oddly enough, the Loch Ness monster. Although my family enjoyed teasing me about the contents of these poems, they did prove to me that this fascination with words was in fact rooted to my childhood. 

To fast-forward, I excitedly ordered Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin while reading Dante’s Inferno. Knowing that Onegin is considered to be one of the most famous works in Russian literature, I immediately began “previewing” it before finishing the other (reader’s sin, I know). Sure enough, I was hooked and had a hard time putting it down again. The story revolves around two men, Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky, and their respective romantic interests, Tatyana and her younger sister, Olga. Although written in second person point of view (Pushkin loves to talk to his readers), his own autobiographical tales about his relationship with his Muse interestingly makes him the third protagonist.

The friendship between the two men is quite comical. Onegin is a socialite who enjoys the spotlight, parties, and company, although he gets bored very easily, very fast. Lensky is a younger, more sensitive poet, who strikes me as slightly depressed. The two men become best friends in the countryside while bonding over their mutual feelings of disinterest in life and society. I don’t want to give away too much of the story as it’s a classic, and I wouldn’t want to ruin it before anyone else has the chance to experience it for themselves. However, Pushkin tackles many themes, including revenge, societal expectations, naiveté, and regrets – not to mention a good old-fashioned duel! He also has a lot (A LOT) of references to other literary works, for which I gratefully referred to the “Explanatory Notes” in the back of the book.

Pushkin brilliantly finished the novel with all of the loose ends tying as deserved. So why was I left confused…? I think it was because nothing “good” (for lack of a better word) actually happened. By that I mean, none of the characters (save for Pushkin?) actually got a happy ending. I closed the book smiling at how frustrated I was – feeling as though I had just been led-on and pranked. As I mentioned in one of my first posts, “Great books should elicit physical responses.” Eugene Onegin did just that. Although I couldn’t quite pinpoint why, I could feel my heart rate rising, my forehead wrinkling, and slight upward curls forming of the edges of my lips. I realize now as I’m trying to verbalize my feelings that I will not be able to do this amazing classic justice. But I will do the next best thing and vehemently recommend it to everyone else.

A couple of logistical notes: As these verses were originally written in Russian, I did some research before committing to the James E. Falen translation (the Oxford World’s Classics edition). It seemed that this was the most well-liked, although considering how difficult it must be to not only translate a Russian poem into an English one, but also to preserve the rhyme, rhythm, and tone of the piece, every translator who has worked to do this masterpiece justice deserves credit. I also noticed that Nabokov, one of my favorite authors as you all know, also translated this work. I did hesitate to read his translation, though, because I associated him with his *own* work – kind of like watching any movie with Daniel Radcliffe but always subconsciously seeing Harry Potter. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ However, I was pleasantly surprised to learn later that Falen’s translation was actually influenced by Nabokov’s anyway!

I did have to do some extra reading on this book to get the most out of it, but I got just as much out of my own Internet digging as I did with the piece itself. Having said that, I could not talk about Eugene Onegin without mentioning the famous “Onegin stanza” which was termed after the rhyming scheme Pushkin uses in this work. Although I had heard of it previously, I really enjoyed reading the original, as Falen stays true to this scheme, as well. 

Although I had a lot of feelings about Eugene Onegin, I’m secretly glad that I could not fully express all of my emotions and went off on several tangents, because I hope that that in itself will ignite enough curiosity in whoever is reading this post to pick up a copy, as well!