No, the author simply can’t plop down in bed, gay and lighthearted, with a Russian writer’s book in his hands […] First off, the weather’s a mess. It’s either blizzards or storms. You’ve got the wind blowing in the characters’ faces all the time. And they aren’t exactly agreeable folks, these characters. Always flinging curses at each other. Badly dressed. Instead of merry, joyous adventures, you get all sorts of troubles and misfortunes, or stuff that just puts you to sleep.
— Mikhail Zoshchenko, “A Merry Adventure”
BORN IN 1894 in St. Petersburg to a Ukrainian painter and a Russian actress, Mikhail Zoshchenko had just dropped out of law school when World War I started in 1914. He served with distinction as an officer in the Russian Army, though he suffered from injuries and the effects of poison gas, which prevented him from serving in the Red Army during the Civil War. In the first few years of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, he was a jack-of-all-trades, and these experiences served him well in his more than 400 short short stories, or what I would call “skits.”
He was not a man of the people, but the colloquial voice he employed in his super-short popular pieces was that of the common man. Yet even though he was writing day-in-the-life mockeries of the Soviet Union, he wasn’t executed for them. In the 1920s, there was still room for art and subversive jokes, but that would change, explains Boris Dralyuk, translator and editor of the superb Sentimental Tales, a collection of six of Zoshchenko’s marvelous longer stories written between 1923 and 1929: “In the early 1930s, as the Soviet literary establishment grew increasingly monolithic, its tolerance for Zoshchenko’s ironic games began to wear thin.”
Zoshchenko’s skits weren’t highbrow, they were gags that dealt with the awkward adaptations required of the newly revolutionized culture in which his newly literate readers were pleased to see their own lives. He wasn’t an absurdist like Daniil Kharms, and he rarely soared like Mikhail Bulgakov. “The Bathhouse” and “The Galosh” are probably Zoshchenko’s most well-known stories in English. Reading a whole bunch of the skits in 20th-century translations or in Russian can be deflating, as Gary Kern, one of those translators, observed: “[T]he most delightful things may become the most undelightful if one exceeds the mean; and reading the fiftieth or sixtieth funny story by Zoshchenko is a very sad occupation.”
But as soon as Zoshchenko pushed past the short short story into long tales (rasskazy), he found his literary great-grandfather Nikolai Gogol’s blood surging through his pen. For example, in “People” he unleashes scramble-headed, irascible I. V. Kolenkorov, the impatient narrator who links the half-dozen stories Dralyuk chose for Sentimental Tales:
One author resides in Moscow, and, so to speak, witnesses with his own eyes the whole round of events involving his heroes and great leaders, while another, by virtue of family circumstances, drags out a miserable existence in some provincial town where nothing particularly heroic has ever happened or ever will.
So how is our author supposed to get his hands on major world events, contemporary ideas, and significant heroes?
Would you have him tell lies? […]
Of course, some enlightened critic who can prattle in six foreign tongues may urge the author not to shun the minor heroes and little provincial scenes taking place all around him. Such a critic may even insist that it’s preferable to sketch out little colorful etudes peopled with insignificant provincial types.
Dear critic, keep your silly comments to yourself! The author has thought it all through long before you came along …
For more than 20 years the government censors couldn’t shut this wisecracker down. Their efforts only encouraged Zoshchenko’s reckless narrators. Here’s Kolenkorov in “A Terrible Night”:
And as for the revolution — well, that too is a tough spot […] you’ve got your majestic, grandiose fantasy. But just you try and write about it. They’ll say you’ve bungled it. All wrong, they’ll say. No scientificness of approach. And your ideology isn’t so hot, either.
The more Zoshchenko wrestled in his life and on the page with depression and “nervous disorders,” the funnier and more individualistic he became. Witness the sensibility in “Apollo and Tamara”: “He had to admit that, in fact, he had no idea how a man ought to live in order to avoid feeling what he himself now felt. What did he feel, exactly? He felt his game was up, that life was calmly marching on without him.”
Despite (or because of) his depressions, Zoshchenko was prolific, publishing dozens of volumes of skits and stories in the 1920s and ’30s. In Mikhail Zoshchenko: Evolution of a Writer (1993), Linda Hart Scatton writes, “[Zoshchenko’s] public literary career is all the more interesting because he is one of the few talented Soviet writers who survived the purges of the 1930s with his life and integrity intact.”
We see in his novellas and novels how desperately he wanted Freud’s theories to rescue him — so much so that self-analysis flattened his good, quirky Youth Restored (1933) and detoured his half-great novel Before Sunrise (1943). He was booted out of the Writers’ Union in 1946 for making his neuroses and individuality too conspicuous, and though he was allowed back into the fold after Stalin’s death in 1953 he never again hit his stride. Discouraged about his life and career, he died in 1958.
Zoshchenko had always been dismissive of his work and famously stated that the stories weren’t funny. In the autobiographical Before Sunrise (translated by Kern), the narrator, in his efforts to find the source of his misery, states of his writing success, “I thought of my stories which made people laugh. I thought of the laughter which was in my books, but which was not in my heart.”
And yet his narrator realizes, “[T]he first draft always amuses me to an unbelievable degree.” Thank goodness Zoshchenko (and his narrator) got something besides a comfortable apartment and dacha for his pains!
To onlookers, even the exasperation of a clown is amusing; Kolenkorov irritatedly justifies his thoroughly unsentimental nature in “Apollo and Tamara”:
[T]he author must interject and say that he’s no snot-nosed kid, to go on this way, describing sentimental scenes. And although there isn’t much of that stuff left, the author must move on to the hero’s psychology, deliberately omitting two or three intimate, sentimental details, such as: Tamara combing Apollo’s matted hair, wiping his haggard face with a towel, and sprinkling him with Persian Lilac […] The author states unequivocally that he has no truck with these details and is interested solely in psychology.
Zoshchenko fiddled with the stories with each new edition, but Dralyuk has restored passages that seem to have been cut for reasons of censorship rather than refinement. As when we read Gogol (the only writer, Scatton tells us, to whom Zoshchenko didn’t mind being compared), we laugh at the appalling sadness, unfairness, and squalor of everyday life. Take this frustrated screed from “A Terrible Night”:
There’s no consolation in anything. Not in money, not in glory, not in honors. And on top of that, life is kind of funny — really rather poor.
You go out into the country, for example, out of town … You see a little house, a fence. Boring sight. There’s a little cow standing out front, bored to tears … Manure on the side of her belly … She’s shaking her tail … Chewing … You see a peasant woman sitting there, wearing some kind of gray kerchief. She’s doing something with her hands. A rooster’s walking back and forth. And everything, all around you, is poor, dirty, uncivilized …
Oh, what a boring sight!
Dralyuk’s translations of the stories (three of which, as far as I can discover, are the first published in English) are good and lively enough, in and out of context, to prompt laughs on each rereading. Zoshchenko’s narrator is that clown magician who shows his hand — and can’t shake the trick-handkerchief off, as in “People”:
Of course, all this could have been laid out in a better, more attractive manner — but again, for the reasons mentioned above, the author leaves everything as it is. Let other writers make use of their beautiful verbiage. The author isn’t a vain man — if this is how he wrote it, so be it. The author loses no sleep over the laurels of other famed writers.
The last time “What the Nightingale Sang” was published in English (in Nervous People and Other Satires) was almost 60 years ago. The editor and co-translator of that volume — noted Russian scholar and UC Berkeley professor Hugh McLean — translated the story thusly:
There is no sweetness or romanticism in these trifling reminiscences, none whatsoever. The author knows these houses and their kitchens. He’s been in them. Has lived in them. Perhaps even lives in one now … There’s nothing good in that: just utter misery. You step into that kitchen and you will surely stick your nose into some wet underwear. It wouldn’t be so bad if it were some nobler part of the wardrobe, but it’s likely to be a wet stocking. Lord, it’s disgusting to put your face in a stocking! Damn it all! Such filth!
In comparison, Dralyuk’s translation sputters wonderfully:
There isn’t a hint of sweetness or romanticism in these petty recollections. The author knows these little houses, these kitchens. He’s set foot in them. He’s lived in them. Perhaps he even lives in one to this day. They have nothing to recommend them — absolutely pitiful. You walk into the kitchen and plant your face right into some wet underthing or other. And you’re lucky if it’s a relatively noble element of attire, rather than some wet stocking, Lord forgive me! Damn it, how the author hates planting his face in a stocking. Disgusting!
For English-language readers hooked by Zoshchenko’s Sentimental Tales, one can only hope Dralyuk aims to translate another set of the Russian satirist’s risky rasskazy.
Note: In the interest of full disclosure, Boris Dralyuk is the executive editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.