Sentimental Tales: Mikhail Zoshchenko

“No, the author simply can’t plop down in bed, gay and lighthearted, with a Russian writer’s book in his hands.  For his own peace of mind, the author prefers to plop down with a foreign book.”

Sentimental Tales from Columbia University Press contains six of Mikhail Zoshchenko’s stories. I was attracted to this selection mainly due to the period in which the stories were written: The NEP period (The New Economic Policy 1921-1928), and the introduction gives an explanation of this era “Lenin introduced with the main aim of stabilizing a war-ravaged economy” and which “brought elements of capitalism–including, inadvertently speculation and profiteering into the workers’ state.” I’m not an expert on Russian history, but I’m fascinated by it–the revolution, the civil war, and then this rather bizarre short-lived NEP period which began before the death of Lenin (1924) and Stalin’s rise to power.

sentimental tales

Again I’m quoting from the introduction:

Into the fraught sociocultural landscape stepped Zoshchenko, a satirist who hid behind so many masks that it was impossible to determine whom, exactly, he was mocking.

After reading these stories in which Ukrainian Zoshchenko (1894-1958) takes swipes at everyone, I am amazed that the author survived the Purges. Again, the introduction goes into the subject of Zoshchenko’s “gallows humor,” his “devastating indictment of Soviet life, and of life in general,” and the critical responses to his work.

Kolenkorov is our rather chatty narrator, and while no one escapes his scathing wit, still these stories, in spite of their focus on human frailties, are poignant:

Apollo and Tamara

People

A Terrible Night

What the Nightingale Sang

A Merry Adventure

Lilacs in Bloom

Apollo and Tamara is a love story. Apollo, a “pianist-for-hire, musician, and freelance artist,” is “graced with the countenance of a Lothario, romancer, and destroyer of families,” but, in reality he’s timid around women, and uses his devotion to Art to avoid any commitments. Apollo falls in love but is drafted into the army. Apollo’s life goes downhill. …

People is the story of Ivan Ivanovich Belokopytov whose father is obsessed with French culture.  Belokopytov inherits a large estate, and “always rich and secure” he gives away his most of fortune believing that “human beings should make their own way in the world.” Besieged by relatives, peasants and a revolutionary group, Ivan starts writing “his first little book of poems for publication, under the title, A Bouquet of Mignonette.” After being placed under surveillance for his political sympathies, Ivan leaves Russia in 1910 but returns, after marrying a Russian Ballerina, as the Revolution rages on.

Boris Ivanovich Kotofeyev is the main character in A Terrible Night. In many ways, Boris appears to have landed on his feet when he marries his landlady and becomes: “lord and master of the entire estate. The wheel, the shed, the rake, the stone–all these were now his inalienable property.” Boris becomes obsessed with the idea that Chance has played a huge factor in his life and so “he tried to avoid it.” Thanks to his belief that Chance can break or break a life, a series of events takes Boris to a “former teacher of Calligraphy” who has fallen on hard times. This meeting seeds unease in Boris which cannot be shaken.

In When the Nightingale Sang, a love story, the narrator imagines what people will say in a hundred years, and there’s a passage that seemed very true.

And will it really be wondrous, this future life? That’s another question. For the sake of his own peace of mind, the author chooses to believe that this future life will be just as full of nonsense and rubbish as the one we are living. 

This tale concerns a middle-aged civil servant, Bylinkin whose “stock began to rise” in middle age. His hair may be thinning, but his “figure had filled out. He had reabsorbed. so to speak, the vital juices of which he’d been drained.” Fate leads him to take a room at the home of the elderly Daria Vasilyevna Rundukova “who was afraid that, due to the housing crisis, their living space per person might be reduced with the forcible introduction of some crude and superfluous individual.” 

A Merry Adventure, which contains a long chat from the narrator to the audience, the subject of Russian literature is raised

Now let’s look at our precious Russian literature. First off, the weather’s a mess. It’s either blizzards or storms. You’ve got the wind blowing in 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.

No, the author doesn’t agree with this kind of literature. Sure, there might be lots of good and brilliant books in it, and who the hell knows how many profound ideas and various words–but the author just can’t find emotional balance and joy in any of it.

I mean why is it that the French can depict all these excellent, calming aspects of life and we can’t? Come on comrades–for pity’s sake! What–is there a shortage of good facts in our life? Are we lacking in light and cheerful adventures? Or are we, in your opinion, low on ravishing heroines?

In Lilacs in Bloom, after assessing her living arrangements, profession and income, Volodin marries Margarita. His material comfort increases, but after three years of married life, he falls in love with another woman. …

The connections between the stories of love, life and regret are the absurdities and meaninglessness of life. Love, success, comfort are all set against the instability and unpredictability of Russian society. One can strive for decades and it will all be for nought. Reading these reminded me of Dostoevsky’s lighter work. Wonderful.

Review copy

Translated by Boris Dralyuk

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4 Comments

Filed under Fiction

4 responses to “Sentimental Tales: Mikhail Zoshchenko

  1. I read a longer, older, Zoshchenko collection recently and had some of the same thoughts – how did he get away with some of this? Regardless, the stories were always of high interest.

    I think the collection (Nervous People) shares one or two stories with Sentimental Tales. I should read this book, too.

    • I have an older, larger collection too. The intro goes into why these particular stories were the only ones in this collection. There are times I’m amazed that certain people lived while others did not.

  2. This sounds rather good. I like that period too. It is surprising he got away with it.

  3. The intro to Nervous People argued that authorities could see Zoshchenko’s satire as directly exclusively at the petit bourgeois class, who were of course awful and needed all the help with reform they could get, satirical or otherwise.

    At our distance, Zoshchenko is satirizing humans more generally, but whatever worked. I am reading The Twelve Chairs right now, and have the same questions (presumably, they have the same answers).

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