“In California they drink gin instead of tea.”
I saved A Very Russian Christmas from New Vessel Press for the right time of year, and while I can’t say that the stories made me full of good cheer, they all definitely contained elements of Christmas in one way of another. There’s a universality to these stories which show Christmas as a troubling time, a time for reflection and, as cheesy as it may sound, being grateful for what we have. Here’s the line-up:
The New Year’s Tree: Mikhail Zoshchenko
The Boys: Anton Chekhov
A Christmas Tree and a Wedding: Fyodor Dostoevsky
At Christmastide: Anton Chekhov
Dream of the Young Tsar: Lev Tolstoy
Makar’s Dream: Vladimir Korolenko (translated by Victoria Zinde Walsh)
A Woman’s Kingdom: Anton Chekhov
A Distant Christmas Eve: Klaudia Lukashevich
The Little Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree: Fyodor Dostoevsky
Christmas Phantoms: Maxim Gorky
A Lifeless Animal: Teffi
My Last Christmas: Mikhail Zoshchenko
Chekhov’s The Boys is the tale of a planned escape to America; In Mikhail Zoshchenko’s, The New Year’s Tree, the forty-year-old narrator recalls the lessons learned 35 years earlier. In another story from Chekhov, At Christmastide, an older couple pay someone to write a letter to their daughter who has married and moved away. Dream of the Young Tsar from Tolstoy was a bit of a disappointment; it’s sort of a Russian version of A Christmas Carol, heavy handed and moralistic.I’m not going to review all the stories, and instead I’m going to concentrate on my favourites in the collection.
Maxim Gorky’s story, Christmas Phantoms, is the story of a writer who, on one very cold night, is finishing a story about two peasants–a blind husband and his elderly wife, who, after an unsuccessful day begging on Christmas Eve, freeze together to death in the snow. What a dreadful story, I thought to myself, and I felt disappointed (too soon) by Gorky, but he pulled a few tricks and before the story was done, I had a few chuckles. All I’ll say is ‘writers beware what you do to your characters.’
Another favorite was Chekhov’s A Woman’s Kingdom. The story opens on Christmas Eve and focuses on unmarried Anna Akimovna, a young woman who owns substantial property, including a factory which employs 1800 workers. Every year at Christmas, she distributes a certain amount of money to the poor, but this year, an extra 1500 roubles lands in her lap, and she decides to give it away. But who to give it to? She’s faced with a stack of begging letters (and hateful letters), and letting fate award the 1500 roubles, she picks a begging letter at random.
A Woman’s Kingdom is a fairly long story, and one that could have been worked into a novel. We see Anna’s Christmas when she is visited by the local poor who shivering with cold, pay respects, Anna notes “in reality there is something cruel in these Christmas customs,” but she’s powerless to stop the century old traditions.
For Christmas dinner she’s joined by a civil councillor and a slimey barrister, Lysevitch. These men can be seen, ostensibly, as suitors, but neither of them court Anna-although sleek Lysevitch, “like a spoiled horse fresh from the stable,” is full of stupid advice about Anna taking multiple lovers.He’d “long ceased to believe in anything he had to say in the law courts, or perhaps he did believe in it, but attached no kind of significance to it–it had all so long been familiar, stale, ordinary ..”
Anna, an extremely sympathetic character, was raised from peasantry to wealth by inheritance. She’s not entirely comfortable with her position. She longs for love and marriage, but it seems that she’s destined to remain unmarried. We see a life of privilege but a life that’s sterile. She has wealth but she’s being ripped off in various ways; she’d like to help those in need and give charity, but her actions are either thwarted or futile.
My favourite story in the collection was Dostoevsky’s A Christmas Tree and a Wedding. The narrator is an unnamed man who sees a wedding, and then casts his mind back to a children’s party which took place five years earlier on New Year’s Eve. The family who threw the party were wealthy, and the narrator, an outsider, observes the other guests, the children and their accompanying governesses.
Particularly charming was a blackeyed, curly-headed boy, who kept trying to shoot me with his wooden gun. But my attention was still more attracted by his sister, a girl of eleven, quiet, pensive, pale with big, prominent, pensive eyes, exquisite as a little cupid.
Idle gossip between the guests whispers that the little girl will inherit 300,o00 roubles, and the supposedly disingenuous narrator notices that gifts, which seem to be randomly distributed, are awarded to the children with “presents diminishing in value in accordance with the rank of the parents of these happy children.” The son of the governess, “the child of the lowest degree” gets a cheap book while the little heiress receives the most expensive doll. To say what happens next would be to spoil the story for other readers, but once again Dostoevsky chronicles the lowest points of human behaviour.
Makar’s Dream translated by Victoria Zinde Walsh
My last Christmas and The New Year’s Tree copyright estate of Mikhail Zoshchenko