Risky Rasskazy: Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Thoroughly Unsentimental “Sentimental Tales”

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. Take this frustrated screed from “A Terrible Night”:
There’s no consolation in anything. 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. For example, in “People” he unleashes scramble-headed, irascible I. But just you try and write about it. V. And you’re lucky if it’s a relatively noble element of attire, rather than some wet stocking, Lord forgive me! And your ideology isn’t so hot, either. 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. Damn it all! Let other writers make use of their beautiful verbiage. 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. Has lived in them. ¤
Note: In the interest of full disclosure, Boris Dralyuk is the executive editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. SEPTEMBER 27, 2018
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. 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. Discouraged about his life and career, he died in 1958. 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). They’ll say you’ve bungled it. 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. Perhaps he even lives in one to this day. 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. The author isn’t a vain man — if this is how he wrote it, so be it. It wouldn’t be so bad if it were some nobler part of the wardrobe, but it’s likely to be a wet stocking. The author knows these houses and their kitchens. 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. 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. Not in money, not in glory, not in honors. 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. ¤
Bob Blaisdell, a graduate of UC Santa Barbara, is a professor of English in Brooklyn who frequently writes about Russian literature. […]
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. 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. And on top of that, life is kind of funny — really rather poor. 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. 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. He’s set foot in them. 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. Yet even though he was writing day-in-the-life mockeries of the Soviet Union, he wasn’t executed for them. Damn it, how the author hates planting his face in a stocking. He wasn’t an absurdist like Daniil Kharms, and he rarely soared like Mikhail Bulgakov. You walk into the kitchen and plant your face right into some wet underthing or other. “The Bathhouse” and “The Galosh” are probably Zoshchenko’s most well-known stories in English. In comparison, Dralyuk’s translation sputters wonderfully:
There isn’t a hint of sweetness or romanticism in these petty recollections. 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. He’s been in them. Lord, it’s disgusting to put your face in a stocking! He’s lived in them. No scientificness of approach. Such a critic may even insist that it’s preferable to sketch out little colorful etudes peopled with insignificant provincial types. 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. Would you have him tell lies? 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! The last time “What the Nightingale Sang” was published in English (in Nervous People and Other Satires) was almost 60 years ago. The more Zoshchenko wrestled in his life and on the page with depression and “nervous disorders,” the funnier and more individualistic he became. 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. 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. You step into that kitchen and you will surely stick your nose into some wet underwear. What did he feel, exactly? Always flinging curses at each other. Instead of merry, joyous adventures, you get all sorts of troubles and misfortunes, or stuff that just puts you to sleep. They have nothing to recommend them — absolutely pitiful. 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. The author loses no sleep over the laurels of other famed writers. All wrong, they’ll say. You’ve got the wind blowing in the characters’ faces all the time. Badly dressed. 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. 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. Dear critic, keep your silly comments to yourself! The author knows these little houses, these kitchens. A rooster’s walking back and forth. Disgusting! Boring sight. — Mikhail Zoshchenko, “A Merry Adventure”
¤
BORN IN 1894 in St. And everything, all around you, is poor, dirty, uncivilized …
Oh, what a boring sight! It’s either blizzards or storms. And they aren’t exactly agreeable folks, these characters. Zoshchenko had always been dismissive of his work and famously stated that the stories weren’t funny. So how is our author supposed to get his hands on major world events, contemporary ideas, and significant heroes? She’s doing something with her hands. Their efforts only encouraged Zoshchenko’s reckless narrators. Perhaps even lives in one now … There’s nothing good in that: just utter misery. Such filth! You go out into the country, for example, out of town … You see a little house, a fence.