Sentimental Tales by Mikhail Zoshchenko

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Translated by Boris Dralyuk

Review by Karen Langley

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Russian satirical writing has a rich heritage, stretching all the way back to  the  time of Catherine the Great and continuing into the current day. It’s a way of writing that has served the country’s people well during any number of repressive regimes, and was particularly vital during the Soviet years, when a wrong word could mean the Gulag. One of its main exponents in the early years of the soviet regime was Mikhail Zoshchenko, and Columbia University Press has just issued a marvellous selection of his works in its Russian Library series under the title Sentimental Tales.

Compiled, translated, introduced and annotated by the highly talented Boris Dralyuk, the collection draws together six stories linked by the common denominator of feigned authorship. The structure of the book is fascinating; the stories are ostensibly written by one I.V. Kolenkorov, an author struggling under the new regime of Soviet realism, and the volume comes with no less than four forewords, disputing the actual authorship of the book! “Kolenkorov” goes on to relate some seemingly simple stories of ordinary people and their lives in 1920s Russia – but the stories are anything but straightforward and the underlying meaning more than just clowning.

No one ever did learn what disaster had befallen him. Had there even been a disaster? In all likelihood, there hadn’t been any disaster – just life, plain, simple life, from which only two people out of a thousand ever manage to get back on their feet, while others just wait it out.

So we hear stories of love and loss; poverty and the aftermath of the Revolution and Civil War; superfluous men and directionless women; unemployment and marriages gone wrong.  A particular favourite of mine was ‘What the Nightingale Sang’, an account of provincial love in Soviet times. However, the tales are constantly interrupted by the digressions of the author who seems incapable of getting on with his tale and wants to spend page after page discussing life, art, the authorial process and the meaning of it all.

And that, you know, is the author’s pigheaded nature – he just can’t get started with no storytelling before he’s had his say.

The narrator’s comic insistence on constantly inserting himself into the narrative is very, very funny, and of course he’s patently not meant to be a very good writer. His prose ricochets backwards and forwards between a chatty loquacious style full of gossip, and melancholy attempts at profundity. He’s happy to discuss his own shortcomings as an author and his rambling, digressive and often subversive narrative is often hilarious. Despite his protestations, the narrator is an engaging and somehow appealing figure, and you can’t help sympathising with his plight.

The reader these days, he’s a rotten sort. He goes crazy for French and American romance novels, but contemporary Russian literature? Wouldn’t be caught dead with it. Today’s reader, he wants sudden flights of fantasy – he wants some kind of plot, god only knows what kind.

But where’s an author supposed to get all that stuff?

Zoshchenko’s stories are multi-layered, drawing on the rich Russian tradition of satirical writing, and I heard echoes of Saltykov-Schredrin, and also of Pushkin’s Belkin’s Stories, with its fictional narrator inserted between the actual author and the reader. It’s a clever conceit, here allowing Zoshchenko to show an authorial figure struggling with Soviet reality, and this invented narrator is as important as the stories he tells. Kolenkorov is allowed to critique the regime and send up Soviet realist bad writing; however, he also wallows in wistful dreams of better future.

Just imagine, dear reader… Abandon your daily concerns for a single moment and picture the following: there was, long before us, some kind of life and some kind of high culture, and then it vanished. Now you have a flowering again – but it too will vanish. Now, this might not affect us personally, but still… The melancholy sense of something fleeting, temporary, random, and constantly changing – it forces one to reconsider, time and again, one’s own life.

Zoshchenko/Kolenkorov indulge in regular ponderings on the problems of modern day literature, followed by extended meditations on the difficulty of producing the kind of books the regime wants, as well as the competition from foreign writing – you really do get the feeling that creating your art in 1920s Russia was no mean feat!

It’s true – these foreigners write mighty pleasant stuff. With them it’s all luck and happiness. Nothing but success. And their characters are real lookers, walking around in silk-dresses and powder-blue underpants. They take baths almost every single day. Brave, cheerful, lying through their teeth. And the endings are, of course, happy. In general, you close the book with joy in  your heart, totally at peace.

Amusingly, he goes on to describe how differently a Russian novel would be written, and that description frankly could apply to anything written by Dostoevsky!

However, the actual stories, although funny, are surprisingly moving: they tell of love and loss, hopes dashed, the everyday pettiness of life in the Soviet world, the continuance of the Superfluous Man into those times, and the difficulties of adjusting to the new world when your upbringing, and really your heart, is attached to the old one. The author-narrator is a unique and wonderful creation, and is as much a person out of time as are most of his characters.

But despite his protestations about not being able to write, he still manages to conjure striking images; a marvellous description of the Rundukovs’ house or his digressions about country life are just two examples which spring to mind. It’s a tribute to Zoshchenko’s skill as an author that he can create stories which are readable, enjoyable, clever and yet much more complex than they appear. They not only reflect the problems of ordinary people in Soviet Russia, but also those facing an author trying to ply his trade.

I must add words of congratulation to Boris Dralyuk for his sterling work on rendering Zoshchenko’s work into such witty and wonderful English. Dralyuk’s talents as a translator are obvious from his contributions to The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (which he co-edited) as well as the wonderful 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, a fascinating volume he edited. Boris has brought us an edition of  Zoshchenko which is essential for all lovers of Russian literature in its many forms. Humorous, profound, multi-faceted and tragic, these Sentimental Tales will have you laughing and crying at the same time.

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and thinks comedy and tragedy are simply branches of the same tree. 

Mikhail Zoshchenko, Sentimental Tales (Columbia University Press, 2018). 9780231183796, 224pp, paperback.

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