by Mikhail Zoshchenko
Translated by Boris Dralyuk
Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Sentimental Tales are satirical portraits of small-town characters on the fringes of Soviet society in the first decade of Bolshevik rule. The tales are narrated by one Kolenkorov, who is anything but a model Soviet author: not only is he still attached to the era of the old regime, he is also, quite simply, not a very good writer. Shaped by Zoshchenko’s masterful hands—he takes credit for editing the tales in a series of comic prefaces—Kolenkorov’s prose is beautifully mangled, full of stylistic infelicities, overloaded flights of metaphor, tortured cliché, and misused bureaucratese, in the tradition of Gogol.
Yet beneath Kolenkorov’s intrusive narration and sublime blathering, the stories are genuinely moving. They tell tales of unrequited love and amorous misadventures among down-on-their-luck musicians, provincial damsels, aspiring poets, and liberal aristocrats hopelessly out of place in the new Russia, against a backdrop of overcrowded apartments, scheming, and daydreaming. Zoshchenko’s deadpan style and sly ventriloquy mask a biting critique of Soviet life—and perhaps life in general. An original perspective on Soviet society in the 1920s and simply uproariously funny, Sentimental Tales at last shows Anglophone readers why Zoshchenko is considered among the greatest humorists of the Soviet era.
About the Author
Mikhail Zoshchenko (1894–1958) was a leading Soviet satirist. His stories of the 1920s made him enormously popular with readers. In 1946 he was expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union. He never recovered from this trauma and died of heart failure in 1958.
Boris Dralyuk is the editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (2016) and coeditor of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (2015).
Zoshchenko was a “fellow traveler” of Lenin and company, but, as Pasternak wrote of Zhivago, one of those kinds who supported the regime for reasons too subtle to make him reliable. “I have no hatred for anyone,” he declared in 1922. “In general thrust, I’m closest to the Bolsheviks. And I’m willing to bolshevize around with them.” That’s just the kind of talk to get a writer of the Soviet era in trouble, though it took the authorities a quarter-century to get around to expelling Zoshchenko from the writers union. In the meantime, he wrote, including this slender collection of stories set out in the dusty, reactionary countryside, where the church still held sway and people still believed in things like love. Oh, transgressions occur there, to be sure: There are the usual vices, the usual scheming of married men to woo innocent maidens, that sort of thing. But mostly people are trying to figure out how to love according to the ideals of the new Soviet man and woman, and that’s not so easy: A teacher of calligraphy is dismissed from his post after “the subject was stricken from the curriculum,” and a music teacher who specializes in the triangle worries that he’s next: “If they take that away from me, how would I live? What, besides the triangle, can I hold onto?” Throughout, Zoshchenko, breaking the fourth wall, comments on the various inadequacies that keep him from writing as well as he can about such matters and such people: “The tale’s hero,” he writes of one piece, “is trifling and unimportant, perhaps unworthy of the attention of today’s pampered public.” That may be all the more so today, but a century later, Zoshchenko is a writer worth knowing. A welcome rediscovery and a book that would make Gogol guffaw.
In the face of ideological pressure to produce heroic forms, Zoshchenko’s playful, sly, gallows-humored Sentimental Tales responds with superfluous men. If life is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel, Zoshchenko gives us comedy silhouetted in unspoken tragedy. This many-layered pleasure is brought closer to the contemporary reader by a nimble translation by Boris Dralyuk.
I know of no satirist more angry, more warlike than Mikhail Zoshchenko. Yet I love him not for his anger, I love him for his astonishing irony—for the fact that it is sometimes difficult to determine the target of his mockery: is it his characters, his readers, himself? This new translation preserves Zoshchenko’s irony in all its force.
Mikhail Zoshchenko is one of Russia’s great humorists, not only of the Soviet era but of all time. Boris Dralyuk’s translation of Sentimental Tales reads beautifully, and the English language work is a real tour de force. It transmits Zoshchenko’s quirky style while still maintaining a natural, easy flow, with well-judged rhythms and cadences that echo Zoshchenko’s own.
Zoshchenko is the wittiest and most perceptive of Soviet satirists. Boris Dralyuk is the first translator to succeed in bringing his wit into English. Comedy is largely a matter of timing, and Dralyuk, like Zoshchenko himself, has an impeccable sense of rhythm.