Mikhail Zoshenko’s Sentimental Tales, translated from Russian to English by Boris Dralyuk, is published by Columbia University Press in New York, USA. The book has six stories: Apollo and Tamara, People, A Terrible Night, What the Nightingale Sang, A Merry Adventure, and Lilacs in Bloom. The six stories were written during 1923-1929 and offers an insight into the Soviet life and Soviet Society in the USSR (Russia).
The six stories in Sentimental Tales, the author brings out humorously about the absurdities out of the human race and presents the characters in the social context at the same time pointing out to his role in narrating these tales. The stories are neither about lofty ideology nor heroic pathos but of ordinary lives of Soviet people. In a preface to the book, written by I. V. Kolenkorov in March 1927, noted: “This book—this collection of sentimental tales—was written at the very height of NEP and revolution.
“And so the reader is, of course, entitled to demand certain things of its author: real revolutionary content, grand subject matter, tasks of planetary significance, and heroic pathos—in a word, a full, lofty ideology.
“The author would hate to see cash-strapped customers make unnecessary purchases, and so he hastens to announce, with a heavy heart, that this sentimental book contains only negligible amounts of heroism.
“Its subject is, quite narrowly, the little man, the fellow in the street, in all his ugly glory.
“But don’t go condemning the author for choosing so petty a subject—for it appears he himself is a man of petty character. Can’t be helped. People do the best they can with what they’ve been given.”
In these six stories, the author brings the reality to the readers and the events. He notes in one story titled ‘The Terrible Night’: “Should the author dilute the event with fantasy? Should he wrap it up in a diverting marital affair cut from whole cloth? No! Let the Frenchies have their fun—we’ll go slow, step by step, on a par with Russian reality.”
The observations of social institutions by the author are not illuminating but reminds the reader of the reality of existence. In one story, he says: “Well,” he thought, “no cause to jump into a lake. I’ve just got to come up with something quick. If push comes to shave, I could cart around firewood or some kind of fragile furniture. I could, for example, set myself up in petty trade. Or I could marry, for that matter, not without benefit.”
Who would visit their friend or their family friend in bad times? The narrator reminds the reader through one his stories: “The author will never forget a certain minor incident that transpired not very long ago. This incident literally cuts the author to the quick without a knife. Imagine a lovely little house. Guests coming and going. Hanging around all day, all night. Playing cards. Gulping down coffee with cream. Treating the young hostess real respectful-like, smooching her hands and everything. Well, of course, one day they come and arrest the master of the house, an engineer. The wife, she takes ill and, of course, damn near starves to death. And not a single bastard comes by to check in on her. No one smooches her hands, that’s for sure. Hell, they’re afraid this former acquaintance might cast a shadow over them.”
APOLLO AND TAMARA:
Apollo Semyonovich Perepenchuk is a pianist-for-hire and musician, whom other men shunned him! (how they hid their wives from him) but in straitened material circumstances. He is sufficiently handsome, refined, and has that haughty artistic profile. And his Adam’s apple ‘his plain old Adam’s apple—or, as it’s sometimes called, the laryngeal prominence—which, when glimpsed on other men, is apt to trigger disgust or laughter, looked noble on Apollo Perepenchuk, whose head was invariably thrown proudly back. There was something Greek about that prominence.” Though he is graced with the countenance of a lothario, romancer, and destroyer of families, on the contrary he is a timid and quiet man who only falls in love with the maiden Tamara Omelchenko. He expresses his bondage to Tamara through sounds.
Tamara has the attention of ‘many respectable gentlemen’ but her eyes rests on ‘the inspired mien of Apollo Perepenchuk’.
Apollo and Tamara’s love affair begins: ‘They would promenade into the evening hours, talking of their love and of that extraordinary, unforgettable evening when they had their first met, recalling its every detail, embellishing everything, and admiring each other.’
What happens next? Love is one thing, and turning that love into marriage is another thing: Tamara was loath to take the risk: the risk of marrying a pianist-for-hire and ‘she didn’t want to drag out her life in misery, as almost all people do’. Apollo also realises the reality of making a living out of being a musician. They were living at a time when ‘social ideas significantly altered and overturned our former way of life’. And Apollo manages only to stretch his lip as a result of constant touch with his clarinet but not enough roubles. He falters to produce music for ‘in his music there was no trace of melody, nor even of individual notes—it was like the terrifying demonic howl of an animal’.
Apollo falls prey to the disaster. The author tells: ‘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.’
In People, the author tells about the story in the story: “This will be a somewhat melancholy tale of the collapse of every possible system, of man’s destruction, of the essential meaninglessness of human culture, and of how easily that culture can vanish. It will narrate the collapse of idealistic philosophy.”
People is the title of a story about a Belokopytov: Ivan Ivanovich whose father is Ivan Petrovich ‘a very rich and respectable individual, was a somewhat odd, eccentric gentleman. He was slightly populist in his tendencies but enamoured of Western ideas, and would either rail against peasants, calling them swine and human scum, or shut himself in his library to pore over the works of such authors as Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Voltaire, and Baudouin de Courtenay, admiring the freedom of their thought and the independence of their views’.
The father dies when goes on a horse because the horse throws him out and his skull splits for he spurs the horse into its sides ‘in a fit of extreme irritation and wrath’.
The young Ivan Ivanovich inherits the enormous fortune from his father. He could have packed his grief over the loss of his father and ‘taken to wine, women, what have you’ but he gives away the fortune. ‘Always rich and secure, he didn’t know the meaning of financial constraints and treated money with indifference and contempt. And having read his fill of liberal books, with his father’s notes in the margins, he even came to disdain his vast fortune.’
Ivan Ivanovich begins after giving away his vast fortune including his mink coat to a girl student who had been sentenced to exile. Nervous of being watched and under secret surveillance of the country, he refuses to remain in Russia ‘a country of semi-barbarians where they stalked men as if they were beasts’ and he leaves the stagnant swamp of Russia in 1910.
But he returns after a decade of living abroad with a wife named Nina Osipovna Arbuzova. His return from self-imposed exile and with his dark woman of a wife who is gypsy-like, he struggles to find a means for livelihood. While his wife from Berlin grows plumper with that provincial air giving her a positively favourable effect. “Tired out by her squats, Nina Osipovna would plop down in some armchair or other, and Ivan Ivanovich would stroke her hand gently, telling her of his former life in these parts, of how he had fled eleven years earlier, pursued by the tsarist gendarmes, and of how he had spent his first years in exile. Nina Osipovna would ask her husband many questions, showing a lively interest in the extent of his former wealth and property. Shocked and horrified at how quickly and rashly he had squandered his fortune, she would reproach him angrily and sharply for his foolish carelessness and eccentricity. How could you?”
As the time rolls in their lives, Ivan Ivanovich loses his heart for he fails to find a way to fund his life and his wife’s. “He was somehow frightened of life, about which, it turned out he knew nothing. It now seemed to him that life was some kind of deadly struggle for the right to exist.” He struggles. In that struggling life, he loses his wife to another man who impregnates her, and he understands that compassion, generosity, morality were not worth rusty kopeck and a rotten egg, and agrees that cynicism and cruelty may be the most proper qualities of all since they secure the right to live.
“His wife had left him. She had no choice but to leave. He was a man of the old world, unfit for the struggle. Women follow the victor. Well, there it was—clear as day. And now nothing would save him from certain death.” How he dies, the reader has to speculate for he vanishes: ‘Like a beast embarrassed to leave its dead body in plain view.’ But his wife gives birth to a beautiful boy bringing remarkable joy to Yegor Konstantinovich!
A TERRIBLE NIGHT:
A terrible night is a story about musician by trade named Boris Ivanovich Kotofeyev who has a fine heart, intelligence and a secondary education. “He played the musical triangle in a symphony orchestra,” the author narrates. “The instrument may have a very special, particular name—the author doesn’t know. At any rate, the reader has likely glimpsed a stooping, somewhat slack-jawed individual sitting in front of a small steel triangle in the depths of the orchestra, off to the right. This fellow gives his uncomplicated instrument a sad little jangle at the appropriate moment. Typically, the conductor indicates the moment by winking his right eye.”
Mikhail Zoshchenko notes: “There are so many strange, surprising professions in this world.”
Kotofeyev lives in a suburb of a Russian provincial town in ‘a small wooden house painted yellow, a low, rickety fence, and a wide yellow gate hanging crooked on its hinges. A yard. In the yard, to the right, a little shed. A rake with broken teeth that hasn’t budged since the days of Catherine the Great. A cart wheel. A stone in the middle of the yard. A porch with its lower step torn off.” The house is owned by his erstwhile landlady who later becomes his wife. They live with the charm of a quiet, boring, placid life, and one night the musician goes crazy. He goes crazy after he hears from a beggar the former landowner and teacher of calligraphy ‘how things change’.
WHAT THE NIGHTINGALE SANG:
What the Nightingale Sang is an ‘unsophisticated love story’. The lovers could not bring their relationship to fruition but only separation. Then, what the nightingale sang? The lovers did list to a nightingale singing when they went for walks in the woods. As the author tells in the story that the nightingale ‘was singing about a fabulous life—which will come, say, three hundred years from now, maybe even sooner. Yes, dear reader, let those three hundred years pass like a dream, and then we’ll really live it up.”
A MERRY ADVENTURE:
A Merry Adventure is about Sergey Petrovich Petukhov who never went to work on Sundays. He ‘wanted to live in a spacious and cheerful room, no less than seven square metres in size. In his mind, he was already covering the room’s floor with fluffy Persian carpets and furnishing it with expensive grand and not-so-grand pianos’. When he meets an acquaintance Katyusha Chervyakova on a day of fine weather, when she goes out for a stroll. “Sergey Petrovich has encountered this girl often enough, but he had never thought about her or called her to min. now, however—under the sway of his light, cheerful dream and the invigorating weather—Sergey felt a certain yearning, a kind of amorous flutter in his breast.’ After facing the hiccups of life and indigestible realities of existence, their lives, “if push comes to shove, we’ll make it official”, they get married.
“And six months after that, Sergey Petrovich and his young spouse won fifty rubles on a Peasant Lottery-Loan they had inherited from his former aunt,” ends the story. “Their joy knew no bounds.”
LILACS IN BLOOM:
Lilacs in Bloom is about one former piss-poor nobleman named Volodon with his Italian sideburns and with ‘blessings and benefits at his disposal when he began to win a life for himself’. Volodin finds a girl and marries but gets face-pounding from his wife’s brother when Volodin tries to leave her for another girl.