A forgotten classic of early Soviet literature—forgotten for reasons political and not literary.
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.