Sunday, September 30, 2018

Russian books I have read recently - Teffi and Zoshchenko - "Yes, we'll loot and pillage!"

One great, tangled novel, Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1916/1922), and two collections of sketches, stories and miscellanea by humorists, let’s call them, Teffi’s Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me (1918-56) and Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Nervous People and Other Satires (1922-55).

Actually, given what is in the Teffi collection, I would never guess that she has been thought of as a humorist.  The pieces are autobiographical, with maybe a little fictionalizing sprinkled in, and are observant and well written, with the ironic tone I associate with lots of great writers, but Teffi is not constantly going for the joke, like Mark Twain (or Zoshchenko).  Teffi’s pieces about her childhood, the Revolution, exile in France were more insightful than funny.  She – I mean, this book – is easy to recommend to anyone more interested in history than literature.

The title is a little off.  Teffi met Tolstoy as a child, and got a good, sensitive little story out of it.  But she knew her colleague Lenin far better, and the piece about him has a lot more insight.  Teffi on Lenin’s speaking:

Lenin simply battered away with a blunt instrument at the darkest corner of people’s souls, where greed, spite and cruelty lay hidden.  He would batter away and get the answer he wanted:

“Yes, we’ll loot and pillage – and murder too!”  (“New Life,” p. 106, tr. Rose France and Robert and Elizabeth Chandler)

The Tolstoy piece has a lot of insight about young Teffi, I guess.  The long, wild piece on Rasputin deserves its cover billing.

The Zoshchenko book really is, mostly, a collection of humor pieces, the kind of thing that made him famous and genuinely popular.  As an outsider, they are hugely instructive about early Soviet culture.  As an outsider, they are not as funny as maybe a Russian would find them, but still often pretty funny.  Many of the jokes are of a nature that would later get Zoshchenko in trouble, despite his popularity.  He jokes about purges, about collectivization, about bad living conditions.  His bedrock joke is that people are deeply selfish, whatever social organization overlays them at the moment.

A man drops a bottle on the street.  Smash.

Then I purposely sit down on the curb near the gate to see what would happen.

What do I see?  I see people walk on the glass.  They curse, but they still walk.  What lack of culture!  There’s not a single person who will fulfill his social obligations.  (“The Bottle,” 179, tr. Maria Gordon and Hugh McLean)

Zoshchenko spins this out for a couple of pages, but the funniest joke remains the one in the first sentence above, the narrator gleefully tsking at everyone who does nothing, all the while doing nothing himself.  I said I learned about Soviet culture, but that was in the details.  The human behavior is universal.

Boris Dralyuk’s recently translated not an anthology but a Zoshchenko book, Sentimental Tales (1929), which may have some overlap with the Nervous People collection but seems to capture one aspect of Zoshchenko that the anthology loses.  As with any humorist, the voice, the character of the story-teller, matters a lot.  Sentimental Tales has a single narrator, or so I understand.  With Nervous People, some stories presumably share characters but there is no real way to tell.  They all blur into Zoshchenko, which blurs some of the fun, some of his art.  Maybe a lot of it.

I was pleased to come across a long passage in which Zoshchenko parodies the style of Andrei Bely and his disciples (“the author will try to take a dip into highbrow artistic literature,” 45).  Would I have recognized the parody if I had not been in the middle of Petersburg at the time?  Yes, there is a footnote.  Would I have gotten the joke at all?  Eh, I don’t know.

I guess I will save Bely’s highbrow artistic literature for another post.


  1. Both wonderful authors; I'm glad you got a chance to experience them.

    Actually, given what is in the Teffi collection, I would never guess that she has been thought of as a humorist.

    She's not a humorist in the sense that Zoshchenko is, more of what they used to call a feuilletonist; her early pieces, the ones that made her wildly popular in prerevolutionary Russia, are sharply observed scenes of urban life with a humorous tinge. Dostoevsky started out the same way in the 1840s, and you can see the experience cropping up all the way through his novels (the tone of voice of his narrators is often that of the feuilletonist, and the use of language is superficially slovenly in the same way, which is what leads snobs like Nabokov to claim he couldn't write decent Russian), just as Hemingway's days as a reporter inform his later fiction. I'm glad she's finally getting some of her due in translation.

  2. Feuilletonist is good, accurate, although I know, as a French student, why most English-language writers avoid the word.