From Pope to Swift, and from Mark Twain to Evelyn Waugh, the satirical tradition in the English language fully reflects the breadth and variety of the historical events that shaped it. In Russia, the 1917 October Revolution engendered such a shattering and total transformation of society, had caused such significant shifts in social strata and dredged up so much class, ethnic and social discontentment, that the emergence of a spate of writers who would attempt to make sense of the colorful, deadly maelstrom of events was inevitable. Anton Chekhov, known in the West primarily as a playwright, had in his vast oeuvre of short stories and novellas chronicled the harsh truth about Russian society with darkly powerful understatement a generation earlier, dying in 1904 at the age of 44. The 1920s produced worthy successors to Chekhov in such giants of prose as Bulgakov, Babel, and others, but no prose writer of the time was more popular, better able to speak to people of all levels and – if not make sense of their swiftly mutating lives, then – make them laugh at society, reality and themselves, than the great soviet satirist Mikhail Zoschenko.
Mikhail Zoschenko was born in St. Petersburg on 29 July 1894. His literary experiments began at the age of eight. The first surviving short stories were written in 1914, when he was a law student at St. Petersburg University. In 1915, Zoschenko went to the front as a volunteer, subsequently being put in command of a battalion and earning the St. George Cross. He saw action, was wounded, and in 1917 was sent home with a heart condition resulting from exposure to poison gas. Throughout the fighting, he continued to write, experimenting in the epistolary, satirical, and novel genres.
In 1918, despite his illness, he went to the front again, this time fighting for the Red Army and later serving as an aide in a regiment made up of the rural poor. Upon returning to the city now called Petrograd, Zoschenko supported himself by holding a number of jobs. During that time, he was a cobbler, furniture maker, carpenter, and actor, instructor on rabbit farming, policeman, police detective, and more, all the while searching for and honing his satirical voice. His work dating from this period and beyond reflected in its lexicon and syntax the varied and colorful voice of the street and of the people he met in his exploits – a voice sometimes brusque, often illogical and hilarious, but always colorful and authentic. His short stories were written almost exclusively in the first person and reflected the worldview of the soviet everyman: the peasant, the factory worker, the petty clerk, and the occasional ‘rotten intellectual’.
Almost from the beginning, Zoschenko’s work received the kind of across-the-board public acclaim that seems impossible in today’s world; in the years 1928-46 alone, one hundred editions of his works were printed. His stories were read for popular entertainment in theaters and concert halls as well as clubs and literary gatherings. People getting up to leave an evening featuring a potpourri of satirical works being read by an actor from the stage would stop mid-step and rush back to their seats upon hearing the first lines of a short story by Zoschenko. Packed houses, with many standing-room-only tickets sold, roared with communal laughter and were reduced to tears by Zoschenko’s stories, especially when rendered by the author himself in his trademark, militarily stern, unsmiling manner. With his visceral grasp of intonation, dead-on reproductions of street speech, and razor-sharp timing, Zoschenko was able to tap into a huge audience, a vast majority of which consisted of people new to the written word.
The October Revolution had given former illiterates the ability to read and – by extension – access to knowledge and ideas, but it also propagated Lenin’s ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ along with a practical and political ideology that embraced a radical salt-of-the-earth populism, rejecting all things, ideas and people perceived as or suspected of being western, foreign, non-Russian, non-Marxist, non-proletariat or just, arbitrarily, ‘bourgeois’. This is why Zoschenko’s characters often refer to the ‘petty bourgeois’ ways of others, and why there are frequent mentions of a new society, a radically different outlook, and the wonderful new life that is just around the corner (“just as soon as we eliminate the last vices and obstacles standing in our way; then we’ll start living like princes and earls.”) Yet while ostensibly mocking the ideologically obsolete ways of both the overly genteel aristocrat and the not yet up-to-revolutionary-standards behavior of hard-drinking, coarse, peasant-cum-proletariat, Zoschenko is often offering subtle commentary on the arbitrary top-down distinctions made between those deemed ideologically acceptable and everybody else – considered atavisms or worse: enemies.
The Blue Book (1935) was conceived by the author as the second part of the trilogy that was to become the major oeuvre of his life. In it, Zoschenko elevated his disarming but deadly first-person narrative style (“skaz”) to new heights, while compiling an ambitious overview of human history, billed as a “short history of human relations.” The author saw the book as being driven “not by means of a story, but by a philosophical conceit, which makes it what it is.” Humanity’s past and present are presented in this work from the point of view of a typical Zoschenko character; unencumbered by cultural baggage, this person perceives history simply as a collection of episodes from daily life.
The popular Russian writer Maxim Gorky, the doyen of Russian letters at the time, gave Zoschenko the idea for the book and then lavishly praised his execution of it. Gorky wrote: “Your one-of-a-kind talent has shown itself more confidently and radiantly in this book than in those preceding it. The book’s originality will likely not be appreciated as highly as it deserves to be, but you should not be troubled by it.” “Your satirical gifts are manifest, and you have an acute sense of the ironic that is quite originally paired with that of the lyrical. I know of no writer whose irony and lyricism are interrelated in quite the same way.”
Still, Communist Party-affiliated publications came down on the book. As a result, Zoschenko was effectively straightjacketed by guidelines allowing him to publish only “constructive works satirizing specific shortcomings”. With his visible output in the late 1930’s consisting of newspaper pieces, plays, screenplays, and children’s stories, Zoschenko also set to work on the third book of the trilogy, Before Sunrise (partially published in magazines starting in 1943), which, like the first, Youth Regained, (1933) attempted to investigate the psychological impulses of the depression that hounded him for much of his life.
Upon publication, the first book engendered an unexpected interest in scientific circles. It was discussed at academic gatherings and reviewed in the scientific press. And while the remarkable achievements of the final volume, namely its anticipation of many later findings about the subconscious, have been noted by modern-day psychiatrists, we can only wonder what the true contemporary critical opinion would have been, as the official reaction was deafeningly negative, halting the book’s printing. In 1946, an official party resolution condemning Zoschenko’s work opened the floodgates to an unmitigated stream of crass, generalized insults, with a characteristic reference to Before Sunrise calling it “rubbish of the kind needed only by our enemies.” In a resolution of the Central Committee of the Communist Party Zoschenko himself was called a “coward” and “the scum of literature”.
In stark contrast to his early nationwide popularity, Zoschenko was now subjected to unceasing personal attacks by the state-controlled media, causing him to be abandoned by practically everyone. Once hounded by adoring fans, he was now roundly ostracized. People who knew him for years turned away from him in the street. In the mid-fifties, an acquaintance incredulously watched as Zoschenko passed her by, acknowledging her greeting only with a diffident, downcast look. When she caught up and asked the writer why he pretended not to see her, Zoschenko answered darkly: “I am making it easier for my friends not to notice me.”
In the end, the government’s policy of slander and persecution contributed to the worsening of his emotional problems, which prevented Zoschenko from fully concentrating on his work. His reinstatement in the Writer’s Union following Stalin’s death in 1953, and the first publication of a book of his following a long hiatus (1956) provided but temporary relief. Mikhail Zoschenko died in Leningrad, on July 22, 1958.
Zoschenko’s unique achievements in the use of syntax and multiple registers of language, not only to paint a certain atmosphere or delineate a plot but also to indicate a philosophy and a world view, are an inescapable reference point both for the new wave of satirists so popular in the post-Soviet and, more recently, post-Yeltsin Russia of today, and for those readers and viewers in Western countries, (those ‘petty bourgeois misters’, as a Zoschenko character might say) who find themselves appreciating the aesthetic of more contemporary outlets of satire, be they Lenny Bruce, Robin Williams, Monty Python, Jon Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld et al.
Zoschenko’s craft was firmly rooted in two mighty satirical canons: the Russian folk tradition (the tale, the fable, and the folk epigrams (“chastushki”) with its laconic and lethal use of wordplay and metaphor; and the classical lineage of Pushkin, Gogol, and Chekhov (epigrams, plays, novels, and short stories), each known for their own brand of sophisticated yet no less eviscerating satire. Now, fifty years after his death, this worthy successor to Gogol and, one might say, Mark Twain deserves to finally have a broad English-speaking audience.
THE BLUE BOOK
To M. GORKY
Dear Alexei Maximovich!
Two years ago, in your letter to me you suggested that I write a book of comedy and satire on the history of human life.
“I think that even now you could paint and weave some sort of humorous “History of Culture” with the bright-colored pearls of your lexicon. I say this in all confidence and seriousness…”
I can now confess, Alexei Maximovich, that I was quite doubtful of the subject you proposed. It seemed to me that you were suggesting that I write some kind of book of humor similar to those already existing in our literature, such as, say, “The Satiriconers’ Voyage Around Europe” or something in that vein.
Yet in the course of working on a book of short stories, and desiring to unite them into a single whole, (which I was able to do with the aid of History) I unexpectedly happened upon the very same subject proposed by you. And then, with your words in mind, I confidently set to work.
No, I possess neither the ability nor the skill to truly do justice to your subject. I have written not the History of Culture, but perhaps no more than a brief history of human relations.
So, please allow me, esteemed Alexei Maximovich, to dedicate to you this feeble yet painstakingly created work of mine, this “Blue Book”, which you so wondrously foresaw and which was all the more easy and pleasurable for me to write, knowing that it would have a reader in you.
With my heartfelt regards,
The joy we feel has never left us. For the last fifteen years, we have as best we can been writing funny and entertaining pieces and delighting many people with our laughter; people who wish to see in our lines exactly that which they wish to see, and not anything serious, instructive or annoying.
And likely on account of our being faint of heart, we are infinitely glad and content about this circumstance.
And now we got this idea to write a little book about all different kinds of things people do and feel, that would be no less light and entertaining.
Yet we decided not to limit ourselves to the deeds of our contemporaries. Leafing through the pages of history, we have discovered some rather entertaining facts and situations that vividly illustrate the deeds of former peoples. Said situations will furthermore be presented here for your reading pleasure. They’ll be very useful to us for proving and asserting our amateur ideas.
These days, as we witness the opening of a new page in history – that wonderful history which will run on new principles, possibly without the mad pursuit of money and the related massive criminal activity – it is especially interesting and useful for everyone to see how people used to live.
And on the strength of this, we decided that before embarking on short stories about our life today, we would tell you a thing or two about the past.
And so, having flipped through the pages of history with our hand of an ignoramus and amateur, we were surprised to note that the majority of the most unbelievable events took place for an extremely limited number of reasons. We noted that it was money, love, treachery, bad luck or certain amazing events – of which more will be said later – that played a decisive role in history.
And so, on the strength of this, we divided our book up into five corresponding sections.
And then, with extraordinary ease, literally like balls into a net, we shoved our short stories into the places they belong.
And then we ended up with this strikingly harmonious system. The book began to sparkle with every color of the rainbow. And it shed light on everything it needed to shed light on.
And so, the book will have five sections.
Every section will deal specifically with the subject which we will take as our theme.
So, for example, in the “Love” section, we will tell you what we know and think about this sublime emotion, then we will recall some of the more surprising and curious adventures from past history, and only then, having had a good laugh with the reader over these old, faded adventures, we will tell you about what sometimes can happen and occur in this department in this time of historical transition.
And we will do the same for every section.
And then we shall have a picture that is complete and worthy of the modern reader, who has made it over the peaks of the past, and is now firmly planting his two feet in modern life.
Of course, men of high knowledge, meticulously examining history through their pince-nez, might get awful angry, finding our division of the book arbitrary, highly relative and frivolous.
Thus, we see before us five sections: “Money”, “Love”, Treachery”, “Bad Luck” and “Amazing Events”.
We should mention that the last section should be the most remarkable.
This section will concern itself with the very best, noblest deeds – deeds of great valor, magnanimity, nobility, heroic struggle and idealistic strife.
This section, as we conceive it, should sound like Beethoven’s Heroic Symphony.
The name we have given our book is ‘blue’.
“The Blue Book”!
We called it so because all the other colors were at one time or another taken up. The Navy Book, White, Brown, Orange… All these colors were used for the names of books put out by various governments as proof of their being right, or, on the contrary, others being wrong.
We barely had four or five totally plain colors left to choose from. Something or other like grey, rose, green and purple. And it should be pretty obvious that it’d be at the very least strange and insulting to name our book using one of these really pointless and insignificant colors.
But there was also the color blue, which is the one we finally chose.
And we are naming our funny and partly touching book with this color of hope; the color which since the days of old has signified modesty, youth and all that is virtuous and exalted; this color of the sky, where blue jays and airplanes fly; the color of the sky that’s spread out above us.
And whatever’s said about this book, there’s more joy and hope in it than mockery, there is less irony than genuine, heartfelt love and tender affection for people.
Thus, having shared with you some general remarks, we solemnly inaugurate the parts of our book.
And we propose that the reader take a stroll through these parts, as one would down the avenues of history.
Come, reader, let us have your valiant hand. We’d like to take you sightseeing….