After a rather dark and unsettling trip to Argentina, it’s probably for the best that today’s review looks at something a little lighter, but it’s from a country that may surprise you. Russian literature doesn’t exactly have a reputation for fun and games, yet my latest choice is a collection of classic stories that squarely avoid the sweeping majesty of the usual epics, instead focusing on the everyday and mundane. Let’s head off to the Russian provinces, then, in the company of an avuncular writer – or two 😉
Sentimental Tales (translated by Boris Dralyuk, review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press) is a collection of six stories originally attributed to a certain I.V. Kolenkorov, who (according to the preface to the second edition of the book):
…was born in 1882 in the town of Torzhok (Tver Province), to the petit bourgeois family of a ladies’ tailor. He received his education at home. In his younger years he worked as a shepherd.
p.3 (Columbia University Press, 2018)
As you might have gathered from this rather tongue-in-cheek biography, Kolenkorov is merely the invention of the true author, Mikhail Zoshchenko, a satirist writing in the 1920s, a time (according to Dralyuk’s introduction) when there was a little more leeway in literature than was the case later under Stalin. These stories were both a playful look at provincial society and the introduction of a writer with an inability to dwell on the finer things in life.
The six pieces collected here are all sketches of life in rural towns far away from the glittering capitals of Petersburg and Moscow. Where Tolstoy introduces burning passions in stately palaces, Zoshchenko’s romances are slightly more prosaic affairs. ‘When the Nightingale Sang’ sees a low-ranking civil servant move into a new room, where the landlady’s daughter soon catches his eye. However, their relationship is destined to founder on a most unexpected rock. Meanwhile, in ‘Lilacs in Bloom’, a man marries in haste and is left to repent at leisure when he falls for a prettier woman. As you can imagine, his wife doesn’t take his attempts to leave her very well…
Several of the stories, despite the comic feel, have a slight air of existential angst. Both ‘Apollo and Tamara’ and ‘People’ feature a central character who is disappointed by life, with early success followed by an inevitable downward spiral. The latter story, perhaps the pick of the collection, sees the man gradually turn away from society and end up muddied and maddened, more an animal than a man.
On the whole, though, Zoshchenko’s Sentimental Tales are here to entertain the reader, and while the writer (or his alter ego) might claim nothing happens in his humdrum town, he nevertheless finds a few choice anecdotes to recount. In ‘A Merry Adventure’, a man with a date for the evening realises that he doesn’t have enough money for the movie tickets, setting in motion a busy day of social calls and hustling. ‘A Terrible Night’ is even more farcical, with its protagonist (a man who plays the triangle…) so spooked by the fear of losing his job that he ends up losing his head and disturbing the peace to boot.-
The choice of the subject matter, with insignificant folk doing dull things, is deliberate, and usually works well. One problem I had with the collection, though, is that the stories, while entertaining enough, didn’t really stand out and failed to stay in the head. There were times when I tried to remember what the last one was about and couldn’t, even when I looked at my notes. That isn’t exactly the hallmark of great storytelling…
However, Sentimental Tales is probably just as much about how the stories are related as what they contain. Zoshchenko is rather adept at humour and delights in the odd throwaway line:
And yet, despite all this, Ivan Petrovich Belokopytov adored the quiet, peaceful country life. He loved raw milk, which he imbibed in staggering quantities, and he was fond of horse riding. Never a day passed that Ivan Petrovich didn’t go out on horseback, so as to admire the beauty of nature or the babbling of one or another forest brook.
Belokopytov the elder died young, in the full flower of his activity. He was crushed by his own horse.
Even when the action turns a little darker, he always finds a way to lighten the tension, which is unsurprising. In his guise of Kolenkorov, he discusses his literary preferences at one point, expressing a love of bright, uplifting foreign works over the gloomy books of his countrymen. He certainly practices what he preaches.
The most unique feature of Sentimental Tales, though, is the manner in which Kolenkorov tells his stories. Right from the start, the unwary (and impatient) reader could be forgiven for wondering when the story will actually start as our narrator can be rather easily sidetracked and rarely seems in a hurry to actually get his tale in motion. This is a common thread throughout the collection, with the ‘writer’ meandering pompously along and occasionally passing judgement on events:
But here the author must interject and say that he’s no snot-nosed kid, to go on in this way, describing sentimental scenes. And although there isn’t much of that stuff left, the author must move on to the hero’s psychology, deliberately omitting two or three intimate, sentimental details, such as: Tamara combing Apollo’s matted hair, wiping his haggard face with a towel, and sprinkling him with Persian Lilac… The author states unequivocally that he has no truck with these details and is interested solely in psychology.
‘Apollo and Tamara’, p.23
These lengthy introductions are wonderfully written, and it can be difficult to decide at times whether they or the stories are the actual focus of the book. I must confess that I was often more interested in Kolenkorov’s confessions than those of his subjects.
With such an idiosyncratic style, there’s a lot riding on the translation, so it’s fortunate that Dralyuk has done an excellent job here. He’s decided to stay with the flavour of the era, and while I can’t say I’m always a fan of ‘bunk’ and ‘balderdash’, the book reads beautifully, with flawless transitions from Kolenkorov’s bluster to the good-natured tone of the stories. He even manages to bring out the author’s own writing issues:
It was the month of May, and this wonderful time of year – with its beauty, fresh colors, and light, intoxicating air – inspired them no end. The author, unfortunately, lacks major poetic gifts and finds it difficult to wield poetic vocabulary. It truly pains him that he has little aptitude for artistic description and, in general, for literary prose.
‘Lilacs in Bloom’, p.183
Luckily, Dralyuk seems to have things under more control 🙂
If I’m honest, Sentimental Tales probably wasn’t the book for me as I’m far more in tune with the depressing works Kolenkorov frowns upon. However, if you’re in the mood for something lighter, it’s well written and certainly worth a look. As Zoshchenko (or Kolenkorov…) himself says:
So why smear our life in print and thicken the black colors? We see enough boring, awful stuff during these transitional days, so why add to it in literature?
‘A Merry Adventure’, p.136
If that’s your take on life, perhaps this might just be your kind of book 🙂