Friday, February 23, 2018

Mikhail Zoshchenko's The Galosh and Other Stories

Zoshchenko was once immensely popular with the Soviet people.  It's easy to see why.  His stories are short, easily digestible, endlessly inventive, and funny.  More than this, Zoshchenko's stories allowed Soviet citizens the opportunity to laugh at the absurdity of dozens of dimensions of everyday Soviet life.  Zoshchenko's stories make fun of both the bourgeoisie and the unthinking proletariat who bore such visceral animosity toward this declining class.  Indeed, Zoshchenko's stories are filled with characters who don't quite know how to treat formerly middle class or aristocratic men and women. While the atavistic class elements aren't given a lot of dignity, Zoshchenko's workers seem to confront their class enemies with a great deal of awkwardness, insecurity, unnecessary anger, and even guilt.  The stories are in many ways the best way to measure the depth of the transformation taking place in Russian during the 1920s.  Somewhat paradoxically, Zoshchenko's sketches show both that traditional Russian life was being rapidly overturned, and that revolutionary change was often transitory, superficial, and skin-deep.  Thus, the new Russians had different words, different governmental structures, and different belief systems.  But they still suffered from perennial Russian problems, including housing shortages, bribery, gender insecurity, and stupidity.  In once read a review of Tolstoy's book about the pre-revolutionary judiciary and prison system.  The reviewer claimed that Tolstoy's catalog of ancien corruption and brutality and shown him why the Revolution had occurred.  Zoshchenko's stories are similarly revealing about the post-revolutionary years.  They reveal just how much was still being worked out by everyday Russians who didn't quite know what the Revolution man for their everyday lives.  After Revolution, how were you supposed to date, play, think, pray, eat, live, or even talk?  Whatever was happening in elite Soviet circles, ordinary Soviet citizens had to continuously decide the meaning of revolution for themselves, from one day to the next.  After the Revolution, was a wife suppose to keep cooking all of the family meals? Was it okay to date a formerly wealthy person? Was it okay to accept the authority of others in the workplace?  Was it okay to keep believeing in God? Zoshchenko's stories address dozens of these questions, but most importantly, they addressed one central question:  After the Revolution, what was funny? 

Below are some snippets from The Galosh and Other Stories:

"Bribery.... The word alone drives me mad with indignation..."

"The times are over when people could just be shoved in broad daylight.  We've been shoved enough."

"He was rich.  Home comforts, and a wardrobe, and chests full of goods...he even had two samovars."

"I'm telling you:  If you, you old fart, go to Labourers' Gardens at seven o'clock in the evening on Saturday the twenty-ninth of July, then you'll see with your own eyes what a roving butterfly your spouse is.  Wake up, you old fart.  Respectfully yours, An anonymous friend."

"So, you see, I polished the floors, say, on a Monday, and on Saturday the Revolution took place." 

"It was in the theater that she exposed the full extent of her ideology."

"And suddenly she walked over to the plate in her decadent way, grabbed a cream cake, and chomped away on it."

"I suddenly felt some bourgeois embarrassment."

"I used to take a skeptical attitude towards the abilities of dogs.  But not now, now I fear and respect dogs."

"Kind people, class-conscious citizens!" he said.  "Tie me up.  "I," he said, "collected money for the water, but I spent that money on myself."

"She wasn't pretty of course, this lady, but I wasn't looking at her exterior, I was looking at her interior."

"You can go and croak," he said, "and don't count on the aid of science."

"The most fashionable word you could possibly find these days is, of course, electrification."

"And next day to her some bourgeois bastard was leaning over to her and whispering in her inner ear."

"Out the window with the lot of it:  the cooker, the saucepans, the washtub.. Let the woman know freedom... She's got the same rights as me."

"You can't imagine how much better off we are for this change.  It's brought nothing but advantages, clear profit!"

"This Russian's a hard language, my dear citizens.  A disaster, it's so hard."

"I haven't got a very good imagination.  That's why I don't like wasting my previous life-blood on some non-existent made-up stuff. I know, dear reader, that life is much more important than literature."

"Firewood--said the man--is precious stuff... You can even give firewood as a birthday present."

"You can't give firewood away as a present, this isn't 1919, you know."

"Citizens, you ask me whether I was ever an actor.  Well, I was.  I've played in a theater.  I've been entangled in that art."

"Productivity, he said, that foundation-stone of Soviet life, is improving."

"They say, comrades, that the bathhouses in America are totally excellent."

"But where's a naked man to keep tickets?  I'll tell you where, no where.  He hasn't got any pockets.  It's all stomach and legs."

"This isn't the tsarist regime, You can't just go round whacking people with tubs." 

"I won't say what street it's on.  I can't afford to.  Because then when I next go there they'll bash my brains out with a tub, and that would be the end of a politically conscious, thoughtful citizen."

"And people talk about civilization and education!  For example, now they use these new diesel locomotives to pull trains.  But then they allow totally uncivilized behavior in the carriages."

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