Running Mikhail Zoshchenko's Before Sunrise Through the Wringer

About five years ago, maybe, I picked up a used copy of The Portable Twentieth Century Russian Reader, edited and largely translated by Clarence Brown, for a dollar.  It included work by Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gorky, Blok, Akhmatova, Pasternak, Nabokov, and Solzhenitsyn, all of whom I'd at least heard mentioned.  It also included the full text of Yuri Olesha's Envy, of which I had not heard but would enjoy immensely.

The most valuable discovery I made by way of this collection, however, was not work from any of the previously mentioned big names nor Olesha's novel.  It was a few pages of excerpts from an autobiographical "novella" (quotes indicate that I don't understand why it is understood to fall into this category, as it's definitely novel length and ostensibly not fiction) by the Soviet writer Mikhail Zoshchenko.

These few pages were of clear, precise, deliberately paced prose detailing various memories in the author's life, with sub-headings such as "I'm Not Coming Home," "Was It Worth Hanging Yourself?" and "Hell."  The language was simple, and many of the paragraphs only one sentence in length.  I would have been hard-pressed to say what exactly was so unique about any of it, but I felt that there was a harsh, astonishing difference between this obscure stuff I had happened upon by accident and anything I'd ever read before.

At the same time I felt a little silly about it, and I reread the passages again and again, trying to think of how I would explain to someone what this was.  How would a critic describe it?  Minimalist, probably, though the simple words and sentences didn't seem like an artistic vehicle or even a deliberate choice.  There was also a certain richness to it, and a photographic quality that made me forget I was reading.  But that just sounds like something a writing professor would tell you any decent writer should be able to do.  What was it that I liked about it so much?  Well, for one thing, it was generous.  I did not feel, as a reader, that I was being asked to laugh or cry or even sympathize.

Upon further investigation I found that the only full English translation of this "novella," Before Sunrise, had been published by a small press in Michigan in the seventies and was now out of print.  Surprisingly considering this, Zoshchenko was hugely popular as a humorist in the Soviet Union at one time, but was expelled for not conforming to Soviet artistic standards, a situation that was further provoked and ultimately brought to a head by publication of the first half of Before Sunrise.  The book was not a reflection of his usual work (short humorous stories said to fall into the Russian category of skaz) nor the kind of illuminating memoir the Brown excerpts alone suggest, but rather a form of self-psychoanalysis by which Zoshchenko set out to find out, through examining "snapshots" of his life, the source of his unhappiness.  Brown describes it as "completely unclassifiable and deeply flawed."

Discouraged, and having the impression that the translation's obscurity (which would not even be the same as the translation I was reading) made my feelings about the work seem obscure and minimized, I sort of forgot about Zoshchenko and his mysterious "novella" for some time.  Every once in a while, though, I would leaf back through the anthology and reread those few pages again, thinking, "Damn it, I have to get ahold of a copy of this at some point."  I didn't want to spend fifty dollars on a used copy of it, though I've spent fifty dollars on far stupider things.  But I eventually opened my mouth on the subject and ended up receiving it for my birthday.  A big seventies paperback with a bright red-orange circle on the cover, which for some reason (in keeping with other books published around the same time, I've noticed) smelled like carrots.

I was afraid to read it, then, because I was afraid it wouldn't be what I hoped for or wouldn't be enough like it.  The snapshot bits, however, were all that I had expected judging from the standards of the Brown excerpts.  And the intro parts, in which Zoshchenko delves into an explanation of the book itself, have a certain charm and persuasion.  He confesses that he has always been miserable and at first went to great lengths to justify this by comparing himself to his favorite writers, many of whom had also been miserable.  This bit is not without a certain dry humor.  He then discusses how he wishes to examine his memories in an attempt to look at the source of his misery.

Once past the sets of adult and childhood snapshots, though, true to what I'd heard, the book quickly becomes confused.  As Zoshchenko determines that, having still not found the cause of his misery, it must be essential to think back further and further, to his time as an infant, the reading becomes much more tedious.

Reading it, I became angry.  I felt like Zoshchenko, no matter how genuine the roots of his depression really were, was foolish for being "agitated...even more" by the snapshots when they were so clear and precise and beautiful.  It would have been easy and satisfying in a simple way for me to conclude that the expository parts of the book were useless crap, and if I were a professional critic, I probably would feel obligated to dump all over it in every way possible and conclude that the salvageable parts might have been the starting materials for a nice little memoir if the author could have been bothered to try constructing them into a coherent whole.  I could say that I enjoyed the book until it began its scenic downward trek to the shallow waters of Lake Boring and Useless, and come up with a handful more clever metaphors that were in themselves boring and useless just to show you how smart I was.

But, as in the Mary Gaitskill story, there were other factors.

There's no reason to think Zoshchenko is lying.  He says he wants to help people.  He wants to help people who may not understand the illogic behind certain neuroses.  He wrote this in a time before psychological buzzwords existed.  He wrote this in a time before ordinary people were, I imagine, obsessed with the idea of motives, of WHY.

It is difficult, if not impossible, for us to understand what a sincere desire to understand oneself in terms of trauma and neurosis in 1943 in Russia meant, and didn't mean.  If Zoshchenko were alive today but living in the U.S., and if he had here, as he did in Russia, achieved popular status as a writer, if he had fought in two wars, been wounded and decorated, an autobiographical account of his life would be a shoo-in for a bestseller, even if all he did was moan and groan, even if he had not managed to retain the artistic integrity necessary to create the snapshots.  So it is really very difficult to begin to understand what he was attempting when he wrote such an autobiographical account of his life which, a mere sixtysome years and a continent away, got him deported.

The snapshots are autobiographical, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are confessional.  I am inclined to think that they are, in fact, entirely on the other end of the spectrum.  While many of the events described, including war, physical pain and suffering, romantic rejection and simply witnessing the cruelty and indifference of human beings, are more than reasonable explanation for any of dozens of psychological disorders thought to require treatment today, Zoshchenko dismisses the idea that these events hold any evidence to explain his particular trouble.  After all, everyone he knew had been through the same wars he had, unrequited love was, then as now, universal, and there was no reason to think people should be upbraided for simply being the way they had always been.  Once again, it is difficult to swallow this in the Western world of today without thinking, "What do you mean there's nothing to see here?  No wonder you're depressed!"

I think I feel a bit more comfortable liking the snapshots under their real circumstances than I would if they had been collected into a smaller book and published entirely on their own.  It may be because there is little chance of them entering into the canon.  They are sweetly incidental and clandestine, under no pressure to be literature.  I wonder if making them part of a larger project did not actually aid Zoshchenko in writing them with a freer hand.  Some people work best under pressure, some in isolation.  He had a large audience for the first part of his writing career; he may have needed to have an idea of an audience, and a purpose, in mind.  It may have been why he originally gravitated toward comic ends and struggled with realism, in which the audience and purpose are always vaguer.  But after being misunderstood and abused by several of those who comprised his audience (as is itself detailed in the snapshots), he probably felt the need to address a smaller, more understanding audience.  I'm inclined to think he could not turn to serious literature, or at least literature he thought of as serious.  One thing the snapshots reveal to us, if we allow them, is that he did not have a desire to hold forth with the cultural elite any more than he felt comfortable around the common folk of Russia.  As much as he admired some famous writers, he was uncomfortable with the idea of "intellectual work," and at one point chastises himself for even attempting to engage in it.  By his own account, he was happier and more comfortable serving in the war than he was attempting to earn his living as a writer.

So instead of turning to realism or traditional literature, Zoshchenko opted to take on a practical matter, to engage his depression with a specific plan in mind, shunning intellectualism by siding with science, and reaching out to those who were also of a sensitive, artistic nature.  It was a project that served all of his needs, an idea that we may scoff at, as these needs were most certainly personal.  But at what point are the personal needs of the artist no longer relevant to his art?  The memories he recounted as a result of his deliberations were rendered with the same care and artistic conscience as his humorous pieces, but with a new abandon and paradoxical lack of self-consciousness which may well have resulted from his only having to write about his own already existing memories for a preset reason.  His commitment to his new imagined audience, and his usefulness to them, may also have kept him safe.  In any case, the results came in.  The whole mess was published, yes, but he could not have decided otherwise if he was really sincere about what he had set out to do.  Without the sincerity, he would not have had a mold into which he could pour his artistic gifts in the first place.

ISBN database entry for the Kern translation of Before Sunrise and a list of 11 whole freaking libraries in the entirety of the US and Canada that have it

Full text of Scenes from the Bathhouse available online, including substantial excerpts from Before Sunrise translated by Sidney Monas  A few notes on this text:  The intro and stories are definitely worth reading, but you have to scroll way down to find the BS excerpts.  The table of contents is confusing, claiming a landmark page of 796 which does not seem to exist in this particular version.  Perhaps this is some facet of library science I don't understand.  But if you're also baffled, what you need to do is scroll while looking at the general passage of numbers, ignoring the occasional 700something, until you get to page 195, which is where the intro starts.  The snapshots begin on page 208.  The Sidney Monas translations differ in many respects from the Kern and Brown versions, and like the Brown version it is, of course, incomplete.  I don't have a scrap of authority to judge it, but ignoring that for the moment, I find it comes across as inconsistent at times and occasionally archaic.  It came many years before, however, Kern states that he used it as a reference, and I find it perfectly serviceable for the purpose of dipping one's toes.


  1. An interesting appraisal of a book that has haunted me for some time. Love the blog "literary chicken" ... keep writing! Best wishes from Down Under

  2. This book has made a big impression on me. I was under this impresion for a few weeks after completing the book. I shared some of the authors illusions, and he explains the stupidity of some very subtle and widespread illusions, which we are not concious about.

    And yes - this is not the Zoshchenko we know - writing funny short stories, making fun of small office-goers and their neighbors. I would rather expect to see a book like this written by Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky.