Sentimental Tales

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 25 Sep 2018

Member Reviews

“No, the author simply can’t plop down in bed, gay and lighthearted, with a Russian writer’s book in his hands.  For his own peace of mind, the author prefers to plop down with a foreign book.”

Sentimental Tales from Columbia University Press contains six of Mikhail Zoshchenko’s stories. I was attracted to this selection mainly due to the period in which the stories were written: The NEP period (The New Economic Policy 1921-1928), and the introduction gives an explanation of this era “Lenin introduced with the main aim of stabilizing a war-ravaged economy” and which “brought elements of capitalism–including, inadvertently speculation and profiteering into the workers’ state.” I’m not an expert on Russian history, but I’m fascinated by it–the revolution, the civil war, and then this rather bizarre short-lived NEP period which began before the death of Lenin (1924) and Stalin’s rise to power.

sentimental tales

Again I’m quoting from the introduction:

Into the fraught sociocultural landscape stepped Zoshchenko, a satirist who hid behind so many masks that it was impossible to determine whom, exactly, he was mocking.

After reading these stories in which Ukrainian Zoshchenko (1894-1958) takes swipes at everyone, I am amazed that the author survived the Purges. Again, the introduction goes into the subject of Zoshchenko’s “gallows humor,” his “devastating indictment of Soviet life, and of life in general,” and the critical responses to his work.

Kolenkorov is our rather chatty narrator, and while no one escapes his scathing wit, still these stories, in spite of their focus on human frailties, are poignant:

Apollo and Tamara


A Terrible Night

What the Nightingale Sang

A Merry Adventure

Lilacs in Bloom

Apollo and Tamara is a love story. Apollo, a “pianist-for-hire, musician, and freelance artist,” is “graced with the countenance of a Lothario, romancer, and destroyer of families,” but, in reality he’s timid around women, and uses his devotion to Art to avoid any commitments. Apollo falls in love but is drafted into the army. Apollo’s life goes downhill. …

People is the story of Ivan Ivanovich Belokopytov whose father is obsessed with French culture.  Belokopytov inherits a large estate, and “always rich and secure” he gives away his most of fortune believing that “human beings should make their own way in the world.” Besieged by relatives, peasants and a revolutionary group, Ivan starts writing “his first little book of poems for publication, under the title, A Bouquet of Mignonette.” After being placed under surveillance for his political sympathies, Ivan leaves Russia in 1910 but returns, after marrying a Russian Ballerina, as the Revolution rages on.

Boris Ivanovich Kotofeyev is the main character in A Terrible Night. In many ways, Boris appears to have landed on his feet when he marries his landlady and becomes: “lord and master of the entire estate. The wheel, the shed, the rake, the stone–all these were now his inalienable property.” Boris becomes obsessed with the idea that Chance has played a huge factor in his life and so “he tried to avoid it.” Thanks to his belief that Chance can break or break a life, a series of events takes Boris to a “former teacher of Calligraphy” who has fallen on hard times. This meeting seeds unease in Boris which cannot be shaken.

In When the Nightingale Sang, a love story, the narrator imagines what people will say in a hundred years, and there’s a passage that seemed very true.

And will it really be wondrous, this future life? That’s another question. For the sake of his own peace of mind, the author chooses to believe that this future life will be just as full of nonsense and rubbish as the one we are living. 

This tale concerns a middle-aged civil servant, Bylinkin whose “stock began to rise” in middle age. His hair may be thinning, but his “figure had filled out. He had reabsorbed. so to speak, the vital juices of which he’d been drained.” Fate leads him to take a room at the home of the elderly Daria Vasilyevna Rundukova “who was afraid that, due to the housing crisis, their living space per person might be reduced with the forcible introduction of some crude and superfluous individual.” 

A Merry Adventure, which contains a long chat from the narrator to the audience, the subject of Russian literature is raised

Now let’s look at our precious Russian literature. First off, the weather’s a mess. It’s either blizzards or storms. You’ve got the wind blowing in characters’ faces all the time. And they aren’t exactly agreeable folks, these characters. Always flinging curses at each other. Badly dressed. Instead of merry, joyous adventures, you get all sorts of troubles and misfortunes, or stuff that just puts you to sleep.

No, the author doesn’t agree with this kind of literature. Sure, there might be lots of good and brilliant books in it, and who the hell knows how many profound ideas and various words–but the author just can’t find emotional balance and joy in any of it.

I mean why is it that the French can depict all these excellent, calming aspects of life and we can’t? Come on comrades–for pity’s sake! What–is there a shortage of good facts in our life? Are we lacking in light and cheerful adventures? Or are we, in your opinion, low on ravishing heroines?

In Lilacs in Bloom, after assessing her living arrangements, profession and income, Volodin marries Margarita. His material comfort increases, but after three years of married life, he falls in love with another woman. …

The connections between the stories of love, life and regret are the absurdities and meaninglessness of life. Love, success, comfort are all set against the instability and unpredictability of Russian society. One can strive for decades and it will all be for nought. Reading these reminded me of Dostoevsky’s lighter work. Wonderful.

Review copy

Translated by Boris Dralyuk
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Dark, bitter Russian humour, as thick & bracing as black coffee, is totally my jam. The Russians seem like the literary precursors of most things & such is the case with this collection of six tales: very postmodernist, but originally published in 1929. Through the metafictional device of an author who asserts his own opinions in every story, the actual author Zoshchenko satirises & probes the contradictions of early Bolshevik society. A delight.
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It's a little hard to review this book for me. I've read a lot of pre-Soviet/Soviet short stories. This was my first entry into Zoshchenko though. I found the stories to be dryly humorous with a dark bent to them. Some are viciously ironic in nature, other satirical. I can definitely see why Zoshchenko found himself in some trouble with the Soviet authorities though as he spared no one. I enjoyed his writing style a lot. While not lacking in poetical moments it is very direct and deadpan and much more accessible than other Soviet/Russian writers can be.
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I received a copy of Sentimental Tales from NetGalley and Columbia University Press in exchange for an honest review.

As its summary states, Sentimental Tales in composed of six stories that convey portraits of small-town characters living Russia during the first decade of the Bolshevik era. All of the stories are delightful in their own way, and a little bittersweet. The author casts a subtle satirical filter on the reality of the era, looking at the life of those that a just a bit different from the rest: dreamers, wanderers, outsiders, in the context of major societal change that shifted the people's understanding of class and social status. Being someone who is wary of Russian literature as it is usually so very bleak I rejoiced in the lightheartedness of this book while still being impressed by its underlying substance. My favorite element of the stories, however, is the narrator; he provides humorous commentary with a delightful touch of self-awareness. This book is both very entertaining and educational, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone, especially if they are fond of satire.
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SENTIMENTAL TALES is a collection of six short stories by Mikhail Zoshchenko, a popular satirist in Russia in the 1920s. The copy I was lucky enough to be granted access to was translated by Boris Drayluk.

Zoshchenko was, as stated above, a satirist. He wrote in the earliest decades of the USSR and his stories are colored by what he experienced during World War I and the revolutions that transformed Russia from a tsarist state into the most powerful Communist nation in the world. They are a commentary on life in those early years, and it’s rather shocking that Zoshchenko did not end up the dead at the hands of the state because the commentaries and depictions are neither flattering nor kind.

The first story in SENTIMENTAL TALES is called “Apollo and Tamara.” Apollo Semyonovich Perepenchuko played the piano and loved a girl named Tamara. Tamara wanted to love someone famous, which Apollo was not. Yet, he said. Apollo went to war and survived. More or less. He came back for her but Tamara still didn’t want him. He tried to kill himself but someone saved him. Sort of. He died awhile later. So did Tamara. (3/5 stars)

“People” is the second story in the collection. The first parts of Zoshchenko’s stories seem to have the theme that the ‘author’ gives a third-person account of the author’s own actions, and it’s definitely a theme that works very well. It comes across as unique and interesting, making it almost a sort of self-insert story. Anyway, in “People” Ivan is so naive, which seems to be a theme with Zoshchenko. A reader can’t help but feel for him, which means he’s probably supposed to represent the lower classes 
of the larger USSR. (5/5 stars)

“A Very Bad Night” is the third, and slightly unremarkable story. My notes after I read it indicate that I wasn’t even sure this is the title. But it’s about Boris, who plays the triangle in an orchestra. It’s not a lucrative career in the best of times, and far less so in the early years of the USSR. Boris’ wife is not a fan of his poverty, never has been, and Boris spends most of the story panicking about money. And his wife. (3/5 stars)

And then we have “What The Nightingale Sang” which is, in total honesty, one of the best short stories I’ve ever read and one of the best things I’ve read this year. I haven’t laughed at a story like this in a very long time! The author’s commentary on his actions in the beginning and at the end of the story fit modern times as well as when the story was written. It is the story of Vasily and Lizochka, and it is perfectly cliched and adorable in the way it looks at Love in any time and at any place. (5/5 stars)

The fifth story in the collection is called “A Merry Adventure” and is the story of Sergei, a typical bumbling fool. Sergei is constantly scrabbling for money because he is so eager to please certain people, like pretty girls who want him to take them to the pictures. He is willing to take advantage of a dying aunt to please this girl. It seems as this story is an allegory of Communism and the USSR, in which the weak are manipulated to please the strong. (4/5 stars)

And the final story in the collection, “Lilacs in Bloom,” is about Volodin, who is a beautiful man who wants nothing more than to be adored by the most beautiful ladies in town. The catch is that Volodin is married, and his brother-in-law finds out about his affairs and hatches a plan to splash acid on his nose to make him less beautiful, or to have his wife do it. She misses and Volodin takes that as permission to carry on, especially when his brother-in-law quickly admits defeat. (3/5 stars)

(I received a copy of SENTIMENTAL TALES from NetGalley and Columbia University Press in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)
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‘’What do you think, Auntie, does man have a soul?’’

Mikhail Zoshchenko is considered one of the greatest Russian satirists, a genre that flourished in the country, especially during the Soviet era. The six stories of the collection are set during the first decade of the Bolshevik era but have very little to do with politics or the Revolution. Instead, characters tangible and familiar, with hopes, fears and regrets we all face, are the heart of each story. Zoshchenko uses the technique of the detached narrator-author, called Kolenkorov, who is our guide to the adventures and sentimental misfortunes and a slightly nostalgic lover of old Russia.

‘’What - is there a shortage of good facts in our lives?’’

The most beautiful tales are always the ones which narrate the hope of approval, love and understanding. This collection is no exception to this rule. The characters are primarily artists. Musicians, authors, poets, ballerinas mingle with members of the former upper-class that represent a world which has lost every privilege once taken for granted. The political and social upheaval is referred to in a subtle, cleverly satirical manner. Obviously, it is there, influencing the choices of the characters, shaping wealth and poverty (more often) and prospects but if we come to think about it, in the end it makes little difference to the women and men of the stories. For these are primarily tales of emotion and sentimental behaviour and these aren’t easily influenced by any political or social status quo. In addition, the author often draws an amusing, satirical comparison between Western and Russian Literature without any trace of malice or cynicism but with many valid observations.

My favourite story in the collection is called Apollo and Tamara. A talented pianist leaves to join the fight during the First World War. He returns only to find that the life he knew exists no more. This is a sad tale. Sad and unfair but beautiful.

Needless to say, this collection is highly recommended to every lover of Russian Literature.

‘’And in that case, he might as well jump under a tram.’’

Many thanks to Columbia University Press and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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This collection of 6 short stories by Soviet author Zoschenko is an excellent introduction to his work, as well as a delight for anyone already familiar with his writing. Written between 1923 and 1936, they are deceptively simple in style, and deal with the ordinary Soviet man and his everyday struggles in the early years of the new Soviet Union. Satirical in tone, they are never overtly political or critical of the regime but they often seem to have a hidden agenda behind their apparent innocence. Zoschenko’s protagonists are often simple people commenting on the new world around them and we can read between the lines about what the actual situation is. The humour is usually gentle and I feel that they have more heart to them than some Russian satirical writing. They are playful but with an underlying seriousness, often having a sly dig of the many absurdities that were all too familiar in Soviet society. Due to the ambiguity in his stories he managed to survive unscathed in an increasingly repressive literary milieu and was very popular. He served in the war but in 1946 Stalin began to feel that his writing was potentially dangerous and (along with Akhmatova) he was expelled from the Writers’ Union. From being critically acclaimed he was now an outcast. He was reinstated after Stalin’s death in 1953 but died not long after. There’s a helpful introduction to the book, and it is to be hoped that with the publication of this collection Zoschenko will be discovered by a new readership.
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I am a staunch advocate of New Historicism. This school of thought argues that, in order to understand a text, one has to understand its social, historical, and cultural contexts. I don’t think this has ever been more true than when I read Sentimental Tales, a short story collection by Mikhail Zoshchenko and translated by Boris Dralyuk. This strange and blackly funny collection is written from the perspective of a frustrated writer who doesn’t know how to tell a story that will please himself, his potential readers, and the Soviet Writers’ Union.

After a series of introductions to the collections editions (which reminded me of the opening credits notes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail), our narrator gives us a series of stories that are as much commentary on writing under the Soviet Union as they are portraits of scoundrels. Each story begins with the narrator lamenting his latest problem. Sometimes it’s not being able to write beautiful language to set the scene when lovers are sighing at each other under blooming lilacs. Sometimes it’s not coming up with characters worthy of writing about. Mostly it’s about not being able to write the way the Union wants while also writing in a way that pleases the narrator. I’m glad I at least knew something about the Writers’ Union. It’s possible I would have been so frustrated by what these stories were doing without knowing their context that I would have given up after the first story.

The stories are difficult to summarize—which is odd considering that not a lot happens. Each story in the collection is a portrait of a man who also doesn’t fit in the new order of things. These men who don’t fit aren’t outsiders because of their philosophies; they don’t fit in because they’re scam artists and dreamers. They don’t want much, in general. They want their creature comforts: warmth, food, a decent place to sleep. The wastrels mostly achieve this by marrying and scamming a woman with a steady income. These stories are completely different from anything I’ve read from an early Soviet writer. Zoshchenko’s characters aren’t heroic in any way, shape, or form. They’re not even anti-heroes, as in Babel’s stories.

I found the narrator’s metafictional whining hilarious. Reading the introductions to the stories was like sitting on the writer’s shoulders while he tears his hair out in frustration, before cracking open a bottle of vodka while he tells you half-formed stories about what he has seen lately. I was entertained and intellectually challenged by Sentimental Tales. I would recommend it for readers who like to see inside writers’ processes—especially readers who might want to be writers themselves.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 31 July 2018.
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I must admit that I had never heard of Soviet writer Mikhail Zoshchenko (1894-1958) prior to coming across this book on NetGalley. I may be forgiven for this, given the dearth of translation of his works into English. It turns out that Zoshchenko’s short stories made him very popular with the public in the 1920s, but their peculiar brand of humour rendered their politics too ambiguous for the tastes of the regime. He weathered the frowns of the authorities for several years until he was expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union in 1946 – a blow to his reputation and his health.

Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Sentimental Tales resorts to a technique which had been used by other Russian authors, including Gogol and Pushkin in works such as Tales of Belkinand "A History of the Village of Goryukhino”. In a meta-fictional approach which seems to foreshadow postmodern techniques, the stories are allegedly written by one Kolenkorov, a mediocre writer who strives, with limited success, to confirm to the ideals of a “model Soviet artist”. As a result, the narration is deliberately clunky, replete with irrelevant details, overblown metaphors and inconsequential asides. This provides much of the humour but it also serves as a cover for Zoshchenko. Melodramatic tales of tragic, unrequited love – which otherwise might have been considered too “sentimental” – are camouflaged by the comedic approach. More importantly, the farcical elements allow Zoshchenko to get away with biting social satire. 

Such works need a sensitive translator to do them justice – hats off to Boris Dralyuk (who has already shown his mettle in other challenging translations for Penguin, Maclehose Press and Pushkin Press amongst others). He manages to transpose the particular wit of Zoshchenko into English, making it accessible to us despite the differences in language and culture.
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This book took me by surprise.  A set of short stories written in the 1920s by a Russian would typically be dour and reflective covering WWI and/or the Russian revolution.  Not this one.  It reminds me of a series of Seinfeld episodes with George Costanza appearing at various characters.  They all seem to be frustrated in their lives, with varying degrees of success by mostly failings.  Their country is in turmoil but the characters focus on mundane, petty issues that are the foundations of most people's lives.
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Having enjoyed and endured some books in this series before now, in equal measure, it's a relief to say this is one of the better ones – indeed, that perhaps it should have been presented earlier, as a calling-card.  The first tale is light in its archness, and conveys the woes of a man who doesn't get what (who) he wants out of life.  The narrator points out that only three in a thousand people survive life enjoyably – but the point is that it's not delivered with the attitude to unhappiness you normally associate with Soviet literature.  You don't get the typical bleakness second time out, either, but have laughs more associated with Chekhov's shorts, as a man gets cuckolded because of his attitude to education and careers.  The fourth story shows how mundanity can ruin a relationship that seems nailed on, while mundane is the description of the career in the third tale's hero's life – and the fact that it takes a tramp to wake him up to that truth is very much the point.  Mundane is also the reason why a bloke in the fifth tale struggles with affording a date.  It only seems to be the last tale that can actually present two people in a happy marriage, both getting at least something they sought.

All is delivered in a breezy style, that could even be called quite meta, were that term not coming to the party fifty years after these six stories.  There's a line in here somewhere that says "Later, something a bit more fun might turn up".  That potentially does not apply to this book, which is really worth reading.  It's well presented, with decent notes and (spoiler-free!) introductory essay; the pieces themselves are literate and say things about Soviet life, and the social changes wrought as a result of the Revolution, but are also plain enjoyable.  Four and a half stars.
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I love this kind of writing. The narrator shares his views before divulging the story and it gave me a feel of being a bystander and also taking part in the stories. The narrator is unapologetic as he reveals the human condition from Apollo, Tamara, Ivan and the stories each reflect what people live for, how they go about achieving their goals and the frustrations that come with it in a country that's on the verge of losing itself. I requested to read this book off NetGalley and there's no ebook, on my device that I've highlighted ad much as this one. It's thought provoking.
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Mikhail Zoshchenko was a member of the Serapion Brothers, and a well-known satirist, with his peak period being around the time that these stories we are presented with were written.  Here then we have Apollo and Tamara, People, A Terrible Night, What the Nightingale Sang, A Merry Adventure, and Lilacs in Bloom.  Also, there are the prefaces to various editions, where we can read about how these stories were really written by I V Kolenkorov, and we get biographical details as these prefaces continue, only at the last one to be told that these tales were really written by Zoshchenko.  I would strongly suggest reading these pieces, as well as the interesting introduction, which should give you a better appreciation of the tales themselves.

Unfortunately for Zoshchenko life was not to prove that good, as his writing started to fall most definitely out of favour with the Soviet authorities, and as you read this book you can see how close to the edge he was with the writing of these, although the regime was a bit looser then and there was a certain amount of chaos.

Writing at a time of great change, Russia had already been involved with the First World War, when revolution swept through the country, leaving people in positions of great uncertainty with what the future held in store.  As you would expect then there was chaos and things were to a certain extent up in the air.  This led to fertile ground for Zoshchenko and as we see here, the creation of the writer Kolenkorov, who isn’t that good a writer, and also invades his stories with his own comments.  This works here really well as we feel that we are being given the words of a common man, who isn’t necessarily that well educated.  First and foremost, Zoshchenko was a humourist but these tales give us more than just comedy, as they also show the absurdity that life can throw at us, and the emotions and problems that we all can face.  Bringing these together does create tragi-comedy, and thus there is a lot of pathos within these pages.

This then does make for an at times comical, but also sad read, and makes us think of the problems that surround us, especially with upheavals and uncertainty.  This thus makes these not only relevant for the period in Russia that they cover, but for all time, especially in today’s uncertain world.

I was kindly provided with a review copy of this by the publisher via NetGalley for reviewing purposes.
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