Thursday, December 13, 2012

in your opinion, was the nose bitten off for savory satisfaction?

Different people dwell alert or blind in front of the same phenomenon: I read Patrick White, patrician, Australian, disgusted on paper by the material aspirations of the petit bourgeoisie, and then Mikhail Zoshchenko, Russian, expensive childhood undone by the Communist revolution and his own itches (dropped out of university; restless), non-patrician, scraper-by, writer of very short pieces, his satires peopled with that same materialist bourgeoisie group (a different nationality, Russian not Australian, but the desire for plumbing and clothing stays intact): he sees them grasping pathetically for tiny things, sees them squabbling over paltries, the author does not redeem the paltries, the author sees that they are greedy, and yet the author is different. Where are the White-lessons in spirituality? Where are the characters like the suffering intellectual Holocaust survivor in Riders? Where is the sensitive mystic employer and her mosaic goat?

Nowhere, not in the sample of his work translated by Hugh McLean anyway, and published as Nervous People and Other Satires by Indiana University Press, a collection that contains forty-seven of his very short satirical pieces as well as skinnied-down versions of his novellas and the autobiography he never finished, the Party finally catching up with him in the mid-late 1940s during a crackdown, sending his publishing career into the wilderness, allowing him back eventually but too late: the author never got his wheels back on the rails after that disaster and died in 1958.

I am going to write about love he says at the start of one of the novellas (a good love is sacred in White -- Voss -- love-telepathy --), and he looks for an example of love to show you what he means when he writes the word: the first example he can find is grotesque.

The author read recently in Pravda of a young barber's apprentice who, out of jealousy, bit off the nose of a girl citizen. Isn't that love? ... Or, in your opinion, was the nose bitten off for savory satisfaction? You can go to hell! The author has no wish to upset himself and stir up his blood. He still has to finish writing this story. Then he has to take a train for Moscow and make some unpleasant calls on several literary critics to ask them to take their time about writing critical articles and essays about this story. Well then -- Love!

And his story about love is made of these digressions, the writer letting you know how prudent he is -- he is ridiculously practical -- he is nonsensically practical -- he is practical with the kind of scrupulous selectivity that nonsense is, he decides that it is a waste of time to describe the hero because if he does that now, then "the son-of-a-bitch will grow up by the time this story is published." The ordinary housekeeping parts of a novel, character descriptions, motivations, all of this evades him; he goes to do it and the world turns him into a liar -- yah -- he seems to say -- I would describe it for you if it would stand still for once but it never does. If I describe that then I have to describe this. I write the word "love," I think about your reaction to that word, I defend the idea, three pages go by, and now I'm in a worse mess than before, we've got noses bitten off and appeals to the Party and oh god I'm just a harmless nice man trying to get through a basic plot.

The subject of this story: chaos: the idea of romance is a contrast to chaos, the ideal gets put down in the world and, look, it's bent and kicked, you wouldn't even recognise it if he wasn't there using the word "romance" to remind you, the circumstances are grubby, the people are not handsome or interesting, they get distracted, the author is ignorant, and time keeps passing and wrecking everything, chaos wins, there is a stupid argument, the hero spits on his fiancée's mother, chaos is stronger than the power of storytelling, it's stronger than Zoshchenko the author: he lets it in by trying to be good and truthful (describing the hero would be dishonest) and it undermines him. So much for good deeds.

Miles away in Germany Robert Walser was having the same problem; he would decide to describe a couple sitting on a bench and then the objects around them wanted to be described as well, a snail, a snake, he would tear himself away from the snake and some other digression would push its way in, he would end up describing an angel; the story would ask for an interesting touch so he would insert a military man in a hat, then confess immediately that the military man was irrelevant, he was only there to give you, the reader, a handsome surprise, which he, the author, had just ruined by explaining everything.


  1. You motivated me to go and get my two-volume Zoshchenko down off the shelf. A receipt masquerading as a bookmark fluttered out of it - dated 1982. High time I gave him another look.

    1. You have a two-volume Zoschchenko? Oh nice. Is it translated or in Russian? I've been trying to find more of him in the libraries around here (unabridged versions of the novellas are the things I really want), but nobody has him, not even the university. Translated comedy often doesn't make me laugh -- I can see the idea of a joke, the ghost or echo of a joke, and I say to myself, "It must have been funny in the original" -- but he worked, even the though the English of the translation is a bit clunky. (I don't know if this is the translator being faithful to the original, or just the translator being himself.)

  2. not translated, but needless to say i can only stagger through its thickets with the Oxford Russian English Dictionary

    1. Well, one day, if I ever meet a Russian, I'll ask that Russian if they've read Zoschchenko, and if they have I'll ask them how he comes across in Russian, because most of the clunky parts are the kinds of clunk you might get if you were writing too fast, and using the same basic set of words a couple of times in a row because you don't have the time to stop and fool around with alternatives. Which, since he was publishing short pieces in -- newspapers? magazines? some sort of popular ephemeral medium -- might have been the way he wrote. Or might not have been the way he wrote; might have been the translator slogging through four hundred pages of Russian with a deadline ahead of him. Might be deliberate plainness and directness and I'm reading it as clunk. I wonder.