Although the fame of Mikhail Zoshchenko rests almost entirely on his short stories, he produced a few works in other genres that are often discussed as important facets of his opus, most notably longer stories (povesti), which are almost invariably treated as short novels outside Russia. Two of these, Vozrashchennaya molodost’ (1933; Youth Restored, 1935) and Pered voskhodom solntsa (1943, 1972; Before Sunrise, 1974), show a different Zoshchenko from that seen in his short stories—an author who is attempting to rise above the everyday reality of his stories. The first of these novels is a variation on an age-old theme—a desire to regain lost youth, with a humorous twist in that the old professor renounces his restored youth after failing to keep up with his young wife. In Before Sunrise, Zoshchenko probed deeper into his own psyche, trying to discover his origins, going back even to the prenatal time. In order to achieve this, he employed the psychoanalytical methods of Sigmund Freud and Ivan Pavlov, which were and still are a novelty in Russian literature. His other longer stories (a few occasional pieces written at the behest of Soviet authorities in order to conform to the political trends of the time) and playwriting attempts do not enhance his stature; on the contrary, they detract from his reputation so much that they are generally ignored by critics and readers alike.
Mikhail Zoshchenko was fortunate to enter literature in the 1920’s, when Russian writers were relatively free to choose their subject matter and to express themselves. His kind of writing—humorous stories and satire—seems to have been possible only in that decade. One of Zoshchenko’s most significant achievements is making his brand of humor and satire unmistakably his, not an easy task in a nation known for its exquisite sense of humor. With an ear to the ground, he demonstrated an infallible understanding of human habits and foibles. He was able to see humor in almost every situation, although his humor is often suffused with sadness deriving from the realization that life is not as funny as it often seems. He frequently spoke for the Soviet people when they were not permitted to speak freely, yet he did it in such a way that it was very difficult to pin on him a political bias or hidden intentions until very late in his career. Just as important was his ability to reproduce the language of his characters, a curious concoction of the language of the lower classes and the bureaucratese of political parvenus trying to sound politically sophisticated or conformist. As a consequence, his several hundred short stories serve as a gold mine for the multifaceted study of the Soviet people in the first decades after the revolution. In this respect, Zoshchenko’s writings resemble those of Damon Runyon, Edward Lear, and perhaps Art Buchwald. That he was able to achieve all this without sinking to the level of a social or political commentator of the period reveals his artistic acumen, which has not been equaled before or after him.
Carleton, Gregory. The Politics of Reception: Critical Constructions of Mikhail Zoshchenko. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1998. An in-depth look at Zoshchenko’s work.
Domar, Rebecca A. “The Tragedy of a Soviet Satirist: Or, The Case of Zoshchenko.” In Through the Glass of Soviet Literature, edited by E. J. Simmons. New York: Columbia University Press, 1953. Domar begins her essay with Zoshchenko’s excommunication from literary life by the political powers in 1946, then proceeds with the analysis of his stories and other works. Her conclusion is that conflict was inevitable given the nature of Zoshchenko’s satire, and that satire cannot survive in a totalitarian atmosphere such as that ruling Soviet literature. Domar considers the breaking of Zoshchenko’s spirit a heavy loss for Russian literature.
McLean, Hugh. Introduction to Nervous People and Other Satires. New York: Random House, 1965. McLean attributes Zoshchenko’s popularity with the readers to his making their hard life easier to bear through laughter. Life has not changed at all in the Soviet society, and Zoshchenko capitalized on that in his stories.
May, Rachel. “Superego as Literary Subtext: Story and Structure in Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Before Sunrise.” Slavic Review 55 (Spring, 1996): 106-124....
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