50 WRITERS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF 20TH CENTURY RUSSIAN SHORT STORIES
Translated from the Russian and annotated by Valentina Brougher, Mark Lipovetsky and Frank Miller
Academic Studies Press, $29, 788 pages
If you like the short-story genre, don’t pick up this addictive collection unless you are prepared to be lost in its riches for a considerable time. These beautifully translated, haunting Russian tales written from 1901 to 2001, almost all previously unpublished, read so smoothly that they are seductive. And, as the editors suggest, if the stories are read as they are arranged, chronologically, the continuity of certain themes makes the whole lot into “a kind of amazing mega-novel, with different heroes, historical periods and situations which nevertheless resonate with one another and become intertwined….”
Of course, the great advantage of short stories is that the reader can dip in and out without making the commitment that a novel requires, and if one story doesn’t grab you, the next one may. The editors here - three university professors from Georgetown, Colorado at Boulder and Columbia - have captured not only the tragedies that Russians endured in the 20th century, amid revolutions and two world wars, but also the absurdities of everyday life in Russia. And as the editors point out, Russian writers like the short story form because it allows them to “compress their thoughts and observations” and perhaps better survive Soviet censorship.
The first story, “Once Upon a Time,” by Leonid Andreyev, from 1901, vividly conjures up the universal experience of a hospital room where three patients, in those flimsy gowns, face their different fates together. It’s obvious that the dying rich merchant is discovering that he has led a pointless life, but the editors’ introduction also explains how the antihero “symbolizes the end of a way of life for whole segments of Russian society driven by acquisition of goods and lacking in human compassion. The merchant’s impatient, intolerant attitude toward a fellow patient, a priest, who is in denial about the death that awaits him, seems to presage the treatment of the church and its members that would follow under Soviet rule.”
From a need to “understand and interpret what the various revolutions in Russia have wrought, the ideals and goals that propelled them, and the human price they exacted,” write the editors, Russian short stories particularly illuminate “the phantasms, the illusions, and fantastic ideas born of a revolution that promised people a utopian existence in the near future.” Some of the titles by themselves convey these ideas: “My Uncle of the Highest Principles,” “Little Arm, Leg, Cucumber,” “A Short History of Paint-ball in Moscow.”
Aleksandr Kuprin’s “Gambrinus,” written just after the revolution of 1905, is particularly moving. The story is set in a port city’s subterranean tavern where sailors and townspeople carouse and drink away their sorrows to the fiddle music of Sashka, who embodies Jewish suffering. His spirit cannot be crushed even after he’s taken away for the army, sent to the Far East, imprisoned in Nagasaki, sadistically maimed and sees his violin destroyed and his little dog crushed for sport. When things settle down again, the tavern reopens, a new violinist strikes up a tune and Sashka, ignoring his useless arm, pulls out an ocarina to lead the singers.
Another memorable tale, “Tanya,” by the 1933 Nobel Prize-winning Ivan Bunin, is set in the idyllic countryside where what begins as a visiting Moscow dandy’s dalliance with a comely maid turns serious when he promises to return to her - only the time proves to be “February of that horrific year 1917.” Those words, comment the editors, “serve as a lament not only for a way of life lost irretrievably in the whirlwind of violent upheavals in Russian private, social, and political life that followed the revolution, but evoke the tragedy and suffering that would characterize post-1917 Russian life and history even in the decades that followed Bunin’s death in 1953.”
The varied depictions of women are fascinating. The editors write, “If husbands treated their wives brutally before the revolution,” they subsequently felt free “not only to beat them but to discard them at will; the revolution has brought them a perverse kind of freedom.” In “Black Magic” (1922), by Mikhail Zoshchenko, a wife whose husband threw her out of the house resorts to bizarre folk practice to try to regain his affection and dies in the attempt.
The family, traditionally a refuge from the outside dangers, rarely provides sanctuary in these tales. “The Queen of Spades,” (1998) by Lyudmila Ulitskaya, depicts a tyrannical grandmother - “a refined representative of the Soviet cultural elite”- who has driven away all the men in the family and is determined to destroy the prospects for happiness among her remaining relatives just as they are about to escape her domination. In “Family Man,” (1924) Mikhail Sholokhov depicts how a father of nine, caught up in the struggle between the Reds and the Whites, kills his two Red sons in the belief that in so doing he can save his remaining children from starvation, only to find the remaining children completely repelled by his actions.
Not all is doom and gloom: Marina Vishnevetskaya’s self-satisfied narrator in “Experience in Demonstrating Mourning” (2001) says she writes for the benefit of future generations who will need to know “how cultured people behaved earlier.” An example:
“And for this occasion [the funeral of a neighbor who had thrown herself out of a window] I went to some trouble, darned the elbows in the sleeves of my black knitted jacket, mended the holes moths had made in my straight, black skirt which came to mid-calf, put on a brown sweater with a ‘noodle’ weave under the jacket, and on my feet new black pumps which didn’t fit my daughter-in-law so she gave them to me at half-price, and I covered my head with a dark kerchief that had tiny, tiny flowers, although I don’t wear scarves on principle because they make you look like you’re from some village.
“If someone doesn’t understand this, you won’t be able to explain it to him, but personally I feel such small nuances.”
Every now and then the editors lapse into jargon, as in a long discussion of “communicative violence” - perhaps better translated as verbal or psychological abuse. But for the most part, the introduction is a model and the marvelous stories themselves are entirely accessible to anyone who enjoys adventures in literature.
Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean, Va.