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.