Zoshchenko and Benchley

On this, the first day of 2018, I’d like to share a couple of blasts from the past. The short clips below feature two of the top humorists of the early 20th century. The first, from 1933, shows Mikhail Zoshchenko reading his story “The Receipt (Raspiska)” (1929), which concerns a mustachioed dandy’s savvy plan — a makeshift prenup — to avoid responsibility for any child that might ensue from his relationship with a certain young lady. Sure enough, a child ensues, and the young lady takes the dandy to court, where the judge declares that “Soviet law is on the side of the child, and it is the child’s interests that it protects. And in the given case the child should not be held responsible or made to suffer on account of his father being a pretty damned clever son of a bitch.” Of course, it isn’t the moral of the story that gives us pleasure, it’s Zoshchenko delightful delivery — rhythmic, nasal, drawling — of his exaggeratedly colloquial narrative. This is the only recording of Zoshchenko in existence, an invaluable point of reference for anyone who wants to hear his prose as he heard it himself.

But the recording is, of course, in Russian, and though it may still be of use to anglophone readers, a little more context might help. With that in mind, I offer Robert Benchley’s Pathé short “The Causes of the Depression” (1931), in which the great Algonquin wit pokes fun at the alleged economic experts who cheerfully proclaimed, in the depths of the Great Depression, that prosperity was “just around the corner.”

Some of the devices Benchley uses to conjure his character — a cliché-abusing know-nothing economist — are strikingly similar to the devices Zoshchenko uses to create Kolenkorov, the narrator of his Sentimental Tales. Early in the clip, Benchley rattles off “the primary causes of the Depression, as we called it”:

Overproduction, maladjustments in gold distribution, overproduction, deflation, too little thyroid secretion — or Platt’s disease — too much vermouth, overproduction, and, by the same token, underproduction.

The inserted phrase, “or Platt’s disease,” is a masterstroke — as if the official name of the condition in question (false, at that) makes the absurd diagnosis any more sound. It’s a desperate grasp at authoritativeness. Well, here’s Zoshchenko’s Kolenkorov, waxing poetic over the physical attributes of Apollo Perepenchuk, the tragic male protagonist of his first tale, “Apollo and Tamara”:

Even his Adam’s apple, his plain old Adam’s apple — or, as it’s sometimes called, the laryngeal prominence — which, when glimpsed on other men, is apt to trigger disgust or laughter, looked noble on Apollo Perepenchuk, whose head was invariably thrown proudly back. There was something Greek about that prominence.

You can survey that Greek prominence for yourselves this coming summer. May 2018 bring us all plenty of laughs and a little perspective, even if prosperity isn’t just around the corner!


7 thoughts on “Zoshchenko and Benchley

  1. Thank you for sharing these – even though I can’t understand a word, I loved seeing the footage of Zoshchenko! (I get similarly over-excited when I hear the only existing recordings of my beloved Mayakovsky reading). I never would have linked Zoshchenko with Benchley (despite loving the latter too) but it’s an inspired pairing!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re very welcome, Kaggsy! And I know just what you mean: there’s nothing quite like hearing these people, whose words mean so much to us, utter those words in their own voices! (It’s also a thrill to see Tolstoy moving about on his estate.)

      Liked by 2 people

  2. What a wonderful New Year’s gift! I love his southern fricative г’s and his (Polish-derived) penultimate stress on документ, as well as his delivery in general, which you describe so well. Thank goodness this little clip survives!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. LH, you describe the delivery more precisely than I ever could! I think the effect really is “Southern” (i.e., Ukrainian) and “soft,” as Kornei Chukovsky put it in his reminiscences, which you can hear him read at ImWerden. Happy New Year to you — and many thanks for your daily gifts!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you so much for this; I’d heard the recording years ago on an old Melodiya lp (an incredible compilation including what purported to be a recording of Mandelstam), but had no idea there was any film footage to go with it. I’ve always thought Zoshchenko’s nearest American equivalent is Ring Lardner, starting with the melancholia but hardly ending there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Laurence, thanks very much for chiming in! And you’re dead right about Lardner, of course. In my intro to the Tales, I describe the proletarian stories as “the sharper-edged Soviet counterparts to Ring Lardner’s spoofs of bush-league ballplayers and Damon Runyon’s tales of Broadway hustlers and hoodlums.” The Tales are less raucous, closer to Larnder’s longer stories, but they too ring Runyonesque bells. And as you hint in your comment, the Lardner-Zoshchenko affinity runs deep; so much of what Elizabeth Hardwick says in her essay on Ring could easily be applied to Zoshchenko: “his fictional world is loud, cruel, filled with desperate marriages, hideous old age, suburban wretchedness, fraud, drunkenness. […] All the literature of the 1930s and 1940s does not contain such pure subversion, snatched on the run from the common man and his old jokes.”


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