It happens every time… No matter how carefully I check my work — and no matter how diligently an army of editors vets it for me — I crack open my latest bundle of joy, still warm from the printer’s, and spot an error. This usually triggers a week of moping and, on occasion, all-out catatonia — which scares the daylights out of my cats, leading to more moping on all our parts. Eventually I scramble out of it, reminding myself of one of my favorite lines from Pasternak: “No matter what, I’ll never part with error.”
The mistake I’ve found in my latest bundle, Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Sentimental Tales, occurs in my introduction, which the fine people at Columbia University Press, at whose feet I throw myself, have just posted here. I’m mortified, of course, but the more I think about my blunder, the more I realize that, if anyone is to blame, it’s Zoshchenko himself. Yes, I mean it.
The main thrust of my introduction is that our author, like most great humorists, is a spectacularly evasive character. He dwells in ambiguity, relishes vagaries, and glides gleefully through every hole in the moth-eaten fabric of language. Zoshchenko’s evasiveness came to infuriate Soviet critics. Even one of his defenders conceded that he is “vague and difficult to pin down.” To illustrate the truth of these words, I quote one of Zoshchenko’s own autobiographical sketches, in which, as I write, our man “even refuses to pin down the place and time of his birth”:
I was born in 1895. In the previous century! That makes me terribly sad.
I was born in the 19th century! Must be why I fail to treat our era with sufficient courtesy and romanticism — why I’m a humorist.
I know precious little about myself.
I don’t even know where I was born. Either in Poltava or in St. Petersburg. One document says one thing, the other says another. One of them is obviously a fake. But it’s hard to say which, since they’re both pretty slapdash.
There’s some confusion over the year, too. One document claims it’s 1895, the other claims it’s 1896. А fake, no doubt about it.
For Pete’s sake, Mikhail Mikhailovich, quit giving us the runaround! Which one’s the fake? Well, both, it turns out. Citing an authoritative source, I try to clear the matter up: “The truth is that the author was born in St. Petersburg — neither in 1895 nor in 1896, but on July 29, 1894…” Except he wasn’t. Although his date of birth was long thought to be July 29, according to the Old Style Julian calendar (making it August 10, New Style), he was actually born a day earlier, on July 28, O.S./August 9, N.S.
Zoshchenko at the age of 3 (or is it 4?)
How could I have been looking at the proper date, with both eyes open, and still got it wrong? I take small comfort in the fact that Russian Wikipedia is just as confused: their article opens with the proper date, July 28, then gives the wrong one, July 29, in the side bar.
And I take somewhat greater comfort in this: Zoshchenko would have loved it. The consummate escape artist escapes again! Also worth considering: our man consistently postdated his birth by one, sometimes two years. He was petrified by the prospect of death. We’re dealing, after all, with the author of a self-help book titled Youth Restored. Well, Mikhail Mikhailovich, I’ve shaved a day off your age. I hope you’re happy.
Zoshchenko in the 1930s