Today is the 60th anniversary of Mikhail Zoshchenko’s death (of that I am reasonably certain) and I spent the morning thinking about this “man like no one else.” The quoted words belong to the poet Lev Ozerov (1914-1996), author of Portraits Without Frames, which could fairly be described as a book like none other. In November, NYRB Classics will bring out an English version of this poetic encyclopedia of Soviet culture, translated by Robert Chandler, Maria Bloshteyn, Irina Mashinski, and myself. It includes Ozerov’s characteristically observant and insightful verse portrait of Zoshchenko, which Robert has rendered with characteristic acuity. Ozerov’s Zoshchenko is “swarthy, quiet, timid”…
His eyes had a wonderful glitter,
almost as if there were tears in them.
He seemed to me to be looking
somewhere into the depth of the soul,
as if the world lying outside
the soul were too much for him.
He’d been in the War,
he’d suffered concussion,
he’d been gassed. All this had left him
with heart problems.
“Heart problems.” Indeed. Ozerov is a master of the understated double entendre. In a marvelous scene that Ozerov witnesses firsthand, Zoshchenko reads two of his funniest stories before a crowd of delighted workers:
They roared with laughter.
I saw mouths twisted into strange shapes;
I heard snorts, neighs and bleats.
One man was slapping his hand on his knee;
another kept turning his head
madly from side to side;
a third was trying to silence
someone mooing and weeping beside him.
A fourth was howling, head
thrown back. Where were you,
Brueghel? O Goya,
where were you? I saw these things
with my own eyes.
And I saw thoughtful looks,
expressions of deep alarm;
I saw the shining faces of true
lovers of the word.
Then Ozerov sees “Zoshchenko, calm and pale, retire back stage, a little hunched.” The humorist turns to the poet and asks, “Why are they all laughing? I’ve been telling them terrible things.”
Zoshchenko knew, of course, that his stories were funny, but they were never frivolous. Their humor was rooted in real life, with all its horrors. Truly great humorists are never blind to the horrors of life; they see them clearly, but transform them, for our benefit — and often at great personal cost — into a laughing matter. This makes the terrible truth bearable, not invisible. It is necessary work, for which we ought to be grateful. So thank you, Mikhail Mikhailovich!
I look forward to celebrating Zoshchenko’s life this Thursday, July 26, at 7pm, on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, at the venerable Book Soup, with a reading from Sentimental Tales.