I’ve been pitifully slow to note the launch of Punctured Lines, an absorbing new blog that focuses on post-Soviet literature. It’s edited by two of my fellow émigrés, the scholar Yelena Furman — an old friend and frequent contributor to LARB — and Olga Zilberbourg, author of the poignant collection Like Water and Other Stories. The occasion for my noting the launch now is the appearance of a movingly candid, searching, subtly suspenseful essay by Herb Randall, titled a “A Question in Tchaikovsky Lane.” In it, Randall follows a trail of breadcrumbs left by an Englishwoman named Eddie, who — as the title of a 1946 collection of her letters puts it — married a Russian. The trail leads to a street in Kharkiv, where the couple made their home in the 1930s and ‘40s. Randall is keenly aware of the rough historical winds that swirled around Eddie’s private realm, but he knows nothing about her fate after 1945. The doubled pressure of the known and the unknowable forces a question that, to Randall, seems both urgent and unseemly. The essay is so finely crafted and affecting that I was shocked to read the following line beneath the text: “This is his first published piece.” I extend my editorial congratulations to Furman and Zilberbourg for getting this out of Randall, and I hope we won’t have to wait long for a follow-up!
The question of what happened to Eddie and her husband after the end of the Second World War remains open. And so does another: how did they, and those around them, cope with the threats and catastrophes of Soviet existence — the shortages and the famines, the arrests and the executions? A partial answer is offered by Jonathan Waterlow, author of It’s Only A Joke, Comrade!: Humour, Trust and Everyday Life under Stalin (1928-1941), whose work I’ve mentioned once before, and whose superb essay on the necessary risks of sharing a laugh just appeared in LARB. In “The Conspiracy on Pushkin Street,” Waterlow explains how the lives of five students at a provincial Zoological Institute in 1940 were turned upside down and — in one case, cut short — all because they had come together “to tell a few jokes, blow off some steam, and share their hopes and fears.” The young men became victims of “Stalinist paranoia and a ruthless obsession with mental purity that turned humor into heresy, banter into activism, and friendship into conspiracy.” Theirs was a harsh era. But ironically, it was precisely this harshness that had made them resort to humor in the first place:
Humor — flippant, caustic, and often dark — came to their rescue as a kind of emotional therapy. […] Whether it was absurd stories about Molotov’s glasses, mockery of empty propaganda, or even offhand sexism, their jokes met seriousness with silliness, helping them maneuver their way through uncertain times.
Our own times, of course, are anything but certain, and in the great tradition of Russian and Soviet satirists, Dr. Maxim Osipov has served up a bracing tonic of dark laughs. A new anthology titled And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again: Writers from Around the World on the COVID-19 Pandemic, edited by Ilan Stavans and published by Restless Books, carries one of Maxim’s sharp diagnostic sketches of the human response to the spread of the coronavirus — our fears, be they well-founded or groundless, our hopes, be they noble or petty, and our attempts to stay connected, be they helpful or deadly. I won’t ruin the surprise ending of “The Song of the Stormy Petrel” (the title is borrowed from Maxim’s namesake, Gorky), but I’ll share a long quote, together with Stavans’s description of the piece from his useful introduction:
For Maxim Osipov, from Tarusa, Russia, the concern over the elderly masks other fears. He writes of a man who began telling anyone who would listen that he was worried about his mother. “What else would he be worried about? No sense in thinking of the children (they weren’t vulnerable), his wife was eleven years younger than him, and, needless to say, he wasn’t concerned about himself. Do the math: what were the chances of him croaking? One percent, maybe one point five. A real man doesn’t lose his head over trifles. If I die in a combat zone, box me up and ship me home… Oh, speaking of, he’d prefer to be cremated — everyone clear on that? People had always told him he had a pleasant voice, and now he was growing convinced of it. He kept singing and singing — vigorous, patriotic songs. He’d have loved to sing democratic ones, but there just weren’t any. A nervous reaction? Maybe… But it was his mother he was worried about, not himself.”
As Russian authors like Nikolay Leskov, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, Zoshchenko, and now Osipov show us time and again, humor is serious business. Bursting through our pieties, it reveals uncomfortable truths — and even if the truths remain uncomfortable, their revelation can come as a relief. The unsayable is said, with a smile, and the weight falls from our shoulders.
Proceeds from the sales of And We Came Outside will go to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, which aids the heroic booksellers who continue to feed our reading needs in this time of crisis.