Jewish Luck: On Isaac Babel, Sholem Aleichem, and the Varieties of the Jewish Experience

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On August 12, 1952, thirteen luminaries of Soviet Jewish culture — including the Yiddish-language writers David Bergelson (1884–1952), Peretz Markish (1895–1952), Dovid Hofshteyn (1889–1952), Itzik Feffer (1900–1952), and Leyb Kvitko (1890–1952) — were executed on trumped-up charges of espionage and treason. This date has come to be known as the “Night of the Murdered Poets.” All the writers had been members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and had worked tirelessly during the Second World War to rally international support for the struggle against the Nazis and their allies.

To mark this sad anniversary — which seems all the more important now, as it coincides with the anniversary of the 2017 “rally” in Charlottesville — my friend Rob Adler Peckerar, director of Yiddishkayt, and the people of the SoCal Workmen’s Circle (Arbiter Ring) organized a screening of Jewish Luck (1925), a gem of Soviet Jewish cinema, directed by Alexis Granowsky (1890-1937) and starring one of the great actors of the period, Shloyme Mikhoels (1890-1948). The film is an adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s classic stories of Menakhem-Mendl, the quintessential luftmensch of shtetl lore — always dreaming, always scheming, and always coming up short.

I was asked to introduce Jewish Luck because its hilarious intertitles were written by none other than Isaac Babel. There’s a fun — likely mythical — story about this inspired match… We know for a fact that Babel loved the stories of Sholem Aleichem, but when he was approached to write the screenplay, he demurred. How could he, as an Odessan Jew, possibly create a believable luftmensch? After all, Jews from Odessa, be they rich or poor, are all driven people, with concrete goals — they’re big-city machers, not vague shtetl dreamers!

At the time, Babel was writing his gangster tales. And it’s true: his Benya Krik, the king of Odessa’s underworld, wouldn’t have given poor Menakhem-Mendl the time of day. But Mikhoels convinced Babel to take a chance. So Babel, as the story goes, found himself a real Jewish matchmaker (shadkhen) of the old school and followed him around for weeks. By the time the shoot started, he had acquired enough first-hand experience of the luftmensch lifestyle to craft the titles.

My sense is that the experience of working on Jewish Luck impacted Babel’s own prose. Around this same time he began to write stories about his childhood — much more tender than the gangster tales, and full of real luftmenschen. “In the Basement” (1929), for instance, features “Grandfather Levi Yitzchak, a rabbi who’d been run out of his shtetl for forging Count Branicki’s signature on promissory notes [and] was regarded as a madman by our neighbors and the boys in the street.” Levi Yitzchak, like his grandson, is a writer:

He wrote in Yiddish on square sheets of yellow paper as enormous as maps. The manuscript was called A Man with No Head. It described all of Levi Yitzchak’s neighbors over the seventy years of his life — first in Skvira and Belaya Tserkov, then in Odessa. Undertakers, cantors, Jewish drunkards, the cooks at brises and the crooks who performed the ritual operations — these were the heroes of Levi Yitzchak’s tale. And all of them were absurd, inarticulate people, with lumpy noses, pimples on their scalps, and lopsided rumps.

If Levi Yitzchak isn’t a luftmensch, then who is? Sholem Aleichem certainly impacted Babel, but I feel Babel also put his own spin on Sholem Aleichem. One of the great sequences in Jewish Luck is set in Odessa. It depicts Menakhem-Mendl actually succeeding at business — the business of a shadkhen. The action is too good to describe… You’d better see it for yourselves (starts at the 30-minute mark):

This smooth, plucky Menakhem-Mendl wouldn’t be out of place in one of Babel’s gangster stories. Of course (spoiler alert!), it’s only a dream…

Oh, and here’s a bit of Odessan trivia for you. The cinematographer of Jewish Luck, Eduard Tisse, was also responsible for Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, which was being shot simultaneously. Compare the delightful Odessa steps scene in Jewish Luck above with the famous montage in Eisenstein’s masterpiece:

Soviet cinema is far more diverse than one might imagine!

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Zoshchenko on the Loose!

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Photograph of Mikhail Zoshchenko by Boris Ignatovich, 1923

Releasing a book into the wild is both a joyous and an agonizing experience: I’m always glad to see the creature in its natural habitat, on bookstore shelves, but I also know that predators roam the aisles… The first week is full of anxiety. Will others treat the book kindly? Will they even notice its existence?

I’m pleased to report that, like Elsa the Lioness, my newly freed translation of Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Sentimental Tales is off to a roaring start! Karen Langley — whom I and so many booklovers out there also know as Kaggsy of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings — greeted the collection with a wonderfully sharp-eyed and open-hearted review for Shiny New Books, ending with the perfect description of its overall effect: “Humorous, profound, multi-faceted and tragic, these Sentimental Tales will have you laughing and crying at the same time.”

And other bloggers I admire have been just as receptive! The Opinionated Reader, Adventures with Words, and A Bookish Type have all offered thoughtful, sensitive appraisals of the book. The reception at Goodreads and NetGalley is also deeply encouraging. Which reminds me! My warmest thanks to the Goodreader named Calzean J., who made my day with this spot-on pop cultural comparison: “It reminds me of a series of Seinfeld episodes with George Costanza appearing as various characters.”

Kirkus and Foreword Reviews were also marvelously generous. And to cap it all off, in a big way, yesterday’s issue of The Economist carried a review that couldn’t have been nicer had I written it myself. Yes, I know the journal’s reviewers are anonymous, but I assure you: I didn’t write this one! In fact, I can’t even bring myself to quote it… If you’re interested, read it here.

Marina Tsvetaeva’s “Homesickness” at Harlequin Creature

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Portrait of Marina Tsvetaeva by Boris Chaliapin, 1933

I want to thank Meghan Forbes and Elisa Wouk Almino, the welcoming editors of Harlequin Creature, for hosting my version of Marina Tsvetaeva’s poem “Homesickness” at their new online translation platform. In my introduction to the poem, which appears below the translation, I write that it

pulses with an especially heavy charge of the emotional energy that infuses all of the poet’s work. It was written in 1934, when the poet felt equally alienated from the Russia she had left behind after the Revolution and the stifling émigré milieu of her new “home,” Paris. Tsvetaeva’s fellow émigrés found little to like in her inventive poems and took umbrage at her perceived rudeness. At the same time, she knew that returning to Soviet Russia posed unthinkable risks. It is this sense of being suspended between unacceptable alternatives that finds expression in “Homesickness.”

The poem captures the heartrending crisis of exile in short, violently enjambed lines that buffet the reader like fast-crashing waves. Its riveting rhythm and surprising slant rhymes are typical of Tsvetaeva’s technique, but here they serve a particular purpose. It is as if the poet is trying, desperately, to bring formal order to emotional chaos, to convince herself that she is indeed beyond homesickness. And thanks to the power of her talent, the illusion holds — until the last two lines. The Russian émigré poet and critic Olga Tabachnikova offers a memorable description of the poem’s effect in her book Russian Irrationalism from Pushkin to Brodsky (2015): “Pain is always greater and more stunning when it is denied, subdued, stranded, but makes its way all the same from under these inner prohibitions and constraints.” In this, Tsvetaeva’s “Homesickness” calls to mind another dazzling formal masterpiece by an émigré poet, Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.”

I hope my translation communicates the effect Tabachnikova describes, and that you enjoy all the lovely, varicolored material at Harlequin Creature!

“Why are they all laughing?” Ozerov on Zoshchenko

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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.

Crimea Then and Now: A Soldier’s Petition

Last month I posted my translation of a boisterous poem by the happy warrior Denis Davydov (1784-1839). What I didn’t mention is that the translation will appear in an exciting anthology titled Russia at War, now in the works for Columbia University Press’s Russian Library. The anthology’s editor is the illustrious Tolstoy scholar Donna Orwin, who was kind enough to involve me in the project. Donna has launched a full-scale campaign to capture the best Russian writing on military matters of all eras, from the epic byliny of the medieval period to poems written in response to Russia’s most recent conflicts, such as the annexation of Crimea.

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The Ruins of Yeni-Kale, Crimea, 2014. Photograph by Aleksander Kaasik.

One theme that is sure to emerge is that history repeats itself. The 2014 annexation wasn’t Russia’s first foray into Crimea, which the former Empire first conquered in 1783-84, during the reign of Catherine the Great. A decade earlier, the Russian military took over two fortresses on the peninsula, at Kerch and Yeni-Kale. One of the more fascinating documents that Donna will include in her anthology is a poem, which we call “A Petition from Crimean Soldiers,” composed at one of those fortresses in the mid-1770s. As Donna writes, “[Its anonymous soldier] author traces the origins of war back to the story of Adam and Eve, and the passions of greed, pride, and vainglory it unleashed.” I will only offer three of the poem’s 16 stanzas below, to give you a flavor of the many treasures Donna’s book holds in store.

Yes, Adam is the subject of our plaint,
And Eve as well, for she too is no saint;
They weakened in those very crucial hours,
And due to this, their weakness is now ours;
And so, because both Adam and Eve sinned,
All their descendants are forever stained.

*

Adam and Eve now live in paradise,
While we are here, in cursed Crimean climes;
We chop wood with our scythes, as Adam had,
And gather up manure with our bare hands,
Lug dung upon our shoulders night and day;
For this, O Lord, our forbear is to blame.

*

Adam had served only a single God,
So why are we subjected to a squad
Of little gods? And each demands his honors;
Nor do we know which will take pity on us;
We sing their praises and we bow down low,
But never get awards that we are owed.


Всемилостивый боже, Адам виной всему,
Не права и Ева, почто дала ему;
Ослабели они оба в той самой час,
И пала слабость их на всех нас;
Согрешили в том сии человеки,
Остался их грех всем потомкам навеки.

*

Ныне же Адам и с Евою живет в раю,
А нас оставил в проклятом крымском краю,
Показав, как дрова рубить косами
И сбирать в поле навоз нашими руками;
День и ночь кизяк на плечах носим,
И в том тебя, господи, и на праотца просим.

*

Адам трудился и служил только для одного бога,
Для чего ж у нас явилось земных божков много
И каждый принуждает себя кадить и почитать,
Да не знаем, от кого нам милости ожидать;
Мы всякому поем, хвалим и величаем,
Только награды и заслужа не получаем.

Piecemeal Zoshchenko, Felsen Retrouvé

Maya Vinokour, a wonderful scholar and translator, is adding a dash of suspense to my translation of Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Sentimental Tales by serializing the cycle’s four prefaces and the first story, “Apollo and Tamara,” on All the Russias’, the NYU Jordan Center’s always exciting blog for, well, all things Russian! The first two prefaces went up today. If you’re hankering to hear “the shrill strains of some pitiful flute,” head on over — and watch that space for more melancholy zaniness!

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And for those in a sober mood, I’d like to recommend an important piece I was honored to publish in yesterday’s edition of LARB. Bryan Karetnyk, whose exquisite translations have helped rescue Gaito Gazdanov (1903-1971) from oblivion, is now hoping to do the same for Gazdanov’s fellow émigré Yuri Felsen (1894-1943). He featured Felsen’s prose in his superb anthology Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky (2017), and he has now written a poignant essay on the life and art of this “Russian Proust.”

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O Kaplans, My Kaplans!

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On April 15, 1991, my family came to the United States as refugees from the Soviet Union, which was then teetering on the verge of collapse. I was eight going on nine, and after my initial excitement (candy bars! supermarkets!) wore off, I was struck by panic. The prospect of learning English from scratch paralyzed me. We settled in what was — and still is — the de facto Russian neighborhood of Los Angeles, and I was enrolled in a public school that was struggling to accommodate a growing population of displaced Soviet children. The first months were difficult, to say the least, but with the help of my dedicated if somewhat bewildered teachers, I made a go of it. My third grade teacher wisely paired each new student with a classroom buddy: another émigré who had arrived a bit earlier and could serve as a translator. It was the half-blind leading the blind, but the system worked. And my classroom buddy, Igor, is one of my very best friends to this day.

I could say a lot more about my experience, but the topic of this post is a book, a very funny book, to which I returned last week, on a whim. I first discovered it two decades ago, in a rusty rotating rack at the back of my tenth grade English classroom. The book is titled The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N (1937), and it recounts the linguistic misadventures of the titular hero, a hopeless but indomitable student of English at the American Night Preparatory School for Adults, and the headaches these misadventures give his equally indomitable teacher, Mr. Parkhill. Instead of “headaches,” I should have probably said “tsuris.” For Mr. Kaplan is a Yiddish speaker. How do we know? Clues abound. Here, for instance, is his description of his favorite “hobo” (he means “hobby”):

[I]n hiking is all enjoymint fromm soch Netcher. Dat’s vy I’m makink a hobby fromm hiking. Ladies an’ gantleman, have you one an’ all, or even saparate, falt in de soul de trees, de boids, de gress, de bloomers — all de scinnery?

Bloomers? But then Mr. Parkhill recalls that “Blumen meant ‘flowers’ in Mr. Kaplan’s native language.”

Mr. Kaplan’s verbal pratfalls are easy pickings for comedy, but what makes the book a masterpiece is the dignity with which its author, Leonard Q. Ross, invests his hero. Here is how Kaplan ends his “hobo” speech:

As Mr. Kaplan uttered his own name, as if he were referring to some celebrity known to them all, Mr. Parkhill, by some visual conditioned re-flex, saw the name. He saw it just as Mr. Kaplan always wrote it. It seemed impossible, fantastic, yet Mr. Kaplan had pronounced his name in red and blue and green: H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N.

There is such nobility in this struggling immigrant, such winning pride! I grew up in a neighborhood of Kaplans, and I am glad to see them dignified even as they are being ribbed. And Kaplan’s creator, Leonard Q. Ross, knew his subject inside out. Ross’s real name was Leo Rosten (1908-1997), and he himself was an immigrant from the former Russian Empire, who grew up speaking both Yiddish and English. He is also the author of another of my favorite books, The Joys of Yiddish (1968).

I feel close both to the wonderfully accomplished Rosten and to the brilliantly bumbling Kaplan. They remind me that my own immigrant childhood is a gift, not a hindrance — and that my adopted country can, when it tries, become a warm and welcoming home to those huddled masses yearning for a better life. Just some thoughts that occurred to me on the 4th of July, and that I’m posting on my birthday, as I mark my 27th year in America.

Robert Chandler on Lev Dodin’s “Life and Fate”

Back in March, in a comment to one of my posts, I mentioned that I had been lucky enough to see the Maly Theater’s production of Life and Fate, adapted from Vasily Grossman’s (1905-1964) novel, a masterpiece of 20th-century prose. I didn’t explain, however, just how lucky I was. I had the privilege of seeing the play in the company of Robert Chandler, who brought Grossman’s epic into English and is now working on its equally rich predecessor, Stalingrad (1952-56, published in the Soviet Union as For a Just Cause). We were both deeply moved by Lev Dodin’s adaptation, and Robert has just published his penetrating review of the play on the TLS Daily.

I can add very little to what Robert has written, but I will say that I found the performance of Tatiana Shestakova, who plays Anna, Viktor Strum’s mother, utterly devastating. The play’s scenes are punctuated by Shestakova’s recitation of Anna’s farewell letter to her son, which she has managed to smuggle out of the Berdichev ghetto shortly before she is executed by the Nazi occupiers, along with most of the town’s 30,000 Jewish residents. As Robert states in his indispensable introduction to his translation of Life and Fate, “I know no more powerful lament for East European Jewry than the letter that Anna Semyonovna, a fictional portrait of Grossman’s mother, writes to her son.”

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There have been other, no less powerful performances of Anna’s letter, including Frederick Wiseman’s stark film The Last Letter (La dernière lettre, 2002), with Catherine Samie playing Anna, and a BBC Radio 4 adaptation, in which Anna is voiced by Janet Suzman.

But watching Shestakova recite the letter in Russian, just a few feet away from me, was almost too difficult to bear.

I urge you to read’s Robert’s review, as well as Life and Fate itself, if you haven’t done so already. And those of you who speak Russian can hear Robert discuss the subtleties and challenges of Grossman’s prose with Vladimir Abarinov on Radio Svodoba, in an episode of the program “Above the Barriers,” which is partly dedicated to the fate of Russian literature in English translation.

Soviet Black Humor: Yuli Daniel’s “A Ditty on the Practice of Relativity”

Early responses to Sentimental Tales have begun to trickle in, and I couldn’t be happier! It looks like the book’s tickling some funny bones. A wonderful brief piece in Foreword Reviews, by Meagan Logsdon, concludes: “Juxtaposing joyful wit with the bleakness of Soviet Russia, Sentimental Tales is a potent antidote for Russian literature’s dour reputation.” She’s right about the reputation, yet Russian and Soviet readers did have occasion to laugh, and laugh mightily, even in the darkest of times. The stories of Zoshchenko and Babel, the novels of Ilf and Petrov, the songs of Utyosov — the list of Soviet gutbusters is long and illustrious!

Of course, those works are the products of the relatively liberal 1920s, but even during the Great Terror of the 1930s, the jokes kept coming. A new book by Jonathan Waterlow, titled It’s Only A Joke, Comrade!: Humour, Trust and Everyday Life under Stalin (1928-1941), tells that story. Soviet citizens did indeed have a capacity to wrest humor from dire circumstances. Below, for instance, is my translation of a poem by Yuli Daniel (1925-1988), who was tried and convicted, along with his friend Andrei Sinyavsky (1925-1997), of publishing satirical anti-Soviet work abroad. It was this infamous 1966 trial that, according to most participants and students of the era, marked the beginning of the dissident movement. Sinyavsky was sentenced to seven years of hard labor, Daniel to five. In his blackly funny poem, Daniel reflects on the “relative” good fortune of such a “light” sentence.

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Daniel and Sinyavsky on trial in 1966

A Ditty on the Practice of Relativity

I went and lost three rubles. Screw it. I don’t care.
I’ll make do without a pint. Still, it isn’t fair!

I went and tore my raincoat. Just bought it, too — brand new.
Now everyone can see the patch. What’s a guy to do?

Got mixed up with a woman. She’s been around the block:
Broke it off and left me dry. Gave me quite a shock!

On top of that, one nasty Sunday, in the dead of fall,
I got tossed into the clink. The biggest blow of all…

So they dragged me into court. Felt like such a schmuck…
But all I got was five short years! Finally — some luck!


Песенка о практике относительности 

Потерял я трешку. Потерял — и ладно.
Без поллитра обойдусь. А все-таки досадно! 

Разорвал пальто я. Всем заплату видно.
Только было куплено. До чего обидно! 

Закрутил я с бабой. Баба — не девица:
Расплевалась и ушла. Впору удавиться!!! 

Ко всему в осеннее злое воскресенье
Упекли меня в тюрьму. Снова невезенье. 

В суд меня пригнали. Шел я, чуть не плача.
А дали мне всего пять лет — это вот удача!

Zoshchenko Won’t Be Pinned Down!

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.

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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.

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Zoshchenko in the 1930s