By John Helmer, Moscow
Now we move on from the lesson of how to be victorious over big people and bullies when still small —that’s for getting through the daytimes with ВЛАДИМИР ВИЗАНТИЙСКИЙ  – to the lesson of how to write a short sentence and say everything that must be said at the same time. That’s for getting through the terrors of the night.
In the department of small sentences, Mikhail Zoshchenko (centre image) is the greatest Russian exponent. For the English, Shakespeare and Dickens don’t make the grade, because they were best at writing long, contorted ones. In French, Flaubert beats Proust to a pulp. In American, Edgar Allan Poe and Raymond Chandler leave Henry James and Saul Bellow biting the dust.
Some cultures don’t make the grade. Australian writing invariably gets an F on concision. It’s a psychopathological problem with them – long sentences are symptomatic of narcissism, poor self-esteem, slavishness. More of that another time.
If you try comparing written cultures, you can see that English usually comes to 33% shorter than Russian. That’s a quality that Russian writers might struggle vainly to catch up with – if it weren’t for Zoshchenko, who showed how it can be done. In his almost unpublished and unread masterpiece, Before Sunrise, in the course of analyzing himself, he also exposes the psychopathology of those who write complex sentences.
When he was purged during Andrei Zhdanov’s attack on brains on Russia in 1946, and his visa at the Union of Soviet Writers was cancelled, Zhdanov called him a “brainless scribbler”. Zhdanov (right) also attacked him for “turn[ing] his vile and vulgar little soul inside out, and he does it with pleasure, with relish, with the desire to show everyone – look, what hooligan I am. It’s hard to find anything more repulsive in our literature…” On just one point the little commissar was right – it’s hard to find anything like Zoshchenko’s book in our literature.
In half the form in which he wrote it, Zoshchenko’s Before Sunrise was first published in 1943. It was then censored, suppressed, and forgotten until it appeared in full in 1973 – in a New York edition. The only English translation appeared in Ann Arbor, the Michigan university town, in 1974. By then Zoshchenko had been dead and buried for 15 years.
What he had accomplished was an unusual masterpiece – the mastering of himself in the form of several sequences of short tales, probing memory and experience of fear, until he deciphers the code and disconnects it. This also liberated him, according to his own fresh lights, to warn acolytes, novices, students, celebrity-seeking writers off the job entirely. Writing, he warned, is as dangerous as handling white lead. Then came this warning against the false consciousness of his own masterpiece, buried in footnote 89, after several hundred pages: “Let my condition serve to warn the reader against any experiments of this kind…My auto-therapy led me to dire consequences. And not only my professional ability to think and analyse spared me from even greater distress. The reader should not follow my example. It is worse than dangerous.”
Consider also that Zoshchenko arrived at this point through the First World War when he served as a junior officer, was decorated, was wounded; through the Russian Revolution, which he wholeheardedly supported; through the Civil War and destruction of tsarism, in which he served, also wholeheartedly, in the Red Army; through the early part of the siege of Leningrad and the defeat of the Germans. Consider that when marshalled for evacuation from the besieged city by airplane to Almaty, he spent 8 kilos of his 15-kilo baggage allowance on the notebooks for composing this book.
He was hesitant to see the relevance of the work during the early stage of the war, but changed his mind. He was reluctant to draw explicit lessons about revolution in Russia, except he thought it better than what went before. His social preoccupation was with misery, poverty, injustice – unfashionable causes that didn’t fit well with Zhdanov then any better than they fit inside Twitter screens today.
To Zoshchenko the Moscow elite was flaccid, corrupt, dead or dying of their excesses. Blok’s hand was flaccid, his eyes dead; Yesenin was a vicious drunk; Mayakovsky a pseud. Try putting this in the pipes of today’s internal exiles — try, for example, Masha Gessen, deputy editor-in-chief of Mikhail Prokhorov’s magazine Snob — and see if they can smoke it: “I’m glad I will no longer see the world which has departed, the world of unprecedented injustice, indigence, and undeserved wealth. That’s why I’m glad I will no longer see weak-chested, consumptive men whose hearts shelter both refined, higher feelings and barbarian designs.”
In 1839 Russia’s social barbarism had induced Astolphe de Custine to speak of “such ill-bred and yet well-informed, well-dressed, clever, and self-confident Russians [are] trained bears, the sight of which inclines me to regret the wild ones: they have not yet become polished men, and they are already spoiled savages.”
Zoshchenko’s personal preoccupation reverses the bear cue, here in the story of a visit to Leningrad Zoo around the year 1924. At first, he remembered, in one cage a large male tiger accepting a kind of nursing from a small female fox terrier. Then nearby, in two adjoining cages, he sees a bear cub accidentally catching his paws between the bars, and attracting the adult male and female bears. They attack the cub’s paws, and rip them off with their claws. “The brown bears pace the cage furiously. Their eyes are flooded with blood. And their muzzles are full of blood. Growling, the male mounts the female…I begin to understand what animals are. And what is the difference between them and people.”
What this difference is, Zoshchenko concludes much later, isn’t what you might think that 9-word sentence means. But then none of Zoshchenko’s final sentences gives up its meaning easily.
This book then combines the short tales which had been Zoshchenko’s popular metier in the 1920s with a planned descent into his memory and experience of fear, firstly through tales of his adulthood, then his adolescence, then his infancy, until he arrived at the code of his “primal experience” – that’s before the sunrise of the book’s title – enabling him, at long last, to disconnect it. Thus Zoshchenko’s auto-therapy produces a manual of how to dispel a lifetime of neurasthenia, fear, night time terrors, pain, fetishes, nausea.
It won’t spoil the reader’s anticipation if this code is revealed as water-beggar-hand-door-tiger-thunder.
That’s also because Zoshchenko warns that he isn’t making generalizations for others, except for the method of code-breaking to start them off into auto-therapy. “I do not go beyond the confines of my own illness, which I successfully abolished.” Near to the end, once Zoshchenko can accept with confidence that he has generated his own cure, he repeats a warning from a physiologist friend — “Don’t promise people anything”.
That was galling to the commissar who cancelled Zoshchenko’s visa. It’s still galling in a Russian culture that remains incapable of addressing, as Zoshchenko did, “the world of unprecedented injustice, indigence, and undeserved wealth.”
So he tried with the shortest sentences in the Russian canon and was punished for the way they resonated. To be ignorant of him now is another punishment for a man who resisted such pain by judging himself, quite genuinely, as “an ignoramus who has experienced something that only dogs experience.” Try those ten words in Moscow this un-spring morning, and see how much they mean.