Back Flash: Mikhail Zoshchenko
Words by Mikhail Zoshchenko.
He liked to yap out, “This is not theatre!”
He had a bird he named Dog.
His writing often deadpan. We know why people write deadpan (E.L Doctorow to Dashiell Hammet to, oh hell, Tao Lin)–they are saying what they are saying and are not. A deadpan is an iron skillet. The flavor is “cured” in the core. Like a bowl of bacon or a jelly intruder. [But now I am getting hungry.]
He saw that flash fiction (“snapshots” his term) was disreputable to the bourgeoisie. (At the time, they felt the genre unfit for critical analysis, so unfit, period.) This glowed Zoshchenko to the form. The bourgeoisie lived as if life was theatre. Worms under teacups, something.
So fuck them.
Known for satire, comedy, guffaws. He would make you laugh into yourself like a thrown belly.
(For example, Electrification)
Known for other books.
But I suggest you read Before Sunrise. (Often shard to locate a copy, but excerpts fructify in several anthologies [example].) More than sixty snapshots. Yes, funny, but not ha-ha funny. Zoshchenko, who knew despair (He was wounded several times and gassed in WW1, leaving him scarred in many ways for life), expresses repeatedly that an imperfect world, a world of things going awry, of tragedy and clatter fires and farce and illogic is simply the world, its state of being. He’s trying to convince himself. He wants to know why. Why, “Laughter is in my books, not in my heart.” He writes his life to understand his life. He wanted the book to mirror, hawk, alcove his sensibilities.
Some said that Zoshchenko’s characters act absurd.
He answers that the world is absurd.
He liked to wear striped socks.
He enjoyed steam baths (don’t we all?).
He once caught a fish and as the fish flopped on the shore a large Dalmatian ate the fish. The fish still hooked to Zoshchenko’s fishing pole. He tried to reel in the dog. This moment might have been formative.
I wish I met him over air hockey.
I wish more of his “snapshots” were online. Someone should do something.
An Old Man Dies
I am standing in a peasant hut. On the table lies an old man dying.
He’s been there for three days and hasn’t died.
Today there is a small wax candle in his hand. It falls over and goes out, but they light it again.
His relatives stand at the head of the table. Their gaze never wanders from the old man. All around there is the most unbelievable poverty, filth, rags, misery.
The old man is lying with his feet toward the window. His face is dark, tense. His breathing is irregular. At times it seems that he is already dead.
Leaning toward the old woman, his wife, I say softly: “I’ll go get the doctor. He shouldn’t be left lying there on the table for three days.”
The old woman shakes her head.
“Don’t upset him,” she says.
The old man opens his eyes and looks with his bleary gaze at those standing around him. His lips whisper something.
One of the women, young and dark complexioned, bends over the old man and listens silently to his mumblings.
“What’s he want?” asks the old woman.
“He wants titty,” answers the woman. And, quickly unbuttoning her blouse, she takes the old man’s hand and places it on her naked breast.
I see the old man’s face brighten up. Something like a smile spreads across his lips. His breathing becomes more regular and peaceful.
Everyone stands silently, stock-still.
Suddenly the old man’s body is shaken by a violent spasm. His hands fall helplessly. His face becomes stern and absolutely still. He stops breathing. He’s dead.
Immediately the old woman begins to wail. And after she starts they all wail.
I leave the hut.