“Zoshchenko’s technique is that of the skaz, the oral tale. The tale is supposed to have a moral, instructional point, to illustrate something; that is the excuse for telling and listening. But the point gets lost on the way: the story teller is caught up in the story itself or simply succombs to the delight of having an audience. It is himself he expresses, and not the moral. Either he loses it completely or arrives at a conclusion as unexpected for him as it is for the audience, or he tacks it on by force majeure, exposing either his own clay feet or the insubstantiality of all conclusions, or both.”

-Sidney Monas

This story isn’t the best example of that, or close to Zoshchenko’s best,  although it is an enjoyable little thing. I chose it mainly becuase it is much easier to transcribe 3 pages of text than it is 40. That and Shiv asked for more stories 😉

Poverty (Zoshchenko, early 1900’s)

Nowadays, brothers, what is the most fashionable word there is, eh?

Nowadays, the most fashionable word that can be is, of course, electrification.

I won’t argue that it isn’t a matter of immense importance to light up Soviet Russia with electricity. Nevertheless, even this matter has its shady side. I am not saying, comrades, that it costs a lot. It costs nothing more expensive than money. That’s not what I’m talking about.

This is what I mean.

I lived, comrades, in a very large house. The whole house was using kerosene. Some had kerosene lamps with, some without a glass, and some had nothing – just a priest’s candle flickering away. Real hardship!

And then they started installing electric lights. Soon after the Revolution.

The house delegate installed them first. Well, he installed and installed. He’s a quiet man and doesn’t let his tongue give him away. But still he walks a bit strangely, and he’s always thoughtfully blowing his nose.

Nevertheless, he doesn’t let his tongue give him away.

And then our dear little landlady, Elizaveta Ignat’evna Prokhorov, declares to us that she too wants to put in electric lights in our half-dark apartment.

“Everybody,” she says, “is installing them. Even the delegate,” she says, “has installed them. Why should we be more backward than other people? All the more so,” she says, “since it’s economical. Cheaper than kerosene.”

You don’t say! We too began to install.

We installed them, turned them on – my fathers! Muck and filth all around.

The way it was before, you’d go to work in the morning, come home in the evening, drink a bit of tea, and go to bed. And nothing of this kind was visible as long as you used kerosene.

But now when we turned on the lights, we see, here someone’s old bedroom slipper lying around, there the wallpaper torn in shreds and hanging down, there a bedbug running away at a trot, trying to save himself from the light, here a rag of who-knows-what, there a gob of spit, here a cigar butt, there a flee hopping.

Holy fathers! You wanted to cry for help. Sad to look at such a spectacle.

Take the couch that stood in our room, for example.  I use to think, it’s all right, it’s a couch. It’s a good couch. I often sat on it evenings. And now I was burning electricity – holy fathers! What a couch! Everything’s sticking out, hanging down, spilling out from inside. I can’t sit down on such a couch – my soul cries out.

So, I think, I don’t live very well, do I? Better get out of the house. I begin to develop a negative attitude. My work falls from my hands.

I see the landlady, Elizaveta Ignat’evna, is also going around mournfully, muttering to herself, fussing around in the kitchen.

“What,” I ask, “is bothering you, landlady?”

She waves her hand.

“My dear man,” she says, “I never thought I was living so badly.”

I looked at her fixings – and it really wasn’t what you’d call luxurious: in fact, her furniture was painful. And all around, disorder, strewings, litter, rubbish. And all this flooded with bright light and staring you in the eye.

I began coming home kind of depressed.

I come in, I turn on the light, stare at the bulb, and hop into the sack.

After giving it a good deal of thought, I got my pay. I bought some whitewash and started to work. I shook out the bed, killed off the bedbugs, painted over the woodwork, banged the couch back together, decorated, decontaminated – my spirit sings and rejoices.

In general, everything was going well, very well indeed.

But our landlady, Elizaveta Ignat’evna, took another course. She cut the installation wires in her room.

“My dear man,” she says, “I don’t want to live in the light. I don’t want,” she says, “my modest circumstances to be lit up for all the bedbugs to laugh at.”

I begged and argued with her – no good. She held her own.

“I don’t want,” she says, “to live with that light. I have no money to make repairs.”

I tell her: “Why, I’ll do the repairs for you for next to nothing.”

She doesn’t want that.

“With those bright lights of yours,” she says, “I have to keep busy morning to night cleaning and washing. I’ll manage,” she says, “without the light, as I managed before.”

The delegate also tried to convince her. And even quarreled with her. He called her an outmoded petit bourgeois. It didn’t work. She refused.

Well, let her have it the way she wants. Personally, I live in the electric light and I am quite satisfied with it.

The way I look at it, the light scratches away all our litter and removes the rubbish.

*In an early version of this story, the author left his hero as unreclaimed as the landlady.


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