No. that isn’t a statement about my current reading habits, but actually the title of the little volume I have just finished reading, which is subtitled “Russian Short Stories from the Years Following the Revolution”. Edited and translated by one Grigori Gerenstein, it contains just that – a collection of short pieces by a variety of authors from Ardov to Zoschenko, some of whom I’d heard of and some who were new to me. There was a double motivation for reading this – having coming out of the intensity of reading Platonov, I still wanted something Russian, but something slightly less involving, which short stories would be good for. Also, the collection (which I found while browsing Bulgakov on Amazon!) contained a number of authors I hadn’t yet read but was keen on discovering. So although the collection is a couple of decades old I thought I would give it a try.
And it certainly does cover a range of authors – Babel, Bulgakov, Ilf and Petrov, Olesha are some of the well-known ones. There is also a Platonov story which is a bonus. I was particularly interested in exploring the work of Daniil Kharms who seems to be still considered quite “out there” as far as literature is concerned.
Well – I read the book pretty much in one sitting and it was an interesting and varied collection. Quite a lot of the stories are brutal and hard-edged, particularly the ones in rural settings, which reminds you how harsh life was in post-revolutionary years, while people tried to adjust to the dehumanizing effects of civil war and a world turned upside down. They make hard, bleak reading with characters trapped in situations of violence and famine and terror.
The Platonov story “The Whirlpool” is very typically bleak and shares qualities of his other works I’ve read – in many ways his characters seem out of control of their lives and are buffeted here and there by fate – maybe this is the whirlpool of the title! I was very taken by Kharms’ seven short pieces which were funny and absurd and I think I’ll be exploring his work more. Bulgakov’s story “The Red Crown” is about the physical and psychological effects of war and death on his character. But the piece that had the most effect on me was Nikolai Aseyev’s “The War Against the Rats” in which the protagonist is tormented by the beasts in his house, but they become entangled with some grey-clad people he mixes with and his sanity finally deserts him as he tries to poison the rats. It’s quite deep and rather affecting and I found it the most memorable – maybe because it shows hints of the Soviet satire and surreal fiction that was to follow.
So – a mostly enjoyable collection with some clever and thought-provoking short pieces. It’s just a shame they didn’t take a little more care with the proofing of the book as they managed to mix up the author photographs of Bulgakov and Kharms….!