From Laughter to a Critique of Culture: Mixail Zoščenko’s Sky Blue Book

The critical debate on Zoščenko, beginning approximately when he started publishing his work in the early 1920s, has been in many ways distillable to the following question: Who is Zoščenko laughing at? Or: Is Zoščenko “pro” or “anti” Soviet? The answer, whether positive or negative, is evaluated according to whether the critic is his or herself “for” or “against” the Soviet system. Thus Andrej Ždanov, in the infamous, venomous attack on Zoščenko and Axmatova in 1946 that resulted in the expulsion of both writers from the Writers’ Union, read Zoščenko as portraying “Soviet people as idlers and monsters,” and went on to “invite” Zoščenko to leave the literary scene (in a way reminiscent of the ejection of the Zoščenko hero from the theater in so many of his stories): “If Zoščenko does not approve of the Soviet way of life … let him clear out of Soviet literature.” Critics on the other side of the political fence from Ždanov have seen Zoščenko as either a naive believer in the building of communism, or as a political dissenter and martyr.

Zoščenko was, at least initially, and like many of the writers of his generation, “pro”, although he did make space in his stories for an anti-Soviet perspective through his famed satirical technique of double-voicedness. The resulting critique of the reality portrayed in his stories was not, however, made from the perspective of a political dissenter, but rather from that of a critic of culture— in fact of the very idea that man is civilizable. (cf. Zholkovsky 1994) Of course, the irony inherent in that critique— coming as it did from the pen of a writer, and in fact a highly “cultured” one, could not have been lost on Zoščenko. Hence, the meščanin-hero of Zoščenko’s work can be read, as Zholkovsky (1996) claims, as “a projection of his own flawed inner self.”

Yet Zoščenko’s hopes for a better world—evinced most clearly in his introductions to the 1934 work Golubaja kniga (A Sky-Blue Book)— should not be ignored. His critique centers on traditional human vices that he hopes (or hoped) would be eradicated by socialism: greed, self-interest, lust, power-hunger—the petty evils that cause greater evils, including (though not confined to) totalitarianism. As Zoščenko’s work evolves, laughter dissappears, the multiple voices telescope into monologue, and in fact he does indeed reveal why communism (or any other utopian system) cannot work, even hints at a natural tendency of humanity towards totalitarianism— and yet continues to hope. (It is this tiny hope that later causes him to turn his critical eye onto himself in Pered vosxodom solnca (Before Sunrise) in an attempt to cure himself.)

This paper will focus on several stories from Golubaja kniga (A Sky-Blue Book, 1934), most of which are reworkings of earlier, usually funnier, stories. The evolution of Zoščenko’s work— its increasing monologism, decreasing laughter, and inwards-turning focus— will be explored, with the goal of uncovering its ethical message.