Confessions of a Humorist: Laughter and Suffering in Zoshchenko's Pered vosxodom solnca (Before Sunrise)

Mirande Bissell, Princeton University

As Zholkovsky has recently suggested, there had always been a great deal of Zoshchenko's self under scrutiny in his shorter comic works (Zholkovsky, SEEJ, 1996); Before Sunrise makes this self-ridicule explicit. Before Sunrise has two objects of ridicule: "professional sufferers" (in Gor'kij's phrase) "who [are] disposed by such idiotic trifles and the inconveniences of private life to look on the world with hostility" (BS, 306; a manic form of reason that "overcomes everything." "Like a tank I moved through the fields of my life, overcoming all obstacles, all barriers with ease," Zoshchenko writes of his first heady experience of mental health (BS, 242). He restrains this wild vitality, which "very nearly caused many misfortunes," by "turning over[his] new forces to art". (BS, 244).

In a letter to his wife in 1944, Zoshchenko reflected upon the halt in publication of Before Sunrise the year before, and concluded that although he considered his work to be good, it was "not for mass consumption," adding that "[h]umor is not what is needed right now. And satire is entirely uncalled for." (Materialy (1997) 1 Feb, 1944). Although Chudakova has rightly pointed out that in this work Zoshchenko aimed to speak "in his own voice" ("svoim jazykom"), this presentation will argue that he did not consider humor alien to his mature voice. "The world is horrible...People are vulgar...Their actions are comical. I'm not one of the herd," he writes in summary of his youthful alienation from society. Nevertheless, he asserts that as an artist, his comic vision was not abusive but compassionate. A fellow Serapion noted of Zoshchenko in the summer of 1926 that his recovery from being "on the brink of insanity" resulted in the appearance of "great egocentricity...And his opinion of himself--it's something Gogolian, horrendous" (letter from I. Gruzdev, Kern 347). Before Sunrise is a confession of that egocentricity and an effort to shut it down, to discover once and for all, that which eluded Gogol'.