Summer Reading Series: Mikhail Zoshchenko’s “Sentimental Tales,” Part IV

Editor’s Note: Since last week, All the Russias has been running a series of excerpts from Boris Dralyuk’s new translation of Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Sentimental Tales. This is Part IV in the series; Part I is here, Part II here, and Part III here

Boris Dralyuk is the editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (2016) and coeditor of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (2015).  

Apollo and Tamara

3.

But here the author must show his hand to his dear readers. The author assures them that he will in no way distort the events of which he writes. On the contrary, he will reconstruct them exactly as they occurred, with utmost fidelity to the tiniest details, such as the physical appearance of the protagonists, their ways of thinking, and even sentimental motifs, which the author would rather ignore.

The author pledges to his dear readers that when he recalls certain sentimental scenes—say, the heroine crying over a portrait, or the same heroine mending Apollo Perepenchuk’s torn tunic, or, finally, Aunt Adelaide Perepenchuk announcing the sale of Apollo Semyonovich’s wardrobe—he does so with extraordinary sorrow and a painful sense of anxiety.

These descriptions are, so to speak, contrary to the author’s taste, but he offers them for the sake of truth. For the sake of truth, the author even uses his protagonists’ actual names. The reader mustn’t think that the author has graced his protagonists with such rare, exceptional names—Tamara and Apollo—out of aesthetic considerations. No, these people were actually called Tamara and Apollo. And that’s really no surprise. The author happens to know for certain that all the girls of seventeen or eighteen on Bolshaya Prolomnaya Street were without exception Tamaras or Irinas.

And there’s a perfectly good explanation for this coincidence. Seventeen years earlier, a regiment of hussars was stationed in town. And this regiment was so glorious, the hussars so strapping— affecting the citizenry so profoundly from the aesthetic point of view—that all the female babies born at the time were named Tamara or Irina, following the example set by the governor’s wife.

And so, in that happy year of dizzying successes, Apollo Semyonovich Perepenchuk first met and fell in love with the maiden Tamara Omelchenko.

She wasn’t quite eighteen then. And you couldn’t exactly call her a beauty, but she was better than a beauty—there was such noble roundness to all her shapes, such a floating quality to her gait, and such a charming air of tender youth about her. Any man who walked past her, be it on the street or even at a public gathering, inevitably called her a donut, sweet bun, or cream puff, gazing at her with acute attention and pleasure.

That same year she also fell in love with Apollo Semyonovich Perepenchuk.

They met at a ball within the walls of the Merchants’ Assembly Hall. This happened at the start of the European worldwide war. She was struck by his unusually noble appearance, the lower lip bitten in pride. He was enraptured by her pristine freshness.

That evening he was in particularly fine form. He pounded on the piano with all the force of his inspiration, so that the foreman finally had to come over and ask him to play a bit more quietly, making out that he was upsetting the club’s full members.

At this moment Apollo Perepenchuk realized just how insignificant and miserable a person he really was. Attached, by virtue of his profession, to a musical instrument, he couldn’t even walk over to the maiden he admired. With these thoughts weighing on his mind, he expressed through sounds all the anguish and despair of a man in bondage.

Tamara, meanwhile, was whirled about in waltzes and mazurkas by many respectable gentlemen, but her eyes always came to rest on the inspired mien of Apollo Perepenchuk.

And at the end of the evening, overcoming her girlish timidity, she herself walked over to the piano and asked him to play one of his favorite tunes. He played the waltz “The Dreams That Engulf Me.”

That waltz sealed the deal. Seized with the trembling of first love, she took his hand and pressed it to her lips.

Vicious gossip about Apollo Perepenchuk’s latest “union” spread like wildfire through the entire premises of the Merchants’ club. No one bothered to conceal their curiosity. People sauntered past the couple, smirking and giggling. Even those who were already pulling on their coats shed their furs and went back upstairs to verify the juicy rumors with their own eyes.

Thus began the love affair.

Apollo Perepenchuk and Tamara took to meeting on holidays at the corner of Prolomnaya and Kirpichny. They would promenade into the evening hours, talking of their love and of that extraordinary, unforgettable evening when they had first met, recalling its every detail, embellishing everything, and admiring each other.

This went on until autumn.

But when Apollo Semyonovich Perepenchuk, wearing his finest jacket and carrying a bouquet of oleander and a box of Lenten sugar, came to ask for Tamara’s hand, she refused him with the prudence of a mature woman who knows her worth, despite the appeals of her mother and of the Omelchenko ménage.

“Mother dearest,” she said, “yes, I love Apollo with all the passion of a maiden’s heart, but I shall not marry him now. When he becomes a famous musician, when glory kneels at his feet, I’ll go to him myself. And I believe that day will come soon. I believe he will be well known, famous, able to provide well for his wife.”

Apollo Perepenchuk was present during these remarks, at first bowing his head.

All evening he wept at her feet, kissing her knees with unspeakable passion and longing. But she was insistent. She was loath to take risks, fearing poverty and insecurity. She didn’t want to drag out her life in misery, as almost all people do.

Then Apollo Perepenchuk dashed off for home. For a few days he dwelled in some kind of fog, some kind of frenzy, trying to devise some way of becoming a famous, renowned musician. But what had once seemed plain and simple now appeared to be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible.

Various plans flashed through his mind: to go to another city, give up music, quit the arts, and seek his fortune and glory in another profession, in another field, becoming, say, a courageous aviator, looping the loop over his hometown, above his beloved’s roof, or perhaps becoming an inventor, an explorer, a surgeon… But these were all merely dreams. Apollo Perepenchuk would puncture each and every one of them, deriding his own imagination.

He sent his composition, the waltz “The Dreams That Engulf Me,” to Petersburg, but the manuscript’s fate remains unknown. Perhaps it got lost in the mail, or maybe someone appropriated it, passing it off as their own composition—we simply don’t know. It was never published or performed.

Today even its motif is all but lost to history. Only Aunt Adelaide Perepenchuk keeps it in her memory. Oh, how she loved to sing that waltz!

Another of Apollo Perepenchuk’s compositions belongs to this period—the unfinished “Fantaisie réale.” It remains unfinished not because of creative ineptitude, but because our poor hero was struck by another blow.

Apollo Semyonovich was drafted into the army as a noncombat soldier.

What he had dreamt of was now a reality: he could leave and seek his fortune elsewhere.

In December of 1916 Apollo Perepenchuk came to say good-bye to his beloved.

Even the most cynical townsfolk, the stoniest hearts wept as they gazed at the couple’s tender parting.

Bidding farewell, Apollo Perepenchuk declared solemnly that he would return either as a renowned, famous man or not at all. He proclaimed that neither war nor anything else would stand in the way of his ambition.

And the maiden, laughing gratefully through her tears, said that she had complete faith in him. She affirmed that she would become his wife when he returned as a man who could ensure their mutual happiness.

4.

And so a few years—a little over four, to be exact—passed since Apollo Semyonovich Perepenchuk entered the army.

This was a time of enormous changes. Social ideas significantly altered and overturned our former way of life. Many fine people departed the earth to join their ancestors in eternity. Kuzma Lvovich Goryushkin, for example, a former trustee of the school district and a most good-natured, cultured man, was done in by typhus. Semyon Semyonovich Petukhov, another superb fellow who didn’t mind a drink or two, also died. And the death of medical attendant Fyodor Perepenchuk occurred during this same period.

Life in town changed tremendously. The revolution began to fashion a new way of life. But living wasn’t easy. People had to fight for their right to live out their days.

And no one during this time gave a single thought to Apollo Semyonovich Perepenchuk. Well, maybe Tamara Omelchenko did, once or twice, and maybe his aunt Adelaide Perepenchuk. Of course, perhaps some other maiden thought of him as well—but simply as a romantic hero, not as a pianist-for-hire and musician. No one recalled him as a pianist-for-hire, and no one regretted his absence. There were no more pianists-for-hire in town, nor was there any need of them. Under the new conditions, many professions became obsolete, and pianist-for-hire was one such dying trade.

Maestro Solomon Belenky now provided the entertainment at all gatherings, with his two first violins, cello, and double bass. At all parties, charity balls, weddings, and christenings this man, who had appeared out of nowhere, worked with a success that, we have to admit, was simply dizzying. Everyone loved him. And it’s true: no one could twirl a violin in his hands like Maestro Belenky, turning it around during a rest and hitting its sounding board with his bow. Moreover, he played a medley of favorite motifs and could perform various dances of both domestic and transatlantic origin, such as the “tremutar” and the “bear.” On top of that, the smile that never abandoned his face, in combination with a certain good-natured winking at the dancers, finally conspired to make him a favorite of the jolly public. He was, so to speak, an artist of our time. And he drove Apollo Semenovich Perepenchuk out of the townsfolk’s minds, trampling him into the dust.

And that very year, when Tamara began to forget Apollo Perepenchuk, and when Aunt Adelaide Perepenchuk, thinking her nephew killed in action, hung a notice on her gate announcing to all and sundry the sale of Apollo Perepenchuk’s wardrobe, including: two pairs of lightly worn trousers, a velvet jacket with a dark green tie, a piqué vest, and a few other items—that same year Apollo Perepenchuk returned to his hometown.

He rode in a freight car with other soldiers and lay on his bunk the whole way, his head resting on his bag. He looked sick. He had changed terribly. The soldier’s overcoat, torn and burnt on the back, the army boots, the baggy khaki trousers, the hoarse voice—all these rendered him completely unrecognizable. He was a different man.

Constant contact with a clarinet had even stretched his lip, formerly bitten in pride, into a thin ribbon.

No one ever did learn what disaster had befallen him. Had there even been a disaster? In all likelihood, there hadn’t been any disaster—just life, plain, simple life, from which only two people out of a thousand ever manage to get back on their feet, while others just wait it out.

He never told anyone about his experiences over those five years, of what he had done in the hope of returning in glory and honor.

Only the clarinet he brought back with him gave people reason to suspect that he had, as before, sought glory in the realm of art. He must have been a musician in some regimental band. But nothing is known for certain. He wrote no letters home, apparently not wanting to report on the minor facts of his life.

In other words, a mystery.

We only know that he returned not only without fame but also sick and hungry—a changed man, with wrinkles on his forehead, an elongated nose, faded eyes, and his head bowed low.

He returned to his aunt’s house like a thief. Like a thief, he ran through the streets from the station, lest he be seen. But if anyone had seen him, they wouldn’t have recognized him. There was nothing of the old Apollo Perepenchuk in him. He was a whole other Apollo Perepenchuk.

His return itself was a frightful scene. He had barely crossed the threshold when a new blow came down upon his head. His possessions, his lovely possessions—the velvet jacket, the trousers, the vest—had all perished irrevocably. Aunt Adelaide Perepenchuk had sold everything, down to his safety razor.

Apollo Semyonovich heard out his aunt’s sobs somewhat indifferently, with a measure of disgust. He offered no reproof, only asking once more about the velvet jacket, and then dashed out to see Tamara.

He raced to her along Bolshaya Prolomnaya, panting, without a thought in his head. All the dogs ran out to meet him, barking and snapping at his ragged trousers.

Finally, after one last exertion—her home, Tamara’s home… Apollo Perepenchuk banged his fist on the door.

Tamara took fright at the sight of him, trying to understand—at once, this very minute—what had befallen him. Seeing his tattered tunic and haggard face—she understood.

He gazed intently, piercingly into her eyes, trying to penetrate her thoughts, to understand. But he did not understand.

They stood facing each other for a long time, not saying a word. Then he got down on his knees, and, not knowing what to say, wept quietly. She also began to weep, sobbing and sniffling like a child.

After a while, she sat down in a chair, and Apollo, crouching at her feet, babbled all kinds of nonsense. Tamara stared at him but understood nothing and saw nothing. All she saw was his soiled face, his matted hair, and his torn tunic. Her tender little heart, the heart of a sensible woman, was wrung to the utmost. She brought out her sewing kit and asked him, through her tears, to thread a needle. Then she began to mend his tunic, occasionally shaking her head in reproach.

But here the author must interject and say that he’s no snot-nosed kid, to go on this way, describing sentimental scenes. And although there isn’t much of that stuff left, the author must move on to the hero’s psychology, deliberately omitting two or three intimate, sentimental details, such as: Tamara combing Apollo’s matted hair, wiping his haggard face with a towel, and sprinkling him with Persian Lilac… The author states unequivocally that he has no truck with these details and is interested solely in psychology.

And so, thanks to this show of affection on Tamara’s part, Apollo Perepenchuk came to believe that all was as before, that she still loved him. He rushed to her with a cry of delight, attempting to lock her in his embrace.

But, with a frown, she declared:

“Kind Apollo Semyonovich, I believe I said far too much to you in those days… I hope you didn’t take my innocent girlish prattling at face value.”

He remained on his knees, straining to understand her words. She got up, crossed the room, and said testily:

“Perhaps I have wronged you, but I will not be your wife.”

Apollo Perepenchuk went back to his aunt’s house, where he realized that his old life was gone forever—and that it had all been ridiculous and naïve from the start. His desire to become a great musician, a well-known, famous man, had been ridiculous and naïve. And he realized that he had lived his entire life in the wrong way—doing the wrong things, saying the wrong things… But he still hadn’t the faintest idea of what the right things might have been.

As he lay down to sleep, he grinned bitterly—just as medical assistant Fyodor Perepenchuk had grinned bitterly in his time, attempting, at long last, to understand, to penetrate the essence of natural phenomena.

Excerpted from Mikhail Zoshchenko’s SENTIMENTAL TALES, translated by Boris Dralyuk, part of the Russian Library series (Columbia University Press).