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. Тhis is Part V and the final installment in the series; Part I is here, Part II here, Part III here, and Part IV 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
Before long Apollo Semyonovich Perepenchuk sank deep into poverty. Moreover, this was the poverty, even the penury, of a man who had lost all hope of bettering his situation. Of course, he had been totally broke ever since his return, but at first he had refused to confess his abject poverty.
Now he would say to Aunt Adelaide Perepenchuk with an evil grin:
“Auntie, I’m as poor as a Spanish beggar.”
His aunt, feeling great guilt before him, would try to comfort him, calm him, encourage him, saying that all was not lost, that his whole life still lay ahead, that she would replace the dark green tie she had sold with a charming purple one, fashioned from the bodice of her evening dress, and that Ripkin, a ladies’ tailor of her acquaintance, would gladly take up the task of sewing him a velvet jacket on the cheap.
But Apollo Perepenchuk only grinned in response.
He didn’t take a single step, made no attempt whatsoever to change, to restore his earlier way of life about town. To be fair, he only gave up in earnest after he learned that Maestro Solomon Belenky now presided over every urban gathering. Prior to that, all kinds of vague dreams and elusive plans had jostled in his excited mind.
Maestro Solomon Belenky and the disappearance of the velvet jacket conspired to transform Apollo Perepenchuk into a mere willless contemplator.
He lay in bed all day, going out into the street only to look for a cigarette butt or to ask a passerby for a pinch of tobacco. Aunt Adelaide kept him fed.
Sometimes he would get out of bed, pull his clarinet from its cloth case, and play a bit. But in his music there was no trace of melody, nor even of individual notes—it was like the terrifying demonic howl of an animal.
And every time he would play, a change would come to Aunt Adelaide Perepenchuk’s face. She would retrieve various canisters and jars of drugs and smelling salts from her cupboard, then lie down with a muffled moan.
Apollo Semyonovich would eventually toss aside his clarinet and again seek solace in bed.
He lay in shrewd contemplation, subject to the same thoughts that had formerly troubled Fyodor Perepenchuk. And his other thoughts, in terms of force and depth, were in no way inferior to those of his considerable namesake. He contemplated human existence, the fact that man is as ridiculous and unnecessary as a beetle or a cuckoo, and that all people, the whole world over, must change their lives in order to find peace and happiness, in order to avoid the suffering that had befallen him. At one point it seemed to him he had discovered, at long last, how man ought to live. Some thought touched his mind and disappeared again without quite taking shape.
This started insignificantly enough. Apollo Perepenchuk asked Aunt Adelaide:
“What do you think, Auntie, does man have a soul?”
“Yes,” the aunt said. “Certainly.”
“But what about monkeys? Monkeys are humanlike . . . No worse than humans. Do you suppose monkeys have souls, Auntie?”
“I suppose that monkeys have souls,” the aunt said, “since they’re humanlike.”
Apollo Perepenchuk suddenly grew agitated. He was stricken by a bold thought.
“Excuse me, Auntie,” he said. “If monkeys have souls, then dogs surely have them. Dogs are no worse than monkeys. And if dogs have souls, then so do cats—and rats, and flies, and even worms…”
“That’s enough!” the aunt demanded. “You’re blaspheming.”
“Not at all, Auntie,” Apollo Perepenchuk replied. “Not in the least. I’m just stating the facts… So, by your logic, worms have souls…
Say I take a worm, then, Auntie, and cut it in half, right down the middle… Now imagine, Auntie, that each half goes on living on its own. So? According to you, Auntie, that’s a soul split in two! What kind of soul is that?”
“Leave me be,” the aunt implored and gazed at Apollo Semyonovich with frightened eyes.
“No, let me finish!” cried Perepenchuk. “So there’s no soul. Man has no soul. Man is bone and meat… He dies like the lowest beast, and is born like a beast. Only he lives on fantasies. But he must live differently…”
Except that Apollo Semyonovich couldn’t explain to his aunt how man ought to live—because he simply didn’t know. Yet he had been shaken by his thoughts. It seemed he had begun to understand something. But then his mind grew confused, jumbled. He had to admit that, in fact, he had no idea how a man ought to live in order to avoid feeling what he himself now felt. What did he feel, exactly? He felt his game was up, that life was calmly marching on without him.
For several days he paced the room in a state of extreme agitation. And on the day this agitation reached its highest point of tension, Aunt Adelaide brought in a letter addressed to Apollo Semyonovich Perepenchuk. The letter was from Tamara.
With the affectations of a flirtatious woman, she wrote in a sad lyric tone that she was preparing to marry a certain foreign merchant named Glob, and that, in taking this step, she did not wish Apollo Perepenchuk to think badly of her. She issued a most humble apology for all the things she had done to him; she was asking forgiveness, knowing what a mortal blow she had struck him.
Apollo Perepenchuk laughed quietly as he read the letter. Yet her unshakable conviction that he, Apollo Perepenchuk, was perishing on her account truly stunned him. Contemplating this, he suddenly realized that he needed nothing, not even her, on whose account he was perishing. And he also realized, clearly and finally, that he was perishing not on her account, but because he hadn’t lived as he ought to have lived. But then his mind grew confused and jumbled again.
And he wanted to go to her immediately, to say that it was not she who was to blame—that he alone was to blame, that he had made some mistake in his life.
But he didn’t go, because he didn’t know what that mistake had been.
A week later Apollo Semyonovich Perepenchuk paid Tamara a visit. It all happened unexpectedly. One night he quietly put on his clothes, told Aunt Adelaide that he had a headache and wanted to take a walk, then left the house. He walked for a long time, wandering aimlessly through the streets, with no intention of going to see Tamara. Extraordinary musings on the meaninglessness of existence gave him no peace. He took off his cap and wandered the streets, occasionally halting beside dark wooden houses and peering into their lighted windows, attempting to understand, to penetrate, to see how people lived—to get at the nature of their existence. Through the lighted windows he saw men in suspenders sitting at tables, women standing near samovars, children . . . Some men were playing cards; others sat without moving, staring blankly at flames. Some women washed dishes, or sewed—and that was about it. Many ate, opening their mouths wide without making a sound. And despite the double panes, it seemed to Apollo Perepenchuk that he could hear them champ and chew.
Apollo Semyonovich went from house to house and before he knew it, there he was, at Tamara’s residence.
He pressed against the window to her room. Tamara lay on the couch—apparently asleep. Suddenly, to his own surprise, Apollo Semyonovich rapped on the glass with his fingers.
Tamara shivered, leapt up, and listened intently. Then she went to the window, trying to make out in the darkness who it was that had knocked. But she could not, and so she shouted: “Who is it?”
Apollo Semyonovich was silent. She ran out into the street, recognized him, and brought him into the house.
She began to lecture him angrily, telling him that he had no business coming here, that it was all over between them—and hadn’t her written apologies been enough?…
Apollo Perepenchuk gazed at her beautiful face, thinking that there was no point in telling her that she wasn’t to blame, that he alone was to blame, that he had conducted his life in the wrong way. She wouldn’t understand, and wouldn’t want to understand, because this situation seemed to give her some sort of pleasure, and perhaps even boosted her pride.
He wanted to go, but something stopped him. For a long time he stood in the middle of the room, thinking intensely. Then a strange calm came over him. He cast his eyes around Tamara’s room, smiled blankly, and left.
He went out into the street, walked two blocks, put on his cap— and stopped.
“That thought—what had it been?”
At that moment, when he had stood in her room, some happy thought had flashed across his mind. But he had forgotten it . . . Some thought, some conclusion that had, for a moment, brought him calm and clarity.
Apollo Perepenchuk tried to recollect every detail, every word. Was it that he should leave? No… Become a clerk? No… He had forgotten.
So he raced back to her house. Yes, of course, he must get back inside her home, her room, now, this very minute—there, standing in that same spot, he’d recall that blasted thought.
He went up to her door, intending to knock. But he noticed that the door was open. No one had locked it behind him. He quietly walked down the hall, unnoticed, and stopped on the threshold of Tamara’s room.
Tamara was weeping, her face buried in her pillow. In her hand she held a photograph—a portrait of him, Apollo Perepenchuk.
Let the reader cry all he wants—the author couldn’t care less. He remains unmoved, proceeding impassively to further developments.
Apollo Perepenchuk looked at Tamara, at the photograph in her hand, at the window. He looked at the flower on the table, at the little vase with some dried herbs and grasses, and suddenly it came to him.
Tamara screamed when she saw him. He raced off, his boots stamping down the hall. Someone from the kitchen rushed after him.
Apollo Semyonovich ran out of the house. He walked quickly down Prolomnaya Street. Then he began running again. He fell in the soft snow. Tripped. Got up. Ran on further.
“I’ve found that thought!”
He ran a long time, gasping for breath. The cap fell from his head, but he raced on without stopping to find it. The city was quiet. It was the dead of night. Perepenchuk kept running.
At last he reached the outskirts of town. The suburbs. Fences. Railroad signal. Huts. Side ditch. Railway bed.
Apollo Perepenchuk collapsed. He crawled a bit farther, reached the rails, then lay still.
“My thought. I’ve found it.” He lay in the soft snow. His heart kept skipping beats. He felt he was dying.
A man holding a lantern walked past him twice, then came back and nudged him in the ribs with his foot.
“What’s with you?” said the man with the lantern. “Whatcha lyin’ there for?”
Perepenchuk didn’t respond.
“Whatcha lyin’ there for?” the man repeated in a frightened tone. The lantern shook in his hand.
Apollo Semyonovich raised his head and sat up.
“People are good… People are good,” he said.
“What people?” the man said quietly. “Whatcha ramblin’ about? Come on, now, let’s go to my hut. I’m the switchman…”
The man took him by the hand and led him to his hut.
“People are good… People are good,” Perepenchuk kept muttering.
They went into the hut. It was stuffy. A table. A lamp. A samovar. Sitting at the table, a peasant in an unbuttoned coat. A woman crumbling sugar with a pair of tongs.
Perepenchuk sat down on a bench. His teeth were chattering.
“So why’d you go and lie down out there, eh?” the switchman asked again, winking at the man in the coat. “Lookin’ for death, were ya? Or did ya wanna go and tear up them rails?”
“What did he do?” asked the man in the coat. “Lie down on the rails?”
“That’s what he did,” said the switchman. “I’m out there with my lantern, and there he is, the asshole, lyin’ there like a baby, his mug stuck right up against the rail.”
“Hm,” said the man in the coat. “Bastard.”
“You back off,” said the woman. “Don’t you go yellin’ at him. You see the fella’s shakin’. He ain’t shakin’ from joy. Have some tea, fella…”
Apollo Perepenchuk drank, his teeth knocking against the glass.
“People are good…”
“Hold on,” said the switchman, winking at the man in the coat again and, for some reason, elbowing him in the side. “I’m gonna ask ’im some questions, orderly and official-like.”
Apollo Semyonovich sat motionless.
“Answer in order, like on paper,” the switchman said sternly. “Family name.”
“Perepenchuk,” said Apollo Semyonovich.
“Never heard of it. Age?”
“Prime of life,” the man said with inexplicable satisfaction. “Me, I’m in my fifty-first year… Now that’s an age… Out of work?”
“Out of work…”
The switchman grinned and winked again.
“Not good,” he said. “Well, you got any skill? Know any skill?”
“Not good,” the switchman said, shaking his head. “How you gonna live without handi-skills, fella? I tell ya, that ain’t no good at all. A man’s gotta know a handi-skill. Take me—I’m a watchman, a switchman. But say they run me out—cutbacks or some such… Well, that won’t be the end of me. I know how to work boots. I’ll work boots till my arms fall off, and I won’t come to grief. Hell, I’ll twist ropes with my teeth. Yes, that’s me. But you ain’t got no handi-skill. Can’t do a doggone thing… How you gonna live?”
“An aristocrat, this one,” the man in the coat scoffed. “Blood’s too blue… Can’t live. They just go and stick their snouts in rails.”
Apollo Perepenchuk got to his feet. He wanted to leave. But the switchman wouldn’t let him:
“Sit down. I’ll set you up with a splendid job.”
He winked at the man in the coat and said:
“Vasya, why dontcha take the fella on? You do nice, quiet work— anyone can understand. Why let the poor fella croak?”
“All right,” the man said, buttoning his coat. “Listen here, citizen: you come to the Annunciation Cemetery and ask the fella in charge if I’m around.”
“Take ’im with ya now, Vasya,” the woman said. “You never know.”
“All right,” the man said, getting up and putting on his hat. “Well, let’s go, then. So long, now.”
The man left the hut with Apollo Perepenchuk.
Apollo Semyonovich Perepenchuk entered the third and last period of his life—he assumed the position of a freelance gravedigger.
For almost a full year Apollo Semyonovich labored at the Annunciation Cemetery. Once again, he underwent a remarkable change.
He went about in yellow leg wrappings, a half-coat, and a brass badge on his chest—No. 3. His calm, thoughtless face exuded quiet bliss. All wrinkles, blemishes, and freckles vanished from his countenance. His nose took on its former shape. It was only that his eyes would occasionally fix without blinking on some object— on a single point on that object—no longer seeing or noticing anything else.
At those moments Apollo would contemplate, or rather, recall his life, the path he had traveled, and then his calm face would grow dark. But these recollections would come over him against his will—he was trying to rid his mind of all thought. He acknowledged that he had no sense of what he ought to have done, of what mistake he had made in his life. And had there really been a mistake? Perhaps there hadn’t. Perhaps it was all just life—simple, stark, and plain—which allows only two or three people out of a thousand to smile and enjoy themselves.
However, all these sorrows were now behind him. A spirit of happy tranquility never again left Apollo Semyonovich. Every morning, at the usual hour, he would come to work with a shovel in his hand, and while digging the earth and straightening the sides of the graves, he’d well up with enthusiasm at the silence and charm of his new life.
On summer days, after working two hours or more without a break, he would lie down on the grass or on the warm, freshly dug earth, and would gaze without moving at the fleecy clouds, or follow the flight of some little birdie, or simply hearken to the rustle of the Annunciation’s pines. Recalling his past, Apollo Perepenchuk reflected that he had never felt such peace in all his life, that he had never lain in the grass and had never known that freshly dug earth was warm and smelled sweeter than French powder or any drawing room. And then he would smile a calm, full smile, happy at being alive and wanting to live on.
But one day Apollo Semyonovich Perepenchuk spotted Tamara walking arm in arm with some fairly important-looking foreigner. They were strolling down the path of Saint Blessed Xenia, blithely prattling about this or that.
Apollo Perepenchuk snuck after them, crouching behind graves and crosses like an animal. The couple strolled through the cemetery for a long time, then found a dilapidated bench and sat down, squeezing each other’s hands.
Apollo Perepenchuk fled from the scene. But that was an isolated incident. Life went on as before, calm and quiet. The days followed one another, and nothing disturbed their calm. Apollo Semyonovich worked, ate, lay in the grass, and slept… Occasionally he would stroll through the cemetery, read the touching or clumsy inscriptions on the headstones, sit down on this or that forgotten grave, and stay there for a while, thinking of nothing.
On the nineteenth of September, according to the new calendar, Apollo Semyonovich Perepenchuk succumbed to a heart rupture while working on one of the graves.
As it happens, Tamara Glob, née Omelchenko, had died in childbirth on the seventeenth of September—that is, two days before his own death.
Alas, Apollo Semyonovich Perepenchuk never heard about this.
Excerpted from Mikhail Zoshchenko’s SENTIMENTAL TALES, translated by Boris Dralyuk, part of the Russian Library series (Columbia University Press).