Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Friday, July 2, 2021

Valentin Katayev - Two Short Stories by a Soviet Satirist from The 1920s


A Russian writer who actually looks like he could be funny

Valentin Katayev - Two Short Stories by a Soviet Satarist from The 1920s

I read these very funny stories in Fatal Eggs and other Soviet Satire edited with introductions and author bios by Mirra Ginsburg- 2007

“The Beautiful Trousers” - 1920

“The Suicide”. - 1923

 Valentin Katayev

Born: 28 January 1897, Odessa, Ukraine

Died: 12 April 1986, Moscow, Russia

Mel Brook’s hilarious set in Russia movie The 12 Chairs was inspired by his writings 

“The Beautiful Trousers” is a funny and sad account of how the massive food shortages of the 1920s impacted Soviet Writers.  A writer is close to starving.  

“And in the next room in this huge, run-down hotel, which resembled a chest of drawers forced open and thrown into utter disarray by a burglar, a hotel full of dust, heat, the clanking of cavalry spurs, and the tramping of infantry boots, Master of Arts Zirlich sat naked on a striped mattress and read Apuleius in the original. He had graduated from the university with a degree from the Department of Romance Studies; he could read, write, and speak many languages; he worked in the diplomatic service.”

He knows two other writers he is acquainted with have food in their room.  They live in a shabby hotel.  When he goes to their room they hide all but their bread.  He begs for scraps.  They tell him he can make money writing a propaganda play about how great things are now that the Revolution has come.  

““A man should write propaganda plays, Zirlich, that’s what one should do,” the poet said gloomily,…In the huge, empty, echoing wardrobe hung a pair of new, blue, very beautiful trousers. “You see?” “I see, a pair of trousers.” “There you are, trousers! Blue. Beautiful. New. A masterpiece, you might say.” “You bought them?” “I bought them. Today. Yes. And so I say—a man should write plays, Zirlich.” Zirlich raised his eyebrows. “They buy them?” “Oho, and how they buy them! Just write them!”

He writes a play but the other writers tell him it is not proper, as it could be construed as too negative.  The description of the play and the criticism are hilarious.  

At last he finds a way to eat, he steals and sells the Beautiful trousers.

“The Suicide” is whistling past the graveyard humor, a savage attack on Soviet society, suggesting everything manufactured there is junk.

A man is try to kill himself but is frustrated

“On the part of the Citizen, it was a swinish thing to do in every respect. Nevertheless, he made up his mind to it, especially since suicide was not punishable under the criminal code. In short, a certain Citizen, disillusioned with Soviet realities, decided to turn his face toward the grave. It’s sad, but it is a fact. He hurriedly collected his severance pay and the wages due him for the vacation he had not taken. Then he penned a feverish note to the Local Committee, bought a large and beautiful nail, a piece of toilet soap, and three yards of rope at the government store, and went home. There he pushed a chair over to the wall and climbed up. Cr-rash! “The devil! What a seat! It can’t even support the weight of a young, intellectual suicide. And they keep talking of their fight for quality! They call themselves the Wood Manufacturing Trust! Phooey!”

He tries several more times.  When he at last succeeds we cannot tell if he regretted taking acetic acid along with a sausage.

Of course officially no one was hungry then in the Soviet Union and all manufactured good were of the highest quality.

As time went on such writings could not be published snd writers sent to jail or worse for less.

There are two more of his stories in the anthology.

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