The title story of this collection is a rather grim sketch of a carpenter who leaves the country to take his sick wife to Moscow. He is sure she will die there and hopes she will, for he has long since stopped caring for her and she has prevented his settling in the city. They drive off in their cart, she, tears streaming down her “hollow cheeks,” gazing on the countryside she loves, where she has spent her life; he, up front, gay and spruce, a ram’s carcass beside him—he has just slaughtered the animal in a brutally efficient way thinking of how after dropping her off at the hospital and selling the ram in the market, he will go to the station restaurant and, over a light beer, will watch the trains go by, while “a waitress in a white apron and cap will wait on him, the orchestra will play, and there will be the smell of food and the smoke of good cigarettes.” This is what he loves about the city. This is what he means when, getting permission to go, he tells the chairman of his collective farm that he “wants to live.” As for his wife, all that she “really wanted was to die at home and be buried in her own graveyard.”
The other stories are not so sardonic, but all of them, like this one, are centered on episodes in the lives of ordinary men and women. Some of them are happy, some gently sad, some very poignant; all are brief and self-enclosed, without implications beyond themselves. They do not lead one to philosophic, social, or psychological speculations, nor do they suggest a world of fantasy. They are stories of heartbreak or of unexpected joy, moments of happiness achieved despite premonitions of disaster, or moments of disillusionment when expected happiness is not realized. Kazakov knows how to convey the pathos of loss or the grateful, but uneasy, excitement of sudden bliss. A youth loses to another the one girl he has been old enough and bold enough to love but, since she wants him to, comes to the station to see her off with her bridegroom, and learns to live with his disappointment. On the other hand, there is the man on a northern island, hoping, but hardly daring to believe, that the woman he loves will come to him. Just in case she is not on the appointed steamer, he brings along a pail to fill at the spring, so as to persuade himself, if need be, that his trip through the woods to the pier has not been made in vain. But she does come.
Happiness is always precarious and greatly desired, and nothing is more certain than its evanescence. What was really important, thinks the happy man, was “not whether you lived thirty or fifty or eighty years, because whatever the number it wouldn’t be much, and dying would still be horrible. The most important thing was how many nights you had in life like this one,” and he is saddened because he is too happy, because he may “never have a night like this again” and because “three hours of it have already passed.” The boy whose girl has married another reflects that “There’s nothing constant in this world but sorrow. Life doesn’t stop. No, life never stops, it just absorbs your soul and all your sorrows, your little human sorrows, dissipate like smoke by comparison. Such is the excellent construction of the world.” His life is good, he thinks, even though Lilya has gone and he himself has not “become a poet, or a musician,” as he had hoped. After all, “we can’t all be poets,” and his life is filled with “sports, conferences, vocational training, exams.” There is only one trouble with it; it is that now and then he dreams of Lilya. “Those dreams, those uninvited dreams. I don’t want them…. Life is an excellent thing after all! But oh God, I don’t want dreams!”
This is the great news about Kazakov. For years it has seemed that no individual in the Soviet Union was entitled to dream, nor that any artist might be expected to care whether any one dreamed or not. But here is a writer who says openly that life may not be entirely fulfilled in “sports, conferences, vocational training, and exams,” that unwanted dreams come to trouble a boy’s peace of mind; and this writer is not only tolerated, but very popular in Russia. The news is so good that it has led to exaggerated praise. In my opinion, Kazakov is neither revolutionary nor is he—not yet, at least—another Chekhov, Turgenev, or Sherwood Anderson. He is certainly gifted. His stories are terse, evocative, and moving. Wild forests, lonely islands, quiet rivers come alive in them. He loves the “resounding stillness” of solitary places, and he can give the feeling of the dreariest scene with precision and economy. He is concerned with intimate emotional relationships, is impressed by their uncertainty and impermanence, appreciates the pangs of disappointment, but views life essentially with a kind of robust optimism, a simple, animal enjoyment. Wounded hopes die painfully, but leave no permanent scars. Sorrows are real enough, but Kazakov emphasizes that they “dissipate like smoke” and life goes on. His sketches are like recent Soviet films, always at their best with ordinary individuals and commonplace situations. They are full of sorrow, but there is no shattering or lasting grief in them; and the tears they draw are sweet rather than bitter.
Loneliness, Frank O’Connor has remarked, is the special province of the short story, a “sense of outlawed figures, wandering about the fringes of society, superimposed sometimes on symbolic figures whom they caricature and echo—Christ, Socrates, Moses.” Kazakov’s creatures are lonely, but not in this sense. No great mythical figures stand back of them, nor are they outlawed, except as they deserve to be. They depend on one another for happiness, they may be lonely for the moment, but the world is full of others like them, with the same desires and the same problems as theirs: they are not permanently isolated. Kazakov writes of life’s little cruelties as Thomas Hardy wrote of “life’s little ironies.” He does not venture into unexplored realms. His stories are not revelations, but illustrations of what is already known. One will not find a “Lady Macbeth of Mtensk” among them, nor a “King Lear of the Steppes,” nor a “Hamlet of Shchigry County.” His men and women are not destroyed by passions, nor lost, as Chekhov’s are, among human beings who are out of touch with their world and cannot notice one another. He writes like a happy young man, not an angry or anxious one. He is sensitive to suffering, but so delighted with life, with the woods and the seas, with hunting and fishing, with folk songs and jazz, that misery seems an unwelcome intrusion on his primitive, perilous, but manageable world, in which men battle and survive storms, and Teddy, the lovable old bear, after enduring all manner of hardships, finds a suitable deep hole in which to hibernate. Nor is there anything to indicate that he is at all displeased with his society. In “The Old Guys,” representatives of the old order and the new appear in the conventional form of a dastardly bourgeois exploiter on the one hand, and on the other, of the strong man who, freed from capitalist tyranny has come into his own, transformed from a resentful vagabond to a respected and responsible member of the community, in “The House on the Hill” and “The Mendicant” loathsome remnants of the old generation threaten or stifle the young; and in “Adam and Eve” an embittered artist, who compares himself to Van Gogh and resents the critics for not approving his independence, turns out to be a selfish weakling and a cad.
Kazakov makes good reading and because he seems to indicate that something new is stirring in the Soviet Union, he is exceptionally interesting to those who want to know—and who does not—what is really happening to minds and tastes behind the Iron Curtain. And this translation is good; it is for the most part accurate and so idiomatic that it does not read like a translation.
April 2, 1964