The Lady Aristocrat (Aristokratka) by Mikhail Zoshchenko, 1923

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by Mikhail Zoshchenko, 1923

From the early years of the Soviet regime the fame of Mikhail Zoshchenko rested chiefly on his satiric sketches. He became a household word in Russia because the situations he described were drawn directly from the daily lives of Soviet citizens at home and at work and in bars, shops, restaurants, and theaters. Writing in an environment in which art was judged according to its level of service to the state, Zoshchenko worked in satire and created a series of first-person narrators whose language and judgments were seen as the writer's mask. By the 1930s critics were questioning the future of the genre itself, noting that satire was surely nearing extinction since, in the ideal state soon to be realized, it would be irrelevant and unnecessary.

One of Zoshchenko's most famous creations is "The Lady Aristocrat" ("Aristokratka"), in which the narrator recounts his attempts at romancing a woman who lives in the apartment building where he works as a superintendent. In typical Zoshchenko fashion the narrator begins his tale with a blanket statement, a generalization that in the end tells the reader more about the character of the narrator than about its ostensible subject: "You guys—I don't like ladies in hats. If a lady has a hat on, if she's wearing silk stockings, or carrying a puppy dog around in her arms, or she has a gold tooth, then as far as I'm concerned, an aristocrat like her is no lady at all: she's total nothing to me." He admits, however, that he did fancy such ladies in the past, and he recounts how his relationship with such an "aristocrat" faltered at the point at which she "revealed her ideology in full force."

At first the narrator courts his aristocratic lady by regularly knocking at her apartment door to ask, in his most official tone, about the plumbing: "How's everything as regards malfunctioning of the toilet and plumbing? Is it all working?" After she warms to his repeated solicitations and he takes her for walks in town, she suggests that he take her to the theater. As luck would have it, the local party committee is giving out free opera tickets the next day, and he gets one on his own behalf and an extra one from a pipe fitter friend who does not want to go. The tickets are not together, however, and the narrator and his lady friend can barely see each other once they are seated. At intermission they meet in the lobby, where he offers to treat her to a meat pastry. He watches in horror as she quickly downs one, then another, and then a third. He furtively counts the available cash in his pocket and worries that he will not have enough money. He tries to distract her from her eating by suggesting that perhaps intermission is over or that it is not good to eat so much on an empty stomach. Unable to stand it when she reaches for the fourth pastry, he snaps at her, "Put that back!" When the man behind the counter attempts to charge him for four pastries, he insists that his friend ate only three, and he refuses to pay for the fourth. A crowd gathers to debate whether the fourth pastry shows teeth marks or is slightly squashed, while the narrator turns his pockets inside out to come up with the money. He finally finds enough small change to cover the pastry and tells her to go ahead and eat it. The aristocrat, however, is too embarrassed to continue eating, and an old man quickly steps forward to eat the disputed pastry. At the end of the opera she tells the narrator that he should not ask ladies out if he does not have money. He counters, "Money can't buy happiness, if you'll excuse the expression." After they part, he concludes, "I don't like aristocratic types."

This tale of aristocratic, or bourgeois, pretensions and of working-class discomfort and ineptitude for the refinements of romance and culture is told in language that veers constantly from one sociolinguistic extreme to the other. Interlarded with the narrator's highly colloquial, slangy, and unlearned speech are Soviet slogans, Marxist buzzwords, incorrectly used foreign words, and antiquated terms of address from the csarist era. Although the narrator is uneducated, he has absorbed the Soviet rhetoric that praises him as a worker and scorns those who belong to the bourgeoisie. His descriptions of his courtship and the fateful evening with the lady aristocrat reveal just how out of place he is and how inaccurate is his assessment of what went wrong. The reader finds the narrator's statements and opinions to be unacceptable, and his authority is undermined.

In his hundreds of short stories and feuilletons Zoshchenko's narrator is almost always unreliable, and it is this tension between the storyteller's assessment of the situation and the reader's normative understanding that makes his stories unique exercises in short narration.

—Linda H. Scatton

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The Lady Aristocrat (Aristokratka) by Mikhail Zoshchenko, 1923

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