Translated from the Russian by Dean Moore, December, 2009.
The satirical ultra-short story Nervous People («Нервные люди») was written by the Soviet writer Mikhail Zoshchenko in 1924, not long after the Russian Civil War. It takes place in a communal apartment in the Soviet Union; there is some discussion of Soviet communal apartment living here, also here.
The story was published in 1927, and its locale is modern-day Saint Petersburg (It could have then been Leningrad; the city of Petrograd was renamed Leningrad on January 26 1924) from the reference to Glazova and Borova streets, at least one of which has apparently been re-named since Zoshchenko’s time.
I read an English translation of Nervous People when an undergrad studying Russian, and thought it one of the most perfect short stories I have ever read. After three weeks in Russia in July 2009 decided to translate it for intellectual entertainment.
Any resemblance to other translations is incidental. I tried to maintain Zoshchenko’s terse, deadpan and slangy style. I don't speak the best Russian, frequently cracking my Smirnitsky Russian-English dictionary for subtleties. Some things I took from context, sometimes consulting other translations, as here and here, trying to improve on each, at least in my mind.
Much of the Russian is colloquial, hard to translate, and I often googled about for terms that did not appear in any dictionary I own, flailing for a decent translation.
You can find the story in original Russian at this link.
Teresa Olson and my wife Colleen Keller read my original translation and made valued suggestions.
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by Mikhail Zoshchenko
Not long ago in our communal apartment there was a fight. And not just any fight, but a full-out battle. On the corner of Glazova and Borova.
Of course in their hearts the fight was virtuous. The invalid Gavrilov near got his lone head chopped off.
The main reason – folks are very nervous. Erupt over trivialities. Lose control. And fight dirty, like in a fog.
Of course they say that after a civil war the people are always jittery. That may be so, but ideology won’t heal Gavrilov’s head any faster.
So at nine o’clock in the evening one tenant, Marya Vasilyevna Shchiptsova, comes into the kitchen to light her primus stove. You know, she always lights her primus about this time, drinks tea and applies compresses.
So she comes in the kitchen. Sets the primus before her and sparks it. But it fails completely, won’t light.
She thinks, “What, the devil won’t light? Must be sooted up, that’s the problem.”
In her left hand she grabs a brush and sets to clean it.
As she is about to clean, holding the brush in her left hand, another tenant, Darya Petrovna Kobylina, whose brush it is, sees what of hers has been taken and replies:
“Incidentally, Marya Vasilyevna deary, you can just put that brush back where it belongs.”
Shchiptsova of course flares at these words and answers:
“Darya Petrovna, please go choke on your fucking brush. I don’t care to touch the disgusting thing, much less pick it up.”
Darya Petrovna Kobylina of course erupts at these words. They began to talk, just the two of them. Their volume grows, shouting, banging.
Darya’s husband, Ivan Stepanich Kobylin, who really owns the brush, comes to the ruckus. He is a stout man, even pot-bellied, but in his own way, a nervous type.
He enters and says:
“I work,” he says, “I work like a driven elephant for thirty-two rubles and a few kopecks in the co-op, and smile,” – he says – “smile at customers and weigh their sausage. By my labored coins I buy my own brushes, and there’s no way in Hell I’m letting some stranger use my brushes.”
Again noise breaks out, discussion rises around the brush. Of course all tenants barge in the kitchen. Much bumping about. The invalid Gavrilich also shows up.
“What is this,” he says, “such commotion, and no fight?”
Right after these words a fight is verified. Off it went.
But our mini-kitchen, you know, is narrow. Inappropriate for fighting. Tight. All around are pans and primus stoves. Nowhere to turn. And in it twelve people are crammed. If, for example, you wish to smack the mug of one, you punch three. And of course, one bumps into things, falls over. And you know, a one-legged invalid – had he three legs he couldn’t keep his balance there.
But despite this, the crazy devil of the invalid goes barreling into the very thick of it. Ivan Stepanich, who owns the brush, shouts at him:
“Get out of this mess, Gavrilich. You’ll lose your other leg!”
“So let me lose my leg!” Gavrilich replies. “I can’t leave now. I’ve already bled, and my pride is wounded.”
And that minute someone pummels him in the snout. He doesn’t leave and goes on the attack. Then someone clocks the invalid on the skull with a saucepan.
Down kicks the invalid and just lies there. Has a bored look.
Here some parasite runs for the militia.
A cop shows. He shouts:
“Get your coffins ready you devils, ’cuz I’m gonna shoot!”
Only after these fateful words do the people somewhat compose themselves. They scamper to their rooms.
“By what madness,” they think, “did such fine citizens as us come to blows?”
All the people had run to their rooms, only the invalid Gavrilich does no running. He’s lying on the floor looking bored. And blood drips out his dome.
Court convened two weeks after these facts.
As well the People’s Judge turned out such a nervous type – he really nailed us.