“St. John’s Eve” by Nikolai Gogol

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(Above: St. John the Baptist)

This is the second week in a row that I’ve drawn a club for my Deal Me In Short Story Reading Challenge For this year, clubs are my designated suit for “stories by Russian authors,” and all I have read thus far have been excellent. This week’s draw, the nine of clubs, was assigned to the Nikolai Gogol story, “St. John’s Eve.” I haven’t read much Gogol, but his famous story, “The Cloak,” is also on my list for this year, waiting patiently to be drawn.

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St. John’s Eve – for any fellow heathens who don’t know – is a religious holiday (celebrated on June 23rd) in honor of John the Baptist. St. John is famous for his wildness and zealousness, and those same qualities could be said to suffuse this story of a small village in Russia that is plagued by a strange man, Basavriuk, who seems to appear and disappear out of/into nowhere. Many believe him to be the devil incarnate. He tempts villagers with gifts that they are both afraid to refuse and accept, for if some trinket was accepted, “the next night some fiend from the swamp, with horns on his head, came and began to squeeze your neck, if there was a string of beads upon it, or bite your finger if there was a ring upon it, or drag you by the hair, if ribbons were braided in it.”

Enter a young man known as “Peter the Orphan,” a poor soul who labors for the Cossack, Korzh, who also happens to be the father of a lovely daughter, Pidorka. Gogol relates that “well, you know what happens when young men and maidens live side by side,” and the two youths, naturally, fall in love. Things are going okay until Korzh catches the unfortunate young lovers kissing, and Peter is promptly turned out and told never to show himself again.

Desperate about his lost love and concluding that he only lacks a fortune to be an acceptable suitor in the eyes of Pidorka’s father, who can Peter turn to? Basavriuk, of course. The story takes a horrific turn, which I will leave the interested reader to find out for himself – the story is available online at http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/1048/

I liked the final lines of the story: “…all appears to be quiet now, in the place where our village stands; but it was not so very long ago… that I remember how a good man could not pass the ruined tavern which a dishonest race had long managed for their own interest…”

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Have you read this story, or any others by Gogol? What do you think of the Russian authors? I admit I have become quite partial to them…

I own this story as part of my anthology “Great Short Stories of the World.”

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“But of Tanya we never spoke ill…”

Deal Me In Short Story Reading Challenge 2014: Story #4

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This week I drew the King of Clubs and checking my roster of stories was led to this one. Though it’s still early in the year, Maxim Gorky’s story, “Twenty-six and One” has been my favorite of the four stories I’ve read thus far. I also read Gorky as the final story of DMI2013, and enjoyed immensely his story “One August Night.”

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I also like stories that have a somewhat mysterious title. “Twenty-six and one?” What could this be about? A successful season of Gorky’s favorite football team? No, of course not that. The twenty-six and one are people. The twenty-six being the “employees” of a bakery, who spend an existence of dull drudgery in the semi-basement workroom, kneading dough for biscuits day after day, month after month, year after year. Among of the twenty-six is also our story’s narrator. And who is the “one?” She’s a lovely sixteen year-old chambermaid who lives in the same building the houses the bakery. Every day she visits the “little prisoners” – as she affectionately refers to the workers – stepping down the four steps into their cellar and playfully demanding “give me biscuits!”

This is Tanya, the one thing that makes their dreary existence bearable. Gorky describes the situation this way: “…though our hard labor turned us into dull oxen, we nevertheless remained human beings, and like all human beings we could not live without something to worship.” It seemed to this reader that the environment which Gorky has depicted has reached something of an equilibrium. Though unhappy or even miserable, the workers would never leave their precious Tanya. In their conversations while at work, they often discuss other, “low” women in rude and disgusting terms, but “of Tanya we never spoke ill.”

This equilibrium may have lasted years. May have. A catalyst for change is introduced, however, when one of the other employees (not from the twenty-six, but in a higher, “white bread baker’s” position) is fired and his replacement turns out to be a somewhat dashing former soldier. The former soldier wears a “satin vest and a watch with a gold chain” and, though a bit of a dandy, is friendly to the twenty-six (not condescending like the other white-bread bakers). In conversation with the twenty-six the soldier admits “How lucky I am with women, eh? It is very funny. Just a wink and I have them.” One can guess in what direction this story might go, no? The soldier’s successes thus far have been with the tawdry “embroidery girls” who also work in the building. Upon listening to the soldier boast of his conquests, the baker that supervises the twenty-six’s work is foolish enough to comment to him that, “You need no great strength to fell little fir-trees, but try to throw down a pine…” Suddenly Tanya’s virtue is threatened… Whether it’s a happy ending or not I won’t say. I will say that Gorky’s depiction of the workers’ condition and their psyche rang very true.

This story is available to read on-line in many places. One is http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/TwenSix.shtml

I also enjoyed reading the biographical info about Gorky in the introduction to my copy of “Twenty-Six and One (and Other Stories)” and learned a lot about him I didn’t know. He lived a large part of his life as a “tramp” wandering from place to place, yet always “reading and studying feverishly.” It is said thatit fell to him “to write the poem of vagrancy” and that “…the introduction of tramps in literature is the great innovation of Gorky.” What about YOU? Have you read Gorky? What do you know of him,and which works would you recommend?

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Deal Me In 2014: Story #3 “The Christmas Tree and the Wedding” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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(Above: Fyodor Dostoevsky)

This week, the six of clubs led me to read Dostoevsky’s short story, The Christmas Tree and the Wedding. I own it as part of my e-book, Best Russian Short Stories, a volume chock full of Pushkin, Gorky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol, Turgenev and Dostoevsky to name just the most luminous. I also “own” this in audio format via the Free Audio Books app on my iPhone and iPad. I both read and listened to this one – and for once the reader for the Librivox version was actually good! 🙂

Clubs are a “special suit” in my 2014 Deal Me In Sort Story Reading Challenge, representing stories by Russian writers. In last year’s edition of the challenge, I read stories by Turgenev, Gorky, and Pushkin, which only whetted my appetite for more. I’ve read a little Dostoevsky before, including the novels Crime and Punishment and The Idiot and also a short story (“The Grand Inquisitor?”) for my old book club’s annual short story month me year.

Dostoevsky begins the tale a bit cryptically: “The other day I saw a wedding… But no! I would rather tell you about a Christmas tree. The wedding was superb. I liked it immensely. But the other incident was still finer.” What do these two things have in common? About halfway through the story you will realize where it’s going…

The story’s narrator found himself (five years previously) at a Christmas Ball, hosted by an upwardly mobile member of the Russian upper class. The ball is but a thinly veiled excuse for him to rub shoulders with the well-to-do of the city, which include the portly and unctuous Julian Mastakovich. The narrator, only at the party by “coincidence” and not one of the host’s target demographic, has the opportunity to see all sorts of unsavory behavior by these pillars of society. Particularly disturbing was how the children in attendance received gifts specifically chosen to fit their “station” or the station of their families. The little boy of the host’s poor governess receives a used a practically worthless book with the covers missing and is expected to be happy with this treasure and leave the richer kids alone to play with their fine toys. In spite of all this, the narrator describes the children as “charming” and that “…they absolutely refused to resemble their elders.

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One elder, however, callously invades the sanctity of the children’s world. The narrator sees his motives clearly and even attempts to expose him to shame with an indiscreet comment. None of this derails the plans of the elder, though, as we learn at the story’s conclusion.

What story did you read this week? Do you have any favorites from among Dostoevsky’s shorter works?

If you are interested in reading this story, it maybe read online for free at: http://www.classicreader.com/book/2169/1/

Care to listen to it instead? Here’s a version on YouTube http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Lr5fTSnAd6g&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DLr5fTSnAd6g