Communal Living in Russia: From Books
From Fiction: Mikhail Zoshchenko. "Nervous people"
  Summary
  Mikhail Zoshchenko. "Nervous People." A short story. 1924. Translated by Charles Rougle.
  Translation of the Russian Transcript
  A little ways back there was a fight in our communal apartment. More than a fight—an out-and-out brawl. On the corner of Glazova and Borova Streets.

They brawled from the bottom of their hearts, of course. An invalid by the name of Gavrilov nearly got his one and only noggin chopped off.

The main reason is that folks are really nervous. They get upset over piddly little trifles. All worked up. That's how come they go at it blindly, like in a haze or something.

It's that of course after a civil war, they say, people's nerves get rattled all the time. Could be, except that this ideology won't help heal up Gavrilov's noggin any faster.

So there's this tenant Marya Vasilevna Shchiptsova who comes into the kitchen at nine in the evening and lights her primus stove. Because she always lights her primus about this time. Drinks tea and applies hot packs.

So she comes into the kitchen. Puts the primus down in front of her and lights it. But damn it all, it won't light.

"How come the blasted thing won't light? she thinks. "Maybe it's all sooted up, damn it all!"

So she takes a bottle brush in her left hand and goes to clean it

She goes to clean it, when another tenant, Darya Petrovna Kobylina, whose brush it is, looks to see what she took and answers:

"Incidentally, Marya Vasilevna my dear, kindly put the brush back."

Of course Shchiptsova flares up at this remark and answers: "Kindly choke on your brush, Darya Petrovna," she goes. "I wouldn't touch your disgusting brush," she says, "let alone pick it up."

Here, of course, Darya Petrovna Kobylina flares up at this remark. They get into a conversation between themselves. They kick up a ruckus, crashing and banging things.

The husband, Ivan Stepanych Kobylin, whose brush it is, shows up to see what all the noise is about. A husky man, potbellied even, but in his turn also nervous.

So Ivan Stepanich shows up and says:

"I work," he says, "like an elephant for thirty two rubles and change in a co-op. "I smile," he says, "at the customers and weigh out their sausage for them, and "and out of that," he says, "for my hard-earned kopecks I buy myself bottle brushes, and no way am I going to permit unauthorized outside personnel to use these brushes."

Here it gets noisy again, and a discussion gets going over the brush. All the tenants, of course, come barging and bustling their way into the kitchen. Gavrilych the invalid shows up too.

"All this noise," he says, "but no fighting?"

Right after this remark a fight was in fact corroborated. Away they went.

The thing is, our little kitchen's narrow. Unsuitable for fighting. A tight squeeze. Pots and primus stoves everywhere. No place to turn around. And twelve people all packed in there. Try to smack one in the kisser and you clobber three. And of course you keep stumbling over everything and falling down. A man with three legs couldn't keep his balance on that floor, let alone a one-legged invalid.

But in spite of that, our invalid, the ornery buzzard, comes barreling right into the thick of it. Ivan Stepanych, whose brush it is, shouts at him:

"Stay out of it, Gavrilych. Watch out or you'll get your one and only leg ripped off."

Gavrilych says: "Big deal," he goes, "so I lose my leg!" "Only," he says, " I can't leave now. They've busted my whole counternance bloody."

And as a matter of fact just then someone smacks him across the kisser. Well, so he doesn't leave and goes on the attack. And right there someone up and bonks him on the noodle with a saucepan.

Kersplat he hits the floor and lays there. He feels badly.

At this point some parasite or other runs off to get the militia.

In comes the law. "Go get yourselves some coffins, you cockroaches," he shouts. "I'm gonna open fire!"

Only after these fateful words did people come to themselves a tad. They rushed back to their rooms.

"Now don't that beat all," they think. "What the heck were we fighting about, fellow citizens?"

Everyone rushes back to their rooms. Only our invalid Gavrilych doesn't do any rushing. Because he's laying there on the floor feeling badly. And there's blood dripping out of his noggin. The trial took place two weeks after this actuality.

And the People's Judge we got also turned out to be a nervous man—he threw the book at us.

1924


[Translated for this project by Charles Rougle. Copyright © 2008 Charles Rougle. All rights reserved.]

For credits, copyright, and contact information please see the "About" page at Communal Living in Russia: A Virtual Museum of Soviet Everyday Life, http://kommunalka.colgate.edu/.