Perhaps it was the fact that he died young. Or perhaps it was because he never published any famous novels, or even unfamous ones. But Vsevolod Garshin (1855-1888) may be the most famous Russian writer I never heard of.
Garshin’s entire literary output consists of art exhibition reviews published in newspapers and 20 short stories published in one volume. The stories may be few in number, but they are wonderful works of experience, empathy, and observation. They’ve been published together as The Signal and Selected Stories.
I started reading Garshin’s stories without knowing anything about the author except that he died at 33. By the time I reached the second story, entitled “Four Days” and one of the author’s best known works, I knew he’d been a military veteran and had fought in a war. He had indeed; it was the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, which involved several Eastern European countries and Russia against the Ottoman Empire. (The European countries were fighting against Ottoman oppression; Russia was hoping to regain territory it had lost in the Crimean War (1853-1856).
“Four Days” may be the short Russian answer from the Russo-Turkish War to Erick Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front about World War I. A Russian soldier lies seriously wounded, forgotten by his comrades. And he lies next to a dead Turkish soldier, whose supplies keep the Russian alive and whose presence keeps the Russian from losing his mind. And what transpires is an understanding that two young men, trying to do their duty, were caught up in a terrible conflict.
“The title story, “The Signal,” concerns the life of railroad signalmen. These were the men who, living near the rail lines, signaled open or busy lines to train engineers. One young signalman becomes disenchanted and angry with his treatment by the supervisor, and he decides to do something drastic in retaliation.
Other stories concern young men waiting to be called up for military service; love stories; stories of frustrated love, where a young man to get the attention of a nurse he’s infatuated with becomes deathly ill; and other things. Several of the stories remind me of the short stories of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who often wrote about military themes. Written 70 and 80 years after Garshin, Solzhenitsyn’s stories often have the same sense of fate and surprise twists at the end.
Garshin died of injuries from an attempted suicide; he threw himself down a flight of stone stairs. He had previously had mental problems. And yet his stories are clearheaded, straightforward narratives. He knew war, and he knew people, and it’s unfortunate that he died so young and with a small if insightful body of work.