Way, way back, more than a hundred years ago—my late grandfather used to say—no one would even have recognized our village: a farmstead, the poorest of farmsteads! Some dozen huts, cobless, roofless, stuck up here and there in the middle of a field. Not a fence, not a decent barn to put cattle or a cart in. It was the rich ones that lived like that; and if you looked at our sort, the poor ones—a hole in the ground, there’s your house! Only by the smoke could you tell that a creature of God lived there. You may ask, why did they live like that? It wasn’t really poverty, because almost everybody then went Cossacking and got no small amount of goods in other lands; but more because there was no need to have a decent cottage. What folk weren’t hanging about then: Crimeans, Polacks, Litvaks! It also happened that bunches of our own would come and rob their own. Everything happened.
In translation and almost two centuries after he wrote it, this quote from Nikolai Gogol’s St. John’s Eve is still a breath of fresh air, a beautiful defiance of the same stale conventions of fiction writing that no doubt dominated both his time as well as our own. Thanks to Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky for their exquisite rendering.