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The Literature of Nightmare

The Dragon

by Yevgeny Zamyatin, translated by Mirra Ginsburg
Random House, 291 pp., $5.95

Fierce and Gentle Warriors

by Mikhail Sholokhov, translated by Miriam Morton
Doubleday, 109 pp., $3.95

One Man’s Destiny

by Mikhail Sholokhov, translated by H.C. Stevens
Knopf, 271 pp., $4.95

Babi Yar

by Anatoly Kuznetsov, translated by Jacob Guralsky
Dial, 399 pp., $5.95

It was with reference to Zamyatin that Trotsky in 1923, in his Literature and Revolution, coined the term “inner émigré” to define an attitude and a quality of writing which he resented, a scornful aloofness to the Revolution, a spiritual isolation that seemed to him willful and snobbish. He was only partly right; Zamyatin was indeed aloof, but neither snobbish nor indifferent. He sensed how things were going; wrote We, that famous satire on totalitarianism which inspired Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, but which has never been published in Russia; and presently, finding his position in the USSR untenable—suddenly deprived of his various editorial positions, unable to publish his stories, his play taken off the boards—changed from inner to outward émigré, and ended his days in Paris, in 1937.

His escape was unusual. In a remarkable letter to Stalin he asked permission to leave the country and his request was granted. “To me, as a writer,” he said, “being deprived of the opportunity to write is nothing less than a death sentence. Yet the situation that has come about is such that I cannot continue my work, because no creative activity is possible in an atmosphere of systematic persecution…. I have never concealed my attitude toward literary servility, fawning, and chameleon changes of color: I have felt—and I still feel—that this is equally degrading to both the writer and to the revolution.” And having given specific instances of persecution, he made his plea in the following terms:

If I am in truth a criminal deserving punishment, I nevertheless do not think that I merit so grave a penalty as literary death. I therefore ask that this sentence be changed to deportation from the USSR—and that my wife be allowed to accompany me. But if I am not a criminal, I beg to be permitted to go abroad with my wife temporarily, for at least one year, with the right to return as soon as it becomes possible in our country to serve great ideas in literature without cringing before little men.

This was in 1931. Maxim Gorky interceded for him, and Zamyatin left Russia. He did not come back.

The Dragon contains, in addition to the letter to Stalin, excellent translations of fifteen of his stories that span the period of his creative life: the earliest was first published in 1913 when he was twenty-nine years old, the last in 1935, two years before his death. They are greatly varied in theme, tone, setting. Some are humorous, some tragic, some are satires and parables, some fantasies or almost fairy tales. None are “realistic,” for to realism Zamyatin objected on principle. Literature, he said in an essay that created a stir in 1921 and is still quoted with fury by Soviet critics, “Real literature” is created by “madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, skeptics”; he feared that in their insistence on realism, proletarian writers were stepping backward into the Sixties and that Russian literature “had only one future: her past.” To him a work of art was not a tool but a vision, and in this century of unprecedented scientific discoveries and equally unprecedented human savageries, fantasy seemed more appropriate, and more real, than “realism.” He influenced some of the finest young writers of the Twenties, Zoshchenko and Babel among them.

HIS OWN WORK is highly original. Fantastic but not fanciful, it is rooted in the banalities of life, rises out of them, and points to them, though it does not deal with them. Whatever the tone, that is, the reference is to the actual—actual settings and events, colloquial speech, the realities of human nature, and back of everything, implicit but unmistakable, a firm rationality and an equally firm faith. Zamyatin laughs at pettiness and stupidity, at greed, lust, and dishonesty. He can evoke such vile depravity as Sologub once conjured up in The Petty Demon, and yet there is always something to counterbalance the nastiness: a high sense of honor is seen surviving even in a spiritual morass or in extreme misery; passion transcends lust; a sense of guilt torments the undiscovered criminal. Zamyatin is never sentimental. He delights in ribaldry, in the violence of sexual play, and when he speaks of tenderness he mingles it with pity or brutality or the lovably absurd. It seems to him that some men will always manage to assert themselves and escape even from a totally mechanized society into the natural world; everywhere in his stories men’s uncontrollable wills come welling up through drabness, viciousness, constraints. He believes that basic decency and love survive somehow and harbors a kind of unreligious, metaphysical or scientific faith in resurrection and continuity: a distant star plunges into the earth to begin life again after the conflagration, just as the worm dies in its chrysalis, and men destroy one another in civil war for the sake of rebirth in a new and better state. His method is unique—a kind of inverted symbolism, in which the actualities of life assume fantastic shapes and become images of abstract meanings or general feelings and impressions:

Gripped with bitter cold, ice-locked, Petersburg burned in delirium. One knew: out there, invisible behind the curtain of fog, the red and yellow columns, spires and hoary gates and fences crept on tiptoe, creaking and shuffling. A fevered, impossible icy sun hung in the fog—to the left, to the right, above, below—a dove over a house on fire. From the delirium-born, misty world, dragon men dived up into the earthly world, belched fog—heard in the misty world as words, but here becoming nothing—round white puffs of smoke. The dragon men dived up and disappeared again into the fog. And trolleys rushed screeching out of the earthly world into the unknown.

Gorky helped Zamyatin get out of Russia, but he did not like his work. “Zamyatin is too clever to be an artist, and unfortunately he is permitting his reason to draw his talent into satire,” he wrote from Sorrento to a friend in 1929, “We is frightfully bad, an altogether sterile thing. Its anger is cold and dry, it is an old maid’s anger.” Sholokhov was more to Gorky’s liking. He wrote in a way everyone could understand and said what everybody needed to hear—a model for all writers to follow. And true enough, Sholokhov is anything but “clever”; his work is profoundly non-intellectual, his epic of the Don, a tour de force of non-thinking, a masterpiece not in spite of, but because of that unreason on which he prides himself. The primitive, the naive, the elemental are his province: palpable matter, physical actions, simple feelings; the impact of a blow, the reflex of anger, the surging of lust; and also sentiment, gentleness. It is these softer emotions that are dominant in the Doubleday collection, put out in the format of a children’s book—which is as it should be: its three stories, at once grim and sweet, will move children with a sense of tragedy, give them a very real picture of evil without destroying their capacity for love, show them how brutalities may be endured, how suffering may find compensation in heroism and affection. Two of them, “The Rascal” and “The Colt,” are early pieces about the Civil War, written before And Quiet Flows the Don; the third, “The Fate of a Man” was done in 1956 and is about World War II. All three are beautifully translated.

In “The Rascal,” Mishka, a little boy whose father is killed by a band of enemy Whites, gallops for help through the night to a Red encampment, and although his horse is killed under him, crushing his foot as it falls, he manages to gasp out his message, and is rewarded for his courage by a dream of Lenin:

Circles of light spun before his eyes. He saw his daddy twisting his red mustache and laughing, but there was a gash across his eye. Grandfather walked past shaking his head disapprovingly, then his mother came, then a short, big-browed man with his outstretched hand. His hand pointed straight at Mishka.

Comrade Lenin!” Mishka cried out in a thin, shaking voice, and he raised his head with difficulty, smiled, and stretched both arms toward him.

In “The Colt,” the soldier Trofim is shot as he struggles to drag to shore the carcass of his beloved colt. In his barren soldier’s existence, he had loved the colt as he might have loved a child. And now “Trofim twitched and his rough blue lips, which for five years had not kissed a child, smiled for the last time.” The third story is a starker one, a somber tale of war, narrated by its hero, Andrei Sokolov, who, after years in Nazi prison camps, manages to escape and returns home to find that his wife and daughters have been wiped out by a bomb and that only a shell hole marks the place where his house had stood; his son is killed at the front; and he befriends a famished waif, making him believe that he is his father. They go off together, the man and the boy, “two orphaned creatures, two grains of sand, swept into strange parts by the force of the hurricane of war….” It is a story of physical endurance and spiritual fortitude, and so long as memory lasts, no one is likely to question that Andrei Sokolov is a typical example, not an exception, of that stoic Russian heroism which roused the world’s admiration in the great sieges and defenses of World War II.

THE STORY is famous by now, partly because of the superb film that has been made of it. It appears, in a rather wooden translation, as One Man’s Destiny, the title story in a collection that includes other brief things of Sholokhov’s from the Twenties to the Sixties. Grouped in one section are eleven early short stories that make one wonder how the Don epic could have emerged from such crude beginnings as these. The other section, “Wartime and Post-War Articles. Speeches and Sketches,” gives a good idea of the quality of Sholokhov’s mind and of his activity as an honored member of the Party, the Supreme Soviet, and the Union of Soviet Writers. Here are his reports as war correspondent on how the Cossacks fought the German invaders, how they rebuilt the country after the war, how they worked on collective farms; here too are patriotic “New Year Greetings” to “Fellow Countrymen,” coupled with angry warnings to the capitalist countries that “spend millions on the creation of atom bombs, on the preparation of a new, monstrous war”; glowing congratulations to “cosmonauts”; speeches of welcome to Writers’ Congresses. Here too are frightful glimpses of German atrocities that emphasize once more the suffering and endurance of the Russians during the war. Sholokhov’s voice is loud in the praise of his compatriots, and although there can be no question that the praise is highly deserved, one grows tired of his ceaseless, blatant chauvinism, in which all Russian virtues are referred to the “wise Bolshevik Party,” to the Soviet Government with its perpetual “fatherly care” of its citizens, “the peace-loving Soviet people,” whose “firm, frank and clear gaze” is “fixed calmly and confidently on the future”; tired of the countless citations of “our immortal Lenin”—(the names of Stalin and Trotsky, incidentally, never appear), and bored with simplistic definitions of the writer’s “duty” and of Socialist Realism as “the art of the truth of life, the truth understood and conceived by the artist from the position of Leninist partisanship.”

The publishers give a mistaken impression of Sholokhov’s liberalism: they mention his defense of Pasternak, but forget that he called him a “hermit crab,” approved the decision of the Writers’ Union to expel him, and while admitting that he had not read Dr. Zhivago, did not hesitate to denounce its “anti-Soviet tendency.” (All this, and more, may be found in Robert Conquest’s Courage of Genius: The Pasternak Affair.) Sholokhov is not an opportunist, but he is such a blind devotee of the Soviet regime that he cannot possibly see it as ever in the wrong. If Pasternak embodied “the courage of genius,” Sholokhov represents the stubbornness of loyalty.

ANATOLY KUZNETSOV’s Babi Yar is an unrelieved recital of German atrocities in the Ukraine. It deals specifically with the 778 days they stayed in Kiev, from September 19, 1941 to November 5, 1943. Its author was twelve years old when they marched in; and now he gives us what he remembers, what he himself wrote down in a journal he began to keep at the time, what he heard from survivors: and to fill out the picture, he introduces news items, letters, official orders, and other documents. Why it is called a novel, even though a “documentary novel,” I do not understand; it is a document, a well-authenticated memoir, and the author himself says so, insisting time and again on the truth of his narrative and on its broad, impersonal significance: “I stress and stress again that this story is least of all meant to tell all sorts of personal troubles. This book is about something quite different.” It is indeed. It is about that open, systematic, official, sadistic barbarism on which our minds have been fed for over thirty years, that universal nightmare, from which only children under the age of ten can possibly be free, the nightmare of Auschwitz, Lidice, Büchenwald, and now of Babi Yar. Kuznetsov used to play there as a small boy, “a huge, one might even say majestic, ravine dividing three Kiev districts… A pleasant stream used to course through its bottom. The banks were steep, precipitous, sometimes overhanging; there were frequent landslides in Babi Yar.” For some reason, which is not clear to me, the story of Babi Yar was not generally known until Yevtushenko popularized it in his celebrated diatribe against anti-Semitism. His poem was denounced as one-sided: not Jews alone, although they were the first and most numerous victims, but Ukrainians, Red Army men, gypsies, in scores of thousands, were also buried in Babi Yar. Kuznetsov has told about all of them, and this is why, no doubt, his book has not been opposed in Russia.

Everything in this book is the truth,” he begins, and he ends by speaking of how hard it has been to write it. He started in Kiev, but had to get away because he “heard cries” in his sleep. Now he has made all of us hear these cries, the cries of the old, of the starving, the sick, and the mad, of children and women, herded together, beaten, stripped, shot, thrown into the ravine and finished off with shovels or simply buried alive, so that the earth heaved with the desperate motions of those who were still breathing. And he has made us see the starving prisoners forced to crawl for scraps of food, or just taunted with the sight of it for the amusement of their keepers. Nightmares are vivid. And we have enough graphic details here to break our sleep for years to come.

AFRAID that he may not be heard to the end, Kuznetsov exhorts his readers:

To you young people who were born in the forties or later…You listen and listen and sometimes say: “We’re tired of it all”…I earnestly advise you to be patient and read on to the end…. As you read on, try to imagine that all this is happening not to me, but to you. Today. Now.

To imagine all this cannot be difficult, I suspect, even for the very young. But to resent it is natural. Must one be forced to relive these horrors? Why? The answer, of course, is yes, one must, because this is the truth. And then? Then questions arise, such questions as Ivan Karamazov asked about the suffering of innocent children, bringing his saintly brother to admit, against all the teachings of Christianity, that such outrages as he described could not, and should not, be forgiven. Anatoly Kuznetsov’s aim is more practical than Ivan Karamazov’s. He means his story to be a warning, and a weapon:

It is not my intention to be original, and what I am saying is common knowledge. But I should like to mention vigilance once again. I want especially to remind all the young, the healthy and active, for whom this book is meant, of their responsibility for the fate of man. Comrades and friends! Brothers and sisters! Ladies and gentlemen! Please pause at your pursuits and recreations for a moment! Not all is well with the world!…Comrades and friends, brothers and sisters, ladies and gentlemen! CIVILIZATION IS IN DANGER!

Yes, we know, even without Babi Yar, that civilization is in danger. Each day’s news reminds us of this. And Kuznetsov, with Sholokhov, has drawn a picture of what happens when civilization falls and men must deal, as Sholokhov says, “not with human beings but with degenerate mongrels maddened with blood.” We stare at the hideous truth, we gather statistics, but can we grasp this barbarism, the infernal sadism of which men are capable, the depths of degeneracy to which they can succumb? The mind staggers under the weight of the evil with which it is charged and which it has to bear; but out of it, it can create surrealist fantasies like Zamyatin’s or unsophisticated, passionately narrow tales like Sholokhov’s, full of stoicism, simple affection, and implacable hatred.

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