Writers in Russia: 1917-1978
Max Hayward was the most distinguished linguistic scholar of his generation and one of the most remarkable personalities in the field of Russian studies. His death in 1979 when he was still in his early fifties was a sad blow not only to scholarship but to the academic equivalent of Dr. Johnson’s “gaiety of nations.” His power over many languages was as lordly as his feeling for them was sensitive, humorous, and discerning. In 1956, at the time of the Hungarian uprising, he mastered the language in a month and spoke it fluently enough to be on terms of intimacy and friendship with student refugees to whom he gave official and invaluable advice and help. He was at home in all the Slavic languages, but his knowledge of Russian, in all its rich and succulent colloquial density, was encyclopedic, and his love for it profound, whether as literature or as spoken in the street. Indeed there is nothing impertinent or hyperbolical in the claim made by his friend and editor, Patricia Blake, that “Max acted as the custodian of Russian literature in the West until such time as it could be restored to Russia.”
Great scholar linguists are rare, and are apt to pay the price that their distinction often seems dependent (as in the case of the great Richard Bentley, with his commentary on Milton) on having a very limited idea of what literature itself is all about. Housman was a supreme exception, but even he preferred working on the text of authors with little literary interest or value; while J.R.R. Tolkien, though he loved words and languages and even made them up, complete with their grammar, had somewhat limited powers of literary discrimination. The author of The Lord of the Rings was a giant of linguistic lore but a dwarf in his personal style.
Max Hayward, on the other hand, had an incomparable sense of great literature as the embodiment of a great language: he sensed it, as a colleague said, “with perfect pitch, embracing its heartbeat.” He never laid down the law about it; his tone is always modest and rather impersonal; but the essays in this book, models of economy, detachment, and precision, are the best and most valuable that we possess about modern Russian and Soviet literature. As Victor Erlich has observed: “For some twenty-five years he labored tirelessly and selflessly to bring to the West the good tidings about the resurgence of the free Russian spirit.”
It was characteristic that Hayward himself put it slightly differently, at the end of his great essay “Dissonant Voices in Soviet Literature,” which introduced new Soviet writers in a special issue of Partisan Review (no. 3-4, 1961), and was afterward published in a book with the same title. “One day it will perhaps be shown that not only Russia, but the whole world, is indebted to Soviet literature for keeping alive, in unimaginable conditions, that indefinable sense of freedom which is common to all men.” That sentence, which concludes the essay, is less simple than it looks. The idea of our potential debt, in the present and future, to Soviet literature, is not exactly a familiar one. Hayward was a master of the pregnant and deadpan comment, and he was well aware that only a man who has joyfully prostrated himself to embrace an idea, and had a boulder rolled on top of him, has any idea what freedom is. We may all need that awareness and that example in time to come.
Certainly Dr. Zhivago could only have been written under Soviet conditions, and could only have vouchsafed its joy and power in the depth of that experience. Arguably the book overdoes it, as Edmund Wilson was overdoing it when he greeted Pasternak’s novel as “one of the great events in man’s literary and moral history.” But however that may be, there is no doubt that the English translation, by which Hayward’s name is chiefly known to the public and on which he collaborated with Manya Harari, is a masterpiece of delicacy and restrained verbal felicity, one of the great translations of this century. Pasternak, himself an indefatigable translator, certainly thought so. “I embrace my translators!” he exclaimed to Patricia Blake when she visited him at Peredelkino.
Edmund Wilson notoriously disagreed. In his customary magisterial way he imposed on the novel his own idea of what it ought to be. Convinced that Zhivago’s own cosmology—as opposed to Pasternak’s—is a purely secular one, he denounced the translators for making Zhivago say to his love when they part for the last time, “Farewell…until we meet in the next world.” This, announced Wilson, is not in the text: Zhivago merely says, “Farewell in this world.” Here he committed a linguistic howler, as only a very elementary knowledge of Russian is needed to see that “Proshchai…do svidaniya na tom svete” refers to a meeting in a world to come.
It was entirely characteristic of Hayward that he never took an expert’s revenge on this amateur capriciousness, and never made a reply in print to Wilson’s charge of debasing the original. Instead he accepted an invitation to meet him and swiftly became a friend and drinking companion, giving Wilson good advice in his exotic intellectual forays, and even concocting an ingeniously comic defense in Wilson’s struggle with Nabokov over the latter’s translation of Evgeny Onegin. Perhaps Nabokov, he suggested, favored the Minsk accent over that of St. Petersburg. For this typically generous and dryly humorous support a grateful Wilson referred to Hayward, although without naming him, in the pages of this journal, as “a professional English linguist who specializes in Russian.”
This turning of the other cheek was in line with Hayward’s selfless attitude to his own talents. In his readiness to help, from the depths of his knowledge and for the sake of the game, there is a touch of Wodehouse’s Jeeves, of Sweet the great phoneticist (the model of Shaw’s Professor Higgins), and of Sherlock Holmes putting his gifts at the disposal of unlikely causes. In her introduction to his essays Patricia Blake dwells on the human and eccentric side of Hayward and the aspects of his personality that made him a beloved as well as a revered figure. In his last months he decided to translate the Iliad afresh, with a new kind of commentary. No wonder colleagues admired him and attended his deathbed as his disciples did that of Browning’s grammarian.
Patricia Blake is not reliable about Oxford. She wholly misrepresents Isaiah Berlin whom she makes sound rather casual about Dr. Zhivago, whereas he reverenced Pasternak and deeply admired his novel—was indeed a prime mover in its reception in the West. She also lays too much stress on Hayward’s humble origins, and how they handicapped the early stages of his academic career. This is far from being the case. Ever since the Middle Ages the poorest scholars at Oxford and Cambridge have often been not only the most brilliant but the ones on whom these institutions conferred the most advantage; though it is true that Hayward liked America more than England after he got to know it, and was particularly at home in the intellectual bohemia of New York.
“Dissonant Voices in Soviet Literature” reveals a thorough but unemphatic familiarity with the most minor Soviet writings of the years before and after the war, years of the harshest Stalinist repression in literature; of the “thaw” that followed in Khrushchev’s time, and of the in-fighting that has gone on since between progressives and conservatives. An odd feature of this period is the use of the novel form, like the correspondence columns of an ideological journal, as a means of defending one’s own group and attacking one’s opponents under barely concealed pseudonyms. Thus Kochetov, an unreconstructed Stalinist, published in 1960 a novel called The Obkom Secretary, denouncing liberals like Tvardovsky of Novy Mir for their betrayal of lakirovka, the socialist realist technique of describing only the “positive” aspects of Soviet life. There is something almost touching in the hero’s words to his wife as they reread together the “inspired chapters” of Lenin and Stalin, by which they had come as young people to love the Party: “Sonya, Sonya, our dear Party which brought us up, which taught us, which armed us with an idea which made life three times more sensible and more contented.” The word “sensible” is almost comically unexpected, but at least there is feeling here, of a sort that many nineteenth-century Russian readers would have recognized the need and nature of; though it is also true that in a Russian setting (and perhaps in any other) true feeling is always dogged by its anti-types of hypocrisy, pretense, and poshlost. No doubt the tears the old Party crocodiles wept for Stalin, and the comforting certainties he had brought into their lives, were nonetheless perfectly sincere and genuine.
It is arguable, too, that the “committed” novel, on whichever side, and no matter how crude its methods, helps to keep the form alive and kicking. All classic novels, from Tom Jones to Middlemarch, are far more committed morally than they now seem, and in Russia the tradition was and remains particularly strong: War and Peace and The Devils were making their point as vehemently as Vsevolod Kochetov’s unlamented diatribe. (Another of his antithaw novels, The Brothers Yershov, echoes the title of a particularly august predecessor.)
Apart from Pasternak, the novelist most respected by Hayward is Leonid Leonov, an avowed disciple of Dostoevsky, and the author of The Badgers, which depicts the war for the soul of Russia between the urban Bolsheviks and the peasants, and uses the parable of “Tsar Kalafat,” who built a tower from which to dominate all nature only to find its summit still surrounded by dense whispering forest trees. Another of Leonov’s novels, which appeared in 1963, Yevgeniya Ivanovna, is the story of a woman abandoned by her Bolshevik husband and rescued from suicide in Paris by an English archaeologist. In her enduring nostalgia for Russia she eventually persuades her new husband to take her back for a visit, whereupon she recognizes in their Intourist guide her former husband. Appalled, she begs her English husband to take her home—to England.
Russian conditions make this fairy-story parable as impressive and moving in its way as a Victorian precursor like George Eliot’s Silas Marner. The connection with Dr. Zhivago and its world of mystic coincidence is also clear. In both cases, as Hayward observes, “the betrayal of a woman becomes a symbol for the attempt to transform life in accordance with preconceived notions which…speedily degenerate into the ‘ideological’ pattern of the time-server.” Jews, he points out, can have the same symbolic role as women, as was shown by Yevtushenko’s moving poem Babi Yar—Hayward was a close friend of both Yevtushenko and Voznesensky—but here the complications of ideology produce a particularly grotesque backlash. After Stalin’s tacit appeal to Great Russian anti-Semitism, and his martyrdom of the many Jewish intellectuals who had helped make the revolution, anti-Semitism became a taboo topic in Party circles. Thus while no steps were taken against Yevtushenko the many editors and hack journalists who denounced him and his poem—loyally as they thought—were promptly fired or demoted for bringing up the subject at all.
The master essay in Hayward’s collection, embodying all his powers of clarity, compression, and suggestion, is that on Andrei Sinyavsky, whom Hayward considers, and surely rightly, to be the most significant of recent Soviet writers. The first part of his study deals with Sinyavsky’s extraordinary career: his adoption of the pen name Abram Tertz (the hero of an old underworld ballad about the Jewish thieves of Odessa and their internecine loyalties) and the stream of essays and stories that appeared under it in various Western literary organs between 1959 and 1966. These included the devastating critique “On Socialist Realism” and the fantastic tales that in a sense complemented it, exemplifying as they do the grotesque and yet life-giving “truths” available to the imagination in the Soviet Union, as opposed to its official socialist realities.
Both abroad and in Russia it was assumed these stories must be the work of some émigré purporting to write from inside, rather than, as turned out to be the case, the writings of a young man nurtured entirely in the Stalinist socialist mold. It may well be that the polemical aspect of Fantastic Stories is their most important feature, and that their enduring legacy will be not so much that they are themselves masterpieces as that they helped to change the climate of Soviet writing and initiate a powerful new genre of ideological fantasy. Later Soviet writers like Zinoviev have clearly taken to the same genre. The KGB eventually got on to what was being produced in a crowded Moscow apartment house, and Sinyavsky was sentenced to seven years in a camp, from which he was nonetheless able to send the regulation twice-monthly letters to his wife that later became A Voice from the Chorus. Its title was chosen from a late poem of Blok.
But the most remarkable writings that Sinyavsky produced in the camp were his essays on Pushkin and Gogol, which Hayward considers in the second part of his study, “Pushkin, Gogol, and the Devil.” It is typical of Hayward’s writing that he not only brings out the full originality of Sinyavsky’s approach but contributes himself, though with his usual modesty and self-effacement, to the impact it makes and the breadth of its implication. Sinyavsky considers the extraordinary status of Pushkin’s poetic “word” among all Russians and later Russian poets, and emphasizes the distinction Pushkin makes between the poet as a quite trivial and ordinary man, and as the vehicle of Apollonian authority and inspiration. Thus in his master poem The Bronze Horseman, Pushkin as private man is himself the little clerk who only wants to lead a quiet life, and, as poet, the equal of Peter the Great, imposing Apollonian order on chaos, as Peter had reared up his town of Petersburg and imposed his granite embankments on the Finnish swamp. The poet’s word, therefore, is thus identified with authority in the most profound and unambiguous sense, an authority that can either underwrite the secular regime or be its mysterious rival. Literature is in any case wedded to absolute power, for good or for evil. As Hayward comments: “Sinyavsky’s essay goes far to explain the uncanny power that poets have exercised not only over the minds of the Russian nation but also over the minds of even its most oppressive rulers.”
Though Stalin killed Mandelstam (and may have had second thoughts about it) he shrank from touching Pasternak and Akhmatova, and he seems to have shared the sense of almost superstitious awe that the Russians feel for their great poets. But there is a distinction, which Sinyavsky implies, between the absolute freedom claimed by the poet, as spokesman of Apollo, and his ordinary self, the “little man,” the self whom Pushkin also presented as the empty and frivolous man about town, Evgeny Onegin. This self has not, and does not deserve, immunity from the secular power; on the contrary it deserves to suffer with the sufferings of all under the tyranny, and more so. Hence Sinyavsky courted his fate and found in it the poet’s true freedom, the freedom that Solzhenitsyn also said was only present in Russia in the camps. The artist’s freedom in the spirit leads him in the flesh to servitude, to choicelessness, and that also leads him to the true God. That at least is the Russian logic invoked by Sinyavsky. He writes in Unguarded Thoughts: “I never know what liberal philosophers mean by the ‘freedom of choice’ they are always talking about. Do we really choose whom to love, what to believe in, what illness to suffer?… How can we think of freedom when we are swallowed whole, when we…are aware of nothing except the One who chose us?”
The “liberal philosophers” of whom Sinyavsky is so contemptuous are of course trying to emancipate us from these compulsions, to assert that civilization and the open society do indeed depend upon freedom and choice. No Russian (who has in any case never had the chance) would give up these compulsions, Sinyavsky proclaims, and no Russian poet would either. It is one way or the other, either God or the czar. But then what becomes of art? Of that marvelous and serene ordering of experience which Pushkin built over chaos? It is created, Sinyavsky says, in order to be given up, when the artist turns from his own Word and seeks God who gave it. Pushkin wrote his thrilling “Prophet” (Dostoevsky’s favorite poem) but not long before his death he also wrote “The Wanderer,” a haunting vision of the poet who abandons his art, and impelled by some nameless anguish goes out empty-handed to seek his salvation. By a flash of premonition, as Hayward remarks, Pushkin could have been foretelling the aged Tolstoy’s flight from home seventy-five years later.
The renunciation of art is, of course, even more dramatic in the case of Gogol, to whom Sinyavsky devotes his most brilliant and telling pages. “For Russia’s greatest humorist, literature, like the black arts, was no laughing matter.” His art had taken satanic possession of him, and had to be exorcised, as if he were a sorcerer’s apprentice. Hence his grotesquely horrifying deathbed repentance, his starving himself to death, his destruction of his last works. What nineteenth-century European writer could possibly have indulged in this medieval orgy of renunciation? Rimbaud abandoned poetry because he no longer believed in it, or in anything else; Gogol renounced his art because he believed in it too much. He must forsake the devil and in his death cling despairingly to at least the idea of God. What modern European artist, Sinyavsky implies the question, takes art really seriously? The cozy bourgeois picture that shows Dickens surrounded by his “creations” reveals how little he really believed in them. An icon of Gogol terrified by the homunculi he saw crawling from his imaginative retort would be a very different matter.
In every great Russian artist there lurks, therefore, not only a martyr and lay preacher, but a medieval magician, a Dr. Faustus. There is, as Hayward observes, a sense in which such Russian art is close to voodoo. The eyes in its icons really live and look at us, and its very humor is based on this reality. (An instance that occurs to me is the portrait of General Bagration on the wall “closely watching” Chichikov’s transaction over the dead souls.) The same reality was conjured up by watching Mikhail Bulgakov in The Master and Margarita, which Hayward calls “the most fantastic—literally and in all other senses—prose work of the twentieth century.” The Prince of Darkness glimpsed by Gogol was face to face with Bulgakov in the age of Lenin and Stalin.
If this is so, no wonder that the secular writing that subscribes to the “ideals” of the Soviet Union is so lifeless and unsatisfying. But the concept of art summoned up by Sinyavsky in his essay goes far beyond that. It is in fact the literal antithesis of everything that we think of as art in the West today, of our innocuous and secular “museum of art.” No wonder Hayward is deadpan when he suggests that real freedom and real art are being kept alive in Russia, as if invested there for our own potential future. It is highly significant too that the two “nice” Russian poets—Yevtushenko and Voznesensky—who subscribe to the liberal proprieties and decencies of the West, and who show a cautious boldness and an adroit use of emancipation to win, like caged birds, a little more freedom of choice, are properly admired by the progressives in their own country but are nonetheless regarded as lightweights, agile performers on the boards of modern fashion. That old eagle, Anna Akhmatova, despised them. Perhaps she was unfair to do so, but it shows the gulf not only between her generation and theirs but—much more importantly, as Max Hayward perceived—between such Westerntype progressive artists and the new and equally young prophet-artists like Sinyavsky who demand a return to the old Russian quartet of truth and tyranny, art-magic and God.