The Upper Depths

Writers in Russia: 1917-1978

by Max Hayward, edited with an introduction by Patricia Blake, preface by Leonard Schapiro
A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 340 pp., $22.95

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 …

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