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Kitsch and the Novel

Wild Berries

by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, translated by Antonina W. Bouis
Morrow, 296 pp., $15.95

The Compromise

by Sergei Dovlatov, translated by Anne Frydman
Knopf, 148 pp., $11.95

It’s Me, Eddie: A Fictional Memoir

by Edward Limonov, translated by S.L. Campbell
Random House, 264 pp., $13.95

The Island of Crimea

by Vassily Aksyonov, translated by Michael Henry Heim
Random House, 396 pp., $16.95

The Burn

by Vassily Aksyonov, translated by Michael Glenny
Random House/Houghton Mifflin, 528 pp., $18.95

In his latest novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera engages in a lively and instructive analysis of the concept of kitsch, and its influence today in literature and in social and political conditioning. He concludes that “the Brotherhood of Man is only possible on a basis of kitsch.” Robespierre and Lenin would have dismissed this with impatience and incomprehension, and indeed it is true that kitsch only becomes an insidious force in the public consciousness through the medium of propaganda or advertising, which by definition works with secondhand materials. The first call, the authentic sentiment, whether in art or in revolution, has nothing to do with kitsch, however much it may later be exploited by it.

In the modern consciousness, Kundera says, the presence of kitsch can be detected by this test. Everyone thinks: how nice to see kids in the sunshine running on the grass. And this thought swiftly merges into another: how nice to feel it’s nice to see kids in the sunshine running on the grass. It is this second reaction that is ripe for exploitation by kitsch. It is at the root of commercial, moral, and political propaganda, the basis of every party line. Vladimir Nabokov made the same point when he associated poshlost—the more generic Russian equivalent of kitsch—with the shots of sunburned tractor drivers and smiling collective farm girls, or with the all-American advertisement of Mom, Dad, and the two freckled kids. Contemporary kitsch is a product of egalitarianism, and television and photography have so much accustomed us to the innumerable sophisticated variations on its archetypes that we take them for granted, however much we may deride the archetypes themselves. Besides, at some points in its range, kitsch is an inescapable human necessity.

One function of art is to de-kitschify kitsch. It can do this by the rousing call, the authentic sentiment, something perceived for the first time. But more often, and more mysteriously, it takes the situation that is, has been, and will again be kitsch, and purifies it by some complex alchemy of its own. Vermeer’s woman reading a letter is as full of latent or subliminal kitsch as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and yet art not only keeps it at bay in both cases but actually exploits the implications of it. Instead of itself using the techniques of art, kitsch is successfully used and dominated by them. Tolstoy and Vermeer subtly exploit the deep needs of self-satisfaction. How nice to feel it’s nice to enjoy a picture of a woman reading. And how fine to watch the panorama of human fineness unrolled before us by a master hand.

Kitsch of course only comes into existence when we recognize how and why it works. Kundera’s special perception is in seeing how important it has become for purposefully ideological political systems, which have learned how to manipulate all forms of secular aspiration and self-satisfaction. They have also systematized the processes of kitsch, making art the prisoner of that secondary response, “how nice to show how nice it is.” Kundera has a justified contempt for all the workings of eastern socialism, which he has learned through and through the hard way. As he demonstrates in his novel, it produces a society whose official side is all kitsch, and whose private face is one of complete cynicism.

Kitsch is associated with the weight and responsibilities in our lives, and compulsory socialism has made these false, both in life and in art. So the novelist takes to “lightness of being,” to systematic frivolity. Kundera’s novel is moving and impressive in its contrast of “lightness” with the weight still surviving in the human heart, the weight of love and fidelity, pity, the awareness of death. Those things are of course part of the official kitsch of Soviet morality, and Kundera’s achievement is to release them from that bondage and put them back in the world of privacy and true art. It is highly illuminating to compare his novel with recent examples of Russian fiction, from both inside and outside the Soviet Union, particularly with Wild Berries, a first novel by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, which sold more than two and a half million copies in the Soviet Union since its publication in 1981, yet this year came under attack in Soviet literary journals, particularly for its reference to the elimination of the kulaks during the 1930s.

The first thing to be said is that though Yevtushenko has often been cited as the archetypal Soviet literary operator he is probably a decent man, his heart in the right place and all the rest of it. He is a competent poet with a gift of popular appeal—even today the Russians are discriminating about their poets. In Zima Junction, and still more in Babi Yar, he has produced poems that are memorable and true, in the soundest Russian tradition. They are not great poems, but in language and feeling they are authentic, as Nekrasov’s were in the last century, with an authenticity that comes over even in translation. But his prose is a different matter. The medium he works in here seems so saturated with kitsch, or poshlost, with the standard clichés and received ideas and situations from Soviet Monthly and other fiction periodicals, that his own personal intelligence and perception can hardly trickle through.

Socialist realism, like the Brotherhood of Man, is only possible on a basis of kitsch. There is no such thing as personal kitsch. True art is always unique and individual. Kitsch is always communal. And in every situation it takes the easy way out, which is also the “caring” way, the compassionate way. It loves the good and rejects evil, but it cannot manage to do this spontaneously, as art inexorably requires. Like many other Soviet authors, Yevtushenko writes from a dangerously naive assumption: if Tolstoy and Dostoevsky can do it, why can’t I? If Tolstoy can make a good man utter good words, if Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov can still rejoice in the sticky buds of spring, then all we have to do is agree fervently and repeat them in our own way. We rejoice in our pleasure at the sight of happy Soviet kids in the sunshine. Yevtushenko’s characters speak of one of their number as “a pure soul,” and yes, he does indeed seem to be one, but where does that get us? The most disquieting thing about Wild Berries is that each page makes one seriously wonder if honor, kindness, and decency are repulsive in themselves, or only when they are affirmed in this kind of book. Are we so corrupted in the West that we cannot admit and recognize simple virtue when we see it?

No, but the practice of virtue in our society may be disabled by our difficulties and inhibitions about representing it in art. One should not be afraid of kitsch, and it is paralyzing to be too conscious of it. Successful Soviet writers do not suffer from that disability. Or are they, as Kundera takes for granted, two-faced: supporters of the brotherhood of man who really care for nothing but the perks and the roubles? Such a view would seem to be simplistic. But virtue must be paid for in art, and the best currency is humor. Social and political kitsch cannot abide its presence, and yet humor itself suffers from the exclusion and becomes a subversive and anarchic force, a drunken spirit from underground instead of an Ariel moving—as in Sterne and Shakespeare—impartially among vice and virtue, sentiment and cynicism. There is no trace of humor in Wild Berries, though there is a quota of joky situations, and a few cautious frivolities about war and sex which might offend the Soviet fathers. But the humor that has been “liberated” in Edward Limonov’s “fictional memoir,” It’s Me, Eddie, in Vassily Aksyonov’s The Burn and The Island of Crimea, and in Serge Dovlatov’s The Compromise, which were published outside the Soviet Union, seems on the other hand excessively conscious of its liberated status.

There is a certain irony in the fact that freedom in the work of the younger Russian émigré writers takes a literary form to which readers in the West are already quite used to, and may even feel blasé about. For all the zest and élan with which they write, neither Limonov nor Aksyonov, in his cheerful fantasy The Island of Crimea, can be said to be doing anything original in form or approach: they are simply joining the increasingly cosmopolitan club of up-to-date writers. So shrewd and judicious a critic as Professor Simon Karlinsky indeed points exactly to the qualities that make Limonov a remarkable writer, and that both unite and separate him from Russian literary tradition:

[He] breaks every rule of Russian literary decorum, whether prerevolutionary, Soviet or émigré. His is the sensibility of a Soviet Henry Miller combined with a Soviet punk rocker, if such a thing were conceivable.

Nowadays it is certainly conceivable, and, as Karlinsky implies, the love-hate for New York of Limonov’s dazzlingly and delightfully uninhibited voice might send a masochistic shiver of pleasure through his new readers. The Soviet and American adventures of Limonov’s bisexual layabout, who had in his time been the only Russian poet to run a one-man samizdat business of his works for profit, are certainly fascinating, with a certain primness about them at times which is the result of the author’s flair for literal description of his doings and ideas. These latter are as confused as any of those in his western counterparts—while the narrator is living a wholly free and uninhibited life in New York he repeatedly calls America “depraved”—but Karlinsky is right in saying it is hard to put the book down.

Despite this determined Russian plunge into internationalism, there is one significant difference from western practice in the novels under review, a difference as marked in Yevtushenko’s Soviet bestseller as in the freewheeling works by the émigrés. All take for granted in their readers a thorough familiarity with Russian literature, its texts and traditions. Present day western novelists can assume with confidence that their readers will know little of their own literary past, and on the whole they prefer that this should be so.

Russian authors not only revere their country’s literary past but make continual and open use of it, clinging as firmly as they can to the almost mystic authority of the Russian word, the Russian poema. This authority has always had an ambiguous rivalry with that of the state; and simply by citing their predecessors, all of whom are familiar to the vast reading public of the USSR, today’s writers can assume that their tacit scrutiny of the past, which can simultaneously take the forms of eulogy and dissent, will be understood as such.

Yevtushenko is as sensitive as a seismograph to all this, and for any connoisseur of the process by which Russian literature still comes into play, his novel, cheap as it is in some ways, is actually more interesting than the productions by Aksyonov and Dovlatov. Though Yevtushenko’s tongue may be often in his cheek, this does not mean that he does not mean what he says. Though he may suffer no Gogolian torments he makes use of the Gogolian technique of masquerade, of clinging to belief and disbelief, needing both and hiding each behind the other. This can take facile forms, as when Yevtushenko himself appears in the novel to be dismissed as “passé” by some arguing young poets, the spokesman of whom goes on to make a standard point.

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