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An Interview with Viktor Sosnora

Introductory Note: The life of the poet Viktor Aleksandrovich Sosnora has been one of continual risk. When he was a year and a half, in 1938, he was confined to clinic for three years with osteotuberculosis, and doctors almost had to amputate his arm and leg. When World War II broke out, Sosnora spent a year under the blockade of Leningrad before being evacuated to the Kuban region in the south of the Soviet Union. Soon after he arrived, the Germans overran the Kuban. Sosnora was captured three times by the Gestapo, but because of his youth he was released each time. His grandmother decided that it would be safer for him to live with the partisan detachment led by his uncle, but the Germans captured and executed the partisans, and Sosnora survived only by pretending to be dead after a bullet had grazed his skull. It was in the Kuban that Sosnora began to write, using a twig to etch his poems on the clay paths, which were washed smooth each time it rained.

In 1945, Sosnora moved to Warsaw to join his father, who was a regional commander in Rokossovsky’s army, and he attended second grade at a Polish school. The pair traveled throughout Europe, and then settled in Arkhangelsk on the White sea, where the elder Sosnora became deputy commander of the military district, and where Viktor studied at a music school. By seventh grade he had completed the university course in history and botany in Lvov and passed his university exams as an unmatriculated student.

Sosnora first decided to become a writer when he was sixteen. Over the next three years he wrote two novels, two plays in verse, and many stories and poems, all of which he destroyed. When he was drafted into the Soviet Army in 1955, he continued to write, even during the eight months he spent in solitary confinement for playing prank while on guard duty. After he was discharged, he once again burned everything he had written. In 1958 he enrolled in the philosophy department of Leningrad State University, supporting himself by working as a factory electrician.

His poems first appeared in 1960, thanks to the support of the poet Nikolai Aseev, and in 1962 his first book, January Downpour, was published with a foreword by Aseev. At twenty-three he became the youngest writer in the Leningrad Writers’ Union. He traveled to Paris in 1965 to read his work during the evening of Soviet poets organized by Elsa Triolet and Louis Aragon, and again in 1970 as a lecturer on eighteenth-century Russian literature at the New Paris University.

In 1981, after an operation on the his pancreas, during which he nearly died, Sosnora lost his hearing. His deafness is especially tragic, since, as with the Russian Futurists, the articulation of sounds, as much as meaning, shapes the seemingly disconnected free associations of his poetry. In “Afterwards” Sosnora evokes a highly sensory sorrow by alternating liquid I’s with the intrusively harsh gutturals of g’s and k’s:

Grafin i grust’. Golovka lampy.
Luchei zakata karuseli.
Lunoi bez solntsa paknet landysh.
Kluiut liagushku korosteli.

A carafe and sorrow. The bulb of a lamp.
Carousels of sunset rays.
The lily of the valley smells of a sunless moon.
Corncrakes peck at a frog.

Often Sosnora’s regular meters are fractured by irregular syntax, and words seem to arise from a dream or a state of intoxication. His images are startling, even hallucinatory. In “Insomnia,” jackbooted rats scurry along stairwells. In another poem, “The Footsteps of the Owl and its Lament,” uniformed owls stride through the city; at first blustering and guffawing, they adopt a more ominous pose:

The owl will stab all with his trident
Like macaroni with a fork.

Each of Sosnora’s books is written in a different style. He regards himself as both an epic poet and a lyric one. His early collection, Horsemen (1969), is a contemporary rendering of legends and traditions from medieval Russian literature, particularly episodes from the twelfth-century epic The Lay of Igor’s Campaign. The theme of Sosnora’s “The Tale of the City of Kitezh” is the legendary city whose inhabitants prefer to sink in a lake rather than submit to foreign domination. In his modern evocation of the legend, Sosnora is implicitly asking us to examine our own times and to consider whether submission is preferable to a proud, if diminished, existence.

Sosnora’s best recent poems, such as “Moscow in Fences,” express a sense of physical and linguistic confinement that is less a reaction to his deafness than to his awareness of the restrictions of critical and political censorship. Perhaps to counterbalance this feeling of restriction, Sosnora has turned to more expansive prose forms. His most recently published book is a collection of imaginative essays on Greek mythological and Russian eighteenth-century historical themes (Rulers and Fates, 1986). He has also completed a trilogy, The Golden Pendulum (The Day of the Beast, 1980; The Tower, 1984; and The House of Days, 1986), whose characters include a mathematician living in a contemporary, imaginary city that resembles Petersburg and an amnesiac who awakens one day in the Roman Empire to find that he can remember only the books he has read.

Although Sosnora continues to write prolifically, his poetry has become increasingly inaccessible, and has not met with official recognition in the Soviet Union. His work is considered too idiosyncratic and individualistic, insufficiently edifying and lacking a base in social and political reality. During the past ten years he has been able to publish only four poems, his collection of essays, and translations; he was not honored on his fiftieth birthday with the customary commemorative edition of his poetry.1

Ardis Publishers in Ann Arbor, Michigan, published a volume of his selected poetry in Russian last August, and in November Sosnora was allowed to travel to the United States for a five-week visit. During his stay he lectured and gave poetry readings at several colleges and universities—the first major public readings he has given since he became deaf. Just as Mayakovsky wrote many of his poems “for the voice,” so Sosnora’s verse is intended for declamation, but his voice has lost the richness it once had. The poems came across in his readings as abstract and almost disembodied, like a choral chant or recitative.

The following interview took place in Leningrad, before Sosnora was given permission to travel to the United States. We spoke in his apartment, a typical Soviet one room with a kitchen, on the outskirts of the city in a neighborhood of identical gray apartment blocks, surrounded by his collection of books and memorabilia, including abstract paintings by contemporary Russian artists and a stuffed spaniel, for many years his pet.

Darra Goldstein

What do you consider to be the moral obligations of contemporary literature?

I don’t believe there are any. Any obligations have been paid for and washed clean with blood. The twentieth century has provided an outlet for popular hatred of writers: as many have been killed in this century as in the preceding two thousand years. They’ve been executed, thrown into concentration camps, committed suicide. The list is endless, but I’ll name the great ones: Blok, Mayakovsky, Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Lorca, Desnos, Virginia Woolf….

An artist creates an image of the world; that is his obligation. Literature is a matter of aesthetics, not morality.

How important to you is the place you live? Does living in the Soviet Union serve to stimulate your poetry, or could you compose it just as easily elsewhere?

Environment is what surrounds you. Around me there is nothing human. The stimulus for poetry is the poet’s life, his language. Soviet life, or any other, is only a backdrop, material in the narrowest sense of the word. Not a single creative idea can come from without, because the very notion of an idea is intuitive. And intuition reacts to any environment. Environment is nothing but geography.

What kind of environment did the deaf Beethoven or Goya have? One was a composer, the other a painter, and I, a writer, am a third deaf artist. I too lost my hearing at age forty-five. I can hear neither speech nor music.

The conclusion: all poetry is internal, not a question of geography or of acoustics.

Certain writers have commented that they have within them three or four or five fully developed characters. Do you have such a conception of yourself as a writer—a composite of characters waiting to be revealed?

Such statements are an affectation. In Russia, Dostoevsky and the Symbolists made declarations like that. A writer is a performer. Each book is a role, not a character. In the final analysis, each book is merely a hoax. In a long book, the writer plays many roles. Gogol was the greatest performer; not only did he become his characters, he was even the wheel of Chichikov’s carriage. And what about Pushkin’s assertion that he was Tatiana? And Flaubert’s poisoning himself over Madame Bovary?

Memory involves guilt. More than others, the writer can free himself of his guilt because he has been granted a greater degree of conscience. It’s useful for him to put his characters into writing: then perhaps they’ll leave him alone. This is a certain way of writing, like a pledge or a purification. But writers’ characters always return and throw themselves on the author with renewed strength; so there’s no escape.

In other words, a writer creates the world of his conscience, in which there are millions of characters, not just a handful.

When did you recognize that your calling was to be a writer?

I don’t know. I learned to shoot before I could write verse, and I was already writing at age five or six. You know, you can always scribble carelessly on paper with pencil, but it’s impossible to compose sentences unconsciously. At seven I had a long argument with my grandmother. I maintained that everything had already been written and that nothing was left for me to write. I said that Hamlet, Don Quixote, and Evgeny Onegin already existed. What was I supposed to do? My grandmother didn’t know how to comfort me.

Now, having finished my latest book, I feel exactly the same: it’s a book after all, it’s not me. And what can I possibly do now?

Alas, I’m still not convinced that I’m a writer. Here everything’s relative. If Homer, Shakespeare, and Gogol are writers, then I am not. These three seem to me supermen; their writings are simply a means of applying their strengths. And another thing: they are immortal, while I am alive. Then again, if ten Nobel laureates are writers, I am not. If hundreds of millions of people don’t know your language and read only surrogates [translations], then during your lifetime they will be unable to understand what gives your books life. And millions of people cannot love a writer if he is alive. This is a mistake; it smacks of necrophagia.

  1. 1

    Translations of Sosnora’s poetry have appeared here in four anthologies: Russian Poetry: The Modern Period, eds. John Glad and Daniel Weissbort (University of Iowa press, 1978); Post-War Russian Poetry, ed. Daniel Weissbort (Penguin, 1974); The Living Mirror, Suzanne Massie (Doubleday, 1972); and The New Russian Poets, ed. George Reavey (October House, 1966).

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