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The Triumph of Abram Tertz

Goodnight! A Novel

by Abram Tertz (Andrei Sinyavsky), translated and with an introduction by Richard Lourie
Viking, 364 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Soviet Civilization: A Cultural History

by Andrei Sinyavsky, translated by Joanne Turnbull, with the assistance of Nikolai Formozov
Arcade, 291 pp., $24.95

Opavshie Listya’ V.V. Rozanova

by Andrei Sinyavsky
Syntaxis, 336 pp., 49 Fr

Ivan le Simple: Paganisme, magie et religion du peuple russe

by André Siniavski, translated by Antonina Robichou-Stretz
Albin Michel, 435 pp., 140 Fr

Dans I’ombre de Gogol

by Abram Tertz (André Siniavski), translated by Georges Nivat
Editions du Seuil, 340 pp., 77 Fr

Promenades avec Pouchkine

by Abram Tertz (André Siniavski), translated by Louis Martinez
Editions du Seuil, 156 pp., 60.50 Fr

Andre-la-Poisse (Kroshka Tsores)

by Abram Tertz (André Siniavski), translated by Louis Martinez
Albin Michel, 126 pp., 35 Fr

1.

So much change has taken place in the Soviet Union in the last twenty-five years, particularly in the last ten, that it is difficult now even to imagine the excitement produced by the arrest, trial, and sentencing of two young writers, Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, in February 1966. Their “crime” had been to smuggle out, and have printed in the West under the pseudonyms of Abram Tertz and Nikolay Arzhak, various works of fiction and, in the case of Tertz-Sinyavsky, an essay, On Socialist Realism. Both were sent to work camps, Sinyavsky for seven years (though he was released after six) and Daniel for five. A year after obtaining his freedom, Sinyavsky emigrated to France; already a noted scholar at the time of his arrest, he took up a post teaching Russian literature at the Sorbonne. Daniel remained in Russia, and died in 1988.

Their case was not tried in public, but the proceedings were taken down secretly by several people admitted to the courtroom and published both in Russian and English a year later. The English volume, On Trial, also includes most of the other documents relating to the case—the press campaign launched against the defendants in advance of the trial, the protests of many Soviet Russian intellectuals, and the worldwide wave of petitions provoked by the arrests.1 The reasons for this extraordinary outpouring would seem to have been twofold. Khrushchev’s horrifying revelations about Stalin had badly shaken the faith in Soviet infallibility; and the grounds for the indictment itself erased whatever line still existed between literature and political propaganda. No law in the Soviet Union prohibited the publication of works abroad, and the authorities were thus forced to attempt to prove that the content of the works could be used as evidence of anti-Soviet activity. Many writers had of course been sent to prison camp in the Soviet Union, but never on the basis of evidence taken solely from their work; the implications of such a charge called forth an unprecedented upsurge of public and international solidarity. Historians of the post-Stalin era date the rise of the Russian dissident movement, and the large-scale establishment of a samizdat press, from the indignation aroused by the Sinyavsky-Daniel trial.

2.

Andrei Sinyavsky thus became universally known once his identity as the mysterious Abram Tertz was revealed; but Abram Tertz would not have been pursued so relentlessly, and finally unmasked, if he had not already become a world-famous figure. The appearance of On Socialist Realism, accompanied by a volume of stories (Fantastic Stories), two long novellas (The Trial Begins and Liubimov), and a series of aphorisms (Unguarded Thoughts), revealed a writer and critic of major stature, with a voice and sensibility unlike anything that had emerged from the Soviet Union in a very long time. Indeed, so sharply did these works stand out amid the drabness of standard Socialist Realist prose—involving, as Christopher Isherwood once remarked long ago, “the usual sex triangle between a girl with thick legs, a boy, and a tractor”—that one Party critic insisted they were the forgeries of a White Russian émigré being passed off as the genuine article. No writer educated and living in Communist Russia could possibly have uttered such thoughts or created in such a style.

The thoughts in question, especially as they appeared in On Socialist Realism, told Western students of Soviet culture little that they did not already know.2 The brochure was, however, written with a lapidary vehemence clearly stemming from a bitter disillusionment with the very foundations of the Soviet world view—the belief, namely, that all the iniquities of Stalinism had been justified because Russia was well on its way to creating the perfect Communist society. Tertz-Sinyavsky thus offered one of the first glimpses of the rebellious sentiments seething, in the minds of a new generation, under the thick carapace of enforced surface unanimity. Even more, the style and technique of his own works could be seen as a response to the new situation created by the collapse of the revolutionary idealism in which Sinyavsky’s generation had been so assiduously educated. “Right now,” he wrote, in a passage that has become classic,

I put my hope in a phantasmagoric art, with hypotheses instead of a purpose, an art in which the grotesque will replace realistic descriptions of ordinary life. May the fantastic imagery of Hoffmann and Dostoevsky, Chagall and Mayakovsky…and of many other realists and nonrealists teach us how to be truthful with the aid of the absurd and the fantastic.

Tertz-Sinyavsky’s own works fully satisfy these prescriptions. Set in an unmistakable day-to-day Soviet reality, with all its depressing grimness and grinding deprivations, this recognizable world will suddenly be invaded by the fantastic, the grotesque, and even the supernatural. Sometimes, as in The Trial Begins, the distortions of the familiar are given in caricatural dream-visions, outrageous inversions of Marxist-Leninist clichés, and stylistic hyperbole. In Liubimov (regrettably translated as The Makepeace Experiment, though the place name is important), the fantastic is built into the very conception of the work: a harmless and well-meaning bicycle mechanic, Leonid Tikhomirov, suddenly acquires a psychic power that enables him to hypnotize the inhabitants of his homely little provincial town into believing they are already living in the Earthly Paradise.

The short stories contain narrators whose contorted and confusing images of reality can be attributed to the paranoia and schizophrenia induced by the conditions of living in a police society. But the supernatural also intrudes in the form of one narrator miraculously able to foretell the future (the authorities immediately try to make use of his gifts for Russian foreign policy), and another narrator, who works for a local Housing Department, may well be a house-demon of Russian folklore (domovoy), who explains the burbling and gurgling sounds in the plumbing as the voices of the water nymphs (rusalki) come to take refuge in the city from the pollution of their native habitat.

Such examples give only a very inadequate notion of Tertz-Sinyavsky’s exuberance and imaginative inventiveness, which mingle the sharpest satire, ideologically honed to the finest cutting edge, with a sense of profound oppression and loss. All these qualities are combined in the most moving of Tertz-Sinyavsky’s short stories, “Pkhentz,” one of the few contemporary works worthy to be placed beside Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. The narrator is the inhabitant of another planet, stranded on earth as the result of some interstellar accident and living as a Soviet Russian citizen; he appears to be a hunchback because his body is more like a cactus plant than an earthly human form, and he must not only keep it concealed but also is forced to spend an inordinate amount of time in the communal bathroom since he lives only on water. The piercing sense of alienation expressed in this story is made all the more poignant, as in Kafka, because of the withering banality of the circumstances in which he is forced to survive. Clarence Brown was perfectly right to have included “Pkhentz,” as an undisputed masterpiece, in his Viking Portable Reader of twentieth-century Russian literature.

Since emerging from prison, Sinyavsky has published a number of important works which can only be mentioned here very briefly. His A Voice from the Chorus is largely a selection from the letters he wrote to his wife from the prison camp and hence first submitted to the censor; they deal mainly with reflections on art and religion, as well as reactions, raised to the level of philosophical generalizations, to the life going on around him. The book also includes extensive samples of the idiomatic speech of the other convicts, who came from all corners of the multilinguistic Soviet Empire.

Two other books, begun while Sinyavsky was still in prison, are scintillating critical studies of Gogol and Pushkin, which created a stir by their iconoclastic treatment of these two pillars of the Russian literary tradition, and, in the case of the second, an outright scandal. Sinyavsky was attacked both inside and outside the Soviet Union for his supposed defamation of the writer whose work has become, in effect, the unofficial Bible of Russian moral-cultural mores. In fact, Sinyavsky was reacting against the Russian habit of treating writers as cultural and political mentors—he was sentenced to hard labor because of his presumed neglect of such a civic responsibility—and he stressed all the frivolous, light-hearted, and amiably amoral aspects of Pushkin (of which there are a good many, particularly in his early work).

What almost caused apoplexy was such a sentence as: “Pushkin came rushing into great poetry on slender, erotic feet and caused a considerable rumpus.” Sinyavsky then compares Pushkin’s later attitude to life with that of Don Juan, who threw himself into each new adventure—as Pushkin into each subject—with perfect sincerity, becoming one with his theme “so that at each instant his infidelity is sincere and truthful…and…identifying himself with the other is his way of living and obtaining nourishment.” This is not unlike what Keats said of Shakespeare’s “negative capability,” and is surely the secret of what, according to Dostoevsky, made Pushkin Russia’s great national poet: his “panhumanism.” But Sinyavsky provocatively couches this idea in a phraseology calculated to shock Russian literary pieties, and to offend those who believe that a writer—especially a great Russian one—should have firm ideological commitments.

Two other works illustrate his strong affiliation with the Silver Age of Russian culture (the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), and he has spoken of the urgent need to reestablish the links between this period and the post-Marxist present. The Russian religious philosophy of this era, he has written, “is very interesting,” and such writers as Berdyaev and Lev Shestov “tried, not to repeat but to rethink the very profound Church tradition in fresh terms, to think it anew, as it were, and very personally.”3

In 1982, Sinyavsky published a compulsively readable lecture course given at the Sorbonne on V.V. Rozanov, one of the most original, eccentric, and, to tell the truth, morally questionable of these religious philosophers. It is certainly exaggerated to say, as does the French critic Georges Nivat, that “in a sense all of Sinyavsky comes from Rozanov”;4 but he is powerfully attracted to certain aspects of Rozanov’s thought, most of all, perhaps, to his deliberate cultivation of the most flagrant self-contradiction. Many of Rozanov’s contemporaries considered him to be deceitful and treacherous precisely for this reason. He wrote both for and against Christianity, both for and against the Jews, both for and against social revolution. But Sinyavsky values such oscillations as a means of resistance to the pressure for ideological conformity. Rozanov’s taste for an often demeaning self-exposure, conveyed in a style of unusual spontaneity and intimacy—many admire him simply for his prose—has led to him being called the yurodivy (holy fool) of Russian thought; but, as Sinyavsky has recently written, “The idea of the holy fool is based on a profound religious idea: the contempt [for] one’s appearance and human dignity for the sake of God’s glory,” and this is how Sinyavsky justifies many of Rozanov’s aberrations.

  1. 1

    On Trial: The Case of Sinyavsky (Tertz) and Daniel (Arzhak), edited by Leopold Labedz and Max Hayward (London: Collins and Harvill, 1967).

  2. 2

    In 1958, Rufus W. Mathewson, Jr. published the first edition of his classic study The Positive Hero in Russian Literature (Columbia University Press, 1958), which analyzes Socialist Realism in a much more extensive historical context than Sinyavsky provides and anticipates many of his conclusions. In the second edition of the book (Stanford University Press, 1975), which includes an excellent new chapter on Sinyavsky, Mathewson remarks: “In Andrei Sinyavsky’s brilliant essay ‘On Socialist Realism’ I have found heartening confirmation of many of my ideas, and I would be happy to think that if he has chanced upon my work…he may have recognized affinities between his work and my own more pedestrian treatment of the same phenomena,” pp. xiii–xiv.

  3. 3

    From an interview in Knizhnoe Obozrenie, January 13, 1989. I should like to thank my friend and colleague Lazar Fleishman, who keeps up with the Soviet press, for having generously placed his file of xeroxes and clippings of Sinyavsky material at my disposal.

  4. 4

    In an incisive article on Rozanov in Histoire de La Littérature Russe, L’Age d’Argent, edited by Efim Etkind, Georges Nivat, Ilya Serman, and Vittorio Strada (Paris: Fayard, 1987), p. 332. A very good introduction to Rozanov in English can be found in Renato Poggioli’s book Rozanov (London: Bowes and Bowes, 1962).

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