On the 18th of February of this year, a twenty-four-year-old Russian poet, Josif Brodsky, was brought to trial in Leningrad. His work is little known, but by some of the most reliable judges of Russian literature it is considered exceptionally fine. The charge against him was social uselessness; he had no regular employment, was not connected with any institution, was, in short, a parasite:
Judge: Answer why you have not worked.
Brodsky: I have worked. I have written poems.
Judge: We are not interested in that. We are interested in which institution you have been connected with.
And in spite of a petition on his behalf signed by such artists as Anna Akhmatova, Korney Chukovsky, Dmitry Shostakovich, and Samuel Marshak, Brodsky was sentenced to five years at forced labor in Siberia. His case has aroused much interest abroad; a part of the stenographic report of the proceedings against him, from which the above quotation is taken, was published in Die Zeit of Hamburg; and it is now rumored that he has been released. We are sure to hear more about this case, which occurred after all the books here under review had already been published or had gone to press.
The point is that so long as such trials and condemnations can occur, or so long as Khrushchev can recommend, as he did in March of 1962, that a well-known writer—it was Victor Nekrasov in this instance—be expelled from the Party because of his views on the Russian cinema and the architecture of the United States; so long as the popular young poet Evtushenko and the gifted Voznesensky can be forced to apologize for saying what they think and made to promise to mend their ways; so long as editors of important literary journals can be replaced at will by state officials, and some of the best writing in the country, such as Pages from Tarusa, can be withdrawn from the market even after publication; so long as this kind of thing can go on, all is not well with Russian literature. “Innumerable little Stalins,” says Peter Benno in Soviet Literature in the Sixties, “are still sitting in almost every Soviet administration.” And yet, as he himself admits, “a self-aware liberal community now for the first time exists in Soviet society,” or as Patricia Blake puts it in her eloquent Introduction to Half-way to the Moon, “the most important change that has taken place on the Russian literary scene since Stalin is that the poets, the prose writers, and the playwrights—together with their public—have gradually ceased to suffer from the old, fearful sense of isolation.”
Whether this new experience of partnership or concord has brought about, or is likely to produce, a literary Renaissance is a matter of debate. Are the emerging writers, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Yuri Kazakov, Yuri Nagibin, Vladimir Tendryakov, Vasily Aksyonov, Andrei Voznesensky, Evgeni Evtushenko to be classed among the best, or even the very good, writers of the West or with those of Russia’s own past? Mr. Benno, making a possible exception of Solzhenitsyn, answers with an emphatic negative: “It does not constitute a very bold prediction to expect that little of what now creates such a furor in the Soviet Union or is so avidly translated and commented on abroad will survive long as art.” The prose writers, he claims, do not bear comparison with “such figures as Bely, Zoshchenko, and Pilnyak, or with Sholokhov, Alexei Tolstoy and Gorky,” nor the poets “with such giants as Blok and Mayakovsky, Mandelshtam and Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva and Pasternak.” In the same book, Professor Rufus Mathewson describes recent Soviet fiction as “low-tension, plain-spoken, photographic, confined on the whole to surfaces.” And Andrew Field in his Introduction to Pages from Tarusa writes somewhat apologetically:
Granted, there is little here which qualifies as “great” literature, but then I do not like to trade in superlatives. Certainly there is much here which is equal or superior to say, the O. Henry Prize Stories, or the stories and poems which appear in some of our best literary quarterlies…If Soviet literature still has a long way to go, let us realize how far it has come.
It is understandable that critics should be growing chary of enthusiasm. There has been of late too much unwarranted and exaggerated praise, for it is easy in times like these for the hopeful and generous to confuse literary merit with moral courage; and the time has come to realize that no amount of courage, liberality, and zeal can transform a Evtushenko into a Mayakovsky and that neither the poet nor his art is well served by such confusions of value. Just the same, the above opinions are, to my mind, rather too condescending. And whatever the truth may be—these are, after all, matters of taste—the anthologies in hand will give each reader a chance to decide for himself, while the introductions, notes, bibliographies, and the essays that make up Soviet Literature in the Sixties—eight scholarly papers that were read at an International Symposium in Bad Wiessee in September 1963, with a summary “Epilogue” by its chairman, Max Hayward—will provide ample information about the circumstances, social, political, and cultural, in which this writing is being done.
There is some duplication in these collections. Each of them, for example, contains one or more of Kazakov’s stories, and of the eight that are given, two may be found in both the Tarusa volume and Thomas Whitney’s New Writing, while five of them have already appeared in Going to Town and Other Stories, published earlier this year by Houghton Mifflin; Bulat Okudzhava’s “Lots of Luck, Kid!” is in both Pages from Tarusa and Half-way to the Moon, where it appears in abbreviated form and is called “Good Luck, Schoolboy!”; and Aksyonov’s “Half-way to the Moon” is in the Whitney anthology as well as in the one that bears its name. The translations vary in excellence, but all are readable.
The Hayward-Blake anthologies are the most interesting. Dissonant Voices in Soviet Literature has the broadest sweep: it covers a period of forty-four years, from 1918 to 1962, and contains an admirably lucid introduction by Max Hayward. Any one unfamiliar with Soviet literature would do well to start with this. Half-way to the Moon has a new story by Solzhenitsyn, “Matryona’s Home,” which establishes the already famous author of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich as a literary figure to be reckoned with, and it has also some translations of the poets Voznesensky and Akhmadulina done by such master craftsmen as W. H. Auden and Richard Wilbur in very successful collaboration with Mr. Hayward. In Pages from Tarusa there are excellent renditions of some of Naum Korzhavin’s lyrics by Stanley Kunitz. Whitney’s New Writing includes a story that strikes me as a gem of subtle and intricate understatement, Aksyonov’s “Papa, What Does That Spell?,” while Nagibin’s “The Chase,” in Half-way to the Moon, generates the kind of tension which one gets in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, the excitement of a physical adventure that is a symbol of moral strength. No, surely, this work is not flat. It seems to me, at any rate, that Solzhenitsyn, Aksyonov, and Kazakov compare very favorably with Alexei Tolstoy, Bely, and much of Gorky. However wrong it may be to overpraise them, it is equally wrong to dismiss them as superficial and insignificant, whether, as Mr. Benno has done, on the ground of ignorance—they haven’t read enough, he says—or, as Professor Mathewson suggests, because they are not new enough, because, that is, they care too little for experimentation and are too readily satisfied with traditional forms. But who can tell an artist how much he must know or how novel he must be? Knowledge, sometimes, may be a burden and formal innovation is but one aspect only of literary achievement. New or old, a form that is adequate to the artist’s intention is good form.
The new Soviet artists are not trite. They are young in a young world, a world that is spiritually young because it must be remade. They will not accept the dogmas to which their elders accommodated themselves, nor will they take over the tastes and morals of the West. They have set out on the huge task of reshaping ideas and ideals; and what their work reveals is freedom of observation, ironic awareness of how intricate ethical problems can be, and a sense of values that combines a traditional sympathy with individuals, admiration of independence, respect for endurance, with suspicion of artificiality. And they have found, many of them, the right speech for what they have to say. (Leonid D. Rzhevsky’s “The New Idiom,” in Soviet Literature in the Sixties, analyzes some aspects of this question.) They are at once laconic and lyrical, and so highly idiomatic that much is bound to be lost in translation. Nevertheless, even through the barrier of language, and beyond Russian settings and the Russian tongue, they strike home to what is important to all human beings. They make good reading.
October 22, 1964