Abram Tertz
Abram Tertz; drawing by David Levine

In the 1960s readers in the West speculated about the identity of “Abram Tertz,” whose work, arriving from Soviet Russia, was being published in Paris, London, and New York. The writing was highly original and varied in tone: humorous, terrifying, phantasmagoric, satiric, devout. Between 1959 and 1965 there appeared an essay, “On Socialist Realism,” two short novels, The Trial Begins and The Makepeace Experiment, a book of reflections, Unguarded Thoughts, and a collection of tales, Fantastic Stories. The secret of their authorship was well guarded.

Then, on September 8, 1965, Andrei Sinyavsky, a Russian scholar and critic, member of the Gorky Institute of World Literature, teacher at the University of Moscow, contributor of biographical studies to the History of Soviet Russian Literature and of reviews to the literary journal Novy Mir, was arrested and charged with slandering his country abroad in smuggled publications under the pseudonym of Abram Tertz. He was held five months in Lefortovo jail, brought to trial on February 10, 1966, and four days later sentenced to seven years at forced labor. From March 1966 to June 1971 he sampled three different prison camps, peopled by various kinds of offenders: religious zealots, “military criminals,” Moscow dissidents, and ordinary felons. In the spring of 1971 he was released, and a year later was permitted to emigrate. He is now living in Paris.

The dedication of the work under review—it has been faithfully translated and is prefaced by an informative and sympathetic introduction—explains its origin:

To my wife, Maria, I dedicate this book based almost entirely on my letters to her during my years of imprisonment 1966-1971.

Twice a month Sinyavsky was allowed to send letters and to receive mail, and twice a month he sent to Maria Sinyavsky the notes he wrote down from day to day in his free time, telling her about what of interest had happened “within or around” him. She could be counted on to share his interests and appreciate his thoughts:

Oddly enough, all this idle chatter in my letters is in large measure not so much self-expression on my part as a form of listening to you—turning things over this way and that and seeing what you think about them. It is important for me, when I write, to hear you. Language thus becomes a scanning or listening device, a means of silent communion….

There is amazingly little in the book about the physical aspects of his incarceration, partly no doubt because Sinyavsky knew that all correspondence was censored, partly to spare his wife, but mostly because he was absorbed in matters of another kind. Even the sparse references to his mode of life bear on his writing:

They shout terribly—always, as usual, about things of no importance and it is difficult to write to such an accompaniment.

During these years I have grown so tired of always being with other people that sometimes, when I go into our part of the barracks, my body feels bliss surging through it physically, in waves: the place is empty.

And toward the end of his stay, in an entry dated March 20, 1971:

You get tired of feeling your neighbor’s concentrated stare on your face—you want to brush it off like a fly, but it goes on crawling there just the same and makes writing very difficult.

He learns to protect himself:

If there is too much noise in my part of the barracks, I put on my cap with ear-flaps.

And seeks out solitude:

I keep very much to myself. In the evenings I go out for a walk on my own for half an hour or so until bedtime. It’s nice to be alone.

He must have known how to keep his annoyance under control, for his aloofness, it appears, was not resented. Once when his “exercise book [was] confiscated”—one would like to know more about this episode—his fellow inmates “presented [him] with an entire roll of paper—lovely, thick, orange-colored packing paper!” that enabled him to “write without having to economize, in large, bold handwriting.” And on his birthday in 1969 he received a present that touched him deeply: “A prisoner, almost a complete stranger to me, handed me a little paper bag and in it there was a single refill for a ballpoint pen.”

There are no detailed descriptions of the men around him, and only now and then the mention of some person (like the donor of the refill) or a passing allusion to a group of men, but there are pages filled with their conversation, well described by Max Hayward, in the introduction, as “a speech abounding in malapropisms, non-sequiturs, grotesquely garbled forms, pathetically inadequate attempts at educated parlance, slang words from the criminal, underworld camp jargon, etc.” Crude and ridiculous, but also picturesque, imaginative, and shrewd, this talk elicited Sinyavsky’s admiration: “What capacity for thought and ability to plumb its ultimate depths they have, these creatures plucked out of life and put behind bars!”


Mr. Hayward thinks of it as the “chorus” from which the author’s solitary voice emerges, “a confused, demotic counterpart” to his “silent thoughts on art, literature, the human condition…,” while to Igor Golomstock, whose “Afterword” in the Russian-language edition has not been translated, “chorus” and “voice” seem to carry on a dialogue that links Sinyavsky to the tradition of Russian literature, in which the conflict between “the mob, society, the chorus” and “the poet, the artist, art” has always been a major theme.

This is a stimulating idea, but not apposite in my opinion, for however curious Sinyavsky may be about “the mob,” and even admiring of it, he is altogether detached, something like Michel de Montaigne who, four hundred years ago, exulted in his mind’s arrière boutique. Now, Sinyavsky, in circumstances Montaigne could hardly have imagined, and except for his self-containment a man quite unlike him in all respects, was also able to sequester himself in the quiet backshop of his spirit. His art has never required a dialogue with society. As he himself puts it:

Everything he ever wrote, he wrote about and by means of himself, pulling it all out of his own—very insignificant—person, as a conjuror pulls a duck or a gun out of an empty top hat, all the time marvelling at his own resourcefulness. (Abram Tertz)

The epigraph to A Voice from the Chorus is a description of it:

…a book which goes backwards and forwards, advances and retreats, sometimes moves close to the reader and at other times runs away from him…; a book which has a number of themes but only one trunk, and grows like a tree…; a book whose meaning is as inscrutable as the soul in its innermost kernel.

It is a book of fragments: snatches of thought, briefly narrated incidents and anecdotes, descriptions of nature, recorded songs, verses copied out of books, meditations on life and death, bits of whimsy, comments on artists. But the fragments are unified, as a widebranching tree is unified, and so closely related to Sinyavsky’s other writings that one can even catch a glimpse of its “inscrutable meaning” and hazard a guess at “the inward kernel” of its soul.

Its most surprising aspect is that, despite its “inwardness,” it is a wholly selfless book, its “trunk” impersonal to a degree, its essence not introspection but invention and analysis. Sinyavsky’s “inscrutable soul” is a spirit soaring to an O altitudo; his mind ventures not within but beyond itself; his consciousness, loosened from the ego’s moorings, strains to mystify as much as to elucidate. Not in the least “confessional,” Sinyavsky seeks to escape from himself and free his mind from the constraints of custom and the usual forms of mental exercise:

Strange: a man is entirely happy when he forgets about himself and no longer belongs to himself. Alone with himself, he is bored. One ousts the self by work, play, love, wine, etc. In our happiest moments we have no memory of ourselves, we vanish from our own sight.

The “I” is a particle which, while endlessly crying out “Give! Give!” at the same time searches mutely for a way to get rid of itself. The personality hovers in an unstable balance between life and death.

The sense of “an unstable balance between life and death,” of an “I” that is both cherished and felt as a burden, is a central conflict in Sinyavsky’s work, with its premonitions of death and its affirmations of immortality. Escape, or attempted escape, is a major theme of his fiction; and it is not only from the police that his characters flee but from themselves. They are at strife with their own being and with fate, for although Sinyavsky has defied an oppressive government and suffered for his defiance, his ultimate questions are addressed to God and Destiny, not to men.

Tertz and Sinyavsky seem to be different beings: Tertz, the fantast, Sinyavsky, the rationalist; Tertz, the inventor of wild improbabilities, Sinyavsky, the acute literary analyst. But it is only on the surface that they are divided. At root they are one, with the same preoccupation at the heart of their work, however different their treatment of it. The focus of their interest is the human mind, its strengths and the limits imposed on it in a precarious and mysterious world. That this concern was quickened by anxieties engendered in a country where a free-thinking man stands on shaky ground is unquestionable. Nevertheless, the apprehensions of Tertz-Sinyavsky have less to do with the arbitrariness of tyranny than with the riddles and insecurities of life itself. The solutions to insoluble enigmas proposed by science, political science, by logic and Marxist dogma seem to him ridiculously paltry. Only magic power can challenge fate; only supernatural prevision can try to fathom mystery.


The humorous and terrifying phantasmagories of Abram Tertz are the reflections of men, nature, and history in the oblique mirror of an art operating from the depths of a secretive and somber, but lucid and amused, imagination. It is his fascination with the paraphysical (one hesitates to say “metaphysical,” because he is not given to philosophy) that distinguishes him from such writers as Orwell, Zamyatin, and Zoschenko, whose ridiculing fantasies are turned on society. Abram Tertz, even at his most clearly satiric, as in The Makepeace Experiment, is speaking not of society but of the frailty and malleability of perceptions, consciousness, beliefs. He stands somewhere between Dostoevsky and Gogol in the realm of the uncanny and absurd, more rational than Gogol, though not unlike him in effects of grotesquery, lacking Dostoevsky’s psychological penetration, but sometimes comparable to him in dramatizing madness, as in the story called “You and I” which reminds one of “The Double.” “All our troubles come from being forever caught in a divided state,” he says in A Voice from the Chorus. “We constantly hover between life and death, feelings and actions are only half-realized. With fear and bated breath we wait.” Only when you are “plunged into a situation in which…there is no turning back” are you enveloped “in a feeling of serene and trusting calm.” Curiously enough, prison affords this sense of peace:

I like the slow tempo of our existence here compared with the usual rhythm of life which people outside willy-nilly adopt in order to be in time for the bus, the office or the cinema. The mind, therefore, works somehow more naturally in camp—it doesn’t have to calculate all the time how to get ahead of somebody else. Apart from certain exceptional cases, one practically ceases to hurry (where to?). And existence opens its blue eyes all the wider.

Sinyavsky, gazing into the wide-open eyes of existence, meditates on life and art which are, in fact, the same to him. His thoughts, his observations, his whole being stretch and bend toward art. And so, his prison book, “consubstantial” with himself as Montaigne’s Essays were with him, is, above all, his ars poetica.

“A man enters into art,” he writes, “in rather the same way as he comes into the world at his birth. Thereafter everything is art for him.” What is art? is a question that makes him laugh; it is too vast to be answered. Art is “a more or less impromptu act of prayer,” a happy chance encounter between the artist’s “inner world and something outside himself that corresponds to his own thoughts and imaginings.” It is

a meeting place of the author with the object of his love, of spirit with matter, of truth with fantasy, of a pencil line with the body’s contours, of one word with another, and so forth. These encounters are rare and unexpected. Out of sheer joy and surprise (“You?—You?”) both sides go into transports and clap their hands. This clapping of hands is what comes across to us as “art.”

Art is “easily dispensed with,” it is “a kind of luxury, an ornament…a mere bauble. But it is only this ‘surplus’ that gives any permanency to our existence.” It is “the means by which being is made manifest.” Art “preens itself in front of a mirror” and “writing about everything on earth…is in fact concerned only with its own appearance…the confirmation of its own existence.” But “just like the plants which, in breathing and feeding themselves, create our soil and atmosphere…art does nothing but convert matter into spirit and vice versa.” It defies “the levelling action of death.” It is “the bright mating plumage in which life decks itself out with a view to its self-propagation.” It is “created in order to overcome death, but in a state of intense expectation of it, in the lingering moments of farewell.”

Sinyavsky was allowed to receive books twice a year. The range of his reading was extraordinary: literature, of many countries and all centuries, Greek and Roman history, works on art, archaeology, anthropology, architecture, folklore. Everything he read or remembered roused him to provocative, often brilliant, comments. For example:

Anna Akhmatova’s poetry resembles a pond or a lake edged with trees, or a mirror in which everything seems less real, yet stands out in sharper relief than in actual life…. A mirror is the emblem of her style: the frozen immobility of gesture, the sign of her august and muted manner. And the color is always black.

Of Mandelstam:

No modern poet possessed such a lively, direct, and innate sense of history…. Mandelstam lived in history as he breathed the air around him…as part of mankind in a completely concrete and integrated way, his feet planted firmly in the soil of those who lived before us; he fastened together again with a song the broken link between the ages, and suddenly embarked, without so much as a by-your-leave, on the ocean of space and time which is one and the same for all generations.

Though Sinyavsky’s themes are extremely varied, his opinions blend with one another and are in perfect accord with the fancies and critical analyses of his pre-prison years. Once in comparing religious and secular art, he writes:

If all art in effect consists of “playing” with life, then wherever life shimmers continually with the bright reflection of heavenly “play,” art will be doubly animated, imparting enormous vigour even to the most inert forms. There can be nothing flat here, in this movement of light from above (and back again), where every trifle is significant and all abstractions take on concrete shape….

Could this be why some great works which are otherwise quite divorced from the religious tradition, such as Goethe’s Faust or Tolstoy’s War and Peace, also resort to the light coming from above? Take away the ghost of his father and Hamlet will at once be sadly diminished.

It is this “light from above” that Sinyavsky has always detected in the work of the artists he admires, of Pasternak and Robert Frost, for instance, on whom he wrote some superb essays in Novy Mir. It is the light that shines also, though often in a troubled and sinister way, deepening the sense of mystery, in the work of Abram Tertz.

In this light, any “art” that turns outward, that observes, copies, teaches, dogmatizes is not art at all. The poet “even in the new, modern sense of the word” is “a failed magician or miracleworker who has substituted metaphor for metamorphosis; word-play for deeds,” replacing “the enigmatic and bewitched” world of fairy tales and myths. “A metaphor is a memory of the Golden Age when all was everything. A fragment of metamorphosis.” Tertz reverted to this Golden Age in such stories as “The Icicle” and “Pkhentz,” in which inhabitants of past and future and of distant stars stalk the streets of a modern city. “Only miracles are worth writing about,” says Sinyavsky. “If we ever do decide to tell about ordinary things, we should show them in a supernatural light.” And this is what Abram Tertz has always done.

“On Socialist Realism” concludes with a passage that has become well known:

Let us hope that…our need for truth will not interfere with the work of thought and imagination….

Right now 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. Such an art would correspond best to the spirit of our time.

The “fantastic imagery” of “realists and nonrealists,” including that of “Mayakovski (the most socialist realist of all)” should teach artists “how to be truthful with the aid of the absurd and the Fantastic.”

Having lost our faith, we have not lost our enthusiasm about the metamorphoses of God that take place before our very eyes, the miraculous transformations of His entrails and His cerebral convolutions. We don’t know where to go; but, realizing that there is nothing to be done about it, we start to think, to set riddles, to make assumptions. May we thus invent something marvelous? Perhaps; but it will no longer be socialist realism.

The fiction of Abram Tertz exemplifies and justifies this view. A Voice from the Chorus, like the earlier Unguarded Thoughts, is its eloquent rationale, a moving, intimate revelation of the manysided, luxurious mentality of one of today’s most original writers and most courageously independent men.

This Issue

August 5, 1976