Light from Above

A Voice from the Chorus

by Abram Tertz (Andrei Sinyavsky), Translated from the Russian by Kyril Fitzlyon and Max Hayward
Russian-language edition, Octagon Books, 339 pp., $15.00

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…

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