In his latest novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera engages in a lively and instructive analysis of the concept of kitsch, and its influence today in literature and in social and political conditioning. He concludes that “the Brotherhood of Man is only possible on a basis of kitsch.” Robespierre and Lenin would have dismissed this with impatience and incomprehension, and indeed it is true that kitsch only becomes an insidious force in the public consciousness through the medium of propaganda or advertising, which by definition works with secondhand materials. The first call, the authentic sentiment, whether in art or in revolution, has nothing to do with kitsch, however much it may later be exploited by it.
In the modern consciousness, Kundera says, the presence of kitsch can be detected by this test. Everyone thinks: how nice to see kids in the sunshine running on the grass. And this thought swiftly merges into another: how nice to feel it’s nice to see kids in the sunshine running on the grass. It is this second reaction that is ripe for exploitation by kitsch. It is at the root of commercial, moral, and political propaganda, the basis of every party line. Vladimir Nabokov made the same point when he associated poshlost—the more generic Russian equivalent of kitsch—with the shots of sunburned tractor drivers and smiling collective farm girls, or with the all-American advertisement of Mom, Dad, and the two freckled kids. Contemporary kitsch is a product of egalitarianism, and television and photography have so much accustomed us to the innumerable sophisticated variations on its archetypes that we take them for granted, however much we may deride the archetypes themselves. Besides, at some points in its range, kitsch is an inescapable human necessity.
One function of art is to de-kitschify kitsch. It can do this by the rousing call, the authentic sentiment, something perceived for the first time. But more often, and more mysteriously, it takes the situation that is, has been, and will again be kitsch, and purifies it by some complex alchemy of its own. Vermeer’s woman reading a letter is as full of latent or subliminal kitsch as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and yet art not only keeps it at bay in both cases but actually exploits the implications of it. Instead of itself using the techniques of art, kitsch is successfully used and dominated by them. Tolstoy and Vermeer subtly exploit the deep needs of self-satisfaction. How nice to feel it’s nice to enjoy a picture of a woman reading. And how fine to watch the panorama of human fineness unrolled before us by a master hand.
Kitsch of course only comes into existence when we recognize how and why it works. Kundera’s special perception is in seeing how important it has become for purposefully ideological political systems, which have learned how to manipulate all forms of secular aspiration and self-satisfaction. They have also systematized the processes of kitsch, making art the prisoner of that secondary response, “how nice to show how nice it is.” Kundera has a justified contempt for all the workings of eastern socialism, which he has learned through and through the hard way. As he demonstrates in his novel, it produces a society whose official side is all kitsch, and whose private face is one of complete cynicism.
Kitsch is associated with the weight and responsibilities in our lives, and compulsory socialism has made these false, both in life and in art. So the novelist takes to “lightness of being,” to systematic frivolity. Kundera’s novel is moving and impressive in its contrast of “lightness” with the weight still surviving in the human heart, the weight of love and fidelity, pity, the awareness of death. Those things are of course part of the official kitsch of Soviet morality, and Kundera’s achievement is to release them from that bondage and put them back in the world of privacy and true art. It is highly illuminating to compare his novel with recent examples of Russian fiction, from both inside and outside the Soviet Union, particularly with Wild Berries, a first novel by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, which sold more than two and a half million copies in the Soviet Union since its publication in 1981, yet this year came under attack in Soviet literary journals, particularly for its reference to the elimination of the kulaks during the 1930s.
The first thing to be said is that though Yevtushenko has often been cited as the archetypal Soviet literary operator he is probably a decent man, his heart in the right place and all the rest of it. He is a competent poet with a gift of popular appeal—even today the Russians are discriminating about their poets. In Zima Junction, and still more in Babi Yar, he has produced poems that are memorable and true, in the soundest Russian tradition. They are not great poems, but in language and feeling they are authentic, as Nekrasov’s were in the last century, with an authenticity that comes over even in translation. But his prose is a different matter. The medium he works in here seems so saturated with kitsch, or poshlost, with the standard clichés and received ideas and situations from Soviet Monthly and other fiction periodicals, that his own personal intelligence and perception can hardly trickle through.
Socialist realism, like the Brotherhood of Man, is only possible on a basis of kitsch. There is no such thing as personal kitsch. True art is always unique and individual. Kitsch is always communal. And in every situation it takes the easy way out, which is also the “caring” way, the compassionate way. It loves the good and rejects evil, but it cannot manage to do this spontaneously, as art inexorably requires. Like many other Soviet authors, Yevtushenko writes from a dangerously naive assumption: if Tolstoy and Dostoevsky can do it, why can’t I? If Tolstoy can make a good man utter good words, if Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov can still rejoice in the sticky buds of spring, then all we have to do is agree fervently and repeat them in our own way. We rejoice in our pleasure at the sight of happy Soviet kids in the sunshine. Yevtushenko’s characters speak of one of their number as “a pure soul,” and yes, he does indeed seem to be one, but where does that get us? The most disquieting thing about Wild Berries is that each page makes one seriously wonder if honor, kindness, and decency are repulsive in themselves, or only when they are affirmed in this kind of book. Are we so corrupted in the West that we cannot admit and recognize simple virtue when we see it?
No, but the practice of virtue in our society may be disabled by our difficulties and inhibitions about representing it in art. One should not be afraid of kitsch, and it is paralyzing to be too conscious of it. Successful Soviet writers do not suffer from that disability. Or are they, as Kundera takes for granted, two-faced: supporters of the brotherhood of man who really care for nothing but the perks and the roubles? Such a view would seem to be simplistic. But virtue must be paid for in art, and the best currency is humor. Social and political kitsch cannot abide its presence, and yet humor itself suffers from the exclusion and becomes a subversive and anarchic force, a drunken spirit from underground instead of an Ariel moving—as in Sterne and Shakespeare—impartially among vice and virtue, sentiment and cynicism. There is no trace of humor in Wild Berries, though there is a quota of joky situations, and a few cautious frivolities about war and sex which might offend the Soviet fathers. But the humor that has been “liberated” in Edward Limonov’s “fictional memoir,” It’s Me, Eddie, in Vassily Aksyonov’s The Burn and The Island of Crimea, and in Serge Dovlatov’s The Compromise, which were published outside the Soviet Union, seems on the other hand excessively conscious of its liberated status.
There is a certain irony in the fact that freedom in the work of the younger Russian émigré writers takes a literary form to which readers in the West are already quite used to, and may even feel blasé about. For all the zest and élan with which they write, neither Limonov nor Aksyonov, in his cheerful fantasy The Island of Crimea, can be said to be doing anything original in form or approach: they are simply joining the increasingly cosmopolitan club of up-to-date writers. So shrewd and judicious a critic as Professor Simon Karlinsky indeed points exactly to the qualities that make Limonov a remarkable writer, and that both unite and separate him from Russian literary tradition:
[He] breaks every rule of Russian literary decorum, whether prerevolutionary, Soviet or émigré. His is the sensibility of a Soviet Henry Miller combined with a Soviet punk rocker, if such a thing were conceivable.
Nowadays it is certainly conceivable, and, as Karlinsky implies, the love-hate for New York of Limonov’s dazzlingly and delightfully uninhibited voice might send a masochistic shiver of pleasure through his new readers. The Soviet and American adventures of Limonov’s bisexual layabout, who had in his time been the only Russian poet to run a one-man samizdat business of his works for profit, are certainly fascinating, with a certain primness about them at times which is the result of the author’s flair for literal description of his doings and ideas. These latter are as confused as any of those in his western counterparts—while the narrator is living a wholly free and uninhibited life in New York he repeatedly calls America “depraved”—but Karlinsky is right in saying it is hard to put the book down.
Despite this determined Russian plunge into internationalism, there is one significant difference from western practice in the novels under review, a difference as marked in Yevtushenko’s Soviet bestseller as in the freewheeling works by the émigrés. All take for granted in their readers a thorough familiarity with Russian literature, its texts and traditions. Present day western novelists can assume with confidence that their readers will know little of their own literary past, and on the whole they prefer that this should be so.
Russian authors not only revere their country’s literary past but make continual and open use of it, clinging as firmly as they can to the almost mystic authority of the Russian word, the Russian poema. This authority has always had an ambiguous rivalry with that of the state; and simply by citing their predecessors, all of whom are familiar to the vast reading public of the USSR, today’s writers can assume that their tacit scrutiny of the past, which can simultaneously take the forms of eulogy and dissent, will be understood as such.
Yevtushenko is as sensitive as a seismograph to all this, and for any connoisseur of the process by which Russian literature still comes into play, his novel, cheap as it is in some ways, is actually more interesting than the productions by Aksyonov and Dovlatov. Though Yevtushenko’s tongue may be often in his cheek, this does not mean that he does not mean what he says. Though he may suffer no Gogolian torments he makes use of the Gogolian technique of masquerade, of clinging to belief and disbelief, needing both and hiding each behind the other. This can take facile forms, as when Yevtushenko himself appears in the novel to be dismissed as “passé” by some arguing young poets, the spokesman of whom goes on to make a standard point.
“Which contemporary poet do you like, Krivtsov?”
“No, you don’t understand me. I’m talking about contemporary poets.”
“He is the most contemporary.”
“No, I mean contemporary in the sense of being alive.”
“He is the most alive.”
“What about Voznesensky?”
And so forth. Voznesensky, like Yevtushenko himself, is waved aside as a passing fashion, and a disagreeably aesthetic one into the bargain. This is obvious enough, but the text becomes more intriguing and tricky to interpret when a drunken poet starts to declaim, in the presence of an American and a Swedish reporter, that “Russian poetry to this day is nothing but ass kissing and toadying.” Pasternak, Mayakovsky, Nekrasov, Pushkin himself—they were all the same, and Russian culture is the “gilding for a slave’s chains.” The reporters turn away from him with disbelief and disgust, but before being kicked out by officials, this disconcerting “salon poet” utters a few more home truths: that the West is full of fairy tales about Russia, and that Russians themselves are obsessed with patriotism and with the image of an imaginary “people.” It looks as if Yevtushenko is not so much obsessed, like the fox in the fable, with wishing away the tails of his fellows, as with signaling to his readers in some sort of equivocal code, beckoning over the heads of the more official criticisms he is always making.
This becomes evident when he sets up a scene which involves the standard denunciation of the westernized son of a fine, old, simple party engineer, who of course is now rich and well-connected enough to give his family virtually anything they want. The old man fears his son, whom his wife dotes on, seeing him as ocular proof of the distance they have come since peasant days. The son himself has moments of longing to love his father, but feels wholly cut off from the revolutionary past, the Party, the war. All this is straightforward in adopting the remedial polemics of Soviet fiction, down to the fact that the son and his friends smoke Marlboros, pride themselves on speaking nothing but English, and even go so far as to lie in bed in the morning reading the biography of Winston Churchill.
But Yevtushenko’s handling of this stock character is unusual in two respects. One is the suggestion that nothing in nature and the Russian scene ever changes, that this young fellow is just the same as the “superfluous man” of the nineteenth-century novel, the French-speaking youth whom privilege had put wholly out of touch with his homeland. The second, imponderable respect, is the personal zest with which Yevtushenko identifies with the young man’s reactions to everything that is false, insipid, grotesque, and slovenly in Soviet life. The author dwells on these qualities with Gogolian amusement and affection, while at the same time suggesting that the charm of the Soviet system lies in the way in which the talented individual can avoid them, can bend it to his will. The system is perfectly suited to the men who do well out of it, and the new version of Gogol’s immortal cheats and shysters, his Khlestakovs and Chichikovs, are none other than the new Soviet career men, the scientists and executives and Party fixers. And, if they are adroit, the writers too.
Although it is frequently interrupted by digressions of a modish kind—including one that takes us into the consciousness of Chile’s Allende during his last days in power—the story of Wild Berries concerns a party of geologists led by one such career man, which is prospecting the rivers of Siberia in search of a rare mineral. This gives occasion for idyllic scenes and a few seductions of the innocent and not so innocent, described with simplicity and feeling. The westernized young man who reads Churchill is killed by a no doubt symbolic bear. An older man is haunted by the part he once played in persecuting supposed Kulaks: in fact there were no Kulaks in Siberia but the Party norm had to be fulfilled. The leading geologist is the kind of man who makes use of the regime which depends on him and his like, the kind the author both sees through and admires, as, in some curious sense, he sees through and admires himself. He plays with the kitschy idea of “How We Found the Magic Mineral,” but then sidesteps it, hinting that quietism and conservation also have their claims—and then evades that issue too.
Such evasions give the book its curious power, and even a certain technical fascination. Where the writer’s attitude to his material is concerned we are back in the world of Dickens and Thackeray, of Tolstoy and Goncharov—writers of varying stature who nonetheless have one thing in common: an unconscious power of borrowing from different sides of themselves without having to settle up. As his most discerning critic, Lev Shestov, long ago noted, our sense of the high integrity of Tolstoy’s writings is mysteriously increased by the fact that his impulses as a writer were toward such various and incompatible things. As a novelist, he never set his house in order. Yevtushenko may be a pigmy successor, but he has the same curious knack of dealing with the contradictory. Though his licensed criticisms of the regime are themselves kitschy he nonetheless sets Soviet kitsch at war with itself, and out of the conflict emerges an unexpected vitality. The geologists’ leader, Kolomeitsev, can speak of “pure souls,” and say angrily that “the tendency to denigrate heroism infuriates me,” but he is also a withdrawn man, out for himself, with “the hard elegance of a gentleman-adventurer.”
Kundera’s house is of course in good order. So is that of the Russian emigré writers, and for the same reasons. There is nothing equivocal in Dovlatov’s sketches, or in The Burn, and this sureness of the author, and of where the book is going, is reflected in the quality of the translations. Michael Glenny’s version of The Burn is confidently and stylishly idiomatic, and Anne Frydman’s of The Compromise is just as lively. Yevtushenko’s poet’s prose is another matter; the gawky idiom used by Antonina Bouis misrepresents its rich, slippery noncommitment. Translation cannot follow the peculiar and often seductive instability of the text, the complex charms of its dishonesty. These qualities make the book in some ways more interesting than The Burn, which is a dazzling tour de force in the modern manner, aimed, one senses, at the samizdat aficionados, and the critics who keep an eye on international literary fashion. Wild Berries, with its millions of readers from the silent Russian majority, its sly, bland suggestion that the system is always much the same and is to be criticized intelligently and made affectionate fun of by those it suits, is in keeping with the attitudes of conservatism everywhere.
Emigrés whose literary activities led to their expulsion from the Soviet Union, Aksyonov and Dovlatov both suffer as artists from the direct use they make of their talents, driving them expertly like foreign cars, and with an obvious destination in mind. At times very funny, Dovlatov’s sketches, some of which have appeared in The New Yorker and Partisan Review, have as their narrator a young journalist who works at Talinn on the paper Soviet Estonia. Confusions, mostly caused by drink, which is important in the plot of all three novels, are also and more piquantly the result of collisions between Jewish, Estonian, and Russian outlooks. The dialogue shows how greatly Hemingway is still revered by the Russian intelligentsia.
In Dovlatov’s The Compromise, the compromises, eleven in number, are with truth. Each takes the form of an item of human interest from the paper, followed by an account of what really lies behind it. The city of Tartu is holding a “Reunion of Former Prisoners of Fascist Concentration Camps.” As the young journalist goes about getting their stories, and the vodka covertly circulates, it turns out that most had been rearrested under Stalin, or packed off to some eastern gulag after liberation from the fascist camps. The master of ceremonies has an increasingly embarrassing time. Of course, nothing of this appears in the Soviet Estonia, for under communism a reunion of the victims of fascism is only possible on a basis of the appropriate kitsch. Dovlatov is a true humorist, however, and not just a dissident author making a point; for the perennial comedy of the situation lies in human competitiveness. None of the victims is prepared to concede that anyone else had a worse time than himself.
Aksyonov’s ingenious book imagines that Crimea is an island, like Hong Kong or Taiwan, filled to bursting with White Russians, Tartars, and other refugees, who have built up a highly prosperous economy with all the slick modern “life-styles.” The Soviet Union has tolerated this situation in practice because it is highly profitable, particularly for the corrupt Party bosses—the Crimean tisha (based on the Russian word for thousand) is a convenient form of hard currency. Officially of course, as with China and Taiwan, Soviet policy is to unite Crimea with the motherland, and Aksyonov gets a good deal of amusing mileage out of the intrigues of television personalities, playboys, and secret service men, who have nothing in common except their language. In the end a kind of pseudo-invasion is launched by the Soviets, apparently orchestrated by the Crimean media personnel, who live in a state of such total and luxurious unreality that they imagine they can control the invasion forces as if they were Olympic teams whose activities were being processed solely for publicity purposes. Although a few nasty incidents disillusion them, it looks when the book ends as if the Soviets too were coming to see the advantages of seeing reunification or conquest as a matter of cameras instead of Kalashnikovs.
This fantasy, verging at times on the techniques of science fiction, is done with wit and an even greater amount of Russian gusto. Its defect, not uncommon in the genre, is that the point is grasped too early, and that the jokes become with repetition a little on the heavy side. Gulliver is not only himself an ambiguous consciousness, but his travels surprise us constantly with new and ever more disquieting perspectives. Like his émigré colleagues Aksyonov is too singly concerned to thumb his nose at Soviet Russia and to laugh the modern world out of its follies.
Though it relies too heavily on the same kind of sophisticated horsing around, The Burn shows a much deeper imaginative power as well as a far more subtle and pervasive humor. A scene in Rome—“John Lennon has agreed to play Raskolnikov”—has a particular Gogolian charm. A Russian delegation to Italy has returned home, but the KGB man in charge, an old Chekist who took part in the pacification of Turkestan, has wangled—after two nights on the phone to Moscow—permission for the temporary narrator to stay on in Rome. “A Soviet citizen alone in Rome, and with plenty of Italian lire in my pocket! It was a sensation, a triumph of the new era!”
A priest takes him for an American—“It’s always nice for us when people don’t recognize us as Russians”—and in his obscenest native dialect he makes an outrageous proposal to a middle-aged English lady, who smiles graciously, not understanding a word and taking him for a picturesque Serbian tourist. The joke continues when the priest suddenly addresses him in equally obscene Russian slang, advising him to watch it or he’ll end up in Shitsville. Comic metamorphosis is beautifully used, and for an intelligent purpose. A granite-faced apparatchik, apparently the most Soviet of Russians, bears the un-Russian name of Lygher, because his ancestors had invaded the country with that frog-eater Napoleon, and the original Lygher had wandered round the country intoning “C’est la guerre,” which was assumed to be his name. (“My ancestor was a French prisoner of war, who had perfidiously invaded our country.” “Not your country but ours,” observes his logical friend. “If he hadn’t invaded I would have been 100 percent Russian,” replies the still more logical Lygher.)
The absurdity of names is used to still greater effect in the central and most moving section of the book, which recalls Aksyonov’s childhood as the son of a deportee in Magadan, capital of the Kolyma region in the Soviet Far East, where huge numbers of political prisoners were expended by Stalin’s orders in the gold mines. For Aksyonov is in fact the son of Yevgeniya Ginsburg, the Soviet historian sentenced during the purges, who produced a memorable account of her experiences in Journey into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind. After her rehabilitation her son was educated as a doctor, and began to write novels—cheerful and high-spirited affairs like The Colleagues and Half-way to the Moon—which were highly successful in Soviet Russia and began too to get his name known in the West. He resigned from the Writer’s Union after two of his colleagues were expelled for their joint efforts to bring out a periodical anthology independent of the censorship; and he left Russia for good after the fracas caused by The Burn’s publication in Italy.
Much of this experience is dealt with directly in The Burn, transmuted into grotesque comedy. The best part of the novel, though, touches more directly on childhood experience, particularly the trauma of seeing his mother rearrested after a period of comparative freedom in Magadan, as described in her own memoir. She tells there too how all deportees with German sounding names were rounded up in Magadan after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and sent to the worst camps. She narrowly escaped the same fate, although her family, like most citizens with such names, had been Russianized for generations. Using the same black joke her son recreates himself as Tolya Von Steinbock, whose father, a revolutionary worker from the Putilov factory in St. Petersburg, had sought to remove his name’s accidental but embarrassing associations by calling himself plain Bokov.
The admirable tendency of all this is to deny that the Russians are so very exceptional—just a lot of mongrels like the rest of us, with suitably mongrel tastes and antecedents. No wonder Aksyonov was thrown out of the Soviet Union when his novel was published in Italy, because Russians of any ideology are rather less tolerant than the rest of us of what might seem an attempt to undermine their national identity. There is obvious irony in the epigraph Aksyonov has chosen from Blok, “In truth only a lout/Can scoff at Russian life….” And yet this kind of subversion has in fact a long-standing tradition behind it, going back to Radischev in the eighteenth century and Chaadayev in the nineteenth.
Equally traditional is the way in which Aksyonov opens the central section of his novel:
Before embarking on the second book of this narrative, the author is obliged to state that he aspires to penetrate with extraordinary profundity into the problems that he has chosen.
But does any problem of such seriousness exist at all? Do the author’s pretensions to profundity have any foundation?
Time and paper will show; but the author cannot renounce his aspirations, because it is characteristic of any serious Russian book to tackle serious problems.
In Europe there are frivolous democracies with mild climates, where an intellectual spends his life flitting from a dentist’s drill to the wheel of a Citroen, from a computer to an espresso bar, from the conductor’s podium to a woman’s bed, and where literature is something almost as refined, witty and useful as a silver dish of oysters laid out on brown seaweed and garnished with cracked ice.
Russia, with its six-month winter, its tsarism, Marxism and Stalinism, is not like that. What we like is some heavy masochistic problem, which we can prod with a tired, exhausted, not very clean, but very honest finger. That is what we need, and it is not our fault.
Not our fault? Really? But are we to blame for it all?…Reflections of this sort, however, will not get the narrative moving forward. It is time to begin, having first said a prayer, and without any fancy tricks.
Naturally enough, and not without success, Aksyonov is trying to have it both ways. He is invoking the traditional powers and the weighty influence of the Russian novel, but he is also careful to suggest that he does not take them too seriously, that he realizes the modern European novel has become a fashion object, an expert device. By parodying the artless sermonizing of the old-fashioned novelist he also emphasizes it: having said the prayer he can get down to the fancy tricks. Kundera himself does much the same thing, and so has his Czech compatriot, Josef Skvorecky, in The Engineer of Human Souls. That phrase was Stalin’s specification for the Soviet writer, and Skvorecky, like Aksyonov, is disclaiming through his hero-author all that it implies. The Burn could, indeed does, carry the same kind of jacket copy which Skvorecky invented for his own novel, “an entertainment on the old themes of life, women, fate, dreams, the working class, secret agents, love and death.”
Both novelists—Kundera too—use the disclaimer and the tricks of the modern novel—“refined, witty and useful as a silver dish of oysters”—both to undermine the “engineering” pretension of the Soviet novel—still more or less adhered to by Yevtushenko—and to bring back a truer and older kind of seriousness. The gap between that seriousness and the fiction of the “frivolous democracies” in fact remains as wide as ever. Given the ostensible subject of The Burn—the protest movements of the young in Moscow, and the reaction to them of the new-style and equally youthful KGB cadres—how could it not do so? The question is whether the adoption by these writers of the western-style novelist’s techniques of frivolity makes what they are saying more interesting or less so.
Perhaps both. The activity of the young protestors in Moscow is recounted in The Burn with a cosmopolitan fantasy that begets tedium. But then in the second part the scene shifts, if the term can be used of a fiction which is deliberately unlocated, to Magadan in the Soviet far East, the capital of the Kolyma region where millions died in the mines. Fantasy is still the method, but now it uses the stronger and stranger patterns of Hugo and Dickens. A young girl (Polish? English? Russian?) collapses in the snow like Little Nell and is seemingly rescued, temporarily at least, by a young man impervious to bullets who throws aside the savage guard dogs with his bare hands. Deportees revel in an underground heating tunnel as if at Nero’s court. The young Tolya Von Steinbock is raped there by a female Zek, sees his mother rearrested at the medical center, and is comforted by a German doctor who teaches him the Latin words of the Catholic mass.
Back in Moscow the aging KGB officer who once arrested Tolya’s mother lives with his daughter and the imbecile wife of a former colleague. Bringing a cup of tea to his daughter, who is doing a moon-lighting job on her typewriter, he notices she is typing lists and manifestoes for the young protesters. He knocks her down and rapes her. She seems to enjoy this, which must be the most explicit sexual coupling in Russian literature to date. As happens all too often in the frivolous western novel, the author seems to enjoy it too, and expects his reader to share his pleasure.
There is a moral, no doubt. Is it that the old order can still revenge itself on the young, and the young still need it? But the slapstick that ensues, and the lack of coherent narrative, does not reinforce that or any other point. Although incoherence can be fascinating and provoking, as when little Tolya’s Wild West fantasies meld with the realities of life in Magadan, it is difficult at such points not to remember the sober and factual Kolyma Tales of Varlam Shalamov, written with the art that conceals art.
Modern fashions in fiction certainly do not do that, and it is difficult to believe that Aksyonov, talented as he undoubtedly is, will leave a lasting mark on the Russian literary tradition. But will that tradition in any case continue in a recognizable form? For the young Russian writer of fiction the choice seems to lie between a judicious modification of the old Soviet formulas, as represented by Yevtushenko, and the defiant cosmopolitanism of Aksyonov and Limonov. Literature, like history, takes unpredictable directions. “Socialist realism” in some form may yet have a new lease on life, as may the traditional type of novel in the West. Its great strength was that it knew how to handle kitsch: it knew how to tell us how nice it was to feel it was nice to see kids on the grass.
That is a subtle and durable achievement, though it is easy to see why Kundera, Aksyonov, and the others, have to reject it in their various ways, and have to reject the forms and artifices with which it is associated. They are afraid of kitsch, which has indeed been horribly exploited by socialist propaganda, and thus they have been permanently alienated from the ways in which kitsch can achieve the art of reality. Their own style is simpler, and above all freer, dedicated to what Kundera calls the lightness of being. But as Kundera himself so well demonstrates in his novel, neither life nor art can always have their being in pure freedom. Both depend upon something like kitsch in the end.
November 22, 1984