Ever since Gogol’s extraordinary fantasy “The Nose,” about a pompous captain’s nose which starts to lead a life of its own, Russian authors have had a peculiar gift for mingling the cheerful freedom of unresponsible fantasy with the seriousness of social and political satire. In the twentieth century Zamyatin and Platonov excelled at the technique, which did not endear them to the arbiters of Soviet correctness. Indeed Soviet “satire,” if it can be called that, was utterly dead and mechanical because it was confined to politically proper formulas and was wholly lacking in this verbal freedom, the freedom of an exceptionally rich language, with an unsurpassed verbal agility.
Tatyana Tolstaya has now written The Slynx, a novel in this same tradition, and she makes the same point polemically in the title essay of her collection Pushkin’s Children. In a sense all Russian writers are Pushkin’s children, and have inherited something of his inspired gaiety, which Tolstaya calls “inner freedom.” And yet, as she goes on to point out, the greatest Russian writers were the ones in a sense most afraid of it:
These were marvelous writers, great writers, writers of international renown: Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Lev Tolstoy…. But…none was able, or dared, to allow himself that inner freedom. Instead they voluntarily donned the fetters of moral duty: service to the tsar, to God, or to the People. Pushkin alone, who described himself humorously as “that homely descendant of negroes”
dared to possess that inner freedom. “The irony is that after his death admiration for Pushkin grew and grew until he himself became, for many Russians, God, tsar, and the People, an idol, an icon, holy writ.”
Tyranny of every sort had always been taken for granted in Russia, but in one sense the Word—Pushkin’s word—was free:
The word, whether spoken or printed, represents a power greater than that of the atom. This is an entirely Russian view of literature, without parallel in the West…. He who has articulated a Word has accomplished a Deed. He has taken all the power and responsibility on himself. He is dangerous. He is free. He is destructive. He is God’s rival. And for this reason all those daring, bold, outspoken, powerful magicians, from Alexander Radishchev in the late eighteenth century to Andrei Sinyavsky in the twentieth century, have been playing with life and death.
The paradox or contradiction between Pushkin’s state of “inner freedom” and the responsibilities which his “children” felt that the Word had overwhelmingly brought upon them is the key situation explored by Tatyana Tolstaya in her perceptive essay. And it is witty as well as perceptive. Drawing an implicit contrast of the sharpest kind between one of Pushkin’s poet-children, the charming lyricist Afanasy Fet, and Dostoevsky, who attacked Fet violently while at the same time praising Pushkin to the skies as the “unread poet,” she comments that Dostoevsky’s indignation with Fet was insufferable. What, he had demanded, would be the impression the poet’s nightingale would make on a reader during the Lisbon earthquake? Tolstaya responds,
But we aren’t having an earthquake, and we aren’t in Lisbon, and, after all, are we not allowed to love, to listen to nightingales…? …Dostoyevsky’s argument held sway [nonetheless] for a long time. It did so because of the way Russians perceive Russian life: as a constant, unending Lisbon earthquake.
It follows then that in order to survive and overcome the effects of the earthquake you don’t have to be a poet, but you’re obliged to be a citizen. The point was made by the nineteenth-century writer Nikolai Nekrasov, more or less in protest against the cult of Pushkin, and it would have been echoed by Dostoevsky as well as by Tatyana’s great-grand-uncle Leo Tolstoy. The Soviet Union itself was in its own way built upon this conviction. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, the poet, as Tolstaya says, no longer had to be a citizen and “could quietly return to poetry.” Nothing could have been more demoralizing for him. Accustomed to exile, censorship, and persecution in all sorts of subtle and unsubtle forms, how could the poet survive without the proud stimulus of these things? How could the Word itself survive?
No word, as Tolstaya observes, sounded so enchanting to a reader of the 1970s as “Ardis,” “the mysterious source of books,” the name of the small but extremely influential publishing house run in the US by Carl and Ellendea Proffer, who brought out in Russian the novels of Nabokov and many other writers. In Russia itself they were of course greedily sought after. Until the time of Gorbachev’s glasnost when, with devastating abruptness, “the word flooded the land.”
And, as Tolstaya points out in her dryly comic way, the word now took every conceivable form, good and bad, banal or obscene. It “lost its magical quality” and
the reader, elated at first, was eventually overwhelmed and then disappointed. A collector of rare coins might feel the same thing if he suddenly realized that the pride of his collection was…to be found in any department store. Everything was…desacralized in one fell swoop…. If previously a poet could take pride in the deft use of an Aesopian language employed in order to hint at political views…and if the reader could take pleasure in…decoding these poetic cryptograms, now people started to wonder: What was the point of all this? Now anyone who wanted to could…write a lewd ditty in large letters, curse or insult the regime, and go out on the square to all-around approval, holding the poster high above his head.
The other essays and reviews in Tolstaya’s new collection are equally humorous and pungent. Reviewing Soviet Women by Francine du Plessix Gray, who traveled with a tape recorder to obtain the views of Soviet women at first hand, Tolstaya describes the puzzled reception that greeted this writer of moderate feminist views from the West. As the Soviet proverb has it, “women can do everything, and men do all the rest”: that is, lie on the sofa all day, like the great hero Oblomov of Goncharov’s classic nineteenth-century novel. Nor was Oblomov the first to do so. Ilya Muromets, the knight of epic folk tale, lies recumbent for thirty-three years until a passing sorcerer happens to endow him with heroic powers, while another folk hero has everything brought to him by a fish—a pike—including a princess whom he marries, so as to be able to do nothing ever again.
Tolstaya is deeply unimpressed by Solzhenitsyn, becoming virulent about the two books that air his views on what was wrong in the past, and what must be done in the future. She is scornful too of his biweekly performances on Moscow television. Her first review of him begins:
As is well known, Alexander Solzhenitsyn supposes that there is a single truth, that the truth is one. The combined evidence of his work, especially his polemical articles, suggests also that he believes it is known to him alone.
(This may remind us of Isaiah Berlin’s brilliant distinction between Tolstoy, the fox who knew a great many things, and Dostoevsky, the hedgehog who knew only one big thing—Solzhenitsyn’s one big truth being that he is bound to be right about everything.) The writer on Russia and Russian affairs for whom Tolstaya has the most respect is David Remnick, with his two admirably lucid books, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire and Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia.
Much of Tolstaya’s wit and insight as a critic and commentator has found its way into her first novel, The Slynx, very ably translated by Jamey Gambrell. This is also a novel in the great tradition of Russian satire and soaring creative fantasy. Who, or what, is the Slynx? The creature, seldom seen and scarcely definable, may be a relation of that melky bes, the mean, ineffaceable little demon of daily living, who stalks, one way and another, through the pages of so many late-nineteenth-century Russian novels and stories.
The Slynx haunts Benedikt, Tolstaya’s main narrator, villain or hero (in the world of postmodern fiction there is usually little difference between the two). Benedikt is a “scribe,” serving the tyrant who rules in what remains of Moscow two hundred years after “the Blast” (which we take to have happened sometime in the early twenty-first century). Two things are important in this afterworld: books, the perquisite of the tyrant, who plagiarizes the great classics of the past and thus becomes for his subjects the sole writer; and mice (“Mice are our Mainstay”), which swarm in great numbers, and are virtually the sole source of food.
Benedikt loves the books the tyrant makes available but (a marvelous touch) only as things to admire and to play with. He finds them without meaning, as if words in themselves had come to exist only as attractive objects, without any magical or moral significance. Besides, they have come to have no connection with life as it is lived.
But living in this post-world is hazardous as well as peculiar. Almost anything may happen, at any time. Although the Slynx is never seen he must live in those boundless forests outside the ramshackle town:
The Slynx sits on dark branches and howls a wild, sad howl—eeeeennxx, eeeeennxx, eenx-a-leeeeeennnxx!—but no one ever sees it. If you wander into the forest it jumps on your neck from behind: hop! It grabs your spine in its teeth—crunch—and picks out the big vein with its claw and breaks it. All the reason runs right out of you. If you come back, you’re never the same again, your eyes are different, and you don’t ever know where you’re headed, like when people walk in their sleep under the moon, their arms outstretched, their fingers fluttering: they’re asleep, but they’re standing on their own two feet. People will find you and take you inside, and sometimes, for fun, they’ll set an empty plate in front of you, stick a spoon in your hand, and say “Eat.” And you sit there like you’re eating from an empty plate, you scrape and scrape and put the spoon in your mouth and chew, and then you make to wipe your dish with a piece of bread, but there’s no bread in your hand. Your kinfolk are rolling on the floor with laughter. You can’t do for yourself, not even take a leak, someone has to show you each time. If your missus or mother feels sorry for you, she takes you to the outhouse, but if there’s no one to watch after you, you’re a goner, your bladder will burst, and you’ll just die.
The Slynx is the devil that dehumanized Soviet man, but he belongs to a Russian folk tale as well. Sitting up on the branches, he is like a contemporary version of the dreaded Rusalka of Russian story, and of Pushkin’s magic poem. In spite of the dreary after-modern chaos with which Tolstaya gleefully and ironically stuffs her novel, she also has intimations of beauty, in a sort of return to the world of myth and journeying, where even the Chechens are—compared to so many other things in the world of the novel—comparatively harmless:
You can’t go south. The Chechens live there. First it’s all steppe, steppe, and more steppe—your eyes could fall out from staring. Then beyond the steppe—the Chechens. In the middle of the town there’s a watchtower with four windows, and guards keep watch out of all of them. They’re on the lookout for Chechens. They don’t really look all the time, of course, as much as they smoke swamp rusht and play straws. One person grabs four straws in his fist—three long ones, one short. Whoever picks the short one gets a whack on the forehead. But sometimes they look out the window. If they spot a Chechen, they’re supposed to cry “Chechens, Chechens!” and then people from all the settlements run out and start beating pots with sticks, to scare the Chechens. And the Chechens skedaddle. Once, two people approached the town from the south, an old man and an old woman. We banged on our pots, stomped and hollered up a storm, but the Chechens didn’t care, they just kept on coming and looking around. We—well, the boldest of us—went out to meet them with tongs, spindles, whatever there was. To see who they were and why they came.
“We’re from the south, Golubchiks,” they said. “We’ve been walking for two weeks, we’ve walked our feet off. We came to trade rawhide strips. Maybe you have some goods?”
What goods could we have? We eat mice. “Mice Are Our Mainstay,” that’s what Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe, teaches. But our people are softhearted, they gathered what there was in the izbas and traded for the rawhide and let them go their way. Later there was a lot of talk about them. Everyone jabbered about what they were like, the stories they told, how come they showed up.
Well, they looked just like us: the old man was gray-headed and wore reed shoes, the old woman wore a scarf, her eyes were blue, and she had horns. Their stories were long and sad. Benedikt was little and didn’t have any sense at all then, but he was all ears.
They said that in the south there’s an azure sea, and in that sea there’s an island, and on that island there’s a tower, and in that tower there’s a golden stove bed. On that bed there’s a girl with long hair—one hair is gold, the next is silver, one is gold, and the next is silver. She lies there braiding her tresses, just braiding her long tresses, and as soon as she finishes the world will come to an end.
Our people listened and listened and said: “What’s gold and silver?”
And the Chechens said: “Gold is like fire, and silver is like moonlight, or when firelings light up.”
Our people said: “Ah, so that’s it. Go on and tell us some more.”
And the Chechens said: “There’s a great river, three years’ walk from here. In that river there’s a fish—Blue Fin. It talks with a human voice, cries and laughs, and swims back and forth across that river. When it swims to one side and laughs, the dawn starts playing, the sun rises up in the sky, and the day comes. When it goes back, it cries, drags the darkness with it, and hauls the moon by its tail. All the stars in the sky are Blue Fin’s scales.”
We asked: “Have you heard why winter comes and why summer goes?”
The old lady said: “No, good people, we haven’t heard, I won’t lie, we haven’t heard. It’s true, though, folks wonder: Why do we need winter, when summer is so much sweeter? It must be for our sins.”
Notwithstanding this rich but alarmingly casual world of unprescribed event and what used to be called “local color,” a coherent story does develop, and readers will find themselves more and more absorbed, as well as puzzled and intrigued. Benedikt falls in love with a fellow worker, Olenka, whose father is the head of the secret police, and he becomes drawn into the privileged sphere of her family. “Oldeners,” in this strange world, are the only people who know anything, just because they are old. In this post-blast society it is no use asking the young; they reverse the Spanish proverb by knowing nothing. Benedikt is fascinated by his first “Oldenprint” book, which, since he has never seen paper, he thinks must be printed on bark. And what does he, with great difficulty, read? “The candle by which Anna read….” They are words from the ending of Anna Karenina. But as well as fascinated he is at once terrified; he fears the book may give him the “Sickness.”
Although some women have cockscombs growing out of their heads and many men seemingly have tails, people still get engaged, and perhaps even married, if marriage is still a viable concept in the world of the Slynx. Certainly engagement practices remain nice and normal:
When Benedikt proposed to Olenka, he told her he wanted to send matchmakers ahead of him. It was easier that way—the matchmakers would say everything that needed to be said about you, make a deal, settle everything. They’d praise you to the skies behind your back: he’s so this and so that, they’d say, and you should see him do this, he’s not a man, he’s a rose in bloom, a fleet falcon. But Olenka objected: No, no. No matchmakers, we’re a modern family…don’t send them. Just come yourself. We’ll sit and chat of this and that. We’ll eat….
He took some presents: a string of mice, a jug of kvas—so as not to go empty-handed—and a bouquet of bluebells.
But the serf at the door of Olenka’s family house, like a sentry, makes Benedikt hand over these little offerings and sign a receipt for them. Clearly the “Oldentime” practices of bureaucratic Russia still persist, even though, as the novel’s last page intimates, death itself has become an ambiguous event, in which “Oldeners” do not necessarily have to take part.
One of Tolstaya’s triumphs in the novel, predominantly a stylistic one (her admired Platonov is in the background), is to present a very odd and modernistically irrational tale as if it were a good, solid, and conservatively old-fashioned work of fiction. Perhaps indeed it is one, in that superb Russian literary tradition which, as Tolstoy himself remarked, never has bothered too much about the conventional Western idea of the novel.
Tolstaya’s delightful achievement in her first venture into an essentially Russian world of fiction/nonfiction writing—and one hopes there will be many more—is to have put her arms, as it were, around a whole tragicomic tradition. Her sense of what she is doing, and hopes to do, is in some way summed up by two small, true anecdotes, both of which could have taken place in her fictional world. While reviewing Edvard Radzinsky’s book The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II, she tells us, in Pushkin’s Children, that in Leninist times it was whispered, tongue-in-cheek, that the Tsar should be posthumously awarded the Order of the October Revolution “for creating a revolutionary situation in the country.” The other story she tells is even more like something out of her own novel. At an art exhibition she finds herself seated next to a very old lady:
We started talking, and the conversation turned to Nicholas II. The old woman, as it turned out, had once been something like a lady-in-waiting at the court. She sighed: “Everyone always says he was such a tyrant. But why, really? They always served such fresh cream at table.”
February 27, 2003