Haunted by the Russian Devil

The Slynx

by Tatyana Tolstaya, translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell
Houghton Mifflin, 278 pp., $24.00

Tatyana Tolstaya
Tatyana Tolstaya; drawing by David Levine

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…

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