In his attractively slender Whistling in the Dark: In Pursuit of the Nightingale (1993), Richard Mabey fashions a hybrid of commonplace book and discursive meditation on humans and birds. He includes the greatest hits of nightingale poetry (Keats, Clare, Coleridge) as well as a lovely passage from H.E. Bates’ Through the Woods: The English Woodland—April to April (1936). Mabey ponders why the song of this rather drab, elusive bird has resonated for centuries with our species:
“As for the nightingale’s song, it has always had for me the extra resonance of oratory. It hovers on the edge of speech, of dramatic monologue. And with its crescendos and redolent pauses, the whole performance could, at a pinch, be described as operatic.”
We know the feeling. Humans crave meaning and craft it where it may not already exist. Anthropomorphically simple-minded or not, we fancy nightingales and the rest of creation speak to us, and each of us decides whether to listen and how: “Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain.” A Russian listener writes:
“But birds talk as they always have done, and listening to them one feels convinced that there really is such a thing as bird language, the study of which must once have been the greatest of sciences. A friend of mine here had a splendid dream (in general, he is lucky with his dreams): he saw a bird with a long beak sitting on the window-sill and spoke to it, as we often do to hens and other domestic fowl: `Don’t be afraid of me!’ And the bird suddenly replied: `But I’m not afraid of you!’ This set off a conversation between them which was remarkably significant in some way, but he has unfortunately forgotten the sense of it.”
The author is Andrei Sinyavsky (1925-1997) who wrote under a pseudonym he took from a renowned Russian-Jewish gangster, Abram Tertz. Historians date the start of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union to the 1966 trial of Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, who were found guilty of smuggling anti-Soviet manuscripts out of the country. Sinyavsky was sentenced to seven years in a forced labor camp; Daniel, five.
The passage is from A Voice from the Chorus (translation by Kyril Fitzlyon and Max Hayward, 1976), a volume based on the two letters per month the Soviets permitted Sinyavsky to send to his wife. During his six years in the camp, he was not otherwise permitted to write. Near the end of the book, in a passage from 1971, Sinyavsky writes:
“What is the most precious, the most exciting smell waiting for you in the house when you return to it after half-a-dozen years or so? The smell of roses, you think? No, mouldering books.”