Thursday, January 26, 2017

`A Robber, Gambler, Son of a Bitch'

The non-Jewish Andrei Sinyavsky (1925-1997), who wrote under a pseudonym borrowed from the renowned Russian-Jewish gangster Abram Tertz, was sentenced in 1966 to seven years in a labor camp for trying to “subvert or weaken the Soviet regime.”  That is, he sent a pamphlet and stories to Paris for publication, and therefore spent five years in three successive Soviet concentration camps. Clarence Brown asks: “What did he do while carting sawdust, sawing wood, loading timber, and enduring at night the stink, cold, noise, and loneliness of the crowded barracks?” The answer: He wrote three books. Such stories defy belief, pierce the heart and almost restore one’s faith in humanity.

The books are published in English as Strolls with Pushkin, In the Shadow of Gogol and A Voice from the Chorus. The last is based on the two letters per month the Soviet authorities permitted Sinyavsky to write his wife. In his introduction to the Sinyavsky excerpt in The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader (Viking, 1985), Brown observes that A Voice defies classification. He likens it to Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Lichtenberg’s Sudelb├╝cher and Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave, “those great masterpieces of disjunction.” By that he means the book is fragmentary, not a consecutive narrative. There is the solo voice of Sinyavsky/Tertz (lapidary, learned, thoughtful) and the chorus of voices of other prisoners, printed in italics and characterized, as Brown says, by their often “vulgar, dialectal, or illiterate Russian.” Sinyavsky’s intent is not to distinguish himself as superior to the other prisoners. In choral terms, he is the soloist and they, in Brown’s words, are “alternately picturesque, absurd, ribald, pointlessly flat, obscene, hilarious, stupid, touching, cruel, or simply ethnographically and linguistically interesting.”

My sense is that Sinyavsky has largely been forgotten in the West, at least among common readers, and perhaps in Russia as well. Since reading A Voice when the English translation (by Kyril Fitzlyon and Max Hayward) came out in 1976, I’ve read everything I could find by and about him. We read Sinyavsky not as a “victim.” That’s lazy and disrespectful. He is always more than a documentarian. Sinyavsky is a literary artist of the first rank whose life was deformed and redirected by totalitarianism. Brown offers a revealing anecdote:

“I asked him once whether he had ever studied English. He replied that a Lithuanian had in fact proposed to teach him English in one of the camps. `But,’ he said, `suppose that by the age of forty-seven I knew enough English to read good books. How many would I have time to read? Some six or seven. And so I decided to write.’”

My other favorite among Sinyavsky’s book is his novel/memoir Goodnight!, translated in 1989 by Richard Lourie, who one year earlier had translated Aleksander Wat’s My Century, another essential book of the twentieth century. In Goodnight!, Sinyavsky comments on his other self, Abram Tertz, the gangster from Odessa reminiscent of Isaac Babel’s Benya Krik:

“I see him as if it were now, a robber, gambler, son of a bitch, hands in his trousers, moustache like a thread, in a cap flattened to his eyebrows, propelled by a light, rather shuffling gait, with tender interjections of an indecent character on his withered lips, his emaciated body honed in many years of polemics and stylistic contradictions. Intense, irrefutable. He’d slit your throat at the drop of a hat. He’ll steal. He’ll croak, but he won't betray you. A businesslike man. Capable of writing with a pen (on paper) -- with a pen, which in thieves’ language is a knife, dear children. In a word -- a knife.”

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