Friday, July 24, 2015

`Only Then Can He Do and Know Something'

A Voice from the Chorus (trans. Kyril Fitzlyon, Max Hayward, 1976) is based on the two letters per month Andrei Sinyavsky was permitted to write his wife from a Soviet forced-labor camp between March 1966 and June 1971. Starting in the late nineteen-fifties, and writing under the nom de plume he took from a legendary Russian-Jewish gangster, Abram Tertz, the non-Jewish Sinyavsky published Gogolesque stories that flaunted the dreary strictures of socialist realism. He and another writer, Yuri Daniel, were charged with publishing anti-Soviet work abroad, and both were found guilty. Sinyavsky was sentenced to seven years in a forced labor camp; Daniel, five. He left the Soviet Union in 1973, settled in Paris and died in 1997. A Voice from the Chorus is a joy-filled grab bag of a book and something of a how-to manual for anyone who presumes to write:

“I work very hard at my job of polishing chairs, and my chairs shine better than anyone else’s, but I cannot cope with the output quota—it is hard for a slow person like me to move my hands with the necessary speed from one thing to another, reaching for a piece of leather, a scraper, or putty to fill in cracks and scratches. A good style (whether in writing or in chair-making) can only be achieved through lack of self-assurance, as I have observed. A stylist is usually a very diffident person who tries to compensate for his sense of inadequacy by careful attention to every word. A diffident man cannot allow himself to work badly, in slipshod fashion – as a genius can.”

In Sinyavsky’s fumbling slowness I recognize my own. That’s how I work. Instinct says: let it flow. Experience says: rewrite every damn comma. Think of Tolstoy, that great snorting rhinoceros crashing through the sitting room of literature. He could afford to be “slipshod” – that is, trust his immense gift. Mere mortals putter, fret and move commas. Writing for newspapers taught me to scorn “inspiration” and trust momentum, which in turn taught me that momentum reliably inspires, as does a deadline. Sinyavsky writes later in A Voice from the Chorus:

“I never cease wondering at the fact that a writer knows nothing, remembers nothing, can do nothing, does not know how to do anything, and that this impotence of his – his utter inability to say anything of note – makes him turn to the world and only then can he do and know something.”

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