Saturday, June 09, 2018

'Those Written without Permission'

Thanks go to John Wilson for remembering Andrei Sinyavsky/Abram Tertz and celebrating his work in “Thinking Under the Influence.” The non-Jewish Sinyavsky (1925-1997) used a pseudonym borrowed from the renowned Russian-Jewish gangster Abram Tertz. In 1966 he was sentenced to seven years of forced labor for trying to “subvert or weaken the Soviet regime.” That is, he sent a pamphlet and stories to Paris for publication. Totalitarian regimes pay writers the compliment of taking their work seriously. Modern democracies don’t care, and let's hope it stays that way.

Sinyavsky was released from the camps in 1971 and two years later immigrated to France. Wilson cites an essay written after his imprisonment, “The Literary Process in Russia,” which carries a well-known epigraph from Mandelstam’s Fourth Prose (trans. Clarence Brown, The Noise of Time: The Prose of Osip Mandelstam, 1986):

“I divide all works of literature throughout the world into those permitted and those written without permission. The first are so much garbage; the second sort are stolen air. I want to spit in the face of those writers who write with prior approval; I want to beat them about the head with a stick and sit them all down at table in Herzen House, having placed in front of each one a glass of police tea and given each of them an analysis of Gornfeld’s urine.”

For a quick gloss on the Gornfeld affair, go here, though Mandelstam’s essential point is clear. Wilson then quotes Sinyavsky’s essay:  “. . . all true writing—even when no clash with authority is involved—is something forbidden, something reprehensible, and in this illicit element lies the whole excitement, the whole dilemma of being a writer.” Today, most claimants to writerly illicitness are fooling themselves. They’re playing dress-up. They risk nothing. Their work comes pre-censored.

Among the masterpieces inadvertently produced by Soviet injustice is A Voice from the Chorus (trans. Kyril Fitzlyon and Max Hayward, 1976), a volume based on the two letters per month Sinyavsky was permitted to send his wife. During his six years in the camp, he was not otherwise allowed to write. The book is fragmentary, not a consecutive narrative. The solo voice, Sinyavsky/Tertz’s, is lapidary, learned, meditative. The chorus consists of the voices of other prisoners, printed in italics and filled with Russian slang, profanity and pragmatism. A sample of the latter: “Everyone has his favorite thing in life – what I used to fancy most of all was jellied pig’s feet with a bit of horse radish.” Not surprisingly, food is a consistent theme.

Sinyavsky/Tertz’s contributions to A Voice from the Chorus vary in length from sentence fragments to three-page essays. One of the latter concerns the books he read as a child. He remembers Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe, the books from boyhood I recall most vividly and read again every few years. He recalls the scene in Swift’s second chapter, when Gulliver empties his pockets for the Emperor of Lilliput. The Lilliputians are in awe of mundane objects – comb, handkerchief, scissors – and Swift describes them with precision and at significant length. “Swift’s discovery,” Sinyavsky/Tertz writes, “fundamental for art, is that there are no uninteresting objects in the world so long as there exists an artist to stare at everything with the incomprehension of a nincompoop.” Recall this is written by a man in a labor camp who owns nothing. His meditation on Robinson Crusoe, about a man trapped on an island, is equally compelling:

“Some books beckon us on to freedom, to embark on a voyage. But how we may survive without sailing anywhere, without moving from the spot, simply staying in our cage – this we can learn only from Robinson Crusoe, the most useful, exhilarating and benign novel in the world.”

In his essay, Wilson writes: “When I read a writer whose voice (even in translation!) makes a strong impression on me, I start thinking in sentences like his, like hers. Often this becomes an inner speech, ‘in my head,’ narrating and commenting. This takes the form of parody as well as ‘mimetic homage.’” I’ve been doing this with Sinyavsky/Tertz for more than forty years. There are greater writers, certainly greater Russian writers, but with his voice I feel a ready-made affinity. I think I’ve learned things from him as a writer. For instance, I’ve read Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy’s Abram Tertz and the Poetics of Crime (Yale University Press, 1995). In it, she quotes a book by Sinyavsky/Tertz, a monograph devoted to the Russian religious thinker Vasily Rozanov, as yet untranslated into English. Here is her translation:

“Aphorisms—as a genre, as a literary form—free the author from the necessity of laying out his thoughts consecutively and gradually, in the form of some system or doctrine, in the form of cohesive narrative. Aphorisms, as a genre, presuppose discontinuity. Aphorisms presuppose as it were that the author’s ‘I’ is multi-faceted and many faced. It is impossible to write aphorisms entirely on one theme. Aphorisms are always characterized by a diversity of thoughts, a diversity of subjects.”

That’s a neat distillation of Sinyavsky/Tertz’s prose strategy, one I find useful.

1 comment:

Tim Guirl said...

Thanks for noting John Wilson's essay on Andrei Sinyavsky. It has been many years since I read A Voice from the Chorus. I am delighted to see that Mr. Wilson is still writing. For most of its existence I was a reader of the Books and Culture magazine he edited.