Monday, February 25, 2019

'Culture Is the Basis of All Life'

Andrei Sinyavsky – or was it Abram Tertz? – told an interviewer in 1978, seven years after his release from the Gulag and five after fleeing the Soviet Union for France: “I fear uniformity.” As we once thought every writer did. It was our obligation to rethink the world, weigh evidence, purge delusions, consult forebears, reject clichés of thought and language, and draw our own conclusions. Today, a kinder-gentler species of Zhdanovshchina prevails. Punishment for variance from orthodoxy can be swift, harsh and invariably ad hominem.

If you’re new to Sinyavsky, start with A Voice from the Chorus (trans. Kyril Fitzlyon, Max Hayward, 1976), based on the two letters per month he 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 pseudonym he took from a legendary Russian-Jewish gangster, Abram Tertz, the non-Jewish Sinyavsky published Gogolian stories that flaunted the dreary strictures of socialist realism.

Next, try his heavily autobiographical novel Goodnight! (trans. Richard Lourie, 1989), in which he writes: “Life is what you do while waiting to write.” And he comments on his other self, 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.”

Also Strolls with Pushkin, along with the early work that got him in trouble: On Socialist Realism, The Trial Begins, The Makepeace Experiment and Fantastic Stories. Sinyavsky sounds almost overconfident in his 1978 interview:

“We must defend our independence. Very often the politically minded don't realise that culture is the basis of all life. Let's assume the Soviet Union sets about conquering the West. The West will stand firm precisely because of its cultural structure. Of course tanks can flatten all buildings and trees and forms. But the West will offer resistance not merely with the help of the atom bomb, one atom bomb against-the other; but will resist precisely because of its structure, that is to say, its culture.”

Sinyavsky’s faith in Western culture is at once flattering, touching and naïve. On all sides it crumbles from within. The enemy breached the walls a long time ago. In Hope Abandoned (trans. Max Hayward, 1974), Nadhezhda Mandelstam writes of an old man who had spent twenty years in the camps and exile, but had throughout “kept his loyalty to the victors,” with his “party card engraved on his heart”:

“It was the time of the Siniavski affair, and I asked him his view of it. The old man began to seethe with unfeigned indignation: Siniavski had ‘hidden behind a pseudonym.’ ‘Not like us Bolsheviks,’ he continued. ‘We went right up on the platform and said exactly what we thought.’ I laughed at him.’ ‘And you never lied, by any chance?’ I always did, you know—not that I ever went up on a platform, of course, but I lied and hid my real thoughts every day and every hour: in the classroom, in the lecture hall, at home, in the kitchen. . . . How could I do otherwise? One truthful word, and I would have got ten years’ forced labor, right there and then.”

About the old man, the poet’s widow goes on: “He was not simply an idiot, but a product of the times. The basic ideas which went into his makeup (one cannot use the word ‘personality’) have warped his mind, and his memory holds up a distorting mirror to past events and actions.”

Sinyavsky/Tertz died on this date, Feb. 25, in 1997, in Paris, at the age of seventy-one.

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