Russia's Writers: After Silence, Human Voices
PROBABLY THE MOST STARTLING BOOK to come out of Russia in recent years was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In massively compelling detail, it described the blighted existence of a prisoner in one of Stalin's detention camps at a time when the Soviet government had barely got around to admitting their existence. But Solzhenitsyn had spent eight years in just such a camp. And a question arose—was it impressive merely because it was autobiographically true? Now Solzhenitsyn's second book—a pair of short novels—has appeared. Even in a translation that is stolidly wooden, "We Never Make Mistakes" (University of South Carolina) demonstrates that Solzhenitsyn is not only politically courageous but also a writer of stature by any standard.
This time Solzhenitsyn's subjects are far less provocative — the life and death of an old peasant woman existing on the fringes of Soviet society; an incident between two soldiers in wartime. But in each, not so much from easy political resentment as from a profound accumulation of sorrow, Solzhenitsyn asks questions that challenge the validity of the whole Soviet system.
Reverse Hero. The hero of the first story is a lonely, goodhearted, un-worldly army officer who has been stuck in a job as a traffic-control boss at a rail junction behind the receding Russian front in the fall of 1941. Lieut. Zotov exudes an innocent revolutionary zeal that clearly has no place in the cynical power structure of the Soviet world. In the '30s, when he volunteered to go to Spain, the authorities regarded him as some kind of nut and sent him back to the university. He is troubled because the war is not following the victorious blueprint that Joseph Stalin always said it would. His only solace is reading Das Kapital. "The worse the news from the war became," writes Solzhenitsyn, "the more he buried himself in this thick blue book."
Zotov is the precise reverse of the old cast-iron, pure-in-word-and-deed Soviet literary hero whom he outwardly resembles. His scruples about profiting from his command position at the railyard, his diffidence about sex, his devotion to duty are presented not as Soviet virtues grafted on him by the state but as signs of an inner innocence that is doomed to disillusion. The moment comes when Zotov is confronted by a "straggler"—one of the thousands of Russian soldiers who had been separated from their outfits in the confusion as the Germans advanced. Zotov is drawn to the man. He talks to him about his own life in Moscow, about the straggler's wife and children. Then, on the slightest possible evidence, he has to betray his new friend as a suspect spy. Vaguely, but with deep melancholy, Zotov begins to feel a sense of personal guilt, to comprehend the impossible strain that the Soviet regime has placed upon all human relationships.
The Righteous One. Like Solzhenitsyn himself, the narrator of the second story is a former political prisoner and teacher who "wanted to cut myself loose and get lost in the innermost heart of Russia—if there were any such thing." He finds a village and an old woman named Matryona. Slowly sketching her life, Solzhenitsyn presents her as a symbol of ancient Russia, oppressed by czars and commissars alike, but still waiting for fulfillment. "She was considered 'odd' by her sisters," he concludes, "a laughingstock who was so stupid as to work for others without pay. She never accumulated property against the time of her death. A dirty white goat, a crippled cat, and rubber plants were her only possessions . . . We all lived beside her and never understood that she was that righteous one without whom, according to the proverb, no village can stand. Nor any city. Nor our whole land."
Solzhenitsyn is 45, a schoolteacher, and reported to be suffering from cancer. He is likely to raise a towering voice in the strange and still tormented world of Soviet letters—if he lives and if he is allowed to write. Matryona's House was attacked in Russia on the ground that it suggests the revolution has failed to improve the lot of the peasantry.
Uneven Spate. This is light treatment, even in the current cultural "thaw" on which Nikita Khrushchev seems to blow now hot, now cold. Other writers have fared much worse—or feared to try publishing at all. The Trial Begins, a brilliant satiric fantasy that treats life among party members as a grotesque nightmare of greed and hypocrisy, had to be smuggled out of Russia and printed under the assumed name of Abram Tertz. No one yet knows who the real author is. Soviet Writer Valery Tarsis, in The Bluebottle (Knopf), cavalierly compared the attitude of officials liquidating citizens to that of a man swatting flies—and was promptly sent to an insane asylum. Others have been dispatched to the hinterlands for stretches of forced "vacation" or sent into factories as workers to punish them for exuberant lapses into frankness. It is not surprising, therefore, that the spate of books coming out of Russia these days is uneven and, for Western readers, hard to assess, particularly since too many of them are wildly advertised as the one book that rocked the Soviet Union to its heels. Yet it is now possible to take provisional stock of the newly emerging Soviet literature.
The new literature does not provide facile diversion for a drowsy reader. For one thing, translations tend to be abysmal. For another, stylistic techniques are usually old-fashioned—partly because Soviet authorities still frown on "bourgeois ornamentation," partly because Soviet writers are still too intoxicated at being even partially free to say what things have been like in their world to try cutting fancy capers.
Some of the most vaunted political landmarks—those books that dared for the first time to deal with hitherto forbidden topics—are also literary bombs. One Day in the "New Life," Fedor Abramov's courageous 1963 account of dreary living on a communal farm, is barely readable as fiction. Vladimir Dudintsev's Not by Bread Alone (1957), the first novel to attack the Communist hierarchy openly, handles its dramatic scenes at a level of skill well below the Roger-loves-Linda epics of U.S. women's fiction.
The New Voices. But a handful of recent books and authors makes a powerful and provocative testament for a thoughtful Western reader. For they are human voices, raised from a vast land from which for decades nothing much was allowed to emerge except monolithic grunts of propaganda. Like victims of some enormous railway accident trying to put it into words for the first time, the new Soviet writers are men groping for ways to convey an experience beyond all normal imagination.
Among the younger generation now emerging as a result of the thaw, three novelists seem outstanding: YURI KAZAKOV, 36, VASILY AKSENOV, 30, and VLADIMIR MAXIMOV, 30. Time and circumstance have permitted them a heretofore unheard-of luxury—the recognition that a writer need have no social purpose other than writing as well as he can about a world he knows.
Possibly because he is the son of a factory worker, and a bit older than the others, Kazakov is less controversial. Going to Town and Other Stories (Houghton Mifflin), to be published in the U.S. this January, contains one remote political allegory—about a trained bear who escapes but who has lived so long in captivity that he does not know how to live in freedom. But mostly Kazakov, in a style that mixes Hemingway with Chekhov, deals with the grit and grandeur of small human encounters: a lyrical and fetching account of first love; a new tenant's struggle with a formidable landlady; the hesitant, chilled affair between a waspish, well-known artist and a young girl who both fears and admires him.
Itchy Heels. Aksenov's A Ticket to the Stars (Signet) is a sprightly, fond, slang-filled chronicle of teenagers with itchy heels who are now free to rough it as beach bums and part-time workers. For a U.S. reader, Ticket sounds a little like Where the Boys Are, with the Gulf of Finland instead of Fort Lauderdale as backdrop. But there is a notable difference. In the U.S., the teenage prerogative to trample all over everyone in a society already overgeared to their wishes is not only a bore but even a menace. In the Soviet Union, even small freedoms seem to be an infinitely precious gift lately granted to the young. Aksenov's narrator is an elder brother who has always been the model student and is now a successful research scientist (Aksenov himself is a doctor). Watching the capers of his brother and his friends, he reflects that such doings were never possible for him. "Keep dancing," he thinks, "this is your world. The bearded men won't raise their swords. We guarantee that." And somehow the banality is touching.
Much the same situation dignifies Maximov's novel, A Man Survives (Grove). Seryosha, his young hero, of ten spouts familiar teen-age protests. "I hate the whole world," he shouts at one point. "I hate everybody who has the right to bang his fist on the table, to give marks." But the reader is mistaken who thinks he is listening in on James Dean complaining to Dad because he can't have the family car for a double date. Seryosha's father has been taken away by the NKVD, and the boy has encountered in Joseph Stalin and the local commissar a pair of father images worthy of hate.
With flashbacks, brief jagged confrontations, and dirty language — all of them daring deviations from stodgy stylistic norms in Stalin's time — Maximov tells how the rebellious Seryosha lives as an outlaw on the seamy side of the Soviet establishment, first stealing vegetables to sell on the black market, then working for a smuggler plying the border trade back and forth from Turkey. Eventually he is drafted to fight in World War II.
In quick images, Maximov slashes a scene in place. His hero, hating the smug, virtuous world, rejects the sympathy of the few kind and decent people he encounters because it is rage itself, he comes to understand, that keeps him alive. "I defend myself against them," he thinks in a rare moment of self-understanding, "with all the fury accumulated in years of wolfish life." Eventually he gives in and accepts society, because he realizes that, bad as it is, it is redeemed by individual acts of humanity.
Snows & Saints. In poetry, Evgeny Evtushenko, 30, is still the major voice, and has taken the brunt of the backlash that followed his first outspoken poems. But nowadays Evtushenko's reputation is being matched by that of Andrei Voznesensky, 30, more gifted and only slightly less flamboyant ex-student of architecture. Voznesensky's newest volume of verse will appear in the U.S. in translation this spring.
Western critics have already begun to cool their original ardor for new Soviet verse and lately have begun to grumble that Evtushenko and Voznesensky have neither read T.S. Eliot nor profited by exposure to the likes of William Carlos Williams. The complaint is true, but beside the point. Voznesensky and Evtushenko invite useful comparison not with the sophisticated Western poets of today but with Carl Sandburg singing of the Western plains or the chest-thumping celebrations of Walt Whitman. Like Sandburg, and like the U.S. folk singers who make up rhymes for the freedom riders, the new Soviet poets tend to alternate between lyrical simplicity and passionate rhetoric, as in these excerpts translated in Encounter:
You whisper of childhood, as we touch cheeks,
That country of childhood, where horses and suns
And honeycombs glitter like icons.
And look at your hair, its honey tints . . .
I live in Russia, among snows and saints!
I am sorrow
I am the voice of war
the embers of cities
on the snows of the year '41
I am hunger
I am the throat of a woman
whose body like a bell
hangs over the naked square . . .
The prose comments of such writers on the role they play—seen most notably in Evtushenko's Precocious Autobiography—are fascinating for Western readers in general and highly recommended to Americans who still think that any sensible, freedom-loving Russian would like nothing better than to migrate for keeps to, say, Jersey City. The young poets exude a refreshing sense of purpose that comes with a mature consciousness of power. In the West, where writers have always been free to say what they please, composing a poem is neither an act of rebellion nor an act of courage. However daring a writer's pronunciamento, it is taken in stride by the movers and shakers as part of democracy's continuing dialogue. It sometimes makes Western writers feel frustrated.
But in Russia, during the years when ideas of any kind were considered enemies, authorities thought writing so explosive that they paid writers of all kinds the extreme compliment of sending them to Siberia for saying anything honest at all. Now Russian readers, long starved for words that would offer back to them an image of their own repressed hopes and feelings, stretch avidly to hear any new voice that is raised.
Evtushenko and Voznesensky read their poems to tens of thousands, and their books are bestsellers. They know that just by tweaking the nose of authority—attacking Soviet anti-Semitism, for example, or just praising the crazy doings of the young—they are helping a whole land full of people come to life again. Like any number of Russian writers, they hope to fashion the challenging conception of a new destiny for Russia to replace the great dream of the Revolution, which drowned in blood and bureaucracy.