Vassily Aksyonov 1932–
(Full name Vassily Pavlovich Aksyonov; also transliterated as Vassily Aksenov) Russian novelist, dramatist, short story writer, scriptwriter, and children's author.
The following entry provides an overview of Aksyonov's career through 1995. For further information of his life and career, see CLC, Volumes 22 and 37.
Widely known for his association with the "youth prose" movement in Russian literature, Vassily Aksyonov has established himself as a satirist whose topics include political corruption, the Soviet regime, alienation, adolescent angst, and cultural differences between the East and West. His surrealistic techniques coupled with his use of jargon and slang are trademark characteristics of Aksyonov's fiction. The blending of real historical events into his novels has also distinguished Aksyonov's work. Novels such as Ozhog (1980; The Burn) and Ostrov Krym (1981; The Island of Crimea) address a variety of issues such as political imprisonment, exile, corruption, and isolation.
Born on August 20, 1932, in Kazan, U.S.S.R., Vassily Pavlovich Aksyonov has gained increasing recognition as a writer of satirical, surrealistic fiction. His mother, Eugenia Semenovna Ginzburg, was a history instructor at Kazan University. Her prison-camp memoir Journey into the Whirlwind (1962) established her as a well-known writer and heavily influenced Vassily's most ambitious and successful novel, The Burn. His father, Pavel Vasilievich Aksyonov, was a professional Communist Party member. Both of Aksyonov's parents were impprisoned in 1937, and in 1948 he joined his mother in Magadan, where she was living in exile, and completed his elementary education in 1950. In 1956 he graduated from the First Leningrad Medical Institute as a medical doctor. Aksyonov served as staff physician in a tuberculosis clinic until 1958 and as a specialist in adolescent tuberculosis until 1960. After the publication of his novel Kollegi (1961; Colleagues) in 1960 in two issues of Yunost' (Youth) magazine, Aksyonov left medicine to pursue writing full time. During the 1960s Aksyonov's novels enjoyed a period of popularity when Soviet restraints on literature were less rigid. In the 1970s, censorship and increasing conflict with Soviet officials prompted him to leave his homeland. Called the Russian J. D. Salinger by many critics for his treatment of youth, alienation, and the search for meaning, Aksyonov has been praised for the wide scope of his novels, his social satire, and his historical scholarship. His works continue to be translated into English, and currently Aksyonov is again being recognized as a prominent voice in literature.
Aksyonov's first two novels, Colleagues and Zvezdnyi bilet (1961; A Ticket to the Stars), received widespread attention in the Soviet Union. A Ticket to the Stars focuses on rebellious teenagers in Moscow and was popular for its depiction of rowdy, flippant youth. Critiqued heavily for its experimental nature and its use of jargon and slang, the novel offended many Soviet officials. The novel's irreverent attitude and the author's subsequent writings prompted a public scolding from Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1963 and a forced apology from Aksyonov. Pora, moi drug, pora (1964; It's Time, My Friend, It's Time) examines the themes of alienation and the search for meaning. The surrealistic novel The Burn has many autobiographical elements and traces the development of five alternate versions of Tolya Von Steinbock's persona. Divided into three sections, The Burn focuses on three different periods in Tolya's life. In The Island of Crimea, set on the Crimean peninsula, Aksyonov imagines that Crimea is an autonomous society separated from the Soviet Union. The novel is another social satire reliant on a stretch of the imagination, but it is deemed less surrealistic and far-fetched than Aksyonov's previous works. Skazi izjum! (1985; Say Cheese!) presents an account of Aksyonov's emigration to America and provides an insightful look into Soviet culture and regime. Pokolenie zimy (1993; Generations of Winter) is a sweeping epic that begins during the 1920s and ends with the conclusion of World War II. The novel has been compared to the works of Leo Tolstoy and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Throughout his career Aksyonov has presented satires of both Eastern and Western society. His work has frequently been criticized for its use of dated slang, jargon, surrealistic techniques, inside jokes, and farcical situations. Critic Priscilla Meyer asserts that A Ticket to the Stars and Colleagues both attempt "to show that while contemporary youth may look and talk like stiliagi ("beatniks"), they nonetheless shared the ideals of the previous generation." Examining themes of alienation and adolescent rebellion, A Ticket to the Stars offended the "Old Guard," but was very popular with the Russian youth, according to Meyer. Aksyonov's critique of the Russian regime continued in The Burn, and the author was forced to leave his homeland upon the novel's publication in 1980. In his review of The Burn, Czech novelist Josef Skvorecky calls Aksyonov "an epoch-making writer" whose "stunning inferno" of Stalinism reminded him of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Critics such as Fernanda Eberstadt fault the novel for its "authorial self-indulgence," and "stale literary fashions," but most critics regard it highly. Meyer states: "By recapitulating his own biography, Aksyonov writes a literary-historical confession that traces the effects of Stalinism on the author's generation from the 1940s to the mid-1970s." Say Cheese! likewise is lauded for its insightful look at life during the Soviet regime. Eva Hoffman describes the book as a "disturbing and persuasive probe into the inner mechanisms of the Soviet machine on the eve of potential disintegration—or glasnost." Critic Jay Parini calls Generations of Winter "a masterly, rather self-consciously Tolstoyan epic that opens in the late 1920s and ends, hauntingly, amid the ruins of World War II." According to Adam Hochschild review of the novel, Aksyonov's blending of fact and fiction, his frequent quoting of great Russian poets, and his excellent grasp of history allow the author to present an "absorbing," all-encompassing epic in which "everything rings true."
Kollegi [Colleagues] (novel) 1961
Zvezdnyi bilet [A Ticket to the Stars] (novel) 1961
Apel' siny iz Marokko [Oranges from Morocco] (novel) 1962
Pora, moi drug, pora [It's Time, My Friend, It's Time] (novel) 1964
The Destruction of Pompei and Other Stories (short stories) 1965
Zatovarennaia bochkotara [The Tare of Barrels] (novel) 1968
Randevu [Rendezvous] (novella) 1971
Liubov'k elektrichestvu [Love for Electricity] (novel) 1971
Ozhog [The Burn] (novel) 1980
Ostrov Krym [The Island of Crimea] (novel) 1981
Skazi izjum! [Say Cheese!] (novel) 1985
V poiskakh grustnogo bebi: Kniga ob Amerike [In Search of Melancholy Baby] (nonfiction) 1987
∗Pokolenie zimy [Generations of Winter] (novel) 1993
∗Voina i tiur'ma [War and Prison] (novel) 1993
∗Tiur'ma i mir [Prison and Peace] (novel) 1994
∗ These works comprise a trilogy, Moskovskaia saga [Moscow Saga].
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SOURCE: "Vasili Aksenov at 33," in Tri-Quarterly, No. 2, Spring, 1965, pp. 75-83.
[In the following essay, Brown examines a variety of Aksyonov's works and provides an overview of the author's career.]
Kirpichenko, a roughneck tractor driver in the Soviet Far East, begins his vacation with a three-day binge, then boards a jet for Moscow. On the plane he is fatally dazzled by the beautiful stewardess Tanya. Tamed and bemused, he spends the rest of his vacation, and all his money, flying back and forth on the Moscow-Khabarovsk run, hoping for another glimpse of Tanya. When he finally sees her again in the airport, it is too late; the broken giant retains his fair vision, but he must go back to work.
Uncle Mitya, a taxi-driver in Yalta who is plagued by speeding tickets, tries to immunize himself by marrying off his daughter, a sister-in-law, and sundry other in-laws to the local traffic cops. The marriages succeed, but the project backfires: Uncle Mitya finds himself hemmed in by his new relatives—staunch enforcers of the law who are first of all anxious to demonstrate their impartiality by pinching him as often as possible.
Georgi Abramashvili is an eighteen-year-old lifeguard at Sukhumi who is awaiting his draft call. He spends his sunny days impressing the girls on the beach with spectacular handstands. At night he courts trouble with the Komsomol by evading service...
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SOURCE: "Aksenov and Soviet Literature of the 1960s," in Russian Literature Triquarterly, No. 6, Fall, 1973, pp. 446-60.
[In the following essay, Meyer discusses several of Aksyonov's works and comments on the author's place in the "Young Prose" movement in Russian literature.]
After Stalin's death Soviet literature had no rich indigenous tradition to proceed from directly, but there was a wide variety of elements, both Russian and Western, from which a new synthesis could be drawn. The first change that took place after 1953 broadened the range of permissible subject matter, and the first Thaw produced a rash of stories attacking bureaucratization. Subsequently, translations of contemporary Western literature (the journal Foreign Literature began publishing in 1955) and later the republication of Russian literature of the first third of this century (Blok in 1963, Olesha, Tsvetaeva, and Pasternak in 1965, Bely in 1966, Balmont in 1969) provided material for stylistic innovation. Psychologically, Khrushchev's "Secret Speech" at the 22nd Party Congress in 1956 had an enormous effect on the generation from which the new readers and writers of the 1960s were to emerge: the opening up of possibilities produced a general sense of exhilaration, a sense that if you were honest, talented and even innovative, you could become successful. This drew a large number of people into literature, especially from...
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SOURCE: "Introduction: The Life and Works of Aksyonov," in The Steel Bird and Other Stories, by Vassily Aksyonov, Ardis, 1979, pp. ix-xxvii.
[In the following essay, Johnson discusses several of Aksyonov's novels and short stories and provides a comprehensive look at the author's career.]
Vasily Pavlovich Aksenov was born on August 20, 1932 in Kazan. His mother, Eugenia Semenovna Ginzburg, was a history instructor at Kazan University who later became a well-known writer for her prison-camp memoir Journey into the Whirlwind (1962). His father, Pavel Vasilievich Aksenov, was a leading member of the Tartar Regional Committee of the Party, a professional Party man and revolutionary.
Previous to the Stalinist incarceration of his parents in 1937 Aksenov lived in a happy home that in addition to his parents consisted of his older brother, Alyosha, who died in the blockade of Leningrad, an older sister, Mayka, presently a Russian language teacher at Moscow University, a nurse, Fima, and his paternal grandmother, who was glowingly described by Ginzburg in her memoirs. Although the memoirs mention young Vasily as a two-year-old, he was actually four years old when his mother was arrested in February 1937, and almost five when his father was arrested later that year. Eugenia Ginzburg spent two years in Yaroslavl, followed by sixteen years in the Far East region of the Kolyma River, first...
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SOURCE: "Exit, Pursued by a Bear," in The New York Times Book Review, December 11, 1983, p. 11.
[In the following review, Gold lauds The Island of Crimea, praising Aksyonov's skill as a novelist.]
I remember my relief as a young man to discover that the apparently monstrous mass of Greenland in the atlas is a necessary map maker's illusion, that while it is "the largest island in the world," Greenland is not, in fact, the approximate size of four Australias or capable of entirely covering the North American continent, which it abuts. But so far as I know, no one has yet blown the whistle on Rand McNally for its Soviet Union, which lumbers into the picture from the west (with all of Asia clinging to its underbelly) like an obese dragon, snaps hungrily at Alaska and, after the comparatively small interval of Canada and the North Atlantic, shambles off stage right dragging the rest of Europe behind it like so many tin cans at its tail. No one, that is, has explained away the Soviet Union's bulk as a cartographic aberration, and with Moscow's tendency to secure its borders by the threat and use of military force, it is no great wonder that Soviet paranoia should give rise to paranoia in a good portion of the rest of the world.
These thoughts follow a reading of Vassily Aksyonov's remarkable novel The Island of Crimea. Mr. Aksyonov's fictional Soviet Union is only slightly less...
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SOURCE: "The Island of Crimea," in America, Vol. 150, No. 16, April 28, 1984, pp. 322-23.
[In the following brief review, Aksyonov's use of satire in The Island of Crimea is compared to the satirical elements found in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.]
A classic joke current among Russian dissidents runs, "What is the difference between Communism and capitalism? Answer: Capitalism is the exploitation of some individuals by other individuals. Communism is just the opposite." Vassily Aksyonov's new novel, The Island of Crimea, draws a sharp cultural distinction between the two "isms" by creating a geographic fantasy in which the Crimean peninsula is no longer part of the Soviet Union but is instead an island, distinct from the Soviet mainland and economic system, reminiscent of Hong Kong's relation to mainland China.
Although this is the first of his novels to be translated and published in the United States, Aksyonov is a well-known and widely read if officially unpopular Russian writer. More fortunate than his parents, who suffered persecution and exile (Aksyonov's mother, Eugenia Ginsburg, has written a justly celebrated account of the family ordeal), Aksyonov managed to leave Moscow for the United States five years ago after battling Soviet censors and physical intimidation.
The Island of Crimea provides an interesting example of fiction that...
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SOURCE: A review of The Island of Crimea, in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 28, No. 3, Fall, 1984, pp. 410-11.
[In the following review of The Island of Crimea, Peterson points out the variations in different translations of the novel and builds a case for the merits of Heim's translation.]
The Island of Crimea, a translation of Vasilij Aksenov's Ostrov Krym (1981), is the first of his novels printed abroad to appear in English. Two others, which were in fact published earlier, Ozhog and Zolotaja naša zhelezka (both 1980), have also been translated and will be brought out in the near future: The Burn, in Michael Glenny's rendition, by Random House, and Our Golden Ironburg, translated by this reviewer for Ardis. Since The Island of Crimea has the most appeal for a Western reader, its appearance first is appropriate, and the responses in the media have been largely favorable, though in some cases reviewers have mistakenly assumed that it is his first novel to appear in English, over-looking his work of the early 1960's.
Aksenov's intentions, as stated in his 1983 Preface to the English version, center on an investigation, in fictional form, of the question "What if Crimea had developed as a Russian, yet Western, democracy alongside the totalitarian mainland?" But The Island of Crimea is more than a...
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SOURCE: "The Mess of Mother Russia," in The New Republic, Vol. 191, No. 27, December 31, 1984, pp. 30, 32-3.
[Skvorecký is a noted Czech-Canadian political novelist. In the following review, he praises The Burn and calls Aksyonov an "epochmaking writer."]
Much of the effect of literary art depends on a kind of inside knowledge, on the reverberations of personal association. We miss a lot even in the thoroughly explicated plays of Shakespeare; and even such relatively simple works as Babbitt certainly appear richer to a Midwestern contemporary of [Sinclair] Lewis than to a high school girl studying American literature in Peking. Still, more than enough remains in a great book like The Canterbury Tales, for instance, to make it a best-seller in Prague in the early 1950s—although that book's appeal for the Czechs lay, admittedly, not just in the work's intrinsic value, but also in its side delights. "The Miller's Tale," unexpurgated because it was a classic, was a rare, juicy morsel for readers starving on a diet of novels in which, if a newlywed Stakhanovite wanted to indicate to her husband that he had brought her into an interesting condition, she had to lead him under a blossoming cherry tree, point out a nestful of newly hatched birds, and blush.
At the beginning of Aksyonov's immensely rich novel, a sexy Muscovite—the females of that cynical city blush only...
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SOURCE: "Aksenov and Stalinism: Political, Moral and Literary Power," in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 30, No. 4, Winter, 1986, pp. 509-25.
[In the following review, Meyer discusses the influences that Bulgakov's Master and Margarita and Journey Into the Whirlwind, the prison camp memoirs of Aksyonov's mother, had on The Burn.]
Stalinism has necessarily been a central subject of serious Russian literature since the 1930s. The grotesque nature of Stalinist society has generated memoirs more fantastic than fiction and novels especially rooted in history. Survivors of the experience are unavoidably concerned with the moral problems of resisting and responding to evil, torn between a desire for revenge and the ideal of forgiveness. Aksenov's The Burn (Ozhog) must be read in the context of this history and the texts it produced. The burn of the title refers both to Stalinism and to the burn of creativity. By recapitulating his own biography, Aksenov writes a literary-historical confession that traces the effects of Stalinism on the author's generation from the 1940s to the mid-1970s. In attempting to reconcile his love of Russian culture with his hatred of Russian barbarity, Aksenov sets the novel in dialogue with two authoritative texts: his mother's memoir of her years in Stalin's camps provides the focus of the moral dimension of The Burn, while Bulgakov's Master and...
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SOURCE: A review of In Search of Melancholy Baby, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 28, 1987, pp. 3, 7.
[In the following review, Eder discusses the shortcomings of Aksyonov's book In Search of Melancholy Baby.]
Vassily Aksyonov, whose novel, The Burn, is one of the masterpieces of dissident Soviet literature, has been living in this country for the last half-dozen years. He is not really qualified to write about the United States. He is marvelously well qualified to write about himself in the United States.
In Search of Melancholy Baby does too much of the first and too little of the second. It takes a long time for an emigre to arrive; particularly, an emigre writer. The flowers are different, Josef Brodsky once pointed out; and more important, the words for the flowers are different.
Aksyonov is getting here, as we can see from the mordant and singularly voiced passages that sprout here and there in these American reflections. He is not here yet, as we see from the rather familiar generalities, sometimes whimsical and sometimes solemn, that threaten to turn his book into a Visitor's Book.
Or, if you like, he has arrived and unpacked everything but himself. He has still to make himself the metaphor for his America; the kind of thing that Vladimir Nabokov did with his fictional selves in Lolita and Pnin....
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SOURCE: "He Likes It Here, Mostly," in The New York Times Book Review, July 19, 1987, p. 5.
[In the following review, Lingeman comments on Aksyonov's In Search of Melancholy Baby, noting that the book, an account of Aksyonov's life in America after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, provides many witty and satirical insights into life in both countries.]
In 1980, after his novel of life among the Moscow culturati, The Burn, was published in Italy, Vassily Aksyonov was expelled from the Soviet Union. Now he is an outspoken skeptic about glasnost in the Russian literary diaspora. The Burn is written in a brilliantly subversive style, stuffed with satire, surrealism, anarchic Henry Milleresque bawdiness, and thrown in the face of Soviet realism.
His latest book, In Search of Melancholy Baby, an account of his new life in America, will earn its author no rehabilitative points with the Ministry of Culture. Actually, before his expulsion, Mr. Aksyonov published another book on the United States describing a visit he made here in 1975. But then he was a writer in good standing, with a car and a dacha in the suburbs; also, detente was briefly in the air. Now, he is a prominent dissident, stripped of his citizenship, and his reflections are as unwelcome in the Soviet Union as are Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's.
He might be said to have been drawn...
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SOURCE: "The New Alrightniks," in The New Republic, Vol. 197, No. 10, September 7, 1987, pp. 36-38.
[In the following review, Baranczak discusses Aksyonov's In Search of Melancholy Baby, pointing out that the account "illustrates two sides of the émigré's problem at once."]
Every Nabokov fan remembers the scene in Pnin in which the hero, an émigré Russian scholar who has lived for years on an American college campus, attempts to purchase some sports equipment:
Pnin entered a sport shop in Waindell's Main Street and asked for a football. The request was unseasonable but he was offered one.
"No, no," said Pnin, "I do not wish an egg or, for example, a torpedo. I want a simple football ball. Round!"
And with wrists and palms he outlined a portable world. It was the same gesture he used in class when speaking of the "harmonical wholeness" of Pushkin.
The salesman lifted a finger and silently fetched a soccer ball.
"Yes, this I will buy," said Pnin with dignified satisfaction.
This captures perfectly the Eastern European's experience in this country. We come here with our portable worlds sharply outlined. The years of living there, the cultural stereotypes we have inherited, the semantic distinctions that our native...
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SOURCE: "Patriots and Other Suspects," in The New York Times Book Review, January 24, 1988, pp. 9-10.
[In the following review, Wood discusses several plays included in Aksyonov's collection Quest for an Island.]
The cold war appears to have ended not in a thaw but in a world of thin ice. Détente itself is perhaps inseparable from suspicion, and in an uncertain world dissidents are almost impossible to hold in any sort of steady focus. Heroes abroad, rebels at home, scapegoats, martyrs, traitors, criminals, they qualify for a whole range of prominent roles. The one role they can't have, sadly, is the one they most seek: that of the person who refuses all the overwritten scripts on offer. What if a dissident were to become a hero at home, for example, as Vassily Aksyonov imagines in one of his earlier novels, The Island of Crimea? "Who was the true hero of today's Russia, who was braver—the cosmonaut or the dissident? A childish question, perhaps, but worthy of serious consideration." The dissident as patriot: even in a state of détente such a picture is not intelligible to pursuers of un-Russian or un-American activities.
"We Russians are known for our imagination," a character ironically says in the same novel. He means that much party propaganda is just fantasy, but also that Russians are capable of imagining what reality makes little promise of. Mr. Aksyonov himself...
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SOURCE: "On Soviet Dissidence as Both Sides Falter," in The New York Times, July 26, 1989, p. C21.
[In the following review, Hoffman faults Say Cheese! for its tendency to utilize jokes and satire only humorous to Russian readers, but asserts that the book provides an insightful look into Russia and its political regime.]
Among Soviet writers, moral dissidence has a long and honorable tradition. Vassily Aksyonov is one of the few, however, who have managed to match their oppositional message with an equally liberated style. In the Soviet Union, Mr. Aksyonov was celebrated as one of the most provocative voices—free-wheeling, satirical, formally daring—of the postwar generation. In 1980, he was forced to emigrate, after he instigated a bold effort to create the first uncensored magazine, Metropol, and after his novel The Burn was published in the West. In the United States, where he now lives, The Burn met with wide critical acclaim; and since then Mr. Aksyonov has published several books, including a highly polished collection of stories, Quest for an Island, and In Search of Melancholy Baby, an émigré's account of his fan-tasied and real encounters with his adopted country.
Although Say Cheese! is being published for the first time now, it was written between 1980 and 1983, right after Mr. Aksyonov was exiled; and while it has all...
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SOURCE: "The Soviet Union Is No Joke," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 13, 1989, pp. 2, 10.
[In the following review, Zinik, a novelist, points out the autobiographical aspects of Say Cheese! and faults the novel for its use of 1960s Russian jargon.]
Vassily Aksyonov tells his story of Moscow life of the 1970s as an adventure yarn about a group of dissident photographers who, in spite of KGB schemings, produce an "underground" photography album, Say Cheese! and, having failed to publish it officially, smuggle it to the West. In flashbacks between the actions we learn life stories of all the participants of this enterprise, spearheaded by the ringleader of the group, Maxim Ogorodnikov, who walks recklessly through life on a tightrope between his seven ex-wives, his numerous lovers and colleagues, some of whom are KGB informers. His mother's apartment on Gorky Street is full of old Bolshevik memorabilia. His stepbrother, a Soviet journalist stationed mainly abroad, is also a KGB general assigned to the propaganda department.
The hero's physical strength and sexual prowess, his reckless determination and the sheer energy he always exudes make him a natural leader among his friends who, brave and honest as they are, cannot match Ogorodnikov's ability to tackle with the same panache as he does any dangerous confrontation with the authorities. In the course of expanding...
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SOURCE: "Correlation of Farces," in The New Republic, Vol. 201, No. 3896/3897, September 18 and 25, 1989, pp. 52-53.
[In the following review, Howe lauds the farcical aspects of Say Cheese! but faults the novel's attempts at seriousness in the latter half of the book.]
There's a lot of pleasure to be had from the first half of this novel, a satiric farce about the life of culture in Brezhnev's Russia. Vassily Aksyonov, an émigré Russian now living in the United States, writes with the happy abandon of a true farceur. He commands a taste for the ridiculous, cares little for cautions of verisimilitude, and has a ready supply of puns, jokes, and saucy footnotes. His episodic narrative might almost be taken for a picaresque tale, were its hero not deprived of the picaro's traditional freedom to roam and to poke about.
Say Cheese! draws upon Aksyonov's own experiences. In 1979 he was a central figure within a group of "intellectual gangsters," that is, serious Russian writers who wanted to issue Metropol, the first uncensored anthology of Soviet literature. The results proved to be most unpleasant, Aksyonov resigning from the Writers Union because it expelled two of his colleagues and a year later emigrating from the Soviet Union. In Say Cheese!, Russian writers are neatly transformed into Russian photographers, but the cultural bureaucrats harassing them in the...
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SOURCE: "Dissidents Abroad," in Partisan Review, Vol. LVIII, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 149-50.
[In the following brief review, Aksyonov's novel Say Cheese! is lauded as a "well-made, surprisingly fluid" book.]
Conformists are all alike; dissidents are all different—and more original. Andrei Sinyavsky's and Vassily Aksyonov's new novels are striking examples of this literary rule. Say Cheese! by Aksyonov is a very amusing and skillfull work, as it charts the waters of the dissident imagination. Goodnight by Sinyavsky (writing as Abram Tertz) is a strange, haunting mixture of narrative, commentary, and rumination. Both writers live in exile, Sinyavsky in Paris, Aksyonov in Washington, D.C. Sinyavsky spent seven years in a labor camp for having a premature criticism of socialist realism smuggled to the West, using the pseudonym of Abram Tertz. Aksyonov was forced to leave the Soviet Union for "treasonable" writings. Sinyavsky strikes one as the most profound and resourceful Russian writer today; Aksyonov as one of the most intelligent.
Say Cheese! tells the rambling story of Russian people caught in the Kafkaesque web of Soviet bureaucratic constrictions, evading the fatalities of the life dictated from above through irony, doubletalk, and cunning. (One is reminded of Joyce's "silence, exile, and cunning.") In a sense there is no story, only a series of comic...
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SOURCE: "Counterrevolutionary Families Are All the Same," in New York Times Book Review, July 17, 1994, p. 6.
[In the review of Generations of Winter below, Parini, an educator, poet, and novelist, compares Aksyonov to Leo Tolstoy and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, lauding Aksyonov's "deft historical scholarship."]
Vassily Aksyonov is the most widely admired Russian novelist of his generation. A physician by training, he enraged the Soviet literary establishment with his jazzy second novel, Ticket to the Stars (1961), which featured the urbanized, Western-influenced youth of the day. Defying censorship at every turn, he produced a blistering sequence of novels and plays during the next two decades; in 1979, he was among the group that published a dissident anthology, Metropol, in a symbolic edition of one. The next year, with the appearance of his novel The Burn—a brilliant, surreal fantasia on Soviet life—he was forced to emigrate.
In exile in the United States, Mr. Aksyonov wrote several remarkable novels, including The Island of Crimea and Say Cheese! The post-modern, almost Pynchonesque feel of this recent work may have left readers unprepared for his latest novel, Generations of Winter, a masterly, rather self-consciously Tolstoyan epic that opens in the late 1920's and ends, hauntingly, amid the ruins of World War II.
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SOURCE: "War and Peace, Part II," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 7, 1994, pp. 1, 11.
[Hochschild is a nonfiction writer whose works include The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin. In the review below, he asserts that the model for Aksyonov's Generations of Winter is Tolstoy's War and Peace and praises Aksyonov's realistic descriptions, calling the novel "absorbing" and claiming that "everything rings true."]
Near the end of her memoirs of Stalin's gulag, the writer Eugenia Ginzburg describes an extraordinary scene. She had just finished many years' imprisonment in Kolyma—the harshest, coldest, most feared region of the vast labor camp system, in the far northeast corner of Siberia, not far from Alaska. Like most newly released prisoners, Ginzburg had to remain in internal exile for some years more. Her husband also had vanished into the gulag, and, while she was in prison, one of her two sons had died in the siege of Leningrad. But the authorities permitted her surviving son to join her in exile. In 1948, he made the long trip to Kolyma, a 16-year-old with a knapsack on his back. She had not seen him for 11 years and greatly feared that they would have nothing in common. But "I found myself catching my breath with joyful astonishment when that very first night he started to recite from memory the very poems that had been my constant companions during my fight for...
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SOURCE: "A Russian Family Copes with Stalinism's Evils," in The New York Times, August 8, 1994, p. C16.
[In the review below, Lehmann-Haupt faults Generations of Winter for its use of archaic jargon and slang but nevertheless calls the book "monumental" and finds the language less distracting as the novel progresses.]
There are a few hurdles to overcome before you can get caught up in the powerful sweep of Vassily Aksyonov's Generations of Winter, a Tolstoyan historical novel that is a departure from the author's previous, less traditional fiction (The Island of Crimea, Say Cheese!, The Burn) and traces the roller-coaster fortunes of one Russian family from 1925, the year of Stalin's ascent to power, to 1945, the end of World War II.
"'So you're not afraid?'" asks an American journalist in Moscow on page 10 "with the directness of a quarterback shotgunning the ball across midfield into his opponent's territory." The metaphor seems as anachronistic as some of the slang the characters employ, with their references to women as broads, food as grub and the head as a noggin.
"'All right, let's go chow down!'" one character says "delightedly, even though at one time, he found this sort of Moscow Communist slang repulsive." "Chow down" is Moscow Communist slang? This will come as surprising news to veterans of the United States Army. In short, those who...
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SOURCE: "War without Peace," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLI, No. 18, November 3, 1994, pp. 4-6.
[In the review below, Banville lauds Generations of Winter as a "major document of our times, and one with lasting power."]
In Generations of Winter Vassily Aksyonov has set out bravely, one might even say brazenly, to write a twentieth-century War and Peace, mingling fictional and historical characters in a great sprawling saga tracing the history of the Soviet Union. This first volume runs from 1925 to 1945; a second volume brings the story into the post-war era. The surprise is that he has succeeded to a remarkable degree. To predict at this point that his novel will prove as enduring as Tolstoy's classic is, of course, impossible. There is a certain coarseness in Aksyonov's literary manner which can be apt, certainly, for the task at hand—has there ever been a coarser place than Stalin's Russia?—but the book's sturdy, carpentered quality at times seems too clumsy to bear comparison with Tolstoy's exquisitely balanced artistic effects. All the same, Aksyonov's energy, inventiveness, and insouciance have resulted in what is surely a major document of our times, and one with lasting power.
Obviously any Russian author attempting to write a work on such a scale would find himself stumbling in Tolstoy's shadow. Aksyonov's solution to the problem is to turn on...
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SOURCE: A review of Moscow Saga, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 387-88.
[In the following favorable review, Radley provides brief synopses of Generations of Winter, War and Prison, and Prison and Peace, which make up the three-volume set entitled Moscow Saga. Radley includes a brief discussion of three major techniques Aksyonov uses in the novels.]
Beginning in 1925 with a conversation between an American newspaperman and a politically intriguing Russian political scientist and ending with the final years of the book's central character, Dr. Boris Nikolaevich Gradov, Vassily Aksyonov's major fictional chronicle of the bitter Stalin years evokes all the grandeur of Tolstoy and all the inhuman psychology of Dostoevsky. Aksyonov, arguably the finest novelist now writing in Russian, has abandoned the allusiveness of much of his earlier work to write directly of Russian history and current events.
There are two sets of protagonists, real and fictional, in the three-volume Moskovskaia saga (Moscow Saga). The fictional ones revolve around the Gradovs, a family pictured in several generations, commencing with Dr. Gradov, a dedicated physician and author whose aim is to cure wherever possible. Twice he is given the possibility of helping Stalin: early in volume 1, Pokolenie zimy (Generations of Winter), he relieves the...
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Bayley, John. "Kitsch and the Novel." New York Review of Books XXXI, No. 18 (22 November 1984): 28-32.
A review of The Island of Crimea, The Burn, and works by several other Russian authors.
Brown, Deming. Review of The Island of Crimea, by Vassily Aksyonov. Slavic Review 42, No. 2 (Summer 1983): 336-37.
Brief plot synopsis of and introduction to The Island of Crimea.
Eberstadt, Fernanda. A review of The Burn, by Vassily Aksyonov. Commentary 80, No. 1 (July 1985): 39-41.
Discusses the mixture of attitudes Aksyonov takes in The Burn.
Hosking, Geoffrey. "The Ascent out of Inhumanity." Times Literary Supplement 4095 (25 September 1981): 1087.
Discusses Aksyonov's two novels, The Burn and The Island of Crimea, and Aksyonov's place as a novelist of the 1960s.
Matich, Olga. "Vasilii Aksyonov and the Literature of Convergence: Ostrov Krym as Self-Criticism." Slavic Review 47, No. 4 (Winter, 1988): 642-51.
Focuses on the literary style and "antiutopian" quality of The Island of Crimea.
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