Critical Essays (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Critical Essays (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Yanovsky, Vassily S(emenovich) (Vol. 2)
Yanovsky, Vassily S(emenovich) 1906–
Yanovsky, a Russian mathematician and doctor, has lived in the United States for the last thirty years. He is the author of ten novels, among these, No Man's Time and Of Light and Sounding Brass.
The Russian doctor and mathematician, in the States for 30 years (and evidently in a state for those decades as well—a state of internal exile, a tyranny tempered by epigrams: "tainted meat plus spices—that is civilization"), is a kind of unexploited international resource. Vassily S. Yanovsky is the author of 10 novels, though he has no readership. Fortunately he has had one great reader, Auden, who wrote an introduction to "No Man's Time," Yanovsky's first novel to appear in English, in 1967, when the author was 60. (Others have been published in France and Italy. In Russia, he is a closed book.)
Auden called attention to the kind of playfulness ("unfailing tact") and beauty ("scenes I shall remember as long as I live") in store and apparently in stock, for Yanovsky's new book [Of Light and Sounding Brass] is as rich in authoritative verbal texture and vivid emblematic incident as its predecessor….
Nabokov is the right Russian writer to invoke, and of course he has been invoked, in any attempt to say what Yanovsky is like; but only "Bend Sinister" has the passionate intensity, the compulsive awfulness which is Yanovsky's particular forte, or perhaps fortress. As a novelist he defends himself, behind barricades of unlikeliness, from the likely charge that he is interested in ideas, that he is "religious" or even "scientific" (he is both)….
Tolstoy once described the young Gorky as a man who "watches everything, notices everybody, and reports to a God of his own." Perhaps all Russian writers do this. None reports to a stranger God than the heretic Yanovsky—who is concerned, in this double-chambered fantasy (Part One is also labeled "or Two," and the Epilogue is said to be the Prologue as well, so that the "Light" in the title may in fact be no more than "Sounding Brass," and the other way round), to chart, against all one-directional, irreversible "laws" of time, place and memory, how a man's mind and his biography go their separate ways.
The thematics of the novel is therefore a matter as well as a manner of division, duplicity, the fundamental two-ness which (from title to the system of coordinates given on a graph on the last page) prevails in this story, the retrieval of the life of one Kassianov, or Master Kassian. Half is the resonance of sounding brass, neurosis, nonsense and nightmare called "Rehearsal for a Confession." The other half, lost somewhere in a time-fold whereby a detachment of the Nazi army wandering through (is it?) Azerbaijan comes close to extinguishing the narrator long after Hitler himself has been defeated (or perhaps he was even invented) is portentously titled "A Certain Light."
In this narrative part of the book we are in the world of myth, the world where nothing ever happens because it always is. I have called it a fantasy world—there is the same kind of ominous utopia in "No Man's Time": sensuous, baffling, irreducible—but it is, really, the world of religion, the cyclical world where everyone has the same name and death has no dominion, merely dimension. Whereas for our world, of course—the world is greedily mocked in "Sounding Brass"—death is all mastery and has no meaning at all.
Yanovsky is very good at separating these ways of thinking, or at least of conceiving experience. His comedy and his acuteness back him up, where they do not forearm him; and it should be remarked that the astonishing translations of his books (by the author and his wife) suggest, as in Nabokov's case, that whatever may have been lost, something else has been gained in translation (a kind of shrewd thingness about the representation of experience) so that even the wildest or weariest excursions into moralism and confession are worked into the texture of a dramatized consciousness….
When we read on the jacket that the mysterious Dr. Yanovsky "has always divided his time between medicine and writing," we know—for he has taught us—that time can be divided and that it is indivisible and that it is still something else: call it poetry, or fiction. The words mean the same thing, something made.
Richard Howard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 17, 1972, pp. 7, 21.
Yanovsky's Of Light and Sounding Brass works at a [deep] level. Not having been prepared myself, I am eager to prepare others. In the first half of the book a middle-aged man named Kassianov is married to an invalid wife named Zora. She never speaks and she never gets up. Kassianov takes care of her but, in the absence of conjugal consortium, is attracted to other women as well. At the end of the first half of the book, she dies.
Since this event follows many pages of Kassianov's ruminations, it is in context thrilling. Meanwhile, his sexual adventures have terminated abruptly. Instead he divides or subdivides himself into at least three, who are given separate names. Kassianov remains more or less in charge, but he is also Nape and, or, Vishnevsky. Nape is utterly instinctive, practical, and competent…. Vishnevsky is lazy, frivolous, self-indulgent…. He is also greedy for seduction. Kassianov maintains an uneasy control over these satellite selves—rather fancying, after their crudities, his own sophistication, his own delicacies. But he is frightened of them too, uncertain of his power. Given so much internal debate and moral speculation, all in confessional form, Zora's death allows the story to pivot….
This is a sad, difficult, and beautiful book.
Mary Ellmann, in The Yale Review (© 1973 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1973, pp. 463-64.
Yanovsky, Vassily S(emenovich) (Vol. 18)
Yanovsky, Vassily S(emenovich) 1906–
Yanovsky is a Russian novelist, physician, and mathematician. In his fiction he combines elements of fantasy, realism, and metaphysics. (See also CLC, Vol. 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 97-100.)
[No Man's Time defies] neat pigeon-holing.
The hero, Cornelius Yamb, [moves] between two worlds, or to be more precise he travels to Canada to find Bruno, the heir to a vast fortune, and then brings him back to Chicago. The Canadian episode is partly fantasy … and partly escapist … and partly realist, too. Although entertaining, this part of the book sags somewhat during the chapters given over entirely to incomprehensible sermons, and lengthy philosophical ramblings from Bruno….
The latter part of the book is far more satisfactory. Cornelius's decline … and his aimless, unhappy wanderings through the waste-land city make absorbing reading. There is a particularly powerful description of the death of his wife and children in an apartment fire—no question of fantasy here, it is as real as a kick in the leg. The ending is puzzling, with the hero's return to the Village, a place that is finally seen as a dream world, some kind of earthly Valhalla. At this point, the Village gets a little too good to be true, and the book ultimately fails to involve the reader. This is a pity because otherwise No Man's Time holds together not as an uneasy combination of fantasy-escapism and fantasy-realism but as a powerful and occasionally very moving account of one man's decline.
"Village Voice," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1967; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3404, May 25, 1967, p. 471.
["No Man's Land"] is a fable. To say this is to say that V.S. Yanovsky's novel belongs to a large and ill-defined family of literary inventions—a family that includes fairy tales and allegories, parables and dreams…. The common family characteristic in all these is that they make no concessions to credibility. They use time and space as if their authors had invented the concepts; they move willfully between the possible and the impossible, between the rational and the unknown…. Fables are often didactic, but a clear sense of significance is not, I think, a necessary part of our appreciation of them; there is a kind of nonsense-fable, a story that means nothing, that is very appealing….
"No Man's Time" seems to me a nonsense-fable. Certainly the action is fabulous enough….
Much of this [novel] is familiar dream-stuff: the welcoming strangers, flight and pursuit, the strange journey, the obscure and threatening figures that hover at the edges of the action. Some of it can be described in myth-terms: Yamb is a Questor; Bruno is a sacrificed prophet; the village wife will do for an Earth-mother. And the two lives of Cornelius-Conrad make the whole thing an exercise in that modish modern theme, the Question of Identity.
All these familiar elements are in the book, but I can see no way of putting them together into a meaning. There is, to be sure, one possible guide to the point of it all: the prophet Bruno does a good deal of extempore philosophizing and predicting…. But whether the reader is meant to take these Blavatsky-ish utterances as wisdom or as travesty is not clear….
The plotting is clumsy and shapeless; the characters, who are compared to the figures on playing cards, are indeed just that—flat and dehumanized….
The book seems, in the end, not so much bad as unrealized—the fitful evidence of an extraordinary imagination that only fragmentarily reaches the page. Some episodes have the force of a half-forgotten nightmare, and for that moment one feels the cold shock of recognition. Most of it reads like someone's narration of a long and incoherent dream, and other people's dreams are the most boring of narrative forms.
Samuel Hynes, "Strange Journey," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 8, 1967, p. 60.
["No Man's Time"] is something else. The prose, translated from the Russian, is what they call roistering, full of lunges of slang unnervingly placed between opaque metaphors that seem to have sprung out of the head of some maudlin drunken Eskimo who learned English by gramophone record in an igloo…. The book has a reckless passion for unseatingly wrong images, and fancifulness spreads into the body of the work in spite of its talent. W. H. Auden … sees the fable as the story of a modern Jason searching for the Golden Fleece. (pp. 242, 244)
It is in the American scenes that the book suddenly shifts tone. The humor seems more dependable and the inventions connect with something imaginatively alive. The last sequences are hard to forget…. Yanovsky makes the last part of his book powerful with the homesickness of a man's ache for his life. (p. 246)
Penelope Gilliatt, "Briefly Noted: 'No Man's Time'," in The New Yorker (© 1967 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLIII, No. 39, November 18, 1967, pp. 242, 244, 246.
[As] Auden remarks [in the preface, No Man's Time] belongs in the fairy-tale environment of Professor Tolkien and his much-loved Hobbits: those who are charmed by such fancies will doubtless feel at home here in this noman's-land…. Auden has written elsewhere about his idea of Eden—its landscape, fashions, religious and political institutions—and it has something in common with Yanovsky's village….
It is easy to see why Auden should like the idea of this novel, but difficult to share his admiration of the achievement. The city is not interesting; the Argonauts lack personality. The parallels with the Golden Fleece story are insistent but without significance. Yamb finds a Medea, who throws her young brother into the sea to halt pursuers; he takes another bride when he returns to urban life; his childen (by the Medea) get killed. Yanovsky adds nothing of much interest to this powerful anecdote, which so many have handled before him. There is another legend (not much used in serious fiction) according to which the guilty and criminal Medea returned to her homeland, was reconciled with her family and later joined by an older, forgiving Jason. I was disappointed that this ending was not added to No Man's Time, since it might have given more point to this rather ill-constructed fantasy. (p. 22)
D.A.N. Jones, "No Man's Land," in The New York Review of Books...
(The entire section is 440 words.)
Dr. Yanovsky's second published novel, [Of Light and Sounding Brass] like his first, No Man's Time, subtly counterparts post-quantum physics with Christian theology: It is also a romantic love-story, and an exciting post-lapsarian adventure. Parts One and Two are, according to the author, interchangeable, since time is but a dimension of space. (p. 429)
Over and over again, in both parts of his novel, Kassian-Kassianov feels comforted because "matter is wave and particle, and not wave and not particle, and still something else". By analogy, "God can then be omnipotent as particle, all loving as wave, and there is still a third possibility." Or, as the Bishop puts it "a wave and a particle, and neither a wave nor a particle, and still something else, that does resemble the Holy Trinity—indivisible and unfusable." Since light consists of photons, each single one of which can be isolated and thrown onto a screen, but the course elected by it can never be foretold, then it follows that "these microscopic particles are free in their choice, and their life or path is in no manner predetermined." So, Kassianov concludes, we too have free will, since we too "are endowed with the characteristics of photons, electrons, neutrons; because basically we consist of these infinitely small corpuscles."
These "facts" which bring Dr. Yanovsky (born Russian Orthodox) to theology, led Nobel prize-winning Jacques Monod,...
(The entire section is 577 words.)
Guillaume, the anti-hero of V. S. Yanovsky's metaphysical tale ["The Great Transfer"] is also an artist by profession, but foremost, by his own admission, "a parasite, a pleasure seeker, a ladies' man," who feels that his life has been "a dead void" for the last 25 years…. [When] Guillaume tells ["the Mediator," the leader of the group called The Third Hemisphere,] of his despair in life and his terror of death, she invites him to The Third Hemisphere's Caribbean retreat where one is deprived of all the senses. Communicating with other spheres is a sort of training for death. The training turns out to be a rather incomprehensible mixture of nonsense and interesting ideas….
The Mediator orders some members of the group to think of themselves as belonging to the opposite sex, and Guillaume is assigned the task of referring to himself always in the third person. But, except for a few brief insights into the reasons for his dissatisfied life (his failure to "navigate with a purpose" in painting he ascribes to his lack of "the vision of another continent"), Guillaume remains depressingly self-centered.
It becomes hard to believe, therefore, that Guillaume dreams the Great Tribal Dream and is praised by the Mediator for his unusual receptiveness. His heroic end seems unsuited to the earnings of his life, and one feels that the author, perhaps stymied by the loose ends of his difficult creation, decided to be generous by "transferring" him all too quickly and painlessly.
I found myself longing for Yanovsky to drop his creature and write an essay about these interesting exercises that prepare us for death.
Gail Godwin, "Two Novels," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 28, 1974, p. 35.∗