Alexander Zinoviev Essay - Critical Essays

Zinoviev, Alexander


Zinoviev, Alexander 1922–

Zinoviev is a Russian novelist, philosopher, and logician. His first novel, The Yawning Heights, mocks philosophical thought, particularly Communist ideology, and is full of puns, fury, and disgust. Its tone, subject matter, and style have prompted critics to compare Zinoviev to Rabelais, Hobbes, Swift, Orwell, and numerous other satirists.

Aleksandr Nekrich

[In Ziyayuschiye vysoty (The Yawning Heights)] Zinoviev has succeeded in doing what no historian, philosopher, or social scientist, either in the West or the Soviet Union, has so far been able to do. He has illuminated the closed society from within, in all its hidden, twisted psychological complexities. By rigorously telling the truth Zinoviev has removed the coverings from this system; even the most deeply concealed parts of the organism, seemingly the least accessible to observation, have not escaped his attention.

In the tradition of Hobbes, Voltaire, Swift, George Orwell, Anatole France, and of Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, the great Russian satirist of the last century, Zinoviev has written a savage satire on a contemporary closed society, one highly reminiscent of Soviet society. His book is in fact a profound sociological study—I would call it the anatomical study—of the kind of society one finds in the Soviet Union. Zinoviev also appears in this book as a brilliant analyst of contemporary society in general, presenting his own original ideas on the state, ideology, morals, and laws of our times. His book is not only topical but of immense value both for specialists and for general readers.

In keeping with the traditions of the genre, Zinoviev has invented … a place not shown on any map, which does not exist in reality. He calls it Ibansk (a double pun on the most common of Russian names, Ivan, and the verb yebat—to fuck; hence Ibansk might be called a "fucktown for the Ivans")….

In the state of Ibansk, all the inhabitants have the same name, Ibanov, as if to underline not only their common ethnic origins but also their social and psychological homogeneity. But the author assigns special nicknames to various Ibanovs whose writings or statements figure in the pages rescued from the Ibansk garbage dump, names that hint at certain real figures; for example, Pravdets (Truth-Sayer) is Solzhenitsyn and Mazila (Dauber) is the sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, reportedly a friend of Zinoviev. We may suspect that Soviet readers will recognize other figures behind such names as "Shizofrenic," "Member," "Thinker," "Pretender," or "Babbler."

None of these characters appears to us as a person with a life of his own, and indeed the author's...

(The entire section is 957 words.)

John Leonard

Although it calls itself a novel, "The Yawning Heights" defies categories, and perhaps description. Satire? Philosophical romance? Encyclopedia? Obsequy? It is Gogol with elephantiasis. It begins lumpy, achieves an astonishing texture, goes on almost forever, and ends in despair. It contains and dissects and reviles Soviet bureaucracy, rhetoric, science, psychology, philosophy, literature, art, theater, music, medicine, politics, education and journalism. There isn't a Soviet intellectual known to the West who doesn't appear in its many pages, and there are hundreds unknown to us who strut and grovel and inform and disappear. The intelligentsia of the Soviet Union, in fact, is for Alexander Zinoviev what Paris was for Proust: rotten, but significant….

We are in Ibansk … where everybody's name is Ibanov. We distinguished among the Ibanovs, as they experience the total Ism, by their professions. Thus, one Ibanov is Sociologist, another Careerist, a third Colleague, a fourth Schizophrenic, a fifth Slanderer and so on. These designations, naturally, are false-faced. Thus, Dauber is a great artist, Slanderer tells the truth, Chatterer speaks profoundly, Writer is a hack and Thinker is a cretin. The exceptions to this deception are Boss (Stalin), Hog (Khrushchev) and Truthteller (Solzhenitsyn). None of them is described. We get to know them all too well by their words and actions.

There are more words than action. What these people do is talk, incessantly, brilliantly, and to very little purpose. They know...

(The entire section is 638 words.)

John Bayley

["The Yawning Heights" is monomaniacal,] complex, brilliant and fascinating. It is a huge book, a philosophical and sociological commentary on a country called "Ibansk," and it is made up of fragments, sober essays that break off and turn into narrative fantasies and anecdotes that merge into explosive soliloquy….

Mr. Zinoviev possesses ample scope and material as a satirist, enough to make Swift and Voltaire look like innocents and strangers to the wicked ways of the world. But Swift and Voltaire kept it short when they were being brilliant and sardonic at the expense of human hypocrisy and folly. Mr. Zinoviev writes every paragraph with a sort of passionate self-indulgence. Economy and understatement are not for him. In a sense this shows that he is not really a satirist at all but a prophet, a preacher, a voice delivering an endless tirade in the wilderness—and an investigator examining a society as tirelessly as Weber or Durkheim might have done.

Mr. Zinoviev is a humorist as well, a master of verbal clowning which, alas, does not come out alive in the translation, competent as it is. The name of his book is a complex pun. The point is that siyayushchie vysoty is a Soviet cliché, glutinously familiar in the mouth of every party hack: it means "gleaming heights"—of socialism, progress or whatever. Change the initial s into z and you get an immense yawn, of a human or an abyss. (p. 1)

There is something here of the weird hilarity in the title and text of "Dead Souls," but Mr. Zinoviev is not concerned to establish such an overpoweringly physical world as that of Gogol's masterpiece. His drab nightmare is built out of abstractions, attitudes, hypotheses….

But the yawn here is a bit contrived: hasn't the bottomless cynicism of Ibansk touched the author himself? He would probably admit it cheerfully. His own book is Ibanskian in the sense that it is obsessed with Ibansk and cannot see life except in terms of it. As a logician he is even in love with it, because it is a society that has calamitously succeeded in being what it set out...

(The entire section is 871 words.)

Deming Brown

As a work of literature [The Yawning Heights] is in many respects a disaster. At the same time it is the most thorough and profound examination of the Soviet regime, from the viewpoint of a disaffected intellectual, that has yet appeared….

Not a novel, The Yawning Heights is a frequently diffuse and inchoate mixture of lampoon, sober argument, diatribe and wild fantasy, its dominant tone one of monumental disgust. In a great many places its analyses of Soviet society are brilliantly incisive; in many others the book seems clumsy, turgid, repetitious and simply tedious. Its virtues come from Zinoviev's acute moral awareness and his intimate, brooding insight into the psychology of his people and their rulers. Its defects come largely from his inability, or unwillingness, to curb his own invention, to refrain from all-inclusiveness, and to observe the bounds of good taste….

The main intellectual threads of the book are to be traced in the monologues and dialogues of those figures who represent the intelligentsia—notably Dauber and several figures who seem to be spokesmen, at least in part, for the author himself—Bawler, Schizophrenic, Chatterer and Slanderer. Through them Zinoviev scrutinizes and savagely criticizes in depth almost every conceivable feature of Soviet existence and the Soviet moral climate. The Party, education, social institutions and behavior, individual and mass deception as a...

(The entire section is 577 words.)

Geoffrey Hosking

Alexander Zinoviev must be one of the world's fastest writers. It is less than four years ago that his first work (outside his professional speciality) was published, and that was a gigantic novel, The Yawning Heights…. Since then, he has published three more novels [The Radiant Future, Notes of a Night Watchman and Anteroom to Paradise]….

Yawning Heights [is] a rambling, surrealist presentation of the recent and future history of the Soviet Union in a variety of tenuously connected and often hilarious episodes….

On the one hand we have a superb satirist presenting an original and penetrating indictment of Soviet society. On the other hand we have...

(The entire section is 1652 words.)

F. D. Reeve

If novels were events, "The Radiant Future" would be a circus. Despite its title, it is not science fiction, nor is it a romance about a collective farm: it is a book about the adventures of the mind…. "The aim of the book," Zinoviev writes about a book within this book, "is to give an objective description of communism as it really is from the point of view of its deepest underlying laws, its tendencies and its future prospects." The comment is appropriate to the book at hand.

"The Radiant Future," written in the form of dialogues and intellectual confessions and anecdotes by an unnamed narrator, is directed against the intelligentsia which defends an ideology that prevents people, capable of...

(The entire section is 637 words.)

Clive James

For The Radiant Future one's gratitude is unalloyed. It is nearer than The Yawning Heights to being an ordinary narrative and is thus easier for the reader to follow. There is a central character to get interested in and care about, even though he is not very likable. The central character is the narrator, head of the Department of Theoretical Problems of the Methodology of Scientific Communism…. The narrator's career as a philosopher has some resemblance to Zinoviev's own, and indeed it is possible that an element of self-hatred has been incorporated…. According to one of the cardinal principles of The Yawning Heights, it is impossible to flourish, or even grow up, in the Soviet Union while...

(The entire section is 1119 words.)