Alexander Zinoviev

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Deming Brown

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 577

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 way of life, intellectual and artistic whoredom, the repression of creativity, covert envy of the West, and the cynical manipulation of power and privilege—these are merely a few of his targets. Nothing is exempt, including such phenomena, admired by hopeful Western liberals, as samizdat, Moscow's Taganka theater, and the very idea of détente. The book is indeed an antidote for any simplistic thinking about the U.S.S.R. Writing as a sophisticated nihilist, Zinoviev even makes a cogent argument for the notion that everything, including dissidence itself, is controlled from the top.

Although these nicknamed figures carry the main burden of Zinoviev's mordant analysis, a variety of other devices come into play, including hyperbole, conceits that get crazily out of hand, paradox, and exaggerated farce. (p. F1)

The greatest value of this book lies in its intricate study of the workings of Soviet society from the perspective of a penetrating but lofty observer with a talent for abstraction, evaluation and caricature….

At one point Zinoviev observes that "outrageous verse is a joke spoken in earnest, but in whose serious intent no one wants to believe." On the contrary, there is no mistaking the serious intent of these passages. The trouble is that most of them are less funny than smuttily abusive, and the great majority of the verses comes out in translation as colorless doggerel. Like much of the humor in this book (despite numerous passages of deft irony and engaging farce), they are not nearly as amusing as the author obviously intends them to be.

It is necessary to say this because a book that is billed as satire (the jacket invites a comparison to Swift and Rabelais) must be judged, at least in part, in terms of its humor. This reviewer found its unbridled wackiness to be often unbearable, a kind of satiric overkill. But as an extremely intelligent, sad, compassionate study of a society that is now, according to Zinoviev, in the grip of a colossal boredom, it is remarkable. (p. F3)

Deming Brown, "Soviet Satyricon," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), July 1, 1979, pp. F1, F3.

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