Alexander Zinoviev John Bayley - Essay

John Bayley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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.)