Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1559
Andrei Sinyavsky’s short fiction resembles his longer work in both its themes and its manner. While for the most part less overt in their political message than the novels, the stories contain heroes who are equally alienated—from society, from themselves, or from both—and who seem trapped in an existence from...
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- Critical Essays
Andrei Sinyavsky’s short fiction resembles his longer work in both its themes and its manner. While for the most part less overt in their political message than the novels, the stories contain heroes who are equally alienated—from society, from themselves, or from both—and who seem trapped in an existence from which they would like to escape. Elements of fantasy abound; in some cases the stories verge on science fiction, while in others the emphasis is more on extreme psychological states. The plots, to the extent that they can be discerned at all, are usually fairly straightforward. Interpretation, however, can be difficult; sometimes a given scene may be viewed as fantastic, as reflecting a character’s mental aberration, or as purposefully ambiguous. The first-person narrators are often not helpful in this regard, and situations may appear to be allegorical or metaphorical representations of themes that are not mentioned directly within the works. In short, Sinyavsky is demanding of his readers.
“At the Circus”
“At the Circus” stands out from the other stories: It predates them by several years and is also the most conventional in form. The narrator has a distinctive voice, but for once he is not a chief figure within the story itself. Still, the tale offers an early glimpse into some of Sinyavsky’s concerns. The hero, Kostia, is a ne’er-do-well who dreams of achieving the skill of those he admires at the circus. During a botched burglary, he kills the very magician he has admired, is sentenced to twenty years of hard labor, and then is himself killed during an attempt to escape. Kostia is the first of Sinyavsky’s many outsiders, those who feel in some way oppressed and want to escape into new lives; indeed, dreams of, or efforts at, getting away from ordinary life lie behind all the major events. Despite the third-person narration, Sinyavsky often limits the perspective to that of Kostia; the narrow focus and the frequent absence of conventional transitions pull the reader deep into the protagonist’s psyche, so that his distorted outlook becomes the norm for the world of the story. The narrative, as well as the settings and the subject matter, thus emphasizes the sense of oppression and enclosure; nearly all Sinyavsky’s stories seem, in this way, to be claustrophobic.
“Kvartiranty” (“Tenants”), composed in 1959, is perhaps among his most obscure stories. The setting of “Tenants,” a Russian communal apartment, is sufficiently realistic, but the narrator turns out to be a house sprite. His addressee—not interlocutor, since he does not say a word—is Sergei Sergeevich, a drunkard and writer who now lives within the apartment. The story is open to a variety of interpretations: It can be seen as a genuine fantasy or, less likely, as the drunken hallucinations of Sergei Sergeevich. The tales related by the house sprite are themselves fantastic, filled with references to literature or writers, and at first seem to be of little purpose. Eventually, though, certain themes emerge. The house sprite points to the prevalence of evil; not only do the names often contain hidden references to the devil or various spirits but also relatively mundane occurrences, such as a spat in the communal kitchen, lead to dire consequences. Many of the figures in the story have been driven out of one existence into another; even water nymphs and wood sprites have been forced from the country to the city. Ultimately, though, “Tenants” concerns the writer: the threats to his well-being, his position as an outsider, his (perhaps unfulfilled) obligation to deal with the evil around him.
“You and I”
“Ty i ya” (“You and I”) is arguably even more resistant to any single interpretation. Much of the work employs a second-person narrative, with the “You” of the title addressed directly. This individual is named Nikolai Vasilyevich (the first name and patronymic of Nikolai Gogol, who, along with Fyodor Dostoevski, clearly influenced this and other works by Sinyavsky) and apparently suffers from a persecution mania. After an opening scene at a party, he hides out in his apartment, refusing to have contact with others until he eventually slashes his throat. The true mystery of the story, though, is the identity of “I,” who plays a direct role in the fate of “You.” Some critics have seen “You and I” as describing a single individual who suffers from schizophrenia as well as paranoia; others believe that the relationship is more that between the author and his character or between a godlike figure and the individual (there is sufficient evidence to support all these views).
Despite the purposeful complexity of the narrative—which includes disjointed descriptions of wildly different events taking place simultaneously throughout the city—it is possible to discern several of Sinyavsky’s major concerns in “You and I.” Part of Nikolai Vasilyevich’s paranoia is based on a fear of women; the erotic scenes that are sprinkled throughout the stories, beginning with “At the Circus,” not only serve to violate one of the restrictions of Socialist Realism but also portray sex in a less than flattering manner. The perception of the outside world recalls that of the house sprite in “Tenants”: Evil forces threaten “You” and promise to drive him out of his refuge. Most crucially, though, Sinyavsky again raises the question of the responsibility of the creator, the “I,” and of his relationship to the world around him.
“Gololeditsa” (“The Icicle”), written in 1961, is both the longest of Sinyavsky’s early stories and one of the richest. The narrator abruptly achieves the power to see into the future and the past. He finds out that the woman he loves, Natasha, will be killed by a falling icicle in a specific place in Moscow at a certain time. He attempts to flee the city with her, but on the way he is arrested by the authorities and questioned about his magical powers. Natasha returns to Moscow and is killed by the icicle, at which point the narrator loses his special gift.
The topic allows Sinyavsky to display fully his talents as a writer and to probe his most deeply felt ideas. The narrative is fast-paced and almost jaunty; while some old-fashioned suspense makes the work gripping, Sinyavsky imparts a special air by interspersing the sad and at times tragic events with comic interludes. Particularly effective is his portrayal of Colonel Tarasov, the interrogator, whose naïve efforts to obtain politically useful predictions allow Sinyavsky to satirize the mentality of those in power under Stalin (the story is subtly but clearly dated at the very end of Stalin’s reign). Most striking, though, are the meditations that arise from considering the effects of being able to see endlessly into the past and the future; besides the more obvious question of how a knowledge of the future would affect an individual’s actions in the present, Sinyavksy considers the meaning of death, experiments with converting time into space (so that the present self represents a simultaneous amalgam of past and future selves), and suggests that an individual with special knowledge or powers has some degree of moral responsibility for others.
“Pkhentz” appeared in the West later than the other “fantastic stories,” in 1966, and has been widely seen as an allegory for the situation of the writer in Soviet Russia. Only little by little does it become clear that the narrator of the story is an alien creature, stranded on earth, who has wrapped his body and put on a disguise to hide his true identity. In some ways, his dilemma resembles that of Sinyavsky before his arrest: the creature’s pseudonym resembles Sinyavsky’s real name, and he too has a fear of discovery. More broadly, though, “Pkhentz” is concerned with the threat of persecution and mockery directed by society toward the one who is different and also with the alienation of the outsider—which here is presented through the revulsion that the alien feels toward such basic human activities as sex and eating. It is one of Sinyavsky’s simplest, most direct, and yet most powerful stories.
Little Jinx was written after Sinyavsky’s emigration and is generally referred to as a novella, though it is no longer than “The Icicle.” The story is dedicated to E. T. A. Hoffmann and inspired by his Klein Zaches, genannt Zinnober (1819; Little Zaches, Surnamed Zinnober, 1971). Sinyavsky replaces Hoffmann’s good fairy with a pediatrician, Dora Alexandrovna, who cures the stuttering that afflicts the narrator Tsores (Yiddish for grief; he is also sometimes called Sinyavsky). Tsores achieves a gift with words, but he also unintentionally causes the deaths of each of his five half-brothers. Here, it becomes possible to discern a clear direction in Sinyavsky’s short fiction; even more clearly than in “Pkhentz,” he is writing simultaneously about himself (this story was originally intended to serve as an episode in his autobiographical Goodnight!) and more broadly about the condition of the writer, particularly in a totalitarian society. Thus, the story is both about isolation on the one hand and about moral responsibility and guilt on the other; like so many of the earlier heroes, Tsores/Sinyavsky finds that the role of creator becomes an obligation and incurs inescapable burdens—such is the dilemma with which Tertz/Sinyavsky has had to cope as well.