Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2810
Any attempt to analyze Andrei Sinyavsky’s fiction must take the essay On Socialist Realism into account, for the ideas developed in that essay provide the basis for his fictional works. Socialist Realism has been defined in the Soviet Union as a depiction of “reality in its revolutionary development,” the favored...
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- Critical Essays
Any attempt to analyze Andrei Sinyavsky’s fiction must take the essay On Socialist Realism into account, for the ideas developed in that essay provide the basis for his fictional works. Socialist Realism has been defined in the Soviet Union as a depiction of “reality in its revolutionary development,” the favored official medium being an anemic descendant of the so-called critical realism of the nineteenth century. This realism, Sinyavsky believes, is inadequate for expressing the heroic purpose, a purpose essential to the ideology forming the basis for the Soviet state. The neoclassicism of the eighteenth century, normally the ideal vehicle for the purpose of the autocratic state, could not be used for contemporary Soviet literature; the debunking of the Stalinist myth and absence of a figure of similar stature robbed the Russians of anyone or anything to glorify. The only remaining method possible is one based on hypothesis instead of purpose, and that method has to be fantasy. It is with this premise in mind that Sinyavsky has approached the novel.
The Trial Begins
Sinyavsky’s first novel, The Trial Begins, is set in Moscow during the last days of Joseph Stalin. It is ostensibly a realistic novel dealing with such well-known phenomena of the time as the “doctors’ plot,” which resulted in the stepped-up persecution of the Jews, the terrifying inner workings of the secret police, and the mass panic immediately following the death of Stalin. Sinyavsky’s principal characters include the public prosecutor Vladimir Petrovich Globov, his idealistic son, Seryozha, and Seryozha’s friend, Katya. Globov’s second wife, Marina, and Yuri Karlinsky, a defending attorney, eventually manage to become lovers behind Globov’s back. Globov’s former mother-in-law, Yekaterina Petrovna, is an old Bolshevik idealist.
Globov is scheduled to prosecute the gynecologist S. Y. Rabinovich, who performed an illegal abortion, but the woman in question is Globov’s beautiful and sexy but soulless wife, Marina. Rabinovich is Jewish, and his predicament is a transparent reference to Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign in the 1950’s. Globov’s life is complicated further by the fact that his adolescent son, Seryozha, has written a notebook calling for a new Communist society that will be free of the corruption that has stained the old one, a society in which those in the highest offices would earn the lowest wages, money would be abolished, and everyone would receive “according to his needs.” Seryozha shares his ideas with Katya and gives her the notebook. She takes it to Karlinsky for advice, protesting against Seryozha’s orthodoxy that a noble end should be served by noble means; Karlinsky counters that power corrupts, with the noble means soon forgotten. After she leaves, he gives vent to his jealous rage against Marina’s husband, deciding to strike at him by blowing the whistle on his son, Seryozha. Seryozha is eventually tried and sent to a labor camp, where he is joined by Rabinovich. Finally given the opportunity to consummate his affair with Marina, Karlinsky proves to be impotent. Katya is trampled to death in the mass stampede following Stalin’s funeral.
At first glance, The Trial Begins appears to be a realistic work that reveals corruption and evil in the Soviet Union, a critique of the system in the tradition of Vladimir Dudintsev’s Ne khlebom yedinym (1956; Not by Bread Alone, 1957) or Ilya Ehrenburg’s Ottepel (1954; The Thaw, 1955). Appearances, however, are deceiving, and The Trial Begins stands apart from its fellows by virtue of Sinyavsky’s use of fantasy.
The Trial Begins is introduced by a narrator, one of a series of Sinyavsky’s quirky, neurotic narrators. He bears a close resemblance to Yury Olesha’s hero Kavalerov in the novel Zavist (1927; Envy, 1936), and it is easy to see why a number of Western critics initially assumed that the novelist and critic known as Tertz was actually Olesha. Tertz’s narrator, similar to but not identical with Tertz himself, is the author of the manuscript that constitutes the major portion of the novel. He is a writer, the generic, nonconformist Soviet writer.
The narrator is victimized in the middle of the night by two secret police agents, Vitya and Tolya, who work as a team and bear a strong resemblance to Thompson and Thomson from Hergé’s series of children’s books on the young French reporter Tintin. Vitya and Tolya, like Thompson and Thomson, are the enemies of freedom and originality, and their purpose is to destroy art. One of them scoops all the letters and punctuation marks off the page and crushes one caught trying to escape. The manuscript they have confiscated is The Trial Begins, but the characters and events in the work come to life as if they had been written by an omniscient, not a first-person, narrator. The narrator himself disappears from the story, not to surface again until the end, when he is shown in prison camp with his invented characters Rabinovich and Seryozha. Thus, the body of the novel is sandwiched between the reader’s introduction to the narrator at the beginning and the reader’s final, sad view of him at the end.
The most fantastic element of the frame technique used by Sinyavsky is that two characters who are part of the body of the novel—that is, part of the manuscript written by the convict author—actually appear with him in prison at the conclusion of the story. The reader is then left with the uneasy sensation that the manuscript has taken over and somehow become actuality, that the omniscient and first-person narrators might possibly be the same individual. The implications of this confusing situation are enormous.
Beneath the surface of an apparent protest novel, a novel peppered with such peculiar events as the appearance of the hand of God to the narrator at the beginning or Marina’s gift of liqueur-filled chocolates to Seryozha at the end, other factors are at work. Sinyavsky’s novel is only superficially about political events and the illicit love affair between Karlinsky and Marina. It is actually about art, specifically about literature and the intricacies involved in the writing of fiction. As such, it follows in the tradition of Russian works that are consciously but obliquely about literature or art, works such as Olesha’s Envy—a tradition that ultimately extends back to the subtle plays and short stories of Pushkin.
Sinyavsky is, of course, concerned with political abuses and is clearly against the overwhelming domination of all aspects of Soviet life by Stalin’s dictatorship, but he is primarily preoccupied with artistic freedom. The arrest, to which any citizen was subject at any time, without warning, was a commonplace of Soviet life during the Terror of the 1930’s and then again after World War II. Sinyavsky’s account of the narrator’s arrest uncannily anticipates his own later arrest and imprisonment; it is the fictional arrest that sets in motion the events of the novel, for only through the narrator’s arrest do the police (and the readers) learn of the existence of the formerly secret manuscript. The apparent fragility of the narrator’s creation is touchingly depicted in the opening scene, when an escaping letter is destroyed like a bug. The author of the manuscript is himself fragile, easily trapped by the state and sent to prison.
This leads to the realization that there is yet another layer of fantasy operative here, for the entire novel—including both the frame story and the manuscript—actually resurfaces and is subsequently published; the manuscript of the story is only a larger portion of the real manuscript that exists in the form of Sinyavsky’s novel. The captured letters have escaped after all, coming to new life in print. The captured narrator, an unfortunate prisoner who is the product of Sinyavsky’s imagination, achieves new life within his larger, real novel. If straightforward art cannot appear, Sinyavsky suggests, then the writer must resort to the art of circumlocution. If a literary work is helpless in a police state, then an entire manuscript can be incorporated into another work, and that novel can somehow escape the predatory actions of official limitation. It is through the cunning of fantasy that art survives at all. This is fitting, because fantasy itself is the product of the artistic imagination, an answer to the superficial strictures enforced by politics. The survival of art is the answer to the state, because the actual reality envisioned by art is of a different order from that of the apparent reality of a political system; the boundary between the visible and the hidden is nowhere better demonstrated than in the encounter between the awesome hand of God and the tiny fist of Stalin in Sinyavsky’s initial frame segment. The relative disparity between them is but a symbol of the enormous gulf separating apparent and absolute values, be they religious or aesthetic.
The Makepeace Experiment
Fantastic elements are more easily discernible in The Makepeace Experiment than in The Trial Begins. The Russian title of Sinyavsky’s second novel is Lyubimov, the name of the town that provides the setting for the incredible events of the novel. The Makepeace Experiment was published three years after The Trial Begins, and Sinyavsky’s greater expertise as a novelist is reflected in the more intricate characterization, fantastic plot, and convoluted narration.
Like his nineteenth century predecessors, Sinyavsky abandons the setting of Moscow in favor of the small, remote town of Lyubimov. It has the flavor of the innumerable squalid hamlets peppering Gogol’s prose masterpieces, but it is especially reminiscent of the town in Mikhail Saltykov’s novel Istoriya odnogo goroda (1869-1870; The History of a Town, 1981). The Makepeace Experiment, however, is only ostensibly a story of rural life. As circumstances of the plot make amply clear, the events taking place there are actually a microcosm of the larger politico-historical world. Lyonya Tikhomirov’s dictatorship (his name means “peaceful world”), the fruitful result of his ability to apply mass hypnosis to the populace of an entire town, bears a certain resemblance to the larger one bedeviling Russians in hundreds of small towns all across the Soviet Union. Lyonya, however, has heeded the idealism of Seryozha in The Trial Begins, for this dictatorship is devoid of corruption, greed, and coercion. Through the magic wand of Lyonya’s hypnotic powers, the locals believe that toothpaste has changed into fish paste, the local river runs with champagne for thirty minutes, and ordinary bottled water, the sort normally avoided by most of the residents, seems to have turned into grain alcohol and in fact causes the death of one drinker.
Lyonya’s aristocratic ancestor, Samson Samsonovich Proferantsov, owned a leather-bound book from India titled The Magnet of the Soul. Having accidentally acquired the book, Lyonya masters the contents and sets out to acquire the two things he desires: mind control over the citizens of Lyubimov and the love of the previously indifferent beauty Serafima Petrovna Kozlova. He celebrates his wedding to Serafima simultaneously with his formal installment as official leader of the town of Lyubimov; for a while, events run smoothly, and Serafima is his willing slave. Lyonya has audiences directly with his citizens, attempting to please all of those under his jurisdiction, and they turn Stakhanovite for the dubious reward of ersatz luxuries. He has an elaborate alarm system installed to foil incursions from the outside, using his magnetic powers to baffle would-be enemies, but he becomes increasingly bored with the obedient Serafima and is exhausted by the heavy demands of his office.
Unwilling to be left out of the action, the original owner of the book asserts himself. He scrambles Lyonya’s magnetic powers, and our hero’s every thought turns into a command subconsciously transmitted to the residents of Lyubimov. A young man silently commanded to “drop dead” collapses and dies of a heart attack; an old woman rides her broom, having become a witch in accordance with Lyonya’s desires. The entire utopian society falls apart, and Lyonya escapes in the end, enabling his town to return to normal.
It is in The Makepeace Experiment that Sinyavsky introduces a Jewish character for the first time—Serafima Petrovna. The narrator gossips to Lyonya about her ethnic origins and, in the end, the reader learns that she really is part Jewish and that Kozlov was only the name of her first husband. She had kept the existence of her husband and small daughter secret from Lyonya, and there is a hint that these scandalous facts are all related to her Jewishness. Having warned Lyonya that his intended is not really “Russian,” the narrator allows himself a digression about Jews. He admires them; they are survivors. They are scattered in society like indissoluble specks, like “raisins” or “black pepper” but never salt. They have Jewish eyes, sad eyes with tsores (trouble); Proferantsov calls them “desert eyes.”
Sinyavsky’s intense interest in Jews extends even to his selection of a Jewish pseudonym, Abram Tertz, a choice that must be regarded as highly unusual for a Russian writer. There are various reasons for his singular interest. In the first place, Sinyavsky resembles Olesha in regarding the writer as a foreign element in society, particularly Soviet society. The writer is like the Jew in his cosmopolitanism, his resultant separation from the mainstream, and his awareness of “trouble.” Sinyavsky even flavors his writing with a Jewish accent when describing the Jewish woman who had once been part of his life, a stylistic touch that does not come across in the English translation.
Sinyavsky, however, has yet another complex reason for his apparent obsession: his sense of history. The Jews encountered in Russian society are a reminder that “history did not begin today and it is still not known how it will end.” Those desert eyes are sad because of “historical memories.” The Jews—and, by extension, the writer—are somehow outside the deterministic orthodoxy that history has evolved along certain lines from the beginning of time. Official Soviet history centers on the concept that the October Revolution was the great break from the capitalism dominating nineteenth century Europe, an economic and political structure giving way to the socialism and eventual communism that will someday grace the Soviet Union. Sinyavsky counters this supposition through his narrator Proferantsov, stating that no one knows how history will end. This incredible statement flies in the face of Marxist orthodoxy, for the presumed final result is the withering away of the state with the triumph of communism. Reality, says Sinyavsky, is unpredictable and cannot be controlled, and he underlines this firmly by his use of fantasy and multiple narrators.
The seeming ordinariness of life gives way at the conclusion of the novel to the ramblings of the narrator Proferantsov, for The Makepeace Experiment is a frame story introduced and ended by a chatty writer, in a genre ultimately going back to Pushkin’s stories. Thenarrative here is complicated by the presence of a second narrator, Samson Samsonovich Proferantsov himself, who intrudes into Proferantsov’s story in the form of corrective footnotes; it is an irritating practice that does not endear him to his descendant.
By such devices, Sinyavsky makes it impossible for his readers to maintain that “willing suspension of disbelief” so crucial to the flow of most fictional works. He constantly reminds us that we are reading a work of fiction and have entered an artificial world. He underscores this unreality with his pterodactyl, a creature rumored by Dr. Linde, one of the novel’s several eccentrics, to inhabit the swampy woods outside town. The pterodactyl indeed exists; it appears to Colonel Almazov, commander of the forces sent to storm the town, during his final drugged moments and seems to speak perfect French. What better witness to this impossible horror than the supporter of state power, a man who would never allow for the oddities of events outside the orthodox conception of reality. The scene between the two is the high point of the novel, the sort of confrontation for which Sinyavsky himself pushed in creating a fantastic world as rival to the rigidity of the real one.
Sinyavsky’s fiction provides an excellent illustration of the sort of fantasy he advocated in his theoretical writing. Serving as an antidote to the rigidity of Socialist Realism, it is a reminder that Russian literature still has room for the incredible and unorthodox. Fantasy for Sinyavsky is a vehicle for addressing crucial questions, for it is by circumventing the real world that he is able to deal with such issues as the role and methods of the writer, the meaning of history, and the problems and inequities of the dictatorship that provided the setting for his works. As both artist and thinker, he must be accounted one of the most interesting and significant of contemporary Russian authors.