Sinyavsky, Andrei (Also Abram Tertz)
Sinyavsky, Andrei (Also Abram Tertz) 1925–
Russian novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic, Sinyavsky was arrested in 1965 for publishing outside of the Soviet Union under the pseudonym of Abram Tertz. His monumental A Voice from the Chorus is a depiction of life in the work camp to which he was assigned after his arrest. The bitter and satirical tone of his writing reveals a highly refined intelligence and wit as well as a deep compassion and understanding of his fellow man.
An astonishing book. As in "The Magic Mountain," [the] place of action [of "A Voice From the Chorus"] is set apart from the rest of the world, and, like Mann's masterpiece, it reflects upon life and death, myth and Christianity, philosophy and art. Yet this new place of seclusion, where winter also lasts seven months, is like Kafka's "Penal Colony" as well. It is not only in Kafka's world that to be born is to be guilty. In 1965 Andrei Sinyavsky, a young professor and critic at the Gorky Institute of World Literature, was sentenced to seven years of compulsory labor for having published his storìes and essays in the West under the name Abram Tertz. "A Voice From the Chorus" consists of notes and letters he sent to his wife … from the labor camp….
In 1959 the Paris journal "Esprit" published his manuscript "On Socialist Realism," smuggled out of the Soviet Union. Sinyavsky's pen name was well chosen; Abram Tertz is a hero of the thieves' ballads in Isaac Babel's stories about Jewish shoemakers in Odessa. In 1960, literary journals in the West started publishing stories by "Tertz." The first anthology in English translation appeared under the title "The Icicle and Other Stories." These tales resembled nothing published in the Soviet Union within the last 20 years. Neither did they recall Russian emigré literature. Filled with bitter and moving satire, they revived and combined in the most astonishing manner the lost tradition of Swift, E.T.A. Hoffmann and the Gogol of "The Overcoat" and "The Nose." As a genre they might be named "science antifiction." The absurd in the world can be captured only by the most grotesque of styles. Terz's fantastic tales give a "realistic" picture of everyday life in the Soviet Union….
"A Voice From the Chorus" is a long and loose series of philosophical and literary meditations. The author moves easily from the myth of Oceania to Celtic legends, from the vertical structure of icons to the architecture of old Orthodox churches, from Rembrandt's "Return of the Prodigal Son" to ancient Japanese painting, from the Holy Ghost in Orthodox rites to the Soviet poets Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam. Such books are almost always written in the warm tranquility of a major university library, not in a labor camp near the town of Potma where prisoners are allowed to receive two packets of books per year. And where finding paper fit for writing is the most difficult of problems. (p. 1)
Sinyavsky's scholarly notes, which transform the labor camp into an imaginary museum and an imaginary library, constitute only the lead voice. The chorus is the voices of the camp's other inmates, the Gulag archipelago speaking in all the dialects of Russia. The most astonishing aspect of this book is that anonymous one-sentence utterances—coarse, earthy, printed in italics—continually interrupt the most sophisticated of commentaries on philosophy and literature….
"A Voice From the Chorus" is like a thousand novels woven into one. Human dramas are condensed, purified of everything accidental, sketched, as in the old masterpieces of drawing, with a few unerring lines…. For Sinyavsky, the "craving to write gospels instead of novels" is at the core of Russian literature. He also remarks: "A Russian does nothing but tempt God with various rational proposals about the best way to run the world. Russians give a lot of trouble to God." As a matter of fact, Sinyavsky's work, like that of Solzhenitsyn, troubles everyone except God. Very few contemporary authors have this strength. (p. 27)
Jan Kott, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 27, 1976.
[In A Voice From the Chorus] Sinyavsky's achievement is to turn five years and eight months of overwork and mal-nourishment [in a Soviet prison] into a spiritual voyage. His equipment, as befits a senior scholar at the Gorky Institute of World Literature, consisted of an extraordinary mental armory in which Shakespeare and Homer elbow the bards of Irish sagas and Chechen religious chants. His compass is the Russian Orthodoxy sustaining the believers who share his fate. The uniqueness of the work, however, resides in the relationship of the "voice" of this Ishmael to the "chorus" of his shipmates—the common criminals whose boasts, ballads and curses counterpoint the musings of the solitary survivor….
Truly, by the third year, the "chorus" has reached a pitch of annoyance that makes the "voice" snap: "The lower a man's mental or educational level, the louder, the more strident he is in most cases." To create a private space in the teeming barracks, "automatically you lower a kind of invisible veil over your eyes and, with your vision blurred in this manner, you look but do not see." But those moments of exasperation are rare.
The more usual perspective combines the objectivity of an anthropologist recording exotic data with the mysticism of a seer for whom there are secrets in faces "etched by suffering." To his amazement, Sinyavsky learns that "Here people think and philosophize more intensely than in the world of scholarship and science. Ideas are not culled from books, but grow out of a man's very bones." This unsentimental education involves descriptions of the pornographic tattoos on the genitals of prisoners, their crude tales of sexual adventures and occasional glimpses of women "sitting like condors on their bunks, displaying themselves frankly, with an air of total abstraction."
Yet, even at its most animalistic, such behavior provokes the question, "What if sex is a diabolical way of reaching the gates of paradise?" The author sublimates his own sexuality, spending nearly the entire four hours of his wife's visit merely looking at her, then composing the biweekly letters on which this book is based. But he treasures the feeling of love which, like the stirrings of art and religion, promises the bliss of transcendence. (p. 185)
As an intellectual outsider, Sinyavsky is fascinated by the earthy nature of this "chorus," though his ironic vision focuses on the warts of its members and checks the perennial Russian temptation to idealize the simple folk. In his contemplative moments, he muses, "Prophets appear among the lower classes, in out-of-the-way places and in any case not among the élite." But at night he also registers the taunts of prisoners who hear someone screaming in his sleep, "Dreaming of Yids?"—the sleeper having nightmares of the Jews, whom, as collaborator of the Nazis, he helped murder.
The "chorus" asserts, "The good thing about this place is that a man feels he is nothing but a naked soul." For Sinyavsky, stripping away unessentials leads to a Dostoevskian image of sin-ridden humanity on the brink of collective repentance: "A person in prison corresponds most closely of all to the concept of man. He is, so to speak, the most natural man—man in his pristine state." If this romantic characterization recalls us to the lost innocence of childhood, it does not deter the "snooping" observer from also recording the theft by a dying man in the camp hospital of another dying man's spectacles. The "chorus" can switch from affirmations of the communal conscience, as in a Greek tragedy, to the dampening effects of ritual chant, as in the Orthodox service where it is "a weak, murmuring accompaniment to what is being confessed and absolved."
The "voice" of the narrator shares with the "chorus" its anonymity, so that personal detail is kept to a minumum. One never learns, for example, about the physical horrors of camp life chronicled by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Anatoly Marchenko. To some degree, this may be a function of the need to evade official censorship, though Sinyavsky, now literature professor at the University of Paris, was free to make emendations had he chosen to do so. The private quality of the "voice" reflects, rather, the compunctions that still make Sinyavsky, the literary critic, detach himself from Tertz, the novelist. (pp. 185-86)
The protean powers of Sinyavsky's art have never been more striking. They range from Zen aphorisms ("I know why the crows have been cawing so much of late: they were feeling too black on this white snow") to offbeat interpretations of literary classics and paintings. Echoing T. S. Eliot, Sinyavsky could survey his intellectual salvage with the words, "These fragments I have shored against my ruins." His readings of Hamlet and Oedipus in terms of ineluctable fate undermining the illusion of free choice parallels the tension between the "voice" obsessed by destiny and the "chorus" by a belief in luck….
The regimentation of contemporary life, Marina Tsvetaeva realized in her poem "Homesickness," drives the artist into perpetual exile, out of the house "that is no more mine than a hospital or barracks." "In the toilet of the Potma transit prison," his last stop before freedom, Sinyavsky fantasizes a message from this poet, whose return to Russia in 1939 led to her suicide. His own journey ends like that of Lazarus, "a dead man appearing at life's feast." (p. 186)
Harvey Fireside, "The Art of Survival," in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), September 4, 1976, pp. 185-86.
A Voice from the Chorus is as surprising a book to come out of prison as could be imagined. (p. 67)
The book is made up … of passages from his letters to his wife, together with some brief diary entries composed after his release. The physical circumstances of his imprisonment hardly appear in it. Nothing is said about the reasons for his incarceration. Apart from the occasional description of a look or a particularly striking encounter, the other prisoners are present only through a series of italicized and unexplained quotations of remarks overheard ("The Chorus"). These anonymous quotations, for which no contexts are given, are all brief, some consisting of just a few words; but the anthologies of them which punctuate the text are in many cases several pages long. Fragments of dialogue, boasts about past misdeeds, malapropisms, idle conjectures about the future or the meaning of life—the author obviously treasured some for their bizarre power and originality, others for their excruciating banality.
At one point in his communings with his wife or with himself, the author points out that a line of verse consists "not only of the alternation of sounds, but even more the organization of pauses, the arrangement of silences and stillnesses." This remark can be extended to apply to his book as a whole. The camp, the conditions in which he is writing, the slow passage of time are all conveyed as much through the book's silences and stillnesses as through its words; that which it does not speak of is eloquently present. His extreme abstemiousness or frugality in this regard has a double effect: it puts into particularly sharp focus those sudden details of his daily existence which do appear; and it lends an extraordinary deliberateness and intensity to the reflections on other topics of which the book is largely composed. (pp. 67-8)
A Voice from the Chorus explains and entirely justifies its own form. But an interesting light is thrown on it, and on Tertz/Sinyavsky's earlier works, by a long essay, "The Literary Process in Russia."… In it he declares his opposition to "realism"—not the realism of the official Soviet writers, whom he regards as quite beneath notice, but precisely that of his fellow samizdat or underground writers…. "We must put a stop to our cringing and currying favor with that hectoring taskmaster—reality! After all, we are writers, artists in words." He pleads with his fellow writers to create instead "on this fertile, well-manured soil [of Russia] … something astonishing, something exotic."
In A Voice from the Chorus he has succeeded. To do it, he had to bear all the weight of the reality he had experienced. The last words of the book, written after his release, are: "But they will still go on and on. And while I live here, while we all live—they will still go on and on…." (p. 68)
Dan Jacobson, "Sinyavsky's Art" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1976 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, November, 1976, pp. 66-8.
While Solzhenitsyn disturbs us by his polemical revision of history, Sinyavsky deliberately avoids politics in the journals of his six years in a prison camp to leave us with a sense of wonder at an artist's ability to transmute suffering into self-knowledge. A Voice from the Chorus … lends itself to a variety of readings: a chronicle of physical mortification to test newfound faith, a brilliant critic's commentary on world literature as a survival manual, and a linguistic analysis of the banalities and deception that comfort the more common criminals.
Sinyavsky's chronicle of internal exile is, finally, a tour de force demonstrating the author's esthetic of fantasy as a more adequate response to the mindless horrors of our age than was the realism still constricting the scope of Solzhenitsyn. (p. 788)
Harvey Fireside, in Commonweal (copyright © 1976 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), December 3, 1976.