(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Spokoinoi nochi is a highly fragmented, phantasmagoric memoir-novel about Andrei Sinyavsky’s life as a Soviet intellectual and secret dissident writer (under the name Abram Tertz), his betrayal, trial, and years in a labor camp. Written after his emigration to France, it is an attempt to understand his life and to trace the development of his worldview as man and artist. Reared an orthodox Communist, Sinyavsky evolved into a sophisticated, paradoxical artist and thinker who came to believe that “reality” is phantasmagoric and understandable only in such terms. Spokoinoi nochi uses the phantasmagoric aesthetic to probe the harrowing story of Sinyavsky’s life as Abram Tertz. Although this technique is aesthetically effective, it yields a chaotic, impressionistic narrative that is fully accessible only if the reader is already familiar with the historical context and the basic outlines of Sinyavsky’s life.

The last years before the death of Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin in 1953 were a nightmare of paranoiac despotism. Millions were in labor camps. The arts were reduced to primitive propaganda under the rubric “Socialist Realism.” Andrei Sinyavsky was a young scholar specializing in twentieth century Russian literature at the prestigious Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow. Like many of his friends, he was deeply disturbed by the official revelation in 1956 of the crimes of Stalin, which resonated with certain of his own unpleasant experiences. The fear of a possible return of Stalinism led the young critic, under the pseudonym Abram Tertz, to write two works which were smuggled to the West, where they were published to great acclaim. One of these, the essay Chto takoe sotsialisticheskii realizm (1959; On Socialist Realism, 1960), attacked the state-imposed literary doctrine and argued for a freer, speculative, “phantasmagoric” fiction. The essay’s principles were exemplified in a short novel, Sud idyot (1959; The Trial Begins, 1960), which painted a surreal picture of Soviet life in the last months of Stalin’s life. Sinyavsky continued his double life until...

(The entire section is 881 words.)