Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2397
The trial of Andrei Sinyavsky for anti-Soviet literature in 1966 marked an epoch in the history of dissident activism in the Soviet Union: His was the first instance of a writer’s being tried for the sentiments expressed in fictional works. His codefendant was Yuli Daniel (who wrote under the pseudonym Nikolai Arzhak). Sinyavsky’s arrest, trial, and experience in prison are at the narrative center of Goodnight!, an autobiographical novel composed in a collage style that mixes memories, fantasies, and facts. The novel contains five chapters; some chapters mix in imaginary interludes set in different typeface (in a different color of ink in the Russian original), so that rather than a continuous narrative, Goodnight! offers a spliced tale where past and present, real and dreamed experience freely intermingle.
Chapter 1 (“The Turncoat”) opens with Sinyavsky’s 1965 arrest in Moscow (its first sentence is “They grabbed me near Nikitsky Gate”), beginning in the middle of an action whose larger shape the reader presumably knows. This immediacy is counterbalanced by a strong, sustained sense of authorial distance: As he recounts the speedy unfolding of events that lead him to KGB headquarters and prison at Lubyanka Square, Sinyavsky already reflects on what the spectacle of his arrest might have looked like to an outsider. Once inside the prison, he extends this metaphor of theater, describing the “stylized, exaggeratedly decorative gloom of the casemate.” The first bit of interpolated text, “The Mirror,” proceeds as drama: This fairy-tale play grotesquely puts concrete details from Sinyavsky’s interrogation alongside the wildest fantasies of an arrested man.
The interrogators most want to get Sinyavsky to admit his connection to “Abram Tertz” (Sinyavsky was in fact arrested for writings published outside the Soviet Union under the name of Abram Tertz, and later in the novel he will recount bizarre conversations with colleagues who unknowingly ask him who this “Abram Tertz” might be). The interrogators’ insistence that Sinyavsky acknowledge his other identity also creates a basis for speculations within Goodnight! about the narrator’s lack of a unified self, at times dramatized as conversations between Sinyavsky and Tertz. Chapter 1 ends with a triumphant account of Sinyavsky’s unexpectedly warm reception among fellow prisoners on a transport train. When these men embrace and celebrate Sinyavsky, who has been told throughout his interrogation and preparation for transport that he is a pariah, his perceptions of a split within himself deepen. The duplicity that characterizes so much of “official” life animates and justifies the techniques of doubling and dissembling that mark Sinyavsky’s “private” self as it is revealed in Goodnight!
Like subsequent chapters, chapter 1 does not proceed chronologically: It includes, for example, the story of Sinyavsky’s return from prison within pages of the tale of his arrest; it recalls a party where he talked with Yuli Daniel, before their arrest; it looks ahead to Paris, where Sinyavsky has resided since 1973, and his dreams about people whom he met in prison. This collapsed sense of time also organizes the novel as a whole, since the five chapters do not proceed sequentially either.
Chapter 2, “The Public House,” occurs principally in the hut where prisoners are allowed to meet with family members who have traveled to the labor camp to visit them. Sinyavsky’s visit with his wife Mariya forms the basis for this part of the narrative; told in powerfully evocative terms, the visit conveys the loving loyalty of husband and wife. Sinyavsky also weaves in tales of less festive visits he has heard about from others in the camps. He permits digressions on such subjects as the hardiness of Russian women, and the role of human faces in moments of falling in love. This chapter is among the novel’s most lyrical and sensual; indeed, its praise for sexual connection marks a rare departure from the reticence about matters of the flesh usual in Russian literature. The grim prison-camp setting does not recede into oblivion, however: A prisoner shot in the camps for trying to escape is mournfully recalled, and other “camp stories” with which Sinyavsky feels himself full “to bursting” are recorded. The recollections of the first time that gossip about “Abram Tertz” came to Sinyavsky’s institute brings readers up to date about the narrator’s own story; watching him piece together the evidence that the authorities were closing in on him reveals his discernment and unshakable calm.
In chapter 3, “My Father,” Sinyavsky returns to memories of his childhood. Among the most memorable is the tale of Efim Bobko, a Ukrainian boy whom Sinyavsky’s father saves from probable starvation in 1933 by virtually adopting him. Efim’s picturesque tales about his family turn out to be false: He later confesses to Sinyavsky’s family that he was the son of kulak (a prosperous farmer, the entire class of which was destroyed during collectivization). This brief tale allows Goodnight to include a vivid evocation of the first stage of Joseph Stalin’s terror, the starvation and murders that accompanied his creation of a state agricultural system in the early 1930’s. Because of their temporal sweep, the stories about Sinyavsky’s father in chapter 3 recall the full horror of Stalin’s rule. Sinyavsky’s father was a Socialist Revolutionary (a party which the Bolshevik Communists persecuted after the 1917 Revolution), and he had a gentry background, two facts that were bound to lead to trouble. It is thus no surprise when Sinyavsky recounts his father’s arrest. The tale of arrest and imprisonment, which proceeds reticently at first, yields to a painfully detailed account of the nighttime police search, which Sinyavsky witnessed as a young man. The harrowing forest scene when he visits his father in exile, while it evokes idyllic childhood scenes when he and his father go hunting, shows a narrator unafraid of revealing his own confusion and terror. At the same time, the description gradually reveals his father’s paranoia and, more frightening still, a suspicion of the tortures and experiments to which his father may have been subjected in prison. All of these passages about his father’s political troubles create foils for Sinyavsky’s own experiences in prison, none of which is ever recounted with quite such terror. As is the case throughout the novel, Sinyavsky here uses techniques of displacement and doubling to ensure that, while he writes about his own experiences in ways that minimize his suffering, his novel nevertheless conveys the full horror of Stalin’s terror and of life in post-Stalinist Soviet Russia.
These political realities only seem secondary in the beginning of chapter 4, “Dangerous Liaisons,” which turns to the “physical connections” that link this world and the next world. While the chapter continues to explore the contrasts between worlds real and imagined, it also introduces a new weirdness into the prose. Toward the chapter’s end, Sinyavsky even recalls a friend who talks of yoga and karma. The chapter begins with a character called A. or Alla, a medium and taleteller; she tells fairy tales, dreams, and anecdotes about the dead, and in that choice one sees the return of political themes. She tells one story about Stalin’s appearance to her (as it turns out, during the night before his death became known on March 5, 1953) without form, image, or even his mustache. This tale is cast as neither dream nor invention; Stalin is described by concrete historical and political details, and his countless murders have not been forgotten. He begs A. to forgive his debts, thus pleading before a woman whose family he has wiped out. He argues with her, shouting the names of “Stalin” and “Lenin” back and forth; these words call forth from A.’s memory ugly scenes from her days in prison. Her inspired answer to him, that he must go around to every survivor, one at a time, begging forgiveness, finally causes the specter to vanish, but the pervasive presence of Stalin’s ghost as a reality behind Goodnight! has been rendered palpable and unvanquished. Thus, Sinyavsky will later give his horoscope, feeling an ironic pleasure in the description, as “born under the ‘Stalin-Kirov-Zhdanov- Hitler-Stalin’ constellation.”
Sinyavsky, as narrator, intensifies the eeriness of this passage by articulating his own unease at even writing it down: “I won’t conceal it—I’m afraid of writing about him. No sooner do I sit down with a piece of paper than a certain minor magic begins. Fear, confusion.” Sinyavsky recalls his own secret happiness on learning of Stalin’s death from his mother, using this connection to his own biography as a transition to deeper historical interpretations of the Stalin period. He describes at length the book he was reading at the time, a history of the Time of Troubles (Russia’s sixteenth century interregnum that led to foreign invasion, pretenders to the throne, and great bloodshed). Vivid scenes re-create the Time of Troubles, when disbelief about the death of the heir to the throne, Dmitri, gave rise to more than one pretender, or False Dmitri. These historical passages are interspersed with speculations about whether Stalin has actually died, including the wild prediction that a False Stalin will come. Sinyavsky here uses long portions of narrative in a different typeface, this time for grotesque accounts of the violence from the Time of Troubles; these tales of torture stand in for the agonies suffered by millions of Soviet citizens arrested during Stalin’s reign of terror. Sinyavsky thus again uses the technique of displacement, barely hinting at the violence in contemporary scenes (for example, during the days when Stalin’s body lies in state), while narrating in graphic detail the agonies suffered hundreds of years earlier. Sinyavsky returns to the supernatural imagery that opens the chapter as he describes the atmosphere of Stalin’s reign: “that of a black mass, a witches’ sabbath, howlings from beyond the grave.” In such a period of hypnosis and supernatural forces, he tries to understand the behavior of his countrymen, “muttering words that were not their own but someone else’s, inspired from above, repeated by rote.” Goodnight! thereby introduces the problem that dominates the final chapter, how Soviet citizens behaved during decades of terror.
In the final chapter, “In the Belly of the Whale,” Sinyavsky brings himself forward as the citizen whose behavior is to be examined. Few dissidents tell a life story that climaxes with their own forced collaboration with the secret police, yet that is what Sinyavsky’s final chapter recounts. The opening pages narrate his intense friendship with Seryozha, or S., especially their shared fascination with art and poetry. Sinyavsky comes under Seryozha’s spell, acknowledging both Seryozha’s talents and his own dawning awareness that his friend is an informer. References to Pavlik Morozov, a Soviet boy who denounced his own father and was made a hero in the Stalin period, work to expose the romance of political denunciation that held a nation in its thrall. Once again, Sinyavsky describes an atmosphere where the unimaginable grows unspeakably real, and once again he does so in amusement as much as in anger. This is all the more extraordinary given suggestions in Goodnight! that Seryozha was possibly involved in events that led to Sinyavsky’s arrest in 1965, and that he was certainly involved in the 1947 scheme to force Sinyavsky to collaborate with the secret police during his student days.
That scheme is central to the final chapter. It involves Helene Zamoyska, a French student given special permission to study literature in Moscow. She ends up at the institute where Sinyavsky is also a student. As with his earlier friendship with Seryozha, the world of his connection to Helene is suffused with an atmosphere of art, poetry, and cultural values. A different, more mundane world intervenes, however, when Sinyavsky is recruited to spy on Helene Zamoyska. Three “dialogues” with the authorities demonstrate the rhetorical trickery that was used against Sinyavsky. Suggestions that he “court” Zamoyska are mixed in with speculations about his loyalty as a Soviet citizen or with questions about Russian poetry. Sinyavsky scrupulously describes the meetings he subsequently had with Helene Zamoyska, including both the ways he warned her against his apparent intentions and the codes they created together to protect her. As the supposed plot thickens to include marriage, Sinyavsky and Zamoyska use Seryozha to feed information back to the secret police. There is even a later meeting in Vienna, in 1952, where Sinyavsky fears that he is being used to set up something dangerous to Zamoyska, perhaps even her murder. Risks to life and integrity do not, however, compromise the novel with melodrama or a false sense of self-importance. Even in the final chapter, Sinyavsky maintains an ironic distance from his emotions. The spy story has a benign and enormously human ending, with cognac shared all around on a train speeding back to Moscow. In that spirit of generosity, self-deprecation, and good humor despite grave danger, one recognizes Sinyavsky’s distinctive stamp as a writer and thinker about Soviet Russia.
Goodnight! has been described as a cross between the Bildungsroman and genre of confession, and it is certainly the case that the novel gives an account of the hero’s moral formation at the same time that it involves him in telling all that he can imagine about himself that is bad. Yet the novel, which abounds in literary associations, quoted poetry, and verbal inventiveness, also shows its having been authored by a literary scholar. The excursions into Russian history, particularly the juxtaposition of the Time of Troubles with the decades of Stalin’s terror, reveal the author’s deep insight into the cultural history of his country and his concern for understanding the nature of historical events which he witnessed. Rather than casting blame, and rather than dividing his countrymen into those who caused the evil of the Terror versus those who were its victims, Sinyavsky writes with a rare (for Russians) awareness that moral categories are seldom so precise. His willingness to tell his own story of entrapment by the secret police means that Sinyavsky uses himself as a case in point—at once compromised by his associations and seeking to maintain his integrity as much as he can. In this sense, Goodnight! is also a work in moral philosophy, a contribution to the ongoing project of understanding how, in the twentieth century and under conditions of political repression, ethical action can still be imagined.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 152
Sources for Further Study
Fanger, Donald. “A Change of Venue: Russian Journals of the Emigration,” in The Times Literary Supplement. November 21, 1986, p. 1321.
Fanger, Donald. “Conflicting Imperatives in the Model of the Russian Writer: The Case of Tertz/Sinyavsky,” in Literature and History: Theoretical Problems and Russian Case Studies, 1986. Edited by Gary S. Morson.
Hayward, Max. “Sinyavsky’s A Voice from the Chorus,” in Writers in Russia: 1917-1978, 1983.
Hingley, Ronald. “Arresting Episodes,” in The Times Literary Supplement. February 15, 1985, p. 178.
Labedz, Leopald, and Max Hayward. On Trial: The Case of Sinyavsky (Tertz) and Daniel (Arzhak): Documents, 1967.
Lourie, Richard. Letters to the Future: An Approach to Sinyavsky-Tertz, 1975.
Library Journal. CXIV, October 15, 1989, p.84.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. December 3, 1989, p.3.
The New Republic. CCII, January 1, 1990, p.34.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, December 17, 1989, p.1.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVI, October 6, 1989, p.82.
Time. CXXXIV, December 25, 1989, p.76.
The Washington Post Book World. XIX, December 24, 1989, p.3.
Wigwag. I, December, 1989, p.78.
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