Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Like Sinyavsky’s first novel, Sud idyot (1960, as Abram Tertz; The Trial Begins, 1960), The Makepeace Experiment treats complex political and artistic themes with satire and irony. Less conventional in form, however, The Makepeace Experiment develops in more detail the problem of art and the role of the artist in the modern world. Sinyavsky’s first critical work, the book-length essay Chto takoe sotsialisticheskii realizm (1959; On Socialist Realism, 1960), had pointed out the contradictions and limitations of Socialist Realism, such as its preference for ideology (especially the positive hero) over true realism; the essay proposed a new art, one which would reveal truth through fantasy and the grotesque, as does The Makepeace Experiment. The collection of aphorisms and sketches Mysli vrasplokh (1966; Unguarded Thoughts, 1972) continues Sinyavsky’s experimentation with form, and at the same time it represents a step forward in the spiritual search begun in The Makepeace Experiment. Golos iz khora (1973; A Voice from the Chorus, 1976), written during Sinyavsky’s imprisonment for heretical writings, combines and contrasts various phrases and sayings from his fellow prisoners with the fragments from the more literary and self-conscious letters to his wife; A Voice from the Chorus, in its search for form and meaning, also signals the author’s move toward Christianity.

As an anti-utopian satire and an attack on the preference for happiness over freedom, The Makepeace Experiment recalls the short novels of Fyodor Dostoevski; its more specific criticism of Soviet ideology also owes much to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s My (1952, written 1920-1921; We, 1924). Whereas its philosophy is clearly in the tradition of Russian anti-utopian literature, the novel’s innovation with structure and its complex layers of meaning mark it as an important step forward in the modern novel’s quest for a form that can capture the complexity and variety of the twentieth century experience.