Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 950
Vassily Aksyonov 1932–
(Full name Vassily Pavlovich Aksyonov; also transliterated as Vassily Aksenov) Russian novelist, dramatist, short story writer, scriptwriter, and children's author.
The following entry provides an overview of Aksyonov's career through 1995. For further information of his life and career, see CLC, Volumes 22 and 37.
(The entire section contains 49694 words.)
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- Critical Essays
Vassily Aksyonov 1932–
(Full name Vassily Pavlovich Aksyonov; also transliterated as Vassily Aksenov) Russian novelist, dramatist, short story writer, scriptwriter, and children's author.
The following entry provides an overview of Aksyonov's career through 1995. For further information of his life and career, see CLC, Volumes 22 and 37.
Widely known for his association with the "youth prose" movement in Russian literature, Vassily Aksyonov has established himself as a satirist whose topics include political corruption, the Soviet regime, alienation, adolescent angst, and cultural differences between the East and West. His surrealistic techniques coupled with his use of jargon and slang are trademark characteristics of Aksyonov's fiction. The blending of real historical events into his novels has also distinguished Aksyonov's work. Novels such as Ozhog (1980; The Burn) and Ostrov Krym (1981; The Island of Crimea) address a variety of issues such as political imprisonment, exile, corruption, and isolation.
Born on August 20, 1932, in Kazan, U.S.S.R., Vassily Pavlovich Aksyonov has gained increasing recognition as a writer of satirical, surrealistic fiction. His mother, Eugenia Semenovna Ginzburg, was a history instructor at Kazan University. Her prison-camp memoir Journey into the Whirlwind (1962) established her as a well-known writer and heavily influenced Vassily's most ambitious and successful novel, The Burn. His father, Pavel Vasilievich Aksyonov, was a professional Communist Party member. Both of Aksyonov's parents were impprisoned in 1937, and in 1948 he joined his mother in Magadan, where she was living in exile, and completed his elementary education in 1950. In 1956 he graduated from the First Leningrad Medical Institute as a medical doctor. Aksyonov served as staff physician in a tuberculosis clinic until 1958 and as a specialist in adolescent tuberculosis until 1960. After the publication of his novel Kollegi (1961; Colleagues) in 1960 in two issues of Yunost' (Youth) magazine, Aksyonov left medicine to pursue writing full time. During the 1960s Aksyonov's novels enjoyed a period of popularity when Soviet restraints on literature were less rigid. In the 1970s, censorship and increasing conflict with Soviet officials prompted him to leave his homeland. Called the Russian J. D. Salinger by many critics for his treatment of youth, alienation, and the search for meaning, Aksyonov has been praised for the wide scope of his novels, his social satire, and his historical scholarship. His works continue to be translated into English, and currently Aksyonov is again being recognized as a prominent voice in literature.
Aksyonov's first two novels, Colleagues and Zvezdnyi bilet (1961; A Ticket to the Stars), received widespread attention in the Soviet Union. A Ticket to the Stars focuses on rebellious teenagers in Moscow and was popular for its depiction of rowdy, flippant youth. Critiqued heavily for its experimental nature and its use of jargon and slang, the novel offended many Soviet officials. The novel's irreverent attitude and the author's subsequent writings prompted a public scolding from Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1963 and a forced apology from Aksyonov. Pora, moi drug, pora (1964; It's Time, My Friend, It's Time) examines the themes of alienation and the search for meaning. The surrealistic novel The Burn has many autobiographical elements and traces the development of five alternate versions of Tolya Von Steinbock's persona. Divided into three sections, The Burn focuses on three different periods in Tolya's life. In The Island of Crimea, set on the Crimean peninsula, Aksyonov imagines that Crimea is an autonomous society separated from the Soviet Union. The novel is another social satire reliant on a stretch of the imagination, but it is deemed less surrealistic and far-fetched than Aksyonov's previous works. Skazi izjum! (1985; Say Cheese!) presents an account of Aksyonov's emigration to America and provides an insightful look into Soviet culture and regime. Pokolenie zimy (1993; Generations of Winter) is a sweeping epic that begins during the 1920s and ends with the conclusion of World War II. The novel has been compared to the works of Leo Tolstoy and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Throughout his career Aksyonov has presented satires of both Eastern and Western society. His work has frequently been criticized for its use of dated slang, jargon, surrealistic techniques, inside jokes, and farcical situations. Critic Priscilla Meyer asserts that A Ticket to the Stars and Colleagues both attempt "to show that while contemporary youth may look and talk like stiliagi ("beatniks"), they nonetheless shared the ideals of the previous generation." Examining themes of alienation and adolescent rebellion, A Ticket to the Stars offended the "Old Guard," but was very popular with the Russian youth, according to Meyer. Aksyonov's critique of the Russian regime continued in The Burn, and the author was forced to leave his homeland upon the novel's publication in 1980. In his review of The Burn, Czech novelist Josef Skvorecky calls Aksyonov "an epoch-making writer" whose "stunning inferno" of Stalinism reminded him of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Critics such as Fernanda Eberstadt fault the novel for its "authorial self-indulgence," and "stale literary fashions," but most critics regard it highly. Meyer states: "By recapitulating his own biography, Aksyonov writes a literary-historical confession that traces the effects of Stalinism on the author's generation from the 1940s to the mid-1970s." Say Cheese! likewise is lauded for its insightful look at life during the Soviet regime. Eva Hoffman describes the book as a "disturbing and persuasive probe into the inner mechanisms of the Soviet machine on the eve of potential disintegration—or glasnost." Critic Jay Parini calls Generations of Winter "a masterly, rather self-consciously Tolstoyan epic that opens in the late 1920s and ends, hauntingly, amid the ruins of World War II." According to Adam Hochschild review of the novel, Aksyonov's blending of fact and fiction, his frequent quoting of great Russian poets, and his excellent grasp of history allow the author to present an "absorbing," all-encompassing epic in which "everything rings true."
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 113
Kollegi [Colleagues] (novel) 1961
Zvezdnyi bilet [A Ticket to the Stars] (novel) 1961
Apel' siny iz Marokko [Oranges from Morocco] (novel) 1962
Pora, moi drug, pora [It's Time, My Friend, It's Time] (novel) 1964
The Destruction of Pompei and Other Stories (short stories) 1965
Zatovarennaia bochkotara [The Tare of Barrels] (novel) 1968
Randevu [Rendezvous] (novella) 1971
Liubov'k elektrichestvu [Love for Electricity] (novel) 1971
Ozhog [The Burn] (novel) 1980
Ostrov Krym [The Island of Crimea] (novel) 1981
Skazi izjum! [Say Cheese!] (novel) 1985
V poiskakh grustnogo bebi: Kniga ob Amerike [In Search of Melancholy Baby] (nonfiction) 1987
∗Pokolenie zimy [Generations of Winter] (novel) 1993
∗Voina i tiur'ma [War and Prison] (novel) 1993
∗Tiur'ma i mir [Prison and Peace] (novel) 1994
∗ These works comprise a trilogy, Moskovskaia saga [Moscow Saga].
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4627
SOURCE: "Vasili Aksenov at 33," in Tri-Quarterly, No. 2, Spring, 1965, pp. 75-83.
[In the following essay, Brown examines a variety of Aksyonov's works and provides an overview of the author's career.]
Kirpichenko, a roughneck tractor driver in the Soviet Far East, begins his vacation with a three-day binge, then boards a jet for Moscow. On the plane he is fatally dazzled by the beautiful stewardess Tanya. Tamed and bemused, he spends the rest of his vacation, and all his money, flying back and forth on the Moscow-Khabarovsk run, hoping for another glimpse of Tanya. When he finally sees her again in the airport, it is too late; the broken giant retains his fair vision, but he must go back to work.
Uncle Mitya, a taxi-driver in Yalta who is plagued by speeding tickets, tries to immunize himself by marrying off his daughter, a sister-in-law, and sundry other in-laws to the local traffic cops. The marriages succeed, but the project backfires: Uncle Mitya finds himself hemmed in by his new relatives—staunch enforcers of the law who are first of all anxious to demonstrate their impartiality by pinching him as often as possible.
Georgi Abramashvili is an eighteen-year-old lifeguard at Sukhumi who is awaiting his draft call. He spends his sunny days impressing the girls on the beach with spectacular handstands. At night he courts trouble with the Komsomol by evading service in the local druzhina. One fine evening this Tarzan is introduced to sex (and cigarettes!) by the vacationing Alina. Next day Alina's husband arrives, there is a fight, and Abramashvili is publicly denounced for hooliganism. The army, he decides, will be fine. He might even get to be a cosmonaut!
Kirpichenko, Uncle Mitya, and Georgi Abramashvili would seem to have little in common. In the context of contemporary Soviet literature, however, there is much that unites them. All three are ordinary, stumbling, bewildered guys, trying to get along in the world without too much discomfort, largely unconcerned with the fate of society at large. They are only minimally aware, if at all, of participating in the building of communism. All three, in fact, would be vulnerable to the accusation that their horizons are narrow, that they lack any sense of the lofty purpose of life, and that they are ideologically too passive to play a conscious role in shaping the world about them. It is just as true, however, that these three fictional characters, conceived by their author in a spirit of irony, sympathy and humor, are interesting, colorful and believable. They are typical of the best characters in the Soviet literature of the nineteen sixties precisely because of their authenticity and lack of schematic adulteration.
The creator of these characters, from three separate short stories, is Vasili Aksenov, a 33-year-old Muscovite who five years ago abandoned his profession as a physician to take up a career in literature. Since his first appearance in print in 1959, Aksenov has published three novels, one novella and roughly a dozen short stories. He has also done scenarios of two of his novels and one or two independent scenarios. Together with Evgeny Evtushenko and a few other prominent writers, he is an editor of the outstandingly successful monthly magazine Yunost' (Youth). Aksenov is one of the half-dozen most promising young writers in the U.S.S.R. today, and he is certainly one of the busiest.
Aksenov is also controversial. His second novel, A Starry Ticket, which appeared in the summer of 1961, featured an engagingly irreverent and rebellious group of Soviet teenagers, rock-and-rolling runaways from the discipline of both parents and society, whose pungent, flip language was loaded with foreignisms (especially Americanisms) and whose sceptical, wry view of the Soviet middle-class success pattern earned their creator, for a time, the title of the Russian Salinger. Aksenov's "starry boys," as hostile critics have come to call them, met with bitter disapproval from the watchdogs of orthodoxy, who not only resented their hip lingo (a mixture of foreign borrowings, pure invention, Soviet underworld argot, and jargon from the concentration camps), but, even more seriously, were shocked by their open though adolescent mockery of Soviet sacred cows. Because of this novel and subsequent literary sins in the same vein, Aksenov got a parental scolding from Khrushchev in the spring of 1963 and was forced to make a public apology. Since then his published works appear to have been free of literary heresy, although they have retained in large measure the saucy flavor that has always irritated his critics. At the same time his writing continues to be experimental. It has its ups and downs. His most recent novel, It's Time, My Friend, It's Time, published last summer, was in many respects an artistic failure. On the other hand, his three most recently published short stories display the strength and charm of the best of Aksenov. Even more important, both the novel and the stories give evidence of a literary mind that has not lost its restlessness.
One of Aksenov's great strengths is his sense of fun—a fascination for the grotesque that suggests a combination of [Nikolai] Gogol and a somewhat milder Joseph Heller. He purposely lets things get out of hand. Kirpichenko, in his search for Tanya, covers the 4,000 air miles between Moscow and Khabarovsk not once, but ceaselessly, back and forth, back and forth. The boys in A Starry Ticket, picking up odd jobs for eating money on their runaway to Estonia, are hired to repaint the hull of a black fishing trawler. They find some red paint and decorate the hull with it.
But then we started to wonder whether it wouldn't be even nicer if we painted the whole ship red. Shouldn't we turn everything red that had been black until then? Go over the whole thing with bucket and brush and, before anyone knew what had happened, the entire thing would be red.
When the boss discovers his tomato-colored ship the next morning, he, too, crimsons. At times Aksenov's taste for the extravagant and the improbable get him involved in huge, farcical situations that can best be described as a kind of rollicking panic. A ship from Morocco, laden with oranges, arrives in the dead of winter at a remote port on the island of Sakhalin. The locals, many of whom have never seen an orange, rush in from every outlying village and work-site, clogging the roads and plowing through the snow on tractors, dump trucks, motorcycles, road graders, bulldozers, cars and buses. Nanaian tribesmen on dogsleds join the crush. A steamy bacchanal ensues as the entire populace, punctuating its revelry with fistfights, gorges on oranges. What happens is plausible, but it is somehow heightened, larger than life, and juicier.
Like many young Soviet poets and writers, Aksenov is fascinated with the jet age and awed by speed. The world of his novels and stories is full of cars, helicopters and airplanes. But he is not a naive worshiper of technology, and, unlike many of his more chauvinistic compatriots, he seems to have reacted to Soviet achievements in space with equanimity. There is evidence in his writing of a healthy respect for the ominousness of violent motion. A major development in A Starry Ticket turns on a catastrophic plane crash. And the most poignant character in It's Time, My Friend, It's Time, the ungainly young misfit and dreamer Kyanukuk (who, among other things, has made up the story that he is about to be selected as an exchange student at the University of Michigan), dies as his motorcycle crashes at top speed into a piece of highway construction equipment.
Aksenov likes to describe movement, both of people and of things. His characters love sports and play them well. (Wilt the Stilt Chamberlain is the idol of one of them.) They are handy with their fists and quick to resort to them. They are intrigued by rhythms, and collect jazz tapes and dance steps. Dimka, one of the boys in A Starry Ticket, gets a job as a bricklayer's helper and, relishing the sarcasm, describes his work:
Talk of a complicated occupation: you put a couple of bricks on top of the belt and when they're gone, you put a couple more on … And so I took two bricks and put them on the belt, too. And to think it was a human being who invented a damned contraption like the conveyor belt! It never stops moving, that belt, and you keep putting bricks on it two by two and your pile grows smaller while the wall gets taller and taller….
Motion—even when it is absurd and purposeless—holds a special charm for Aksenov and seems important to him in and for itself. One of his most recent stories concerns the nostalgic visit of an old man (now rehabilitated and pensioned after eighteen years' imprisonment and exile under Stalin) to the village of his birth. There he finds a boyhood acquaintance whose nickname is Dikoi (The Strange One). Fifty years before, the narrator, with a group of other boys, had smashed a weird, Rube Goldberg machine which Dikoi was building in a deserted bathhouse. They talk of their lives and, as the visitor is about to leave, his host takes him to a locked shed in back of his hut.
I saw the same intricate machine which we had broken in the bathhouse. It was built along the same lines, only more complicated, more majestic. The machine was moving, wheels rotated, big and small, the spokes and levers moved silently, the belt-drive slid quietly over the pulleys, and there was the weak click of a little board, a little board, a little board …
"Remember?" Dikoi whispered.
"I remember," I also whispered.
The little board clicked, as if ticking off the years of our lives to the end, and even beyond the end, back and forth, and we didn't even know where these noises were rolling to …
I felt sick.
"An amusing gadget," I said in a sarcastic voice, to give myself courage. "What's it for? Eh, Dikoi?"
"Simply, Pavlusha, for motion," he answered again in a whisper, still looking at the wheels.
"And when did you start it up?" I again asked sarcastically.
"When? I don't know, don't remember. Long ago, very long. You see, it doesn't stop."
"What is it—perpetual motion?"
He turned to me and his eyes gleamed madly, not from the electric light but from the light of the early moon.
"It seems, yes," he whispered with a sickly smile, "but perhaps not. So … let's take another look …"
Motion in this story is more than just a thing in itself, for it has a distinctly symbolic function as well. We are concerned at the moment, however, not so much with Aksenov's ideas as with his writer's temperament—the way he uses words to convey the shape and texture of life. His style of writing is truly arresting (much more so, unfortunately, in Russian than in English translation). It is based, first of all, on a very heavy use of dialogue—brisk, racy, ironical, quarrelsome, tart. Most of his abundant humor, and a great deal of his narrative development, is located in the dialogue. Since Aksenov is also particularly fond of first-person narrative, his dialogue is, more often than not, reported dialogue, in which the narrator himself (not the author) has been closely involved, either as a participant or as an interested observer. This method lends an intimacy and warmth, as well as an especially opinionated flavor to the writing. Furthermore, since the narrator is as candid in reporting his own feelings as he is in recounting the utterances of others, there shines through his joking, mocking, sceptical, off-beat language a startling emotional authenticity. Aksenov and his generation have grown up under the genial influence of the matchless Soviet satirists Ilf and Petrov. His own language and attitudes, as well as those of his characters, bears heavily the imprint of these wisely crazy humorists, who were always alert to the phony and ridiculous in Soviet life. At the same time, Aksenov is more serious than Ilf and Petrov; whereas they attempted to get at the truth through wild indirection, Aksenov tries more often to name things for what they are. As a consequence, he has cultivated, in both his first-person and his third-person narrative, a vein of terse, laconic description and exposition based largely on verbs and nouns. It is not surprising that one of his few acknowledged mentors is Ernest Hemingway.
Aksenov's style, however, is more than just a mixture of colorful dialogue and telegraphic authorial statement, for it is full of all kinds of tricks and surprises. Some of these, such as his occasional bizarre experiments with typography, are merely amusing. More interesting and meaningful is the allusiveness of his prose, which is so crammed with topical references that his works constitute a small, though slanted, encyclopedia of contemporary Soviet life. (There are Soviet critics who would deny him this value by arguing that he portrays only a narrow, special, and negligible segment of the Russian scene, but his very popularity among the generation whose life he describes testifies to his relevance.) He cites snatches of songs, current slogans and catchwords, the names of sports greats and movie stars. He parodies the clichés of newspapers and classroom, the cozy advice of parents, and the smug admonitions of the collective. Much of his language is figurative, and it is particularly rich in bold and sprightly metaphors. Interjections and wry rhetorical questions abound. The sentences themselves are short and choppy, enabling the writer to draw attention to the individual word. This is particularly important, for ultimately the most distinctive thing about Aksenov is his vocabulary.
There have been many complaints, even from critics who are benevolently disposed toward him, about Aksenov's stock of words. A couple of years ago the humor magazine Crocodile, only half in jest, printed a sample glossary of Aksenov for the guidance of readers who were stumped by his outlandish vocabulary. Everyone agrees that the salty, swinging language of his characters can actually be heard on Moscow streets and Siberian construction sites. The trouble is, as the venerable writer and language authority Kornei Chukovski has remarked, such slang should not be heard anywhere: it is a threat to the purity of Russian! Others who object to Aksenov's esoteric jargon see it as an ugly symptom of incipient disrespectfulness and cynicism among Soviet young people and view his writing as a pernicious influence on youth. Such critics, bigoted and hidebound though they may be, have a point. One of the reasons why Aksenov's characters talk as they do is that they are profoundly dissatisfied with the stale, hypocritical, hollow vocabulary that was foisted on the Soviet people during a quarter-century of Stalinism and, despite some reforms, continues to plague Soviet public life.
Although they are dissatisfied with many things, Aksenov's characters are really not cynical at all. And although some of them do resemble in some respects the stilyagi—approximate Soviet equivalents of England's "mods"—Aksenov takes pains to distinguish them from truly anti-social parasites. They are wary of emotional and intellectual commitments, but underneath their scepticism and occasional surface callousness there is an idealism of a rather pristine type. With few exceptions, Aksenov's characters observe a clear, if unspoken moral code that emphasizes simple honor and decency, faithfulness in love and in friendship, the dignity of conscientious effort, and efficiency and trustworthiness in one's work. Despite their attempts to cultivate the flippant sneer and a certain premature, world-weary acidity, they are ultimately warm and engaging.
It is important to distinguish, however, between various types of characters in Aksenov. First of all, he does not write exclusively about young people. Middle-aged persons crop up even in his earliest stories and, if his most recent publications are an indication, he is also interested in the elderly. Furthermore, although teenagers continue to fascinate him, he has recently tended to concentrate on characters in their twenties or early thirties. These, of course, are his own contemporaries. Whereas he portrays his teenagers with an amused, ironical, older-brotherly affection, he depicts his contemporaries with a deep, involved sympathy.
The problems which this latter group faces are universal ones—finding and keeping a mate, discovering the fact of inevitable death and somehow digesting it, selecting one's life work and qualifying for it, and reconciling one's ideals with an imperfect world. Since Aksenov's characters, by and large, are never more than mildly neurotic, they approach these problems with a minimum of self-deception, with energy and with courage. This is not to say that they do not flounder, waste time and talent, or engage in aggressive or self-destructive behavior. Love in his stories is very frequently a source of mutual torture or agonizing loneliness. And although Aksenov, like all contemporary Soviet writers, spares the reader the lurid details of sex, he quite freely shows its uglier implications as well as its charm. Nevertheless, he avoids the extremes of human behavior; his people bloody each other's noses but they do not murder; they get the blues but they do not remain permanently on dead center; they gripe about working conditions but they stay on the job; they run away but they come home. Aksenov believes that the human situation is good and that its maladjustments are curable.
Aksenov has had to overcome, however, a tendency toward superficial sunniness. His first novel, Colleagues, often reads like a study in socialist realism. It is the story of how three friends, just out of medical school, pass the initial tests of their ability, moral fibre and stamina. While two of them are marking time in the port of Leningrad, awaiting assignment as ship's doctors, their Komsomol vigilance helps to break up a ring of embezzlers. The third, assigned to a rural dispensary in Karelia, becomes a kind of Dr. Kildare of the wilderness and proves his mettle in a series of rugged adventures. The novel climaxes in a suspenseful midnight surgical operation. The young rural doctor, knifed while thwarting a burglary, is saved by his two medical-school pals, who have appeared on the scene in the nick of time. This novel was filmed, and one is tempted to conclude that Aksenov had the scenario in mind when he plotted it.
Colleagues is by no means devoid of serious social commentary or moral probing. A number of references to problems of Soviet public life and institutions indicate that Aksenov is seriously and intelligently concerned with telling the truth about the society in which he lives. There are alcoholics, common criminals, and other flotsam and jetsam in the novel; the poverty of collective farms is mentioned; there is reference to bureaucratic corruption and official stuffed-shirtism and hypocrisy. One of his young doctors complains, in a remark that has frequently been re-quoted:
If you only knew, I'm fed up to the teeth with it, all this drumming in of propaganda, all these highfalutin' words. I know there's a host of fine idealists like yourself who're always mouthing them, but there are also thousands of scoundrels who just parrot them. I don't doubt Beria too used the same language while he was deceiving the Party. Now that such a lot of things have become clear to us, such language rings very false. So for Heaven's sake let's manage without claptrap. I love my country, I love its system, and I wouldn't give a thought about giving an arm or a leg or my life for it. But all I'm responsible to is my own conscience, not any fetishes of words. All they do is make it more difficult to see the realities of life. See what I mean?
Aksenov has in fact endowed this particular character with a formidable Weltschmerz. In his person the author poses a question which few Soviet writers in recent times have dared to dwell on:
We spin philosophies, we battle for progressive ideas, we babble about the usefulness of working for the community, we build up theories, but in the last resort we all break down into a number of chemical elements, just like plants and animals which don't dabble in theories. It's all a tragicomedy and nothing more. People are wont to say: we all come to it at the end. All of us. Both the leaders of productivity and the idlers, both the decent ones and the rogues. But where is this it where we're all going to be, eh? There isn't anywhere. Just darkness. What do I really care about anything in the world if I always have that awareness that the time will come when I shall vanish forever?
Having raised this question, however, Aksenov in effect dismisses it by bathing it in a mist of communist affirmation. He prescribes comradeship and socially constructive activity—scarcely an exhaustive answer.
After his sojourn with teenagers in A Starry Ticket, Aksenov returned to the concerns of persons his own age. Oranges from Morocco, It's Time, My Friend, It's Time and several of his recent short stories have centered on the problems of emotional and social adjustment that face young Soviet adults. There is generally less pink-cheeked enthusiasm among them than among the heroes of Colleagues. They brood, drift from job to job, disappoint and sometimes insult one another. They wander about the country puzzled, frustrated and dissatisfied, and often they behave more like victims of a social order than builders of one. Their ability to see the funny side of things and to ridicule themselves does prevent them from seeming simply sour and lugubrious. And as a rule they experience some sort of saving revelation, or at least there are indications that their problems are beginning to straighten out. All the same, Aksenov endows these characters with dignity and genuine pathos, and in determining their fates he avoids doctrinaire optimism and pat solutions.
Oranges from Morocco is a series of character portraits strung together by a couple of love intrigues and the dominating episode of the oranges. Its main figures are Victor Koltyga, who works on an oil prospecting rig in what he sarcastically describes as "this stupendous, enchanting, stinking valley" and dreams of quitting the Soviet Far East forever; Nikolai Kalchanov, a Pechorinesque engineer who is bitterly and hopelessly in love with another man's wife; German Kovalev, a sailor who writes atrocious poetry; Liudmilla Kravchenko, a prim, model Komsomokla who dutifully reads Gorky and finds it shocking that other girls are unwilling to show their diaries; and Valentin Kostyukovski, an undisciplined knockabout whose father, a distinguished professor, sat for sixteen years in a concentration camp and left him, in effect, a homeless orphan. The oranges, and the spontaneous celebration which they occasion, bring welcome extra color into their lives and produce confrontations that set each one of them off in a new direction. This story has been attacked by Soviet critics on the grounds that all of the characters tend to use the same vulgar jargon and for this reason are not sufficiently differentiated, and that the changes in their lives and their relationships that come about as a result of this one event are insufficiently motivated. Such criticism is warranted. Nearly all of the characters do speak in the same tone, and the dimensions of the story are indeed too small to encompass and justify so many fundamental changes in private individual destinies. Some critics have argued further, however, that the characters themselves are deficient in moral and intellectual stature, and that their problems are essentially trivial. Similar charges, as a matter of fact, have been directed at most of Aksenov's writing, and his ultimate reputation will depend, to a great extent, on whether or not such charges are valid. For this reason it is important to try to determine just how relevant and profound Aksenov's images of young adults really are.
It would be difficult to argue that such characters as Kirpichenko, Georgi Abramashvili and the persons in Oranges from Morocco have an impressive intellectual and moral stature. Aside from the fact that they are healthy and working and that they get along passably well with their fellow men, there is little to recommend them as exemplars of constructive thought and demeanor in any society. But this does not mean that as images in literature they are superficial. One of Aksenov's best stories—perhaps his finest—concerns a sports-loving young lathe operator who is taking care of his six-year-old daughter on a Sunday afternoon because his wife, who is well on her way to a doctor's degree, is presumably studying somewhere. Father and daughter stroll to a park, where he has a beer with some old soccer-playing buddies. Suddenly he realizes that his wife, who has surpassed him in life, is not studying but is having a rendezvous. The discovery that part of his world is about to cave in produces a momentary panic. As he looks at his little daughter, however, he feels a new sense of responsibility and purpose in life: taking care of her is ample reason for living. There are other threads in the story—and some symbolism—that lend it profundity. Nevertheless the story depends mainly on this central situation—the ordinary, private circumstances of a simple, decent man who is experiencing a major disappointment in life.
In another, more recent story of Aksenov, the naive example of a three-year-old boy gives his father courage to make an important (but unspecified) phone call over which he has been fearfully procrastinating for days. Ostensibly this episode, too, is a slight one; like the story just mentioned, it has practically nothing to do with society and absolutely nothing to do with the building of communism. On the other hand, both stories, in the tenderness and delicacy with which they report on mundane but vital human problems, have ultimately more to say about contemporary Soviet society than the most earnest socialist-realist tract. However, a number of Soviet critics (those of a conservative or crypto-Stalinist inclination—and there are still a great many of them) are infuriated at any displacement of the civic element in Soviet literature by the personal element. The notion that there are human problems that do not lend themselves to the therapy of the collective, or for which ideological solutions are irrelevant, is anathema to these critics. It is such persons, in the main, who accuse Aksenov of being superficial. If for this reason Aksenov is in fact superficial, so then are a vast number of other prominent young writers who are attempting to produce similarly modest, Chekhovian slices of Soviet life.
Another reason for the accusation that Aksenov's characters lack stature is their reticence—their preference for silence or at best a cryptic response to challenges that are supposed to produce ringing communist answers. One of their major traits is their passion for seeing things simply and clearly, without the encumbrance of ideological preconceptions. They abhor lofty words, not because they are incapable of understanding them, but because in a Soviet context these words have become the labels of planned lives in a planned society. Aksenov's young people are seeking independent answers to the questions they ask of life, since they are weary of prefabricated solutions. Hence the irony with which they refer to practically everything that is orthodox and established, the relish with which they pronounce new words, and the eagerness with which they embrace things that are foreign or off-beat. Aksenov's characters, I would submit, are not superficial. They are simply engaged in the serious, dangerous, and infinitely trying task of sloughing off the ideological excrescence of forty years of Party misrule. As the thaw continues, they will find more positive, committed ways of expressing that which is already in their hearts.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4827
SOURCE: "Aksenov and Soviet Literature of the 1960s," in Russian Literature Triquarterly, No. 6, Fall, 1973, pp. 446-60.
[In the following essay, Meyer discusses several of Aksyonov's works and comments on the author's place in the "Young Prose" movement in Russian literature.]
After Stalin's death Soviet literature had no rich indigenous tradition to proceed from directly, but there was a wide variety of elements, both Russian and Western, from which a new synthesis could be drawn. The first change that took place after 1953 broadened the range of permissible subject matter, and the first Thaw produced a rash of stories attacking bureaucratization. Subsequently, translations of contemporary Western literature (the journal Foreign Literature began publishing in 1955) and later the republication of Russian literature of the first third of this century (Blok in 1963, Olesha, Tsvetaeva, and Pasternak in 1965, Bely in 1966, Balmont in 1969) provided material for stylistic innovation. Psychologically, Khrushchev's "Secret Speech" at the 22nd Party Congress in 1956 had an enormous effect on the generation from which the new readers and writers of the 1960s were to emerge: the opening up of possibilities produced a general sense of exhilaration, a sense that if you were honest, talented and even innovative, you could become successful. This drew a large number of people into literature, especially from the generation born in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The burst of new literary productions appeared in a raft of new literary journals: Iunost', Neva, and Druzhba narodov were founded in 1955, Molodaia gvardiia in 1956, Don and Voprosy literatury in 1957, Pod'em, Moskva and Russkaia literatura in 1958.
Soviet prose of the 1960s published within the USSR falls into three main groups: "war prose" (e.g., Baklanov, Bondarev, Astafiev), "village prose" (e.g., Abramov, Tendriakov, Soloukhin, Belov), and "young prose" (e.g., Aksenov, Gladilin, Bitov, Vladimov, Voinovich). Only Young Prose will be discussed here, because of the three groups, it most clearly reflected the changes in Soviet society that had taken place since World War II and triggered a great deal of controversy in which some central issues were raised.
The main subject of Young Prose, the "youth theme," is the adolescent's struggle to find his place in society. His problems are partly caused by his rejection of the values of his parents' generation, as epitomized by the work ethic. The maturational process is treated, as both Soviet and Western critics have remarked, in very personal terms. The explanation for this choice of theme and its treatment may be primarily sociological.
The Young Prose constituency came from the first Soviet generation that had never fought a war and had grown up during a period of increasing prosperity. In contrast to the Stakhanovite shock work mentality of the 1930s and 1940s, the years in which this generation attained awareness were characterized by a more relaxed rate of economic growth, the transformation of the country from an agrarian to an urban society, the spread of mass literacy, mass media and higher education, and increased leisure time. One of the consequences of all this was the creation of a new expanded urban intelligentsia, and it is this class which produced the authors of Young Prose. Their experience directly mirrored their middle class, small nuclear family origins: on finishing high school they were not forced to go to war or do hard labor, but rather had a wide range of possibilities open to them. Them main force acting on them was the pressure to individual achievement typically produced by nuclear families. Growing up under circumstances analogous to those of youth in the United States, they had similar problems choosing professions and life styles, and therefore took longer to mature than did their parents. This naturally had important implications for literature: while Socialist Realism was designed to motivate the unsophisticated masses to shock labor and therefore had to be simple, the problem of motivation in Young Prose was vastly more complex. To convince a hip Moscow teenager who spends his time listening to American jazz on his tape recorder of the rewards of becoming a useful member of society, literature had to appeal to him as an individual, not as a representative of a class; to spend years in educational institutions in order to become an engineer or a doctor, one had to be motivated internally, not externally by the demands of society. Accordingly, the focus in literature shifted from the social to the personal and Socialist Realism, which remained the dominant mode in the first half of the sixties, was modernized to accommodate social change. Once literature was freed from the necessity of making clear value judgements for the benefit of the lowest-common-denominator reader, stylistic experimentation began to creep in. Ambiguity, the obscuring of objective reality, the explicit exploration of the unconscious, and verbal play became increasingly important in the second half of the sixties, and this may be correlated with the shift in traditions influencing Young Prose: in the earlier period [William] Faulkner's multiple narrators, [John] Dos Passos' inclusion of documents into the text, and Salinger's adolescent hero who attacks Establishment phonies in a slangy first person became favorite devices, but with the maturation of the authors and the new input of the more sophisticated pre-1932 Russian tradition, Young Prose outgrew much of this and began to "reflect Soviet reality" less literally. The first influence was superficial; the American devices were mostly inserted into the Russian context intact. Young Prose also showed the general effects of Hemingway's terseness and Salinger's directness, while the overlap with Dos Passos' theme of generational conflict was probably the cause of his popularity rather than the result of his influence. The second set of influences will eventually prove more interesting to examine, but the reassimilation of early Soviet literature is only just beginning—a good example would be Olesha's influence on Bitov.
The center of Young Prose activity was the journal Youth, founded by Valentin Kataev and co-edited by, among others, his proteges Aksenov and Gladilin. It was the publication of Gladilin's "Chronicle of the Times of Viktor Podgursky" in 1956 that first called attention to the journal and that initiated Young Prose. The story elicited no response from the press, but caused great excitement among youth of Gladilin's age (he was then twenty) because it reflected their own experience honestly and directly, without the traditional "varnishing." It is important to realize that it was this desire to "write about my friends in the language they themselves spoke, and not to create some romantic directive ideal which nauseated me" that motivated the authors of Young Prose, the desire to establish their own identities, and not any specifically political considerations: "I was then still very naive and didn't pose any of the larger questions." Aksenov's oft-quoted pronouncement that "a writer must have the same blood-type as his contemporaries" in order to be understood displays a similar attitude. Aksenov developed the "youth theme" most fully and interestingly of all the young writers, and caused the most critical furor. His growth as a writer parallels the evolution of the "New" literature of the sixties as a whole, so a survey of his work provides a good sense of the period.
Aksenov's writing may be divided into two main periods, of which the first (1958–1964) is largely autobiographical. Born in 1932 of parents who were intellectuals and leading members of the Communist Party, Aksenov graduated from the Leningrad Medical Institute in 1956, whereupon he went to work as a seaport quarantine doctor, and then as a general practitioner in the Far North. During the last two years of his medical practice, he specialized in tuberculosis and began to write, publishing his first story in Youth in 1959. With the success of his novella (povest') Colleagues, published in Youth in 1960, Aksenov left medicine to become a professional writer.
In the earliest group of stories written between 1958–1960 the medical profession is used to examine the work ethic. The traditional ideals of heroes wholly dedicated to the medical needs of provincial villages are juxtaposed to the desire for self-fulfillment which is connected to the cultural and educational attractions of the city. In Colleagues, the hero converts his cynical friends into idealistic doctors; in "A Medical Unit and a Half" the heroine refuses the temptation of a job in the city because of her sense of duty to her patients; and in "From Dawn 'til Dusk" a young lab worker comes to appreciate the value of his work when he discovers that his girlfriend's father has lung cancer. While stylistically and thematically these stories are still very close to Socialist Realism, the right of the individual to personal development is given serious weight, and the conflict is only resolved (rather than suppressed) in one story, "Samson and Samsonella," and then by rearranging the elements so that professional concerns are located in the city and personal pleasures in the village: the young doctor abandons a burgeoning romance in the village to become a medical researcher in Leningrad.
Aksenov's second novella, A Ticket to the Stars (1961), also endorses the work ethic, and yet it provoked a barrage of criticism. The story about four Moscow teenagers who run away to Estonia rather than enter the university offended the Old Guard: the "star boys" had received all the educational and material advantages only to throw them away for a frivolous existence. Furthermore, they spoke a slangy lingo studded with Westernisms. Aksenov's polemic was lost on the very people he was addressing. As in Colleagues, Aksenov wanted to show that while contemporary youth may look and talk like stiliagi ("beatniks"), they nonetheless shared the ideals of the previous generation. Seventeen-year-old Dimka joins a fishing cooperative and gains maturity through his exhilarating experience of collective labor, but at the same time he shares Holden Caulfield's hatred of phonies and rhetoric, and the fresh directness of tone plus the jazzy portraits of contemporary teenagers made A Ticket to the Stars enormously successful among Soviet youth.
To examine the problem of maturation, Aksenov retraced his steps to the point of high school graduation, and A Ticket to the Stars demonstrates why one shouldn't be expected to decide one's future at this early stage, but the question "a ticket to what?" remains unanswered. Aksenov's later heroes are older but no more able to answer this than Dimka, and delayed adolescence is the dominant theme of several stories written between 1960–1962. In "Surprises" (1960) Mitia returns to Moscow after three years' absence to find his friends married and with children, while he at twenty-six is still stuck in adolescent patterns; in "A Change of Life Style" (1961) Genia at thirty-one hides behind his work to avoid marrying the woman he loves out of fear of abandoning his student way of life.
Kirpichenko, the hero of "Halfway to the Moon" (1962), is psychologically akin to Mitia and Genia, but the story was probably selected for translation into English because of its metaphoric level. Kirpichenko spends his vacation flying back and forth between Moscow and Khabarovsk trying to find a stewardess he's fallen in love with on sight. His epic quest ends when he finally glimpses Tania in the Moscow airport as he is returning to Khabarovsk for good. He makes no attempt to approach her, only imagining how he will preserve her in memory. Kirpichenko, a belligerent worker who avoids sentiment in his routine sexual encounters, is transformed by his exposure to Tania, "a woman of the kind that doesn't really exist, the kind that's as far away from you as the moon." He starts reading Chekhov, he learns to think, to cry, and begins to understand "everything he hadn't understood in his … youth—the Siberian hillocks standing out in the pink light of dawn, and melting snow, and tiredness after work …—all these things were Tania." Tania is a Russian proletarian's Muse, Kirpichenko's Lolita. A metaphoric synthesis of Love and Art, she can only be possessed mentally. While this interpretation is the most interesting (speculations about Kirpichenko's salary notwithstanding), the hero's passion for an inaccessible woman should also be noted, as it allies him with Aksenov's stunted men who are unable to establish happy love relationships.
Aksenov had first proposed the work ethic, and then self-fulfillment through love, as means of outgrowing adolescence. When both solutions fail, he moves on to the next stage of life—parenthood. Sergei of "Papa, What Does It Spell?" (1962)—this and "Halfway to the Moon" are Aksenov's best early stories—is thirty-two, married, and has a six-year-old, he lives in an artificially preserved past with his former teammates. In the course of the story he moves from resenting Olia for requiring adulthood of him to finding the whole meaning of his life in her existence. During the summer Sunday they spend walking around Moscow, Sergei's growing awareness of his arrested development is nicely brought out by little incidents which occur against the background roar of the radio broadcast of the soccer game Olia's presence has kept him from attending: they pass a mirror which is hung too high to reflect Olia; they meet a factory colleague at the carousel who irritates Sergei by acting the proud father—the model Sergei knows he should emulate; they see a tall schoolboy who recalls Sergei's youth. Sergei is not fulfilled either at work or in his marriage. His sudden decision to live for his daughter represents an escape, a reversion to a still earlier stage of childhood through identification with his child, and not a solution. This interpretation is confirmed by a later story, "Little Whale, Varnisher of Reality" (1964) in which the father avoids the stresses of his own reality by joining his three-year-old son in the child's rosy world of fantasy.
Aksenov's third novella Oranges from Morocco (1962), a free-for-all occasioned by the arrival of a shipload of oranges at a Far Eastern seaport, abandons the problems of maturation to play (rather unsuccessfully) with a variety of first person narrators a la Faulkner, and his next long work, It's Time, My Love, It's Time (1963), along with "Little Whale," is the last treatment of the youth theme. At twenty-five Valia Marvich also suffers from delayed adolescence. He can't commit himself to a career or live happily with his wife, a dazzling movie actress (the adoring young man spurned and tormented by a glamorous dominating woman is an uncommonly prominent feature of Young Prose).
Marvich, like Dimka, allegedly solves his problems by joining a construction collective, but his enthusiasm for simple laborers (he is an intelligent and would-be writer) really stands the work ethic on its head: the conditions of collective labor allow the intelligent (Russian word meaning a member of the intelligentsia) to avoid the problems posed by individual interaction. Work becomes a means of therapy for Marvich rather than the object of his dedication. It is difficult not to internalize a dominant social myth, the literary expression of which will call forth its own parody as the myth loses its viability, and Marvich's idealization of labor betrays literary origins. It is only the intellectual who can long for the life of the noble savage. Village life is similarly romanticized in stories written by the urban intelligentsia. The contrast with the depiction of the decaying provinces prevalent before the revolution suggests that, like Young Prose as a whole, this kind of idealization should be examined in the context of urbanization.
Almost all Aksenov's stories written before 1965 reflect the problems of his contemporaries in a style that differs from Socialist Realism mainly in its racy diction. In his later stories, Aksenov waxes increasingly literary; as he loses interest in problem-solving, he becomes more involved in fantasy and stylistic play. Many of these stories are little more than entertaining anecdotes, like "The Beautiful Comrade Furazhkin" (1964) in which an Odessa cab driver and smuggler marries his daughter to a cop to avoid arrest (despite its humor, the story was greeted by an indignant letter in Pravda from some real Odessa hackies). But Aksenov uses the humorous stories to experiment with narrative devices. In "Where the Rhododendrons Grow" (1967) the anecdote (two lexicographers—Ozhegov and Ushakov—are chased up a tree by a wild boar during their vacation in the Caucasus) is only an excuse to play with the authorial persona:
It would have long ago been time for me to throw this story into the bottom of the basket or stick it in the pillow-case, for what can be the purpose of telling about the absurd vacation of two completely absurd (although personally likeable) people …
And to parody Gogol:
Such is the Russian man. He has only to pull out of his usual circle when he will immediately begin to grieve over this circle, and he will throw himself at any member of "his" group with verbal outpourings, with an open, responsive, throbbing soul. This becomes particularly acute in a foreign country. I remember in one … little town in the wilds of Central Europe I met a man from Moscow, whom I knew very little, and not even a very pleasant man, actually disgusting, vile. Well, we embraced, and got drunk, and talked, and in Moscow later only bowed to each other from a distance.
Aksenov's latest story of this genre, "Rendezvous" (1971), is a satiric allegory with a grotesque finale in which the hero, an hyperbolic embodiment of popular success modeled, rumor has it, on Evtushenko, is confronted by his whorish Muse on a construction site at the outskirts of Moscow. Here the Gogolian influence, as well as its Bulgakovian variant, is more profound. The grotesque is not merely verbal, but inheres in the vision of society.
The anecdotal stories develop a device that is important for the more substantial works, the injection of pure fantasy into an ostensibly realistic (if absurd) narrative. Pale-blue fauns and green-braided maidens flit by Ushakov and Ozhegov, the first-person narrator of "Furazhkin" continues to report events he can't be witnessing, and in "Rendezvous" a school chum suddenly ascends thirty meters into the air, as does a dream Hitler in the reminiscence "On the Square and Across the River" (1967).
Objective reality is destroyed in the serious stories initially in more traditional ways. First it is fragmented by shifting narrative times. Both "Lunches of 1943" (1962) and "Oddball" (1964) begin with the hero's memories of childhood which are interspliced with the narrative present in a way designed to maximize the shock of transition. However, there is no confusion of past and present, and the flashbacks are basically expository. The stories remain fully realistic, although "Oddball" has a fantastic element. An old Bolshevik returns to his native village after an active life to find that his oddball childhood classmate has built an elaborated version of a machine he first invented as a boy. The machine, a metaphor for the waste of potential, is utterly functionless, it merely runs.
"What is it, a perpetual motion machine or what?"
He turned to me, and his eyes sparked terrifyingly not now in the electric light, but in the light of the early moon.
"Seems to be," he whispered, "seems to be."
The story is only about motion, and then about motion through time, inasmuch as motion underscores the waste of human talent in backwaters. Jets keep flying over the village; technology, an ambiguous symbol of progress, defines Oddball's backwardness.
In the next step away from representing objective reality, the categories of past and present in the hero's interior monologue are replaced by those of the unconscious and the conscious, and in "The Victory" (1965) subjective reality acquires primacy for the first time. Although the early works deal with underlying psychological truths, these are conveyed only through externals (e.g., Sergei's encounters in "Papa!"), not through a stream of associations as in "The Victory" where the chessgame becomes a Rorschach onto which the grandmaster projects his fantasies. The levels of fantasy and reality merge; the narrative makes no distinction between the grandmaster's thoughts and actions:
Standing up from behind the terrace for a second, he saw that G. O. had taken his rook.
It is no longer possible to tell, as it was in "Lunches" and "Oddball," whether the hero's thoughts represent fantasies or memories of real events, nor is it important. The primary level of reality is the grandmaster's psychology, the symbolic significance of which is underscored by the fantastic ending. The shy, insecure grandmaster, so passive that he "can't avoid at least two games," is unable to counter aggression. He protects himself by withdrawing into fantasy, priding himself on never having committed any "really treacherous acts." The irony of the story is that there is no irony to G. O.'s victory: on the psychological level the grandmaster does lose the game by "running" from conflict with G. O. The same paradigm is followed by Marvich in "It's Time." He also prides himself on never having committed any treacheries, realizes that "myths of youth will not suffice," and fails to defend himself against a bully. The larger significance of the story lies in the meaning that the game, a metaphor of life, holds for each of the characters. For the grandmaster, chess is literary: it evokes associations, thoughts of love, life, death, creativity, and he finds an aesthetic "magic" in mating his opponent. For G. O. (Makarov suggests the initials stand for Glavnaia Opasnost'—the Main Danger) the game is an expression of hostility, a means of waging war ("Khas-Bulat the brave …") The grandmaster, a "runt" (the Russian khiliak carries the overtone of "Jew" as well, which casts some light on the exchange about Jewish chessplayers), prepares a supply of gold medals because he, the intellectual and aesthete, will always lose to the practical man of action, and the best he can do is buy off the aggressor.
In The Shop-worn Tare of Barrels (Zatovarennaia bochkotara, 1968) Aksenov synthesizes elements from all types of his earlier stories. The premise is taken from an autobiographical incident …, and fantasy, humor, parody and narrative play are integrated into an allegory. Even the early didacticism is present, but in general abstract moral terms rather than special prescriptive ones. The story of a trip to Koriazhsk becomes a Pilgrim's Progress toward the goodness in the characters, each of whom finds he is having the same collective dream of the Good Man. In the course of their journey, the bochkotara, a collection of empty barrels which is to be delivered to the railway station in a pick-up truck, becomes a symbol of the communality of mankind, and as such unites the disparate passengers. Grampa, Mochenkin, an old pisser who writes daily denunciations, the naive schoolteacher Irina, Vadim Afanasievich, the tweedy intellectual and others, mellowed by their common love for the bochkotara, are equally outraged when they turn it in at the station only to have it refused, and are condemned to journey onward together towards the Good Man forever. The chance assortment of representative types a la Dead Souls (Aksenov likes the grand hotel device and used it the same way in Oranges from Morocco) provides material for satire and parody. The Intellectual knows every detail down to the nicknames of all the animals of "Khali-Gali", a South American country no one has ever heard of, and Volodia the worker recounts his adventures in a style parodying proletarian speech and Soviet official jargon at once:
… in short me and Edik dropped in to the division of labor and hiring and there one mug six by six shoots us to the general committee of the roadworkers' union and with us was that I don't remember now Ovanesian-Petrosian-Oganesian a blond we played with as forwards on "Vodnik" in Krasnovodsk well someone leaned on the counter boo-hoo he says I'll send you to a work colony well who needs that lucky I knew the guy from the farm brigade you he says Volodia listen to me and apply your forces to writing an application moved by emotion well of course rev rev rev and Edik and me were chasing rafts down the Amur let's go he says to the Komsomol lake we dug it ourselves we'll boat on it ourselves …
Bochkotara contains wildly eclectic ingredients; the folk element, including a triadic structure and a regular refrain, mixes with the ads, slogans and songs of pop culture. The central metaphor is based on the current custom of redeeming beer bottles in order to buy more beer with the deposit money, so Soviets immediately associate the symbol of brotherhood with the drinking bout. Literary influences also contribute to the borshch. The characters' personalities are revealed through their dreams and letters which are recorded under headings ("Irina's Second Dream," "Volodia's letter to Sima," etc.) in the Dos Passos (via Gladilin?) manner. One interview with a pilot
"Do you see God, Comrade Kulachenko?"
"I don't see God!"
"Hurray! There is no God! Our prognoses have been confirmed!"
"And do you see angels?"
"I just saw one."
recalls Kataev's play with Communist ideology in The Embezzlers:
We are flying … higher, higher. Perhaps further on we'll find angels and God? But no, they're not there either … But where are the angels? Where then is God? It's all just an ignorant lie of the priests …
In Bochkotara Aksenov finally achieves what he was attempting in Oranges, a novel critics justifiably faulted for not differentiating the speech of the multiple narrators. In the later novel, social classes are vividly differentiated by their dialogue as well as their world views, and the adventure is more than a mere pretext to assemble comic figures. Furthermore, the language of Bochkotara is rich, zany and largely untranslatable, as illustrated by the epigraph "from the newspapers," a nonsensical sentence composed of slang and made-up words which are chosen chiefly for their alliterative value:
Zatovarilas' bochkotara, zatsvela zhltym tvetkom, zatarilas', zatiurilas', is mesta tronulas'.
Although Aksenov is most interested in pursuing this self-consciously literary tack, his latest work is a documentary biography of Lev Krasin which was commissioned for the series "Flaming Revolutionaries," a series which includes Gladilin's Robespierre. Basically an historical dramatization of the 1905–1908 period, Love of Electricity nonetheless incorporates many of Aksenov's favorite themes and devices. His fascination with technology is a propos, since Krasin was simultaneously a Bolshevik and a respectable electrical engineer, and the title contains the central metaphor of the book, revolution as electricity. One review complained that Aksenov chose Krasin not for his historical significance but for artistic purposes, and that the fictional Viktor Gorizontov is given as much attention as Krasin. The novel's seriousness is in fact undercut by Gorizontov, a comic bogatyr dedicated to revolution, whose improbable adventures betray Aksenov's love of the fantastic, the incongruous and the absurd. In addition, the scraggly image of the bee-keeper, a symbol of the Little Man, recurs throughout the novel undermining its realism. The bee-keeper keeps appearing like Hitchcock from behind the newspapers of various European countries to ask the meaning of the world turmoil he's reading about, which makes one question the larger meaning of the events described. Aksenov very competently sustains a multi-centered narrative, challenging the reader to assemble a variety of subplots which ultimately merge into an impressionistic but comprehensive picture of the 1905 revolution. "The Victory," Bochkotara and Love of Electricity indicate that Aksenov is now ready for work on a bigger scale and in greater depth.
Aksenov moved from being strictly realistic to focussing on unconscious reality, and most recently has used allegory and metaphor to destroy objective reality altogether. It's significant that this same line of development has been followed by others as well, notably by Andrei Bitov, whose recent story The Wheel. Notes of a Novice uses the extended metaphor more subtly.
Over the last ten years Soviet fiction has grown less preoccupied with narrowly local problems and become enriched partly through greater awareness of other literatures. Socialist Realism was a significant influence on the fiction of the early sixties, and it is important to appreciate that tradition for its value as social myth before attempting to understand the nature of the transition that Young Prose effected. The study of recent Soviet literature has been weakened by its lack of a theoretical basis. The assumption that Soviet and Western fictions fulfill the same functions in their respective societies has contributed to the trivialization of the texts. Young Prose has produced a literature that fulfills Western criteria better than did Socialist Realism, but the implications of that statement are complex and have not yet been explored.
The literature of the 1960s is immature, but it presents an excellent opportunity for studying problems of literary evolution. The period is short, and there is a small core of central authors, all of whom have grown up under Soviet rule. Most important, one can follow the tradition of Young Prose from its inception and ascertain with unusual precision what influences have been introduced. This closed system with its finite and easily traced inputs may prove too simple a test case to provide useful insights into instances where the interaction of literary traditions is more complex, but the literature of the 1960s cannot be understood without such an approach.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8873
SOURCE: "Introduction: The Life and Works of Aksyonov," in The Steel Bird and Other Stories, by Vassily Aksyonov, Ardis, 1979, pp. ix-xxvii.
[In the following essay, Johnson discusses several of Aksyonov's novels and short stories and provides a comprehensive look at the author's career.]
Vasily Pavlovich Aksenov was born on August 20, 1932 in Kazan. His mother, Eugenia Semenovna Ginzburg, was a history instructor at Kazan University who later became a well-known writer for her prison-camp memoir Journey into the Whirlwind (1962). His father, Pavel Vasilievich Aksenov, was a leading member of the Tartar Regional Committee of the Party, a professional Party man and revolutionary.
Previous to the Stalinist incarceration of his parents in 1937 Aksenov lived in a happy home that in addition to his parents consisted of his older brother, Alyosha, who died in the blockade of Leningrad, an older sister, Mayka, presently a Russian language teacher at Moscow University, a nurse, Fima, and his paternal grandmother, who was glowingly described by Ginzburg in her memoirs. Although the memoirs mention young Vasily as a two-year-old, he was actually four years old when his mother was arrested in February 1937, and almost five when his father was arrested later that year. Eugenia Ginzburg spent two years in Yaroslavl, followed by sixteen years in the Far East region of the Kolyma River, first at Magadan, then Elgen (the Yakut word for "dead"), then back in Magadan, "farther from Moscow than California," Aksenov once said, with an average temperature of −4 degrees Centigrade. His father ended up on the Pechora River in Siberia, 10,000 kilometers from his wife.
In 1948, at the end of his eighth year in school (on a ten-year system), Aksenov joined his mother, who was by then out of the camp and living as an exile in Magadan. (His father had not yet been released.) In 1950, still in Magadan, he completed his elementary education. He then returned from the Far East to Leningrad where in 1956 he graduated as a doctor from the First Leningrad Medical Institute named after I. L. Pavlov.
From August 1956 until October 1957, Aksenov worked in the quarantine service of the Leningrad seaport and then in a hospital for water transportation workers located in the village of Voznesenye on Lake Onega, which is still in the Leningrad administrative district. In 1957 Aksenov met his future wife, Kira, in Leningrad, at a dance. He once recalled how he used to love to "rock to Bill Haley at university parties." Kira was from Moscow, and he followed her there after their marriage at the end of 1957.
From December 1957 until June 1958 he was a staff physician in the TB clinic located in the village of Grebneva in the Moscow area. Then until September 1960 he was a specialist in adolescent tuberculosis in a Moscow TB clinic. In July of 1959 Youth (Yunost') magazine published two stories, "Our Vera Ivanovna" and "Paved Roads," which announced him as a new and interesting writer. Then in June and July of 1960 his novel The Colleagues was presented in two issues of the same magazine. Controversy immediately pushed him into the foreground, and he left medicine to write full time. In the same year his only child, Alyosha, was born.
Much of Aksenov's early work is autobiographical or heavily drawn from a familiar environment. "Our Vera Ivanovna" is set in a hospital much like the one he knew in Voznesenye. A government minister from Moscow finds himself hampered by a possible heart condition and a doctor who treats him as she would a regular patient. A flash flood forces him to help evacuate the hospital and then help look for the doctor, whom they so badly need. In admiration he now invites her to Moscow to have a plush job. Typical of Aksenov's early stories, the moral is meant to be obvious, and so she refuses because the people need her more.
"Paved Roads" is much more significant because it is an early example of the "youth story" genre on which Aksenov's controversial name was built. As a twenty-six-year-old writer he felt close ties to the young and to their highly colloquial speech. He chose to portray the generation that he saw and heard as they really were, not as the political theoreticians had hoped they would be. In this story twenty-five-year-old Gleb Pomorin returns from the army and tries to make a smooth transition back into civilian society. He runs into an old friend, Gerka, who seems to be living quite well: smoking foreign cigarettes and driving his own car. Slowly the new immorality of his old friend unwinds. "Work! That's a laugh! People go to work, save their money, dream of the future, but I want it all now: a dacha, a car, a good suit, women. That's happiness!" Further revelations show that Gerka is a fartsovshchik (black market operator), and because of his relative wealth he has managed to coax Gleb's former girl-friend into a living arrangement with him. At the end, as Gerka runs from formerly fleeced road-pavers, the morally indignant Gleb notes: "He won't get far: the earth will burn under his feet. Our roads aren't for the likes of him." Clearly, here and in later works the moral message of Aksenov is to show that all young people are not alike, that they cannot be condemned as a generation. Yet his insistence on revealing the problem side of the young generation bore a mixed blessing—popularity with some, infamy with others. While the first group was large and representative of the reading public as a whole, the latter group was in power.
Aksenov's attitude toward young people is more thoroughly developed in The Colleagues. Here three young people, recent graduates of medical school, Maximov, Karpov and Zelenin, are faced with their mandatory postgraduate assignments. Maximov and Karpov accept work as shipboard doctors because of the promised travel and excitement. Zelenin opts for more dedicated work in a village.
One scene in the novel highlights Aksenov's main argument in this period. The three young men, out for a walk, encounter an invalid from the war who sizes them up by their clothing and hair-length and then proceeds to verbally abuse them as "hippies." The argument against the older generation's prejudice is immediately evident by the fact that these are doctors about to serve society in positions of responsibility. In their work they cross all kinds of realities, mostly unheard of in Soviet literature but well-known in real life.
Karpov's girl friend marries a local laboratory researcher to avoid an unattractive post-graduate work assignment. The ship doctors find bribery and corruption in the port service. Zelenin finds alcoholism, violence and inhuman living conditions in his remote village location. But morality wins again, i.e., the girl is forever miserable, the doctors expose the corruption and Zelenin joins the dedicated local authorities in building a new order.
The controversy that sprung up following this novel posed questions far beyond the scope of the book or the writings of Aksenov as a whole. Writers and critics paired off into camps either attacking or approving of the new presentation of reality, of the new image of youth which was referred to as the "youth-theme" genre.
Because of the success of The Colleagues Aksenov left medicine at the end of 1960 and dedicated his life to writing. In an article which might be interpreted as an announcement of his intentions, he attacks the anti-youth attitude of the critics and the older generation as a whole. "We're talking about people who don't believe in youth, who consider them a generation of 'hippies' and pretty bourgeois. Not to believe in youth is to not believe in our future." His intention was to write about youth as he saw them, as he felt they really were. While his intention seems to have been logical and worthy of pursuit, it clashed in principle with the make-believe world of socialist realism and inflexible Soviet rhetoric.
The problems of youth and their solutions are even more sharply drawn in Aksenov's most famous work A Ticket to the Stars (1961). "The heroes of this work seek answers to the questions: how should I live and for what purpose? They do not want ready answers, relieving them of their responsibilities. They seek their own solutions." Aksenov, in fact, has caught the most characteristic psychological feature of young people in those years—striving for their own, personal answer in their relationship to life. The key difference in A Ticket to the Stars is that he delivers his message from the view-point of seventeen-year-old high school students just when they are graduating and learning to cope with the world. When the older generation attacks them they can not yet claim to be doctors and responsible citizens. Where Aksenov showed the attacks in The Colleagues to be purely an argumentum ad hominem and not logically directed to the philosophical beliefs of the young, he now strips his heroes of that defense. The basic story is that upon graduation four young people decide not to go on with school right away, nor to go off to work, but instead to head for the Baltic Sea beaches and enjoy life. When their money runs out they take jobs in a fishing collective, and in the end they are better people for it. However, this moral improvement did not prevent violent attacks on the novel by critics who were fearful of the example of freedom of action that it set for young people.
During 1961 a stage version of The Colleagues was produced in numerous theaters throughout the Soviet Union. In August 1962 it was performed by Moscow's Maly Theater Company at an international festival in the Paris Theater of Nations. 1962 was a year of travel not only for Aksenov's works but for Aksenov himself. The mandatory first trip to socialist nations sent him to Poland; he then joined a delegation to Japan and relaxed in India on his return home. Meanwhile his first movie My Younger Brother (1962) based on A Ticket to the Stars was finally on the screens at home, having been held up nearly a year for ideological reasons.
Following his success with longer works Aksenov composed a number of short stories most of which were published for the first time much later in collections. "The Ejection Seat" (1961) shows certain narrow-minded types, here military airmen, who have little respect for other people until they establish a strange and artificial liaison (a "granfalloon" in [Kurt] Vonnegut's terminology) that bonds them together—here the bond is having been catapulted from an ejection seat. "Changing a Way of Life" (1961), which is translated here, is about a hard working businessman who takes some time off at the beach for a change in his life-style. The real change comes when he reevaluates his relationship with his girl friend and the reader is left to believe that he may finally marry her. "The Lunches of '43" (1962), also found here, may be thought of as one of Aksenov's early experimental works. The story takes place on a train with the hero certain that he has recognized a traveling companion as a friend from his childhood. Through the use of erratic time changes and flashbacks he tells the full story of their relationship, concentrating on the school lunches that he was forced by the bully to hand over in 1943.
The experimental nature of the time sequence in "The Lunches of '43" was new to Aksenov but used not long before by Valentin Kataev, one of Aksenov's early mentors. Kataev was editor of Youth magazine in the period that Aksenov began to submit manuscripts and is known to have reworked the entire first part of The Colleagues. What is especially interesting in "The Lunches of '43" is the psychological portrayal of the hero. Aksenov seems to portray this character in a very personal and internal world somewhat reminiscent of [Fyodor] Dostoevsky's humiliated men. For political reasons the hero is not as humiliated nor as pessimistic as with Dostoevsky's heroes, but the literary connection, if not the intention, is there.
In 1962 Aksenov was already thirty years old and an internationally known writer for two years. Naturally he found it difficult to continue to identify with teenagers and young street types, and as his circle of friends and life-style changed, so did his stories.
Highly representative of this maturing yet still young hero is thirty-two year old Sergei, the chief character of the significantly successful short story "Papa, What Does it Spell?" (1962). Sergei is a former soccer player who never made it to the big leagues as he dreamed and now feels the emptiness of his present life. We slowly learn that the things which he holds in esteem—his work, his sports, his family and his friends—are all eroding in value under the banality of everyday life.
Sergei's wife, Alla, must attend a conference at her institute, so he must watch Olga, his daughter, on a day when he had planned to meet his friends and take in a soccer game. What appears to be a mild conflict at the outset soon develops into a serious disruption of his various relationships: his friends see him for the first time as a family man; Olga has no interest in going to the game and insists upon going to a park instead; his daughter, surprisingly seems to know one of his friends very well, explained by frequent, hitherto unknown, meetings with Alla, meetings which imply an adulterous relationship. A phone call to the institute reveals that there is no conference that day and Alla is nowhere to be found.
Sergei is therefore forced to review his life and relationships, portrayed with obvious sympathy from the author. Almost instant maturity is accompanied by a growing concern and feeling of responsibility for his daughter.
"… he thought about how his daughter would grow up, how she would be eight, fourteen and then sixteen, seventeen, twenty … how she would go away to pioneer camp and come back, how he would teach her to swim, what a fashionable little lady she would become and how she would neck in the stairway with some hippie or other, how they would sometime or other go off somewhere, maybe to the sea."
Aksenov ends the story on this thought, a bond of unity with his daughter against all else in the world.
"Half-way to the Moon" (1962) is probably Aksenov's most internationally known short work. He was inspired in this effort by a real-life character who got on an airplane with him in Khabarovsk. When this worker, straight from the taiga, took off his outer coat, the stewardess offered to take it from him and hang it up. "He was so stunned by this" Aksenov later explained in an interview "that he gasped dumbfoundedly: 'Do you believe that? She took my coat for me!…'." The effect of this kindness on the worker can apparently be compared to the effect of art or music on the savage beast. The story derived from this event is described by one critic as a "variation on the theory of moral self-perfection." What this critic describes is a "Jack London device: 'a wild' worker meets a heavenly creature—a girl of 'the highest order' … and his soul, dedicated to beauty, finally sees the light!"
The story which is included in this collection received much praise for its aspects of contemporaneousness: it is a jet-age search for love covering half the distance to the moon. However, if moral awakening is accomplished then the import of the story should be seen instead in the internal distance traveled by the hero. Clearly a new emphasis and a more mature hero were evident in Aksenov's work by 1962.
In general 1962 had been a year of literary hope and advancement. [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn had been published by order of Khrushchev. In November Aksenov was made an editor of Youth along with Evtushenko and Rozov. "The hopes of 1962 were perhaps best expressed by the poet Alexander Tvardovsky: 'In art and literature, as in love, one can lie only for a while; sooner or later comes the time to tell the truth.'" But in this hope and openness, in this very push for the truth were to be found the roots of the oncoming reaction. "The mood of the artistic and literary intelligentsia in 1962 can perhaps best be gauged from [Leonid] Ilichev's complaint that 'in certain intellectual milieux it is considered unseemly and unfashionable to defend correct Party positions.'" The mood of the neo-Stalinists, then, was to put an end to the literary liberalism.
In December Khrushchev drew the attention of the world by attacking an art exhibit at the Manael Riding Stables. His personal attack on Boris Birger, Ernst Neizvestny and others was thought to be a warning to the proponents of the new creativity in all arts. The attack, however specific and personal in form, was indeed a declaration of war by the old-school realists (i.e., socialist idealists) on the representatives of alternative art forms (i.e., emancipatory realists, modernists, abstractionists, etc.).
But by 1962 Aksenov was not writing the offending "youth stories," at least not exclusively. He no longer felt close to younger people. He felt that a generation change had taken place and that the characteristics of his early heroes, so heatedly denied by official party critics, were no longer to be found in young people. His new novel of January 1963, Oranges from Morocco, which had been released at the beginning of the attack, was instead about workers in the Far East. Aksenov explained that as a writer he did not feel himself limited to youth problems. However, not everyone was pleased with the descriptions of these workers in Oranges.
The story is simply an event and various people's reactions to that event. The event is the arrival of a ship loaded with oranges from Morocco. The reactions are not complimentary, however honest they might be. An American reader could be easily confused by what truly seems to be an exaggerated portrayal. Life practically stops for hundreds of miles around while all available personnel and means of transportation are directed toward the port. The fallacy here is in comparing two remotely different cultures, for although an orange brings very little attention in America and is available throughout the year, everywhere, the same humble orange was then rarely seen in the Soviet Union in winter except in large cities and in the southern climates. At the time that the story was written oranges commonly sold on the black market for more than a dollar apiece. It is then consistent with known realities about the supply system and the attitude of Soviet citizens toward the arrival of such goods to assume that the apparent exaggeration is, in fact, responsibly close to the mark.
Perhaps because of this disparity in cultural reactions to oranges the novel has never been well received abroad. Its scope compared to the "youth themes" may be justly considered excessively provincial. Regardless of Aksenov's movement away from the polemical stories which instigated the attack on his ideological correctness, the unfriendly description of greedy and coarse workers riding their tractors into town for oranges and not off into a socialist sunset led to further attacks.
The journals in February and March were filled with attacks on the "young" writers, Aksenov often being singled out, like Socrates, as an example of a corrupter of youth. On March 8, 1963, a meeting of intellectuals was called in the Kremlin. Khrushchev and Ilichev elaborated the correct party position and called for renouncements of former ideological errors. The first to do so were Simonov and Shostakovich. They were soon followed by Neizvestny, Rozhdestvensky, Voznesensky and others. Another meeting was called by the Writers' Union to escalate the attack. A writer named Vladimir Firsev delivered the following message:
What compliments were not showered upon Evtushenko, Akhmadulina, Aksenov!… But have we re-educated comrades Aksenov, Evtushenko, Voznesensky by continuously letting them go on foreign trips, by putting them on editorial boards, and by publishing their works in enormous editions? It is they who have been 'educating' readers during that time, and often they have educated them in such a way that it will take us a lot of work to liquidate the consequences of their educational efforts.
The threat of this official speech, then, was clear—they were subject to losing their travel abroad, their positions on journals and their normal publication rights. Evtushenko recanted on March 29. Aksenov who had been conveniently out of town during the writers' meeting returned and, like Galileo, recanted.
April 3, 1963, in Pravda, he said that under the threat of imperialism Soviet writers must recognize their responsibility. They must be prepared to answer for every line which could be misinterpreted in the West. "I, like any writer," he added "am trying to create my own, unique, positive hero who would be at the same time a true son of his times—a man with strong bones and a normal circulatory system, a decent, open soul, with a concept in mind concentrating into one thought all the magnitude, optimism and complexity of our communist era."
His promise here to create a positive hero "of his times" in a normal human being was in a sense, a reworked description of his heroes as they might be described in communist propaganda. By this interpretation one could suggest that he actually meant real-life people who live in this contemporary world with all its problems and who reflect not the weak official optimism which he always rejected by the "complexity of our communist era" which is what he always wrote about.
As Thomas Whitney has pointed out [in The New Writing in Russia, University of Michigan Press, 1964], world influence and opinion had an effect on the events of 1963 in the Soviet Union. China had played up the ideological controversy that year and the Stalinists found themselves in a more important battle than controlling the "young writers." The western communists had, moreover, taken a stand against the new literary policies outlined above. Even Soviet bloc nations such as Poland had reacted critically to the literary repression. The result was a letup in the clampdown of early 1963.
1963 also saw the release of a film, When the Bridges Go Up, written by Aksenov in 1962 and identified in the press as "based on the short story" although no such story ever existed. The same year his earlier film The Colleagues was shown at Mar-del-Plata, Argentina at a film festival which he also attended as a member of the delegation.
A travel article, "Japanese Jottings" (1963), which is translated in this book, was written in a form that seems to repeat itself often whenever Aksenov wishes to relate his various impressions of a foreign land. It is an enigmatic rendering of witty statements and allusions intended to give an overall view by its juxtaposed dashes of color. On canvas it would be called impressionism. Amazingly its experimental form has never drawn criticism from the old-school Socialist realists.
Previously, form took less of a role in Aksenov's work than content. "I think about form" he said once, "when I'm not writing. When I write, I don't think about it." However, progress in literature for Aksenov often meant the ability to go off in any and all directions. As the force of his "youth themes" genre was slowed by time and by criticism, he began more and more to experiment in form.
In 1964 a novel written by Aksenov in 1963 was serialized in the journal, The Young Guard. It's Time, My Friend, It's Time (1964) was an attempt to supply the positive hero which he had promised in his recantation. This positive hero is Valya Marvich, a driver attached to a movie crew which is shooting a film in Estonia. In the manner of Aksenov's earlier "youth stories," and this may be chronologically the last example of that genre, Marvich questions his life and the direction it is going. Since Marvich is no longer young, this mature hero is given an appropriate adult complication to his search—he is additionally confused about the renewal of feelings from his former marriage. Another new feature found here that becomes typical for the mature hero in Aksenov is that he is always a loner: always aloof, an individual in the collective. The strength of the novel lies in Marvich's internal psychological conflict between his ideals and his failure to realize them within his circle of friends and loved ones. Marvich is a very real, atypical for Soviet literature, positive hero, who searches for truth and his ideals in a real world filled with negative activities and people. The credibility of both the positive hero and of the author is maintained.
From 1964 to 1966 Aksenov wrote a number of short stories that were to appear in collections of 1966 and 1969 as well as in literary journals individually. These stories are significant in so far as they reveal both a new interest and a new emphasis in his creations, completing the break with "youth themes" begun in 1962. His works of this period involve the growing importance for Aksenov of fantasy and imagination. They emphasize exaggeration and irony in style, deviance and ill-adjustment in characterization.
One of the best of these stories and a good example of his new style and characterization is "The Odd-Ball" (1964). Far from a "youth" story, it is about two old men, one of whom, Zbaikov, is an old bolshevik revolutionary and victim of Stalinism, as was Aksenov's own father. The other, the "odd-ball" from Zbaikov's childhood, has never left his village except to shop in a neighboring village. As the old friends meet and talk, the reader is struck by the tremendous differences in the fates of these two men. "Odd-ball" complains that they would not take him in the Red Army and was even passed up in the Stalinist excesses of the 1930s. "'Ye-ah' drawled Odd-ball, 'I didn't even get to go to prison.'" There is a tacit agreement that Zbaikov, even with his horrible experiences of war and prison, has lived a better life than a man whose life has apparently been no better than a farm animal's.
Then in the closing pages the irony sets in. "Odd-ball" ends up to be an engineering genius who has built himself a radio by means of which he is in constant touch with cities from London to Honolulu. He then decides to show his old friend his secret machine. His machine is a perpetuum mobile which has been running for many, many years. "'What is it then, a perpetual motion machine, or what?' 'Seems to be,' he whispered. 'Seems to be.'"
Another classic example of the deviant in Aksenov's works is Uncle Mitya from "Comrade Smart-hat" (1964). Uncle Mitya is a taxi driver and perhaps more basically a capitalist "hustler" in a communist society. In this story his illegal activities are in jeopardy because of police surveillance in general and because of the special attention of officer Ivan Yermakov, whom he calls "Comrade Smart-hat." Uncle Mitya plots to encourage Yermakov's interest in his daughter assuming that once they are married he will have carte blanche in his business. However, the irony is that after the marriage the local police redouble their efforts to keep Uncle Mitya, their new relative, in line.
In this same period a "youth" story of sorts does crop up, but with some interesting experimentation. "Local Troublemaker Abramashvili" (1964) is the story of a life-guard at the Gagra beach area in Soviet Georgia. The impression presented at first corresponds to the Soviet stereotype for such a situation. The reader is prepared to learn how the local "hot-blooded" native boys seduce the "fair-skinned" Russian girls on vacation. Ironically, it is eighteen year old Gogi Abramashvili, who is seduced by the northern Alina in her hotel room. "'Well, you've had a pretty good day' she said tenderly, 'your first cigarette, your first woman'." Gogi falls in love.
The following night he tries to talk to her at a dance and learns that her husband, who Gogi did not know existed, has unexpectedly arrived, as a result of which she does not want anything more to do with him. Gogi reacts angrily and is led out by the druzhinniki, the voluntary, civilian patrol. Several days later the town bulletin board, maintained by the druzhinniki, bears a picture of Gogi and the message that girls are forbidden to dance with the "local troublemaker Abramashvili."
What is unusually experimental in this story is not at first clear to the western reader. Sex in the West is a normal part of literature even to the point where critics refer to the "mandatory sex scenes" of a best seller. On the other hand sex is at best considered underground literature in both the Russian tradition and the Soviet present. While there are no sexually explicit scenes in the story, there are numerous implications and references to the contemporary sexual norms of Soviet youth. Soviet sociologists are only now, fifteen years later, dealing with the reality described in circumlocution by Aksenov in this story.
A basis in autobiographical fact which was found in Aksenov's earlier works is also found in "Little Whale, Varnisher of Reality" (1964). "Little Whale" is in fact Aksenov's son, Alyosha whom he actually nicknamed "Whale" and who was born in 1960 making him the same age as the young hero of the story. The story which is included here is, in essence, a study of what is reality and what is imagination—a subject that Aksenov was to explore in many of his future works. Stories from this period that are also included in this volume are, "It's a Pity You Weren't With Us," "The Victory" and "Ginger From Next Door." "It's a Pity You Weren't With Us," a short story written in 1964 is also the name of a collection of stories published in 1969. The story is an unusual, thought-provoking assessment of the lives of some very unusual people. "The Victory" (1965) is one of Aksenov's most successful stories. Outwardly it is the story of a grand master at chess playing a game on a train with a chance passenger. The ironic ending is one of the best in Aksenov's works.
"Ginger From Next Door" (1966) is, like "The Lunches of '43," a chronologically disconnected remembrance of childhood. This time it is more clearly Aksenov's own remembrance, as he refers to his one-time home in the former residence of industrial engineer Zherebtsov, in Kazan. The chief difference is that his fantasies change in this period from mental exercises to actual occurrences, in a fictional form, of course. Aksenov, by this period, already refused to make a clear distinction between "acceptable" descriptive fiction and his creative fantasies in prose. At a much later time he clarified his stance, somewhat:
The imagination of an artist is, after all, also reality. Fantasy is perhaps no less real than the rustle of leaves … I sometimes think that real events which surround us, such as sunsets, river currents, stones, birds and sand are not any less mysterious than fantasy is … The artist only gives a name to the yet unknown, he penetrates into another dimension and gives a name to previously unseen bodies, gives them form, color and sound. He substitutes them for life in the opinion of some people. I suggest that subjects of art do not substitute for life but that they become new states within it, that is, they refurbish life and expand its horizons.
Therefore there are no clear lines as to where the reality of the traditional, practical sort blends into the emancipatory reality of the Aksenov philosophic idealism.
Another story that returns to his life in the former residence of industrial engineer Zherebtsov, in Kazan, is "On the Square and Beyond the River" (1966). On the surface it is a memory of the last day of World War II. But then there is the addition of a Gogolian or Hoffmannesque fantasy tale which is given at an ambiguous moment that allows it to be interpreted as a dream, or as one critic called it, a nightmare. When the message comes over the radio declaring victory over Hitler's Germany, the square becomes filled with jubilant people including a circus troop, which because it is real yet somehow imaginary, sets up the dream sequence which is imaginary yet somehow real. The dream sequence begins with the appearance of an unknown man seeking refuge. The young hero senses an evil creature and begins a chase onto the square and beyond the river. The creature flies off making sounds like a metallic bird and plunges into a lake. It is the symbolic death of Hitler.
Strange symbolic birds making metallic sounds were not new to Aksenov. In 1965 Aksenov had already written one of his most successful fantasy tales with these same characteristics, called The Steel Bird (1965). For over a decade he attempted to get the text published in the Soviet Union, but to no avail. A short excerpt called "The House on Lamplight Alley" (1966) was published in The Literary Gazette but since it only concerned one of the minor characters of the story, it was irrelevant to the main plot. The Russian text was published by Ardis last year in the inaugural issue of a new Russian-language literary almanac and the first English translation is available in this volume.
Anatoli Gladilin, a close friend of Aksenov and a writer who is mentioned in passing in the text of The Steel Bird, has written in the Western press about the first reading of the short novel. In those days a group of short story writers would meet regularly in the Central Club of the Writers' Union in Moscow to preview and critique the members' newest works. The reading of The Steel Bird attracted a "standing room only" audience and instead of reading only the thirty or forty pages scheduled, Aksenov was encouraged to read the entire work of over a hundred pages which required several hours and set a new time record for such readings. "Everyone was absolutely certain," wrote Gladilin, "that the story would, naturally, be published, the disagreements arose only concerning the literary journal: where to send it—to New World (Novyi mir) or to Youth?" However neither journal, nor any Soviet journal for that matter, dared to take that step.
The editors felt, perhaps justifiably, that the allegory was dangerous, that the satire on Soviet society was too clear. Aksenov felt that the satire was not on any specific society but on mankind as a whole and more specifically on the nature of man in a totalitarian society. He challenged the decision against printing the work on the grounds that to see Soviet society implied was to take the position that Soviet society was totalitarian and oppressive. Aksenov and Gladilin both have expressed the attitude that the work should be considered "pro-Soviet," that it points out the pitfalls of the improper path to communism, the cult of personality, and is not critical of a properly run Soviet government. The editors apparently saw something in their society that Aksenov hoped was not there and in rejecting the work gave support to that impropriety by refusing to expose it.
The story itself was inspired by poetic lines which are repeated in the book as the theme of a cornet-a-pistons: "reason gave us steel wing-like arms / and instead of a heart, a flaming motor." The name, The Steel Bird, came later from the text of a 1930s aviation song that included the following stanza (in my translation):
There, where the infantry can not pass
Where there are no rushing armored-trains
No heavy tank crawls through the grass
That is where the steel bird reigns.
The book opens in Moscow in Lamplight Alley in the spring of 1948 with the appearance of the ultimate of Aksenov's deviants, Veniamin Fedoseevich Popenkov. Popenkov is bearing two sacks from which something dark continues to drip. Because he understands the metallic language of the cornet-a-pistons which the housing manager plays, he is able to convince the manager to let him move into the elevator of the house at number 14 Lamplight Alley. At first he only occupies the elevator after all the residents are in bed, hiding in dark corners during the daytime. Significantly, all the residents get used to his presence and they begin to accept him. As the book progresses, there are constantly hints that he can fly, that he is not really human, that he speaks a strange metallic language and that he is changing from a weak "street rat" to a strong commanding "man of steel." One night Popenkov goes into convulsions in the elevator. As he is nursed back to health, the residents vote to shut down the elevator for his comfort. Gradually he takes over the entrance way and the staircase is blocked off. The residents accept this and get used to using the emergency stairwell to the rear. Popenkov gains more and more power until he has a number of the residents working for him, making counterfeit French tapestries. The wife of a Vice Minister who lived at number 14 leaves her husband for Popenkov and brings her apartment full of antiques to his vestibule residence. By this point his power becomes seemingly immense.
The doctors now decide that he is not a human, not exactly an airplane, nor a bird but a combination: a steel bird. Then in 1953, when Stalin dies, Popenkov somehow is among the close, privileged mourners. However his private plans for the house at number 14 Lamplight Alley are to get everyone involved in work, to forget their sadness by labor. His new wife does not approve of his using Tsvetkova, her former husband's mistress, for such productive work.
"Ha-ha-ha, you need Tsvetkova do you?" patronized Popenkov with laughter. "Take her, baby."
"Thank you," mysteriously smiled Zinochka.
"What do you want to do with her? Fuchi elazi kompfor trandiratziyu?" asked Popenkov.
"Fuchi emazi kir madagor" said Zinochka.
"Kekl fedekl?" laughed Popenkov.
"Chlok buritano," giggled Zinochka.
"Kukubu!" exclaimed Popenkov.
His wife who now spoke his language learned that there were steel birds all over the world but that he was the head of all of them. In the night he flies off to digest the metal statues of the world, from the Bronze Horseman to Abraham Lincoln. He is symbolically now in control of history: "There will not be a past, there will not be a future and I've already eaten the present," he announces. The weight of his body increases (caused by his midnight snacking) and the house at number 14 begins to tilt. When the walls begin to crack, the residents finally revolt, eventually conquering the steel bird. At this point the housing manager returns like the cavalry on a white steed to announce that the residents have been given a new apartment building. It should be noted that it is not the infantry, nor an armored-train, nor a heavy tank that penetrates the realm of the steel bird but a horseman. The new building that he promises will be almost entirely glass and plastic, with light-blue bathtubs, garbage disposals, swimming pools for everyone. So the residents leave. A few moments later the house at number 14 collapses, leaving only the elevator shaft upon which sits the steel bird. Months later he alights from his perch and flies over Moscow. Behind him stretch two dark trails, like the earlier droppings from his sacks, which are then scattered in the wind.
Clearly Aksenov means to say that human beings must avoid accepting and getting used to their oppression. He clearly is saying that such criticism is not only of Soviet society but of all totalitarian societies. There are steel birds everywhere, perhaps the image of Hitler in "On the Square and Beyond the River" is one of them. For the present time it seems that the Soviet one is the chief one. Popenkov is not Stalin, as some would guess, but in the tradition of Stalin. Popenkov mourns the death of Stalin but goes on to oppress his people and to establish his own cult of personality. Technology has helped him to bolt down the fates of men. Stalin once called the true Soviet man a screw in the machine of society. Man's emotions and his spiritual side have in this way, and by this type, been neglected, while reason and technology have turned his arms into steel wings, his heart into a flaming motor. He has judged his progress by trips to the moon and steel birds in the sky, leaving human beings to be dominated by computers and mechanical men. A computer language is, perhaps, no more intelligible to the soul than the ravings of the steel bird. Aksenov has every right to be disgusted that such a work can not be printed in all countries, for it is written for the sake of all human beings in all political systems.
Ironically one of the several things that Aksenov had published in those years included "The Dotted Line of Progress" (1966) which is a short statement praising the progress of man when the Soviet apparatus lunakhod was landed on the moon.
Less ironically and more tragically Aksenov was among the protesters arrested in 1966 on Red Square. The group had been against the unveiling of a bust of Stalin which now marks his grave-site behind Lenin's mausoleum. Many of those who suffered needlessly due to the cult of personality, as Aksenov's family did, felt that the raising of any monument to Stalin was a symbolic gesture, beginning an attitude of acceptance of his crimes.
There were also some good events in those years such as the release of The Journey (1966), a film based on three short stories by Aksenov: "Papa, What Does It Spell?," "The Lunches of '43" and "Half-way to the Moon." He also traveled a great deal: Rome, to a writers' conference, and Yugoslavia in 1965; Japan, Austria, Switzerland and Munich in 1966; Bulgaria and London in 1967. This last trip would prove to be his last chance to travel to the West for eight years. Another good event was the award of first prize in a literary contest sponsored by Trud newspaper. The story that won was called "The Light-blue Sea Cannons" (1967). It is a story told from the point of view of a young boy concerning his uncle's ironical service during World War II.
In the same period as these stories Aksenov wrote three plays which he labeled as "satirical fantasies." Although they remain unpublished one of them, Always For Sale (1965), ran for a long time at the Contemporary Theater in Moscow. The play was very controversial and has been called a number of things from "Philistine fantasy" to "the study of Man." Speaking of this play, a critic said: "The question of his 'grown-up' generation has become for Aksenov the question of man. His heroes now live not only in a defined slice of history but in the history of mankind as a whole."
One light, humorous story of this period concerned one of Aksenov's sporting passions: boxing. "A Poem of Ecstasy" (1968) tells the story of a young boxer who becomes convinced by the example of Muhammad Ali's poetry that the fine arts, especially music and poetry, are the key to modern boxing success. In the amateur championships he is victorious thanks to his construction in the ring of a "symphonic poem of ecstasy."
A much longer story, "The Overloaded Packing-barrels" (1968) is, according to the subtitle, a "tale with exaggerations and dreams." In many respects it is the logical culmination of Aksenov's fantasy stories. It is an example of the Russian literary tradition of viewing the normal in a fresh, new, but inevitably strange way (ostranenie). Consistent with this appraisal the tale has been compared to the work of Bulgakov, Olesha and Gogol. The unconventionality of his point of view caused much misunderstanding, confusion and even anger.
The external plot of the story begins with the need to move a load of barrels from the village general store to the regional center. Various people who do not know each other, yet need to go to the regional center, end up on the truck as fellow passengers. There is a scholar from Moscow who is the world's foremost expert on the country of Haligaliya (cf. Eng. Hully-gully, a dance which in Russian is called hali-gali) to which he is unable to get a visa. The old timer, Mochenkin, specializes in complaints, recommendations, requests and other official forms. The teacher, Irina Valentinovna, who is going on vacation, is a beautiful young lady with no admirers except a fourteen-year-old schoolboy. The sailor, Gleb, is returning to his Black Sea assignment. The driver is Vladimir Teleskopov who is the boy-friend of Sima the woman in charge of the barrels. Sima does not travel with them but continues, nevertheless, to be a character throughout the tale. Along the way other people are added and subtracted from their group.
As these people travel with the packing-barrels, several unusual things happen. The sailor and the teacher become romantically involved. All of them, even the driver, fall asleep and their dreams are presented. At first they are all individual dreams, unified only by the appearance for each of them of the "Good Man" approaching in the morning dew. The sleep of the driver ends in a minor accident which is followed by an airplane crash caused somehow, it is implied, by the eyes of the teacher in her new powerful role of blossoming woman. They arrive in a village to learn that they are not on course and spend the first night there. The scholar learns that Teleskopov, the driver, has been by accident to Haligaliya and they are united by a love for the same girl who lives in this distant fairy-tale land. In the second round of dreams the new-found friends become characters in each other's dreams. Among the several days they spend completing this short trip, one is spent in a town where Teleskopov is thrown in jail by a former suitor of Sima's. His sentence is reduced to a fine for the sake of the packing-barrels. The fine is then cancelled by a kiss from Irina Valentinovna. The most important development is that they all become bonded together by mutual love and respect for the barrels. When the depot refuses the barrels for being overloaded, they all reboard the truck and drive off together. In the final, mutual dream, the barrels float off to sea, singing gaily on their endless journey. Somewhere on an island, the "Good Man" waits for them, forever.
What all this means is a subjective decision similar to the interpretation of a symbolic poem. There are some factual observations that deserve note, however. The "Good Man" represents an ideal, a noble goal for each and every one of them. But just as people in general use indefinable abstract words to communicate concepts such as "God," "freedom" and "truth," these people use the "Good Man" as a variable concept: for each one of them the goal is as individual and different as they are one from the other. They all are dreamers, a fact which extends their "truths" to emotional and spiritual concepts beyond the realm of the material and the physically possible. Aksenov's concept of reality, as has been shown above, is liberating and stretches beyond the borders of Soviet reality and of all human reality in free-flying thought waves. Lastly, the barrels begin in a normal, though overloaded, form and become first metaphorically humanized, then literally on their own, loved and respected by the people around them. "We," one of the characters says, speaking for the group, "are simply people of different views and different professions, voluntarily united on the basis of love and respect for our packing-barrels."
Perhaps, in speculation, these people are then symbolic of the people of the world and the barrels are the "teeming" overloaded populations of humanity as a whole. Humanity to the individual is sometimes animate, sometimes remote and seemingly inanimate. The more people strive for the ideal, the "Good Man" as each individual interprets him, the more love and respect each has for humanity, whether that humanity in its overloaded, overpopulated mass is acceptable to others or not. The planet Earth bearing humanity, like an uncontrollable truck, goes on its way wherever it wants to, whenever it wants. "I don't know when we'll see each other again," Teleskopov writes to Sima, "because we are going where our dear packing-barrels want to, not where we want to. Do you understand?" (p. 58) Its goal in its random course is not always in conjunction with the ideal, and so people must unite and help each other bring it there. If this is impossible, then they, with the wisdom of the philosophies of the East, must accept their fate and ride along.
Also in speculation note that there are corrupt officials in this story who use their power to jail the innocent (Teleskopov). However the corrupt are here eventually softened by philos, love for humanity (the barrels) and set straight by eros, love for an individual (Irina Valentinovna). Note also that the pilot who spreads manure on the earth (a propagandist of any political view) is brought down by eros and philos together. In his dream sequence there is a hint that even agape, love for God (the angel), may be involved as well. Remember he never rides with the people (he is towed behind in his plane) and so he is never more than remotely connected with the people and with humanity. In time, without having learned from humanity, he returns to the skies to fertilize the earth with his manure.
Another excellent story and one of Aksenov's favorites is "The Rendezvous" (1969) published in 1971. It is the story of a most popular and talented individual: a poet, hockey star, mathematician, a Soviet Renaissance man and jet-setter. Feeling unloved, he goes off on a mysterious rendezvous that puts an end to his search but only at the price of his life.
During the next several years Aksenov experimented with various types of prose. He also wrote a number of humorous feuilletons for The Literary Gazette which included several stories about a character called Memozov. Memozov is a playful character device Aksenov likes to refer to as his anti-author.
One type of genre which he tried was the "chronicle novel" which was a popular form of writing in the early 1970s. For a series on famous revolutionaries he was asked to provide a book on Leonid Krasin, an electrical engineer and bolshevik revolutionary. The novel, Love For Electricity (1971), uses actual documents from the period intertwined with fictional embellishment. Even though it is basically about the tragedy of the revolution for the intellectuals who started it, that fact is generally misunderstood and so it is currently on the list of recommended books for school children.
A less serious experiment was an adventure novel, Gene Green-The Untouchable, which he participated in with two other authors. The book is the story of CIA agent No. 014 (twice what 007 was!). The pseudonym given as author, Grivady Gorpozhaks, actually represents a combination of the names of the three authors together who are identified only as translators of individual chapters. Of the thirty-two chapters, Aksenov wrote eight and collaborated on another four.
Another type of prose which he attempted is the children's book. My Granddad the Monument (1972) and its continuation, The Box in Which Something Rattles (1976), are highly adventurous tales based around the Leningrad Pioneer (like a Boy Scout) Gennady Stratofontov.
In 1975 Aksenov came to America as a Regent Lecturer for the University of California. After a long series of lectures at UCLA he made a short lecture tour to Stanford and Berkeley, and then visited the University of Michigan and Indiana University on his return to New York City. On his way back to Moscow he also spent time in London, Venice and Milano. From this prolonged stay abroad came the shorter works "The Asphalt Orangery" (1976) and "About That Similarity" (1977) and a long work about his impressions of America called 'Round the Clock Non-Stop (1976). This last work which includes the anti-author Memozov is an important work in that it sums up and explains many of his previous writings.
Meanwhile in 1976 one of his older stories was dug from the files and printed. "Swanny Lake" (1968) is an autobiographical piece with little "Whale" and his father joining "Whale's" grandfather, obviously based on Aksenov's real-life father, for a day at the lake. The internal thoughts of the three generations are artistically interwound to provide a charming yet meaningful message.
Two other short stories of that year "Out of Season" (1976) and "The Sea and Tricks" (1976) are actually parts of a longer work, In Search of a Genre, which was published in full in January of 1978.
Recently Aksenov has traveled a great deal in Europe, to Germany, Paris, Corsica and Bordeaux. He presently lives in Moscow with his wife Kira, his son Alyosha, who is no longer "little Whale" but an eighteen-year-old art student, and his dog Ralph Emerson Klychin. He recently began filming A Center From the Skies, a filmscript he wrote about a basketball player. Currently he is translating E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime into Russian.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1148
SOURCE: "Exit, Pursued by a Bear," in The New York Times Book Review, December 11, 1983, p. 11.
[In the following review, Gold lauds The Island of Crimea, praising Aksyonov's skill as a novelist.]
I remember my relief as a young man to discover that the apparently monstrous mass of Greenland in the atlas is a necessary map maker's illusion, that while it is "the largest island in the world," Greenland is not, in fact, the approximate size of four Australias or capable of entirely covering the North American continent, which it abuts. But so far as I know, no one has yet blown the whistle on Rand McNally for its Soviet Union, which lumbers into the picture from the west (with all of Asia clinging to its underbelly) like an obese dragon, snaps hungrily at Alaska and, after the comparatively small interval of Canada and the North Atlantic, shambles off stage right dragging the rest of Europe behind it like so many tin cans at its tail. No one, that is, has explained away the Soviet Union's bulk as a cartographic aberration, and with Moscow's tendency to secure its borders by the threat and use of military force, it is no great wonder that Soviet paranoia should give rise to paranoia in a good portion of the rest of the world.
These thoughts follow a reading of Vassily Aksyonov's remarkable novel The Island of Crimea. Mr. Aksyonov's fictional Soviet Union is only slightly less substantial than the one on the map and no less ominous. Through a series of flukes, the island of Crimea (a peninsula, actually, but joined to the mainland by an isthmus more tenuous than most) has become an independent nation in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917, when the White Russians escaped there and a British lieutenant in his cups had his gunners blow up the frozen straits across which the Red Army was pursuing them. Over the next 50-odd years, for various reasons, it remained in the interests of the Soviet Union more or less to ignore the tiny, bustling Western-style democracy that sprang up right off its shores. And yet the island itself, amid the political and nationalistic ferment characteristic of a free state, harbors people who would like to see a reunion with the mainland.
Prominent among them is 46-year-old Andrei Arsenievich Luchnikov (or Looch, as he is familiarly known in international circles), the editor and publisher of The Russian Courier. We first encounter him in his lavish offices atop a skyscraper in downtown Simferopol, the Crimean capital, lying on a rug "in the asana of perfect repose." But there is too much happening in the world for him to meditate properly, and before long Luchnikov (a semiprofessional racing car driver in his younger days) is tooling in his turbo along Simferopol's "state-of-the-art freeways," answering a summons from his father, Arseny. Luchnikov senior, one of the original "provacuees" (provisional evacuees, as they came to be called), is a millionaire horse breeder, a Slavophile with many American and European friends, and a history professor. He is considered by some to be a candidate for President of Crimea.
At his father's estate, Looch is surprised to find his own 19-year-old son, Anton, whom he has lost touch with for a year after divorcing the boy's mother. Something of a hippie, Anton has been globe-trotting and is presently attended by two beautiful American women a few years older than he is, whom Looch first sees as they rise nude from the swimming pool. Three generations of Luchnikovs, then, are presented in the first 20 pages, and Looch himself will be a grandfather before the end.
His father has summoned him to inform him of a right-wing plot against Looch's life. Luchnikov is not at first inclined to take this very seriously: "There isn't a day that goes by at the Courier without a call from one or another of them; 'Commie bastard, Kremlin whore, Yid yes man.'" But after a visit from, and a quick tumble with, one of his son's American friends, who calls him "Mr. Marlboro," Looch escapes on an adventure that takes him to Paris, to jail, to the arms of a former mistress and to a steam bath with Moscow's mighty, where he is reminded of something: "No, not Roman senators. Why, of course! The Mafia! That's it. Chicago, the roaring twenties, a Hollywood B-movie, the nouveau riche combination of ferocity and flab, the sense of power usurped."
The movies figure large. In Paris, an attempt is made on Luchnikov's life, and a passerby says, "I've never seen anything like it in my life! Just like in the films noirs!" An American film maker beseeches Luchnikov to do the screenplay for "a blockbuster. A good old-fashioned sweeping epic about the reunification of Crimea and Russia. Tragic, lyric, ironic, dramatic, realistic, surrealistic—a sure winner. The totalitarian colossus devours the carefree bunny rabbit at the latter's request."
That, in fact, is how the book ends, with Crimean television covering virtually every public and private act. Having finally acceded to Crimea's request to become another of its republics, the Soviet Union cannot let this occur peacefully but must invade the island, with the cover story that it is merely conducting war games in the area.
Luchnikov does not merely gad about. His struggles with the idea of a God could slip easily into a 19th-century Russian novel, and a long essay he writes about Stalinism and the possibility of Russia's long-term recovery from its horrors might impress even Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
The Island of Crimea is a stunning performance, reading for much of its length like a bizarre yet joyous collaboration between Dostoyevsky and Thomas Pynchon. It is a profoundly political and contemporary statement but with none of the shrillness and compromise with literary quality we have almost come to expect from books of its kind. Mr. Aksyonov is brilliantly served by his translator, Michael Henry Heim, who leaves us with the startling image of a "helicopter-speckled sky."
Mr. Aksyonov, who is now 51, lives in Washington. Soviet authorities are busy expunging his name and work from the literary record in Russia. His father was a Communist Party official and his mother, the historian Eugenia Ginzburg, became famous for her memoirs about her two decades in Stalin's labor camps. Mr. Aksyonov began writing novels shortly after he graduated from medical school, and by 1961 his first works had earned him an international reputation as a leader of a new generation of Soviet writers. By 1979 he was leading the group of Moscow writers who tried to set up an uncensored periodical, Metropol, and the next year, when his novel The Burn was published in Italy, he was forced to emigrate from the Soviet Union. The Burn is due to be published in English next year. Readers of The Island of Crimea have much to look forward to.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 723
SOURCE: "The Island of Crimea," in America, Vol. 150, No. 16, April 28, 1984, pp. 322-23.
[In the following brief review, Aksyonov's use of satire in The Island of Crimea is compared to the satirical elements found in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.]
A classic joke current among Russian dissidents runs, "What is the difference between Communism and capitalism? Answer: Capitalism is the exploitation of some individuals by other individuals. Communism is just the opposite." Vassily Aksyonov's new novel, The Island of Crimea, draws a sharp cultural distinction between the two "isms" by creating a geographic fantasy in which the Crimean peninsula is no longer part of the Soviet Union but is instead an island, distinct from the Soviet mainland and economic system, reminiscent of Hong Kong's relation to mainland China.
Although this is the first of his novels to be translated and published in the United States, Aksyonov is a well-known and widely read if officially unpopular Russian writer. More fortunate than his parents, who suffered persecution and exile (Aksyonov's mother, Eugenia Ginsburg, has written a justly celebrated account of the family ordeal), Aksyonov managed to leave Moscow for the United States five years ago after battling Soviet censors and physical intimidation.
The Island of Crimea provides an interesting example of fiction that has gained popularity among the Russian reading public in proportion to how much it has offended the government. The central character, for example, is far too freewheeling to fit the Soviet mold; Crimean-raised Andrei Arsenievich Luchnikov is a television personality and race car driver with an Oxford education, wealth, expertise in karate and celebrity status as a writer, and he mingles just as easily with high-living Parisians or his son's hippy friends as he does with Russian generals.
Luchnikov has become involved with the Common Fate League, whose goal is Russian revitalization through reunification of Crimea with Russia. The Soviet Government, though committed to a policy of swallowing the island, nervously balks at the unforeseen consequences of this Crimean tonic. Personal policy struggles dominate Luchnikov's own affairs as with one hand he attempts to separate the woman he loves from her mainland husband while with the other he tries to restore generational equilibrium with his disaffected son and with his White Russian father, one of a group of restless, permanent exiles on Crimea. Keeping in motion all of these involvements plus dealing with an assortment of international characters sometimes strains Aksyonov's talents. Perhaps he most succeeds in presenting a fascinating variety of cultural views, a sense of the varied texture of Russian cultural attitudes ranging from immobilized military bureaucrats whose minds are locked into a revolutionary past to the utterly detached free spirits who definitely rejoice in crisscrossing borders for sport.
The basis for these tensions derives from Aksyonov's fantasy Crimea, which operates much as Swift's islands do in contriving opportunities for satiric juxtaposition. And like Swift's, Aksyonov's satire cuts both ways. Even if at first it seems to, the bleakness of Soviet culture does not make a utopia of Crimea and the West. To idealize Western values would involve a mechanical response and would be to ignore the way in which the seeming perfection of a sharply contrasting freedom and dazzling material prosperity too often result in an obsession with consumption—just as the glittering exquisiteness of Lilliputian scale gradually yields to a vision of the tiny islanders' pettiness and pride. Yet, the freedom of the West, which includes the freedom to appreciate the present in light of a cultural past not limited to 1917, offers spiritual possibilities that Luchnikov senses even in such a simple act as walking in old sections of Paris and "enjoying the feel of the priceless medieval cobblestones through his shoes."
Despite flaws in character and momentum (and dialogue, where once or twice characters sound uncomfortably close to those "wild and crazy guys" formerly of Saturday evening television), Aksyonov succeeds in structuring layers of conflict and resolution. What the novel lacks in humor, it makes up for in brilliant, hallucinatory passages sometimes recalling that Russian master of hallucinatory comic fiction, Mikhail Bulgakov. Yet if Aksyonov's fiction does not accept a mechanical operation of the spirit, neither does it invite a prostration of spirit before comic absurdity. Instead, in depicting both public and private realms, his novel holds to the possibilities of hope and reconciliation in an affirmation of spirit.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 719
SOURCE: A review of The Island of Crimea, in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 28, No. 3, Fall, 1984, pp. 410-11.
[In the following review of The Island of Crimea, Peterson points out the variations in different translations of the novel and builds a case for the merits of Heim's translation.]
The Island of Crimea, a translation of Vasilij Aksenov's Ostrov Krym (1981), is the first of his novels printed abroad to appear in English. Two others, which were in fact published earlier, Ozhog and Zolotaja naša zhelezka (both 1980), have also been translated and will be brought out in the near future: The Burn, in Michael Glenny's rendition, by Random House, and Our Golden Ironburg, translated by this reviewer for Ardis. Since The Island of Crimea has the most appeal for a Western reader, its appearance first is appropriate, and the responses in the media have been largely favorable, though in some cases reviewers have mistakenly assumed that it is his first novel to appear in English, over-looking his work of the early 1960's.
Aksenov's intentions, as stated in his 1983 Preface to the English version, center on an investigation, in fictional form, of the question "What if Crimea had developed as a Russian, yet Western, democracy alongside the totalitarian mainland?" But The Island of Crimea is more than a response to a "what if" scenario and more than a fanciful refutation of the "Soviet authorities' … firm and realistic view of geography … that the world rests on three whales and two elephants." Though one can agree with the reviewer for Newsweek (21 November 1983) that it helps to be familiar with the background Aksenov relies upon, still the motives for wanting to reunite with the rest of the USSR seem quite clear: "Because Russia needs Russians" to help it (185). True, Aksenov is harsh on Stalin, Stalinism, the KGB, official lack of tolerance, and other aspects of current life in his native land, but he also displays a belief in Russia's role as a messianic nation and in the necessity of allowing the liberal elements of the Russian intelligentsia to play a part in shaping a more positive future for the country.
Fortunately for the author and his readers here, the translation is quite good. Professor Heim, certainly one of the better translators in our field, has come up with an English version that is true to the spirit of the original yet avoids the pitfall of a too literal, word-by-word rendering. Aksenov himself advocates a free approach in this area, and he dislikes footnotes and other such aids in his fiction, so Professor Heim's accomplishment is doubly impressive, especially since Aksenov's style and fondness for paronomasia make this task rather difficult. One central example of Aksenov's tendency to use puns, for instance, calling the island "OK" or "Okay," is not amenable to an exact rendering, thus Heim explains unobtrusively: "OK being the initials for its Russian name, Ostrov Krym." He is also adept at inventing suitable phrasing when appropriate: for example, the original ibu and ebu tribes becomes the "Kikuyus and the Wiskruyus," a podljanocka reappears as an "off-white lie," and Walter Gesundheit, a TV host whose name appears only in the translation, is a punning combination wholly appropriate to Aksenov's style of writing. Occasionally, however, some of the choices are less understandable: Hollywood for Beverly Hills, a "new Mercedes" for a Japanese Datsun, and "he ran up to twenty-one meters" for "jadro letelo stabil' no za dvadcat' odin metr." And there is one significant misstep, which substantially alters the sense at the end of the fifth chapter: Luchnikov's interlude with the French sex kittens does not signal the "dawn of civilization," but rather the "twilight" (in the original—zakat civilizacii).
But where Professor Heim's efforts truly shine are his renderings of the original's fairly numerous English phrases into the urbane, witty, hip, colloquial, idiomatic English these cosmopolitan characters should command. "He's blotto" (, instead of the original "He is a heavy drunk"), "As you wish" (, for "Up to you"), and "Barfsville' (20) are just a few examples. Because of these and other felicities, the English version of this "Russian, yet Western" novel (based in part on impressions gained when Aksenov visited UCLA in 1975) at times works better than the original. And it is a pleasure to recommend it to scholars, students, and general readers alike.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2472
SOURCE: "The Mess of Mother Russia," in The New Republic, Vol. 191, No. 27, December 31, 1984, pp. 30, 32-3.
[Skvorecký is a noted Czech-Canadian political novelist. In the following review, he praises The Burn and calls Aksyonov an "epochmaking writer."]
Much of the effect of literary art depends on a kind of inside knowledge, on the reverberations of personal association. We miss a lot even in the thoroughly explicated plays of Shakespeare; and even such relatively simple works as Babbitt certainly appear richer to a Midwestern contemporary of [Sinclair] Lewis than to a high school girl studying American literature in Peking. Still, more than enough remains in a great book like The Canterbury Tales, for instance, to make it a best-seller in Prague in the early 1950s—although that book's appeal for the Czechs lay, admittedly, not just in the work's intrinsic value, but also in its side delights. "The Miller's Tale," unexpurgated because it was a classic, was a rare, juicy morsel for readers starving on a diet of novels in which, if a newlywed Stakhanovite wanted to indicate to her husband that he had brought her into an interesting condition, she had to lead him under a blossoming cherry tree, point out a nestful of newly hatched birds, and blush.
At the beginning of Aksyonov's immensely rich novel, a sexy Muscovite—the females of that cynical city blush only on the pages of prizewinning Soviet novels; in Aksyonov's book they fuck like mad—brings the scientist Aristarkh Apollinarievich Kunitser a glass container swarming with drosophila flies. I wonder how much is lost here on a young American reader who never studied Soviet history. For me the entire stunning inferno of The Burn is embodied in this tiny fruit fly. In the opening pages of the book, it functions like [Marcel] Proust's madeleine. I remember well the article in the Charles University student newspaper in which the author skillfully built up the tension toward his final horror, which came when the door opened to the Laboratory of Genetics where the obscurantist-non-Marxist Professor of Biology Sekla kept his—drosophilae! In Soviet demonology of the late '40s, the drosophila occupied a place second only to Trotsky. To high school students it was the creation of an American Jew, Thomas Hunt Morgan, and Gregory Mendel, a Czech Catholic monk straight out of Matthew Gregory Lewis. After Academician Lysenko's celebrated victory on the biological front, Mendel's statue was duly removed from its pedestal in the Moravian capital of Brno. When, in the '60s, an International Biological Conference was held in that city, it required a long search before the stone likeness of Mendel was found, covered by dust and debris, in somebody's wine cellar. In the minds of the Young Pioneers, the monk merged with the other kike, Morgan, into a bogeyman called Mendelmorgan, ideally suited to put the fear of the party into little boys and untenured professors. That is what Aksyonov's madeleine means for me. But not, I'm afraid, for many Americans. (An American editor removed a drosophila story from the fifth chapter of my own novel Miss Silver's Past; he said it was irrelevant and digressive.)
And many such madeleines are strewn over the surreal and, alas, so real, landscape of this story of five Russian men who share the patronym Apollinarievich, and are really embodiments of the same Aksyonov. Like Apollinaire's celebrated poem, this novel, with its five sons of the poet who "did not respect any fame," is a veritable Zone, very hard to sum up. It is an Old Man River full of rafts. Jims, creaky steamers with dead Paps inside, and lynching parties; a "sweet" Thames bearing empty bottles, sandwich papers, silk hand-kerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends. Toward the end, Kunitser-Sabler-Malkolmov-Kvastishchev-Pantelei-Aksyonov, in one of his/their nightmarish dream-realities, swim in a ghostly stream, "pushing aside old tin cans … used condoms, lumps of matted hair, eggshells, countless nail clippings … rotten vegetables, used toilet paper…." The river, that symbol of life in schoolroom essays, has changed here into a symbol of the Soviet homeland.
Quite often the book resembles a surrealist comedy—minus the irreverence. Apparently one cannot be irreverent in Russia, the graveyard of so many millions of victims of perpetual misrule. Even "hilarious" scenes—like the one featuring the sculptor Kvastishchev and his "model" (a sexually interconnected circle of bodies consisting of himself and two K.G.B. hookers)—are played out against ominous backgrounds. (In this case, a purring Chaika limousine arrives, bearing the dangerous customer Lygher, once a powerful officer in the town of Magadan, the heart of the sinister Kolyma region.) It is a surrealistically complex novel, a book of "many oddities," as the author himself describes it. Those who still think that Soviet writers may have a great subject, but that their methods of shaping it are outdated, should read The Burn at once.
It oscillates continually between reality and fantasy; its point of view migrates through several minds, the minds mingle, then the minds separate—in short, it is a fireworks of modernistic techniques. Both rough and tender, like the blues, it is full of hate and in the next moment brimming with love. And love is pornographically physical, yet a bliss of the soul. I don't remember many love scenes in literature that can match the final lovemaking of the Victim (all the main characters merge together in the last section of the novel) and the dream/real girl Alisa, the wife of a prominent member of the New Class, but also a poor Polish prisoner-girl who once tries to commit suicide by biting off the neck of a cologne bottle.
All this "deliberate confusion," however, does not betray the author, free at last from both political and aesthetic censorship, who wants to show off his mastery of the tools now at his disposal. A survivor of Stalin's and Brezhnev's deliberate confusion is trying here—and trying with success—to tell the truth about his terrible life. He brings to mind the quintessential evocations of the medieval sense of hell, the works of Hieronymus Bosch, whose paintings, with their amazing proto-surrealism, use a very similar technique.
In the heart of the confusion is a simple, archetypical Soviet story. It is the story of Tolya Bokov, the half-Jewish son of a "Trotskyite man and a Bukharinite woman" who, at the age of 5, after the arrest of both parents, is sent to an orphanage for "children of enemies of the people." Ten years later the boy's mother is released, but ordered to stay in Magadan in "internal exile." The boy is permitted to join her, only to witness her rearrest a short time later, when Stalin commands that all who have served their sentences, and are now relatively "free" as internal exiles, be sent back to the camps on the same charges for which they were incarcerated years ago.
In the purgatory of Magadan the boy sees many other examples of Marxist re-education. One sticks in his mind forever. Bringing food for his imprisoned mother, he accidentally sees an event straight out of Auschwitz. The interrogator, Captain Cheptsov, asks a tortured prisoner "kindly": "Have they been beating you, Sanya?" "Yes, they have, citizen Captain," whispers the young man in pain. "And did they beat you like this?" asks Cheptsov and jabs his elbow into the prisoner's right eye. Sanya's eyeball is instantaneously suffused with blood. At that moment the boy is spotted and, with a mighty kick, Cheptsov sends him flying, so that the precious bottle of milk in the boy's bundle, destined for his mother, breaks into smithereens.
The boy grows up to become the five incarnations of Aksyonov—I believe this is essentially an autobiographical story. Captain Cheptsov ages into a mean old-age pensioner who supplements his income by working as an informer/cloakroom attendant in a hard-currency bar. At this point the two meet again. Cheptsov has caught his daughter typing up leaflets for a dissident organization. He beats her up and, his erotic/sadistic passions aroused, he rapes her. Then he departs for the K.G.B. headquarters to "do his duty," i.e., to rat on the girl. Unfortunately (that is, fortunately), he meets two drunkards, and under the impact of their sarcasm, but also under the load of his gnawing memories, he attempts suicide by ramming his head against a radiator. In the emergency room he is saved by Tolya Bokov—in his incarnation as the famous surgeon Malkolmov—who injects into his veins the mysterious substance Lymph-D, distilled from the "lacerated souls" of his Russian patients. Cheptsov comes to life, to appear in another surreal scene on the TV screens in Tolya's native village, from which he admonishes the collective farmers: "Repent of violence, cruelty, cowardice and lies! Repent, you cohorts of steel and you sportsmen heroes of the Munich Olymp—" whereupon he flows "arms and legs spread-eagled like a sky diver into the depths of the television set." Thus the simple, archetypal backbone of a complex story, set in the black cosmos of the Soviet Marxist state.
The story meanders among visions, evocations, vignettes, nightmares—among all those madeleines. Closest to my heart, naturally, is the saxophone which belongs to Samson Apollinarievitch Sabler, a Soviet jazzman. "You'll have affairs, little Samsik," says a lovely promiscuous lady of real virtue after she frees Samson of the burden of male virginity, "only don't give up your sax!" The beloved instrument, a source of joy and truth, eventually becomes a weapon. With it Samsik cuts open the forehead of the leader of the Komsomol vigilantes who raided a concert of his band. He is then beaten up by the SA-like thugs. After he comes to, he searches desperately for his horn. He finds it. His sax is "lying alongside him, with a little drop of the enemy's blood still stuck to its bell. Proud sax, golden weapon!"
However, the Komsomol Sturm-Abteilung Führer is not the only enemy whose head is smitten with this particular madeleine. Another is a fascistoid mercenary in Africa whose armored carrier has been showering machine-gun bullets on a jungle hospital. The two identical uses of the saxophone thus introduce the inevitable question about the identical nature, and therefore identical accompanying phenomena, of totalitarian regimes, right and left—if, indeed, the old distinction from the days of the National Assembly in Paris still applies to modern dictatorships.
The identity is suggested mostly by images—for instance, of a brutal store manageress, a typical product of a society where all authority is firmly vested in those firmly vested in authority, who reminds the hero of "… the cloak-room attendant in the bar … [of] Theodore the mercenary in Katanga"; the "cloakroom attendant," of course, is the sadist interrogator Cheptsov. A few times the hint is direct: "… our brothers in class, the German Nazis." But such outspokenness is rare and marginal. After having been made witness to the spectral march of women convicts through the permafrost landscape of Siberia, to the vision of the camp bosses entertained by prisoner-actors doing endless time in hopeless Madagan, or to the lot of the "lucky" twenty-fivers in the uranium mines on the Chukchi Peninsula, where one year counts as five but the prisoners' life expectancy is six months—after such and similar scenes from hell, the thoughtful reader will inevitably find himself, without the help of straightforward comparisons, facing Nathanael West's question: "The problem as to why against Fascism and why not against Communism disturbs my sleep." I wish it would disturb the sleep of many in North America.
Can anyone dare to expect a graduate of the world of Magadan to embrace revolution? "Evolution, revolution, pollution" goes the stream of consciousness in Kvastishchev's head, and thinking about his "pal Patrick Thunderjet," an American in Moscow, he cannot remember whether Thunderjet is "professor of Kremlinology … or criminology." He decides that there is really no difference. Elsewhere, meditating on Lenin's famous slogan "Communism equals Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country," the writer Pantelei says to himself: "In that case, what's missing? Surely we have long since electrified the whole country, haven't we?" And in another scene, discussing the West with the Kremlicriminologist, he observes: "A few years back the only people I took seriously were those scatty flower children, but now even they have degenerated into revolutionaries; in other words, they've become an organized gang."
But are lackluster attitudes toward the revolution and the revolutionaries in the Soviet Union limited to the degenerate sons of Trotskyite fathers and Bukharinite mothers who were admittedly rehabilitated but (observe the totalitarian logic) "the fruit never falls far from the tree"? Hardly. When the American Kremlicriminologist, in need of cash after a drunken bout, sells his shoes to a man standing in line for a shipment of shoes that is rumored to be due for delivery at the GUM department store opposite the Kremlin, this is what happens:
… the line disintegrated, turned into a mob, and surrounded the two extraterrestrial visitors with footwear to sell…. The mob waved its arms, shouted something, like at some spontaneous meeting in the days of the First Russian Revolution.
In the context of contemporary Russian literature, Vassily Aksyonov is not just an important writer; he is an epochmaking writer. We who were there, and some American scholars, know what he is talking about when, in an imaginary conversation with Hemingway, the hero of The Burn tells Papa: "Ernest! 'Your Cat in the Rain' changed my whole life. Thank you for the overkill." That confrontation with the American virtuoso of the literary dialogue led to Aksyonov's first novel, A Ticket to the Stars, with its rich evocations of the speech of Moscow's "guys and dolls" of the early '60s, the time of hope. These youngsters who rediscovered jazz and modern Russian poetry, who courageously spoke up in defense of democracy and demonstrated for freedom—these instinctive swallows of the Russian Spring were truly "Aksyonov's generation."
But all that is gone now.
In the damp winter of 1966, Moscow put two … lads from one of our houses on trial. Then four more. Then more, singly, in pairs, in whole batches. They demoted our professors, fired our theater directors, closed our cafés…. The epoch of Lenin's centennial began. The Neanderthal features of that old Pravda hawk Yurii Zhukov dominated the television screen … the disintegration began.
Afterward came the "fraternal help for the Czech enemies" and "everybody stopped blabbering…. Today's young people," muses Pantelei, "would regard … demonstrations as impossible. Some of them imagined that such things had only happened before the Revolution."
Paradise of bourgeois democracy lost. The hopeful Moscow of the '60s has changed into "a sullen, tight-lipped city, equipped with the last word in word filters and jamming devices." A major tragedy for Russia. A dangerous tragedy for the world.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6929
SOURCE: "Aksenov and Stalinism: Political, Moral and Literary Power," in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 30, No. 4, Winter, 1986, pp. 509-25.
[In the following review, Meyer discusses the influences that Bulgakov's Master and Margarita and Journey Into the Whirlwind, the prison camp memoirs of Aksyonov's mother, had on The Burn.]
Stalinism has necessarily been a central subject of serious Russian literature since the 1930s. The grotesque nature of Stalinist society has generated memoirs more fantastic than fiction and novels especially rooted in history. Survivors of the experience are unavoidably concerned with the moral problems of resisting and responding to evil, torn between a desire for revenge and the ideal of forgiveness. Aksenov's The Burn (Ozhog) must be read in the context of this history and the texts it produced. The burn of the title refers both to Stalinism and to the burn of creativity. By recapitulating his own biography, Aksenov writes a literary-historical confession that traces the effects of Stalinism on the author's generation from the 1940s to the mid-1970s. In attempting to reconcile his love of Russian culture with his hatred of Russian barbarity, Aksenov sets the novel in dialogue with two authoritative texts: his mother's memoir of her years in Stalin's camps provides the focus of the moral dimension of The Burn, while Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, probably the single greatest work of art produced in response to Stalinism, is The Burn's stylistic parent. An analysis of that dialogue is the focus of this paper.
In defining his personal relationship to the history and literature of his time, Aksenov also incorporates his own development as a writer. In The Burn he refers explicitly to A Ticket to the Stars (Zvezdnyj bilet), Surplussed Barrelware (Zatovarennaja bochkotara), "The Steel Bird" ("Stal'naja ptica"), and "The Heron" ("Caplja"), and indirectly to at least "Wish You Were Here" ("Zhal', chto vas ne bylo s nami"), "The Victory" ("Pobeda"), and "Rendezvous" ("Randevu"). A brief review of Aksenov's biography and of the themes, motifs, and structures that recur in The Burn will therefore be useful.
1. History: Aksenov's Biography. Aksenov was born 20 August 1932 in Kaza. His mother, Evgenija Ginzburg, taught history at Kaza University; his father, Pavel Aksenov, was an important Communist Party official. His parents were arrested in 1937, when he was four years old. His mother served a ten-year sentence and then settled in exile in Magadan, Siberia, with her second husband, Anton Val'ter, a prisoner who worked as a doctor. There Aksenov rejoined his mother when he was seventeen, finished high school in 1950, and, because his parents said "it's easier for doctors in the camps" …, enrolled in the First Leningrad Medical Institute, from which he graduated in 1956. He worked briefly as a quarantine doctor in the port of Leningrad, and then was sent as a general practitioner to a village on Lake Onega. There he began to write, publishing two stories in 1959. With the success of his first novella, Colleagues (Kollegi, 1960), Aksenov and his first wife moved to Moscow, where he soon left work in tuberculosis clinics to become a professional writer (Johnson; Meyer, "Aksenov and Soviet Literature of the 1960s").
Aksenov's first works described the personal world of his contemporaries, written in the language they spoke. The thaw of the Xrušchev period allowed his "new" voice to be popular—his rejection of official clichés came at the right moment. But when the thaw ended, he was attacked by conservatives, and on 8 March 1963 he was made to recant publicly at a writers' meeting by Xrušchev himself. This personal humiliation and the end of liberalization were a turning point for Aksenov. His first "happy" period was over …, and his style became increasingly grotesque, outgrowing the limits of the permissible.
In 1965 he wrote "The Steel Bird," an allegory of the rebirth of Stalinism and of the possibility of popular resistance to it; it was rejected by Soviet publishers and only appeared in the United States in 1977. After the trial of Sinjavskij and Daniel' (1966) and the invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968), it became clear that many of the gains the intelligentsia had made under Xrušchev had been lost. "Wish You Were Here" (1969) was the last collection of stories Aksenov published in the USSR. That year he began writing The Burn in anger and desperation; he completed it in 1975. In the same year he was a visiting lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles; he managed to publish an account of his California experiences, "Round the Clock Nonstop" ("Kruglie sutki non-stop"), in Novyj mir in 1976. But his participation in promoting the unofficial almanac Metropol', which appeared in the United States in 1979 after being rejected by Soviet publishers, in addition to the publication of The Steel Bird and The Burn in the West, resulted in his forced emigration in 1980 (the story is told in Say Cheese! [Skazhi izjum!]). Since settling in Washington, D.C., Aksenov has published collections of plays and stories, including the recent "Svijazhsk" (1981), which summarizes the themes of his early stories and reveals their hidden religious basis…. Three novels have also appeared: The Burn (1980), The Island of Crimea (Ostrov Krym, 1981), and Say Cheese! (1985).
2. Literature: Aksenov's Literary Development. Aksenov's early works include four novellas and over a dozen stories. His first two stories and Colleagues concern young doctors like himself. Aksenov says he "armored" (broniroval) Colleagues from the start with the intention of publishing it …, but the novella nonetheless reflects his own ideas. Certainly the conflict between cynicism and optimism is resolved firmly in favor of the latter in a self-consciously socialist-realistic way, but the theme of tension between the desire to belong to the collective and the need for personal fulfillment is constant in Aksenov's work. In Colleagues this theme involves choosing a career as a writer in Moscow over self-sacrifice as a village doctor. After all, Aksenov greatly admired his stepfather, who selflessly cared for prisoners and their jailers in Siberia, as made clear in The Burn. Besides making his stories officially acceptable, Aksenov's endorsement of the values of social service fulfills one set of his ideals by proxy, while allowing him to pursue the rewards of professional writing. This early model illuminates the degree to which The Burn is an expiatory novel that affirms a love for Mother Russia even while accepting the necessity of leaving her for the West.
The second novella, A Ticket to the Stars (1962), describes four teenagers who run off to Estonia to find themselves. The stars in the title are emblematic of an ideal—Dimka's quest for meaning in life is a process of learning to distinguish between the ersatz painted stars on the ceiling of a barroom and his true star. This pattern is found in all of Aksenov's work: in the romantic tradition, a spiritual ideal is represented by the stars, the moon, an art, a science, even by sport, and is contrasted to its desecration (Meyer, "Basketball").
In Aksenov's third novella, Oranges from Morocco (Apel'siny iz Marokko, 1963), the ideal is represented by mundane bright spheres that carry associations of distant freedom. The quest for the exotic oranges is set in Siberia. The bleak Siberian landscape of volcanic hills, which in The Burn are associated with Stalin's camps, is transformed into a happy realm of play. Aksenov exercises his own freedom stylistically, scrambling chronology and a variety of first-person narratives that explicitly reject official language.
It's Time, My Friend, It's Time (Pora, moi drug, pora, 1964) is close to The Burn in structure. A moral quest in three parts, the novella describes the ambivalence of twenty-five-year-old Valja Marvich. Like all of Aksenov's semi-autobiographical characters, he alternates between comfortable, passive conformity and the more demanding active role that challenges that conformity. Valja insists on his identity with the worker Serega in order to justify becoming a writer-intelligent. The ideal dimension of this role is represented by Puškin (joined in The Burn by Gogol', Mandel'štam, and Bulgakov); its pitfalls are parodied in the figure of a slick professional writer. The novella's title, taken from Puškin's poem, emphasizes the ideal of freedom represented in It's Time by a fantastic character from Estonia who dies racing off on a motorcycle for champagne (compare Sanja Gurchenko and his Fiat in Rome of The Burn). Freedom is always associated with foreignness. The novella's villain is a bully, who beats up Valja and humiliates him in an explicitly sexual way, hitting him "in a place that's not talked about" (the Chepcov role in The Burn). Valja deliberates about the morality of his response to Oleg: "I swore to myself I'd forget about that magnificent feeling called hate, biological hate, holy hate" (65-66). This question becomes the central moral problem of The Burn. In both works, the solution is suspended at the end in a series of disembodied dialogues with characters living and dead. In The Burn all these elements are considered in socio-historical terms in relation to political powerlessness; in the early novellas they are treated psychologically, but the pattern of validating literary creation as a way to resolve conflict recurs, as we will see below.
While the novellas are sociologically oriented, Aksenov's stories were conceived as a continuation of the tradition of Russian prose interrupted in the 1920s. The stories combine realism with the avant-garde, seen by Aksenov as a continuation of Gogol's fantastic tales…. This accounts for the greater sophistication of stories written as early as 1961 (e.g., "Halfway to the Moon"), whose thematics persist throughout Aksenov's work. The ideal realm, here represented by a "beautiful lady," is at odds with Soviet pošlost'; the hero mistakes a "Neznakomka" for his muse-beloved, as in Gogol's "Nevskij Prospekt," but disillusionment brings about the hero's metamorphosis. The worker falls in love with a stylish Moscow stewardess, which opens him to spiritual existence.
After 1963, the stories became less realistic, increasingly emphasizing the degradation of Russian culture. "The Victory" was able to appear in Junost' (1965) because it presents the intelligentsia's struggle metaphorically and apparently ambiguously. A passive, shy grandmaster of chess is incapable of refusing to play with a thuggish stranger, and "loses" though he has put his opponent in checkmate. The grandmaster wears simple ties that bear the hidden label "House of Dior"; to him "this small secret had always been a source of comfort and warmth" (Eng. trans., 191). The ineffectuality of this "secret" in securing the grandmaster's victory suggests the irrelevance of European tastes and ideals, as well as the grandmaster's cowardice in hiding them. His cultural and spiritual life may be superior to the aggressiveness of G.O. (the initials may stand for Glavnaja opasnost'—the main danger), but the grandmaster knows he will lose the game; his values are impotent on the plane of reality, a recurring dilemma in Aksenov's work. At the end the story shifts to the fantastic as the grandmaster engraves one of a store of gold medals prepared for such inevitable occasions in order to commemorate G.O.'s victory; his defeat is made acceptable from the distance of the artistic dimension.
In Surplussed Barrelware (1968), as in Oranges, an array of social types journey toward an ideal, here explicitly identified as the Good Man. Two characters dream independently of him, an idea used almost allegorically, as in The Burn. But while Oranges was optimistic, here bureaucrats reject the sublimated religious love for the barrelware that unites the questers…. In The Burn the questers themselves conspire with the bureaucrats in degrading their ideals.
The Burn was begun with no idea of publication in the Soviet Union, but Aksenov used its central ideas in the novella Rendezvous (1971). In Ljova Malaxitov, the scholar, poet, sportsman, film producer, and jazz musician, Aksenov paints a satirical portrait of the Moscow intelligentsia, removing the thematics of Stalinism in order to produce a publishable variant of material from The Burn.
3. Synthesis: The Burn. Book 1, "The Men's Club," describes the debauched state of the intelligentsia in the late 1960s. Malaxitov's professions are distributed to five characters, who represent the cream of the arts and sciences: the research biologist Aristarx Kunicer, the saxophonist Samson Sabler, the doctor Gennadij Mal'kochmov, the sculptor Radius Xvastiš ev, the writer Pantelej Pantelej. They share a patronymic—Apollinarievi—and a common past, represented by the character Tolja fon Štejnbok. The story of Tolja's life with his mother in Magadan in the late 1940s, which closely resembles Aksenov's, is told in fragments embedded in book 2, "Five in Solitary." Here too we discover the origins of the recurring character Chepcov in the KGB officer who rear-rests Tolja's mother. Book 3, "The Victim's Last Adventure," dissolves into a phantasmagoria that merges historical periods and transfers the conflict between the oppressors and the intelligentsia to the imaginative plane, where it is left in suspension. The members of the intelligentsia, although cast as victims, are shown to be as depraved as their oppressors, and hence unwittingly in collusion with them.
Aksenov represents the intelligentsia's problem as a failure to attend to and protect its muse. The literal basis of this central metaphor is established in a Magadan scene: Tolja is unable to rescue a Polish girl, Alisa, from a convoy of prisoners. The pathos of her situation is underscored by the prospect of her rape by prison guards. By the 1960s Alisa reappears as a loose society woman; in book 3 she is also a KGB spy. That is, having stood by while she was raped, the intelligentsia then takes advantage of her, and she finally betrays them: political sticks and material carrots have reduced them to a state of lazy provincialism and impotent passivity.
The heroes have lost their memory. Throughout book I they keep trying to remember their collective past, the tragedy of fon Štejnbok. They have trouble recalling Mandel'štam's poem, "Sleeplessness, Homer," and even the poet's name. Their muse is in such a state that she has trouble reminding them of their literary and historical heritage. One of the guises of the heroes' muse is Arina Beljakova, the first woman Samsik Sabler makes love to:
Her mission was very important, though somewhat ridiculous for a European girl. For six months since the showing of the movie [The Witch] in the Soviet Union, she had been walking the wet, uneasy streets of this city, where she had once run away from the School for Noble Young Ladies, and would unexpectedly … accost the local Samsiks, the pathetic little offspring of the Stalinist era, lead them away to the crumbling houses of the Silver Age, and teach them to love, appearing to them as an unforgettable image of freedom.
To provide an image of freedom, the muse must inspire them with the culture of the Silver Age and of Europe. The beautiful French movie actress Marina Vlady, who starred in the French film The Witch, played that role in reality for Aksenov's generation, since she was married to Vysockij. The character Arina Beljakova suggests Aksenov's own muse, combining love, medicine, and literature. Her sexual education of Samsik is linked to Tolja's first sexual experience: in Beljakova's Silver Age apartment building all the cables and pipes are overheated and shine through the walls; Tolja loses his innocence in "the Crimea," a manhole full of underground steam pipes where the ex-zeks of Magadan live while waiting for transportation out of Siberia. Both scenes of initiation are followed by KGB raids: becoming a man involves recognizing and remembering the reality of political oppression.
Contemporary images of freedom are to be found in Western films showing a world in which the sense of ambivalence and inadequacy plaguing Aksenov's generation has no basis. In the late 1940s in Magadan, Tolja sees Stagecoach seven times. The Ringo Kid, who eliminates two Apaches at a gallop, is the perfect teen-age image of bravery against all odds. But Tolja's identification with him is useless in real life—he can only fantasize rescuing Alisa from the convoy or his friend Sanja from Chepcov's brutal interrogation. The latter fantasy is imagined in English, because it is unthinkable within the Russian context. The Magadan cinema highlights Tolja's confusion: since he wants to be a normal Soviet schoolboy, he is ashamed of his parents, who are "enemies of the people," but he reveres his mother and Martin, a Volga German and a practicing Catholic. Stagecoach provides an escape to a mythical America. In the 1960s it is replaced by European films with "Brigitte and Claudia Cardinale and Sophia Loren and that fat Anita and Monica the intellectual and Julia-keep-your-hands-off."
Aksenov conveys the spirit of the 1960s, when Russia opened up to the West, by studding the text with Marlboro cigarettes, Danish beer, names associated with American jazz (Thelonius Monk, Willis Conover), Greenwich Village, Soviet copies of American baseball shoes, a "shabby little jacket from Liberty's," even Yul Brynner's bald head. The names of Western cities appear throughout—Paris, London, Rome, San Diego, Pisa, Oxford—to collapse the imaginative distance, while highlighting the political one, between them and Moscow:
No friends the truth is dearer to us
What's more the door we long for is so near
To walk along Picadilly for a few bars
to turn onto the Nevskij through the Arc de Triomphe
swim across the wall and jump over the Spree
then to the Nikitskij Gate through Rockefeller Center.
But the meaning of the West for them is lost, as its objects become empty status symbols and mere luxuries. The writer Pantelej walks off with the liquor from a party at the Brazilian embassy, where he finds:
Gordon's Gin and Cinzano Dry and Queen Anne and Armagnac and Mumm and Campari and Remy Martin and Ballantine's and Smirnoff and Benedictine surrounded by a guard of Schweppes and Coca-Cola.
That this sense of freedom is an illusion becomes clear when Pantelej is summoned to the chief censor (the "High Priest"): the latter surreptitiously smokes a Kent, while, like the grandmaster in "Victory," Pantelej wears his Oxford tie and a California button that says "Fuck Censorship!" pinned to the lining of his jacket. The Western objects lead to the novel's central problem—the intelligentsia's failure to resist repression.
4. Aksenov's dialogue with Ginzburg's memoirs: Responses to Stalinism. The history of the confrontation between the generation of the 1960s and Stalinism in The Burn begins with Tolja's first encounter with Chepcov. The scene is based on Aksenov's own experience, as recounted by his mother in part 2 of her memoirs. The connection is emphasized by the closeness of the name Chepcov to that of Chencov of the memoir…. Just as the novel's social analysis depends on our knowledge of Russian history, the power of Aksenov's concretization of the traumatic burn in Tolja's experience relies on our ability to fill in the details, to relate the character to Aksenov himself. The Burn, then, is written in dialogue with his mother. Both writers try to understand the tragedies of their personal lives in the context of Russian history, and consider how to respond: should one, can one, forgive? Mother and son respond differently both stylistically and ethically.
A. Style. The problem of the relationship of reality to fiction is addressed by the use of the motif of the fairy tale. Ginzburg contrasts the surreal horror of the real world of Stalin's camps to the purity of children's fantasy. When working at the Magadan kindergarten, she staged "Puss in Boots" and "The Seven Little Kids." The script for the first was confiscated at the time of her arrest as potentially subversive material. The broadcast of the second cost her her job—an ex-zek cannot be given public prominence. The tragic irony of the confusion between the two disparate worlds shows her real life to be more fantastic than fairy tales, while the private, innocent domain of children's stories is fraught with political perils. Ginzburg was one of the first to recognize Stalin (whom she calls "the Georgian dragon") in Kornej Chukovskij's children's tale "The Cockroach" ("Tarakanišche"); as a result of mentioning this at home, she was denounced, fired from her job, and threatened with a third arrest….
Ginzburg, like Tolja, goes to the Magadan cinema, but with opposite emotions. Fresh from prison camp, she is taken to "a quite incomprehensible film about spies."… After ten years in camp with all sorts of alleged "spies," the film about fictional spies seems simply silly. A real spy later denounces her. Awaiting arrest, she goes to the cinema—"It's perfect peace of mind for at least two hours."… The fantasy world of the film can distract from all-too-dramatic reality, but there can be no confusion between which is which.
Ginzburg's husband Anton, the model for Martin in The Burn, was a practicing Catholic. The night before he is to report for rearrest, they go to an Italian film in which a Catholic mass is shown. Anton calls Ginzburg a Hottentot because she has never attended mass, while behind them someone says "Fancy that! How they used to worship God! Just as if he were Stalin!"… The inversion of God and Stalin and the word Hottentot in the context of the dragon imagery of Whirlwind casts the camp nightmare as a twenty-year-long pagan blood sacrifice. The Italian film provides the perspective from which to view it, but the film is only a substitution for reality, a reminder of moral values already held. For Ginzburg the freedom presented in the Western film is the possibility of practicing Catholicism. It contrasts strongly with Aksenov's stylistic use of film for carnival effects under the more general rubric of freedom.
After decades of exposure to distorting, abstract language, Ginzburg values the direct relationship of word to object as a means to truth. While she uses fairy tales specifically to tell her own tragic Cinderella tale, Aksenov is allegorical. Parallel to her "Georgian dragon" and "Tarakanišche" is Xvastišchev's sculpture of a dinosaur named "Smirenie" (humility, submissiveness). Its victims are the Muse and the young Tolja, betrayed by his older brothers, the creative intelligentsia. Chepcov is a kind of eternal Kašchej Bessmertnyj, who rises from near death, and there is a magical helper, Sanja. Aksenov replaces Ginzburg's particular, realistic method with a general, schematic one. Right after a reference to Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, Aksenov quotes the song of the Stalin period, "We were born to turn fairy tales into reality" …; he has turned reality into a modernist allegory, juxtaposing Bulgakov's, Stalin's, Ginzburg's, and his own "fairy tales" to the history they share.
B. Moral Response. The moral problem of The Burn—revenge or acceptance—is focused on Chepcov, and here particularly Aksenov struggles with his mother's resolution of the issue. Her acceptance of Christian ideals is clear in her treatment of Chencov, as it is of all the evil she describes: forgive them, for they know not what they do. She shows compassion for all and looks for the best in people. Though she mocks Chencov, calling him a knight errant, she is grateful to him when he comforts Vasja:
"It's not for long…. It's not like '37. You'll be seeing in the new year together."
Taught by all those years of lies, I had not believed him at the time. In retrospect I am grateful to Chencov for his humane attempt to give us some assurance, and glad for him that his heart had stirred at the sight of my parting from Vasja.
In The Burn, Aksenov describes her "hatred" for Chencov. In her memoirs, Ginzburg chooses not to harbor her hatred; perhaps this is a deliberate distortion of historical truth, but it is made in the name of what she considers to be a higher moral truth. For Aksenov, Chepcov personifies the banality of evil. He appears in various disguises—a spy-cloakroom attendant at Kunicer's institute; at the Hotel National; as Theodorus, a mercenary soldier in Africa; as a nurse in a sobering-up station; in book 3 as a face on a television screen; finally as a "cheerful, friendly old janitor" in a "Chinese museum" on the moon, no longer a man but a "philosophical construct." His epithet is his "two hot greedy and mocking eyes like ripe cherries," or other little berries—cranberries, black cherries—by association with Jagoda, the chairman of the NKVD until he was shot in 1937, and Berija (note Sergeant Berija Jagodovich Gribochujev of the cloakroom guard at Pantelej's recantation …).
The focus of Aksenov's characterization of Chepcov is his sadomasochistic sexuality, which is linked to the emasculation of his victims. When Chepcov comes to arrest Tolja's mother, he sexually humiliates Tolja, kicking aside the screen that hides his bed to expose his masturbatory activity. Tolja imagines Chepcov undressed: "A huge figure of a man with resilient buttocks, a hairy, protruding stomach, a heavy pendulous penis like that of a dominant male in a herd of seals, a wrinkled old killer." The description is repeated in a flashback of this scene, thereby explicitly connecting sexual and political impotence: "Weakness, the fear of helplessness … you're in the hands of the apparat, in the huge, inhuman, subterranean grip of the state!" As Chepcov leaves with Tolja's mother, Tolja thinks "at any second he may go for you, this bull, and will start to maul you and push you around as though you were a woman!" The oppressors are all marked as sexually perverse: when the High Priest interviews Pantelej, they show each other their tattoos. The High Priest reveals the same "little pendant of wrinkled skin" as Chepcov, and he ends his striptease panting. Chepcov's Magadan superior enjoys whipping his daughter's buttocks; twenty years later in Moscow Chepcov rapes his stepdaughter in fury, when he realizes she's typing dissident literature given her by her lover: sexual sadism and ideological persecution are linked. Interrogating prisoners (pincers to the testicles) brings Chepcov to the verge of orgasm, and he enjoys his own pain while wrestling with a fellow spy-cloakroom attendant.
The perversion of normal instincts by the oppressors and their victims motivates the abundantly described sexual debauchery with which Aksenov enjoys characterizing the intelligentsia. Their humiliation is shown as a loss of manhood and of innocence, from which they escape into alcohol and promiscuous sex. Their debauchery is continuous with that of their jailers. At the beginning of The Burn Kunicer makes sexual use of a seventeen-year-old (like the Polish Alisa) lab assistant, Inna. The name of the stepdaughter Chepcov rapes is Nina. Aksenov connects the two acts: "Inna! he wanted to shout after her. Nina, Marina, or whatever your name is." Afterwards Kunicer is irritated by Inna's nakedness, just as Nina is disgusted by her stepfather's. But Inna is in league with Chepcov in his incarnation as cloakroom attendant at Kunicer's institute; she reports to him after leaving Kunicer's office. The victims and their jailers are intertwined; in Inna they coexist. The compassion of Ginzburg's memoirs extends to her jailers; the revulsion in Aksenov's novel extends to the jailed.
Outside the amphisbaena of victims and victimizers, Aksenov posits an alternative, a "third model," as it is called by its inventor, Sanja Gurchenko. In the course of The Burn Sanja evolves from Tolja's Magadan adventure-hero into a more universal ideal figure. The moral counterpart to the aesthetic muses, Sanja represents the Judeo-Christian tradition alluded to throughout the novel. As a teenager, Tolja had admired Sanja as a real-life Ringo Kid, daring and independent, and had therefore been surprised that Sanja accepted Martin's Catholicism, since Tolja thought the two realms mutually contradictory. Pantelej meets Sanja twenty years later in Rome, where Sanja is a Jesuit priest, combining in adult form the same duality. For Aksenov, he represents both the ideals Aksenov and his mother learned from Anton Val'ter and the sportsman Aksenov continues to associate with the "healthy" Soviet life:
He looked more like a professional ice-hockey player than a priest. Under his black cassock, topped by a clerical collar, one could sense a lean, trained, athletic body…. What was extraordinary was the fact that there was an elusive something in his looks that was definitely Soviet.
"He could have played a part in a cowboy movie, that priest," says Pantelej of him. Pantelej and Gurchenko drink together and cruise around Rome in the priest's Fiat. All the elements of Aksenov's ideal world are combined: the La Dolce Vita aspect of Italy is reconciled with both the Vatican spiritual and ancient Roman physical aspects. Pantelej says, "That night was a very special night in my life, a night like a beacon. After such a night you could go into the wastes of Siberia, you could even go to prison." The strong religious sense that enabled Martin to survive the camps and maintain his extraordinary generosity even toward his own jailers was difficult for Tolja to accept as a teenager; it seemed weak, passive, shameful from the "healthy" Soviet perspective. Here Aksenov has his cake and eats it too: La Dolce Vita and macho pride plus purity of spirit. Aksenov suggests that this is not only a personal ideal, but a model for his generation. Pantelej tells a secretary of the Writers' Union about meeting Sanja, and the secretary turns out to have had almost the same experience. "Perhaps, old man, you and I both dreamed this?" Like the characters in Barrelware, the two men dream independently of the Good Man, thereby confirming his objective existence.
In response to Pantelej's questions about God, Gurchenko presents the idea of a third model, which he defines as follows:
Sometimes man comes close to it in moments of creativity—in music, in poetry, in mathematics—but he only just comes close, he only senses its presence…. It is impossible to understand…. The inexplicable—that is the third model…. The higher emotions … are inexplicable, fantastic, and it is with them that the precepts of Christianity are concerned. Christianity is like a breakthrough into space, that most courageous and far-reaching spurt toward the third model. Christianity, being itself fantastic, relies on fantastic emotions and proves the existence of the fantastic.
Applying this view to life, Gurchenko concludes:
It is not so much our actions that are important and meaningful—since no matter what we may do, such actions are neither small nor great—as the spiritual meaning of our actions; in other words, the quality that belongs to the realm of the fantastic, that is what is capable of breaking through toward the "third model," into the truly real world.
Aksenov applies Gurchenko's third model within The Burn to determine how to respond to Stalin's crimes, how to forgive oneself for failing to protect one's loved ones, how to accept one's own impotence. Martin, preaching forgiveness, reads Tolja the Passion according to Saint Matthew. Tolja is torn between "the avenging Ringo Kid and the all-forgiving Christ." He cannot accept the ideal of forgiveness: projecting his sense of sexual humiliation onto Christ, he imagines Christ on the cross without a loincloth, mocked for his nakedness. The same drama is enacted in a previous scene at the Yalta sobering-up station by Dr. Mal'kol'mov, who feels rage at "this Stalinist cannibal" Chepcov and prays for forgiveness: "You must know, oh Lord, that I don't have the strength to show pity for a man like this!" Later Dr. Mal'kol'mov treats Chepcov, who is on the verge of death. First he thinks, "Your two hands are saving the life of a sadist; they're resuscitating a criminal…." But Mal'kol'mov is a doctor, and so he answers himself, "Your hands are incapable of exacting revenge." Kunicer, the dissident scientist, acts similarly. When Nina asks if he is going to kill Chepcov for raping her, he replies, "I am a Christian."
The contradiction between the morality of forgiveness and avenging the innocent is resolved by means of the "Third Model." Fiction itself is the realm of the inexplicable, the fantastic; beyond action, it is a means of breaking through toward the "truly real world." In the novel Aksenov does wreak revenge on Chepcov. Just as the KGB officer revealed Tolja's embarrassing private sexual world behind the screens, Aksenov shows Chepcov in all his depravity, panting with pleasure as he tortures and rapes. At the same time, Mal'kol'mov, the doctor (Martin is a doctor, Aksenov was a doctor), can resuscitate Chepcov with his brilliant discovery, "Lymph-D," a kind of elixir of life and spiritual fluid, the antipode of the shameful semen that flows so conspicuously through The Burn. That is, the creative intelligentsia, as forgiving Christ, can be a life-giver even unto the evildoer: Aksenov mercilessly exposes the evil, but forgives and restores the life of the evil human being. Before doing so, he torments Chepcov a little by having him recognize his own "crimes." Agonized by the conflict between his duty to turn in his stepdaughter for typing samizdat manuscripts and his love for her, Chepcov renounces the actions of his lifetime and rams his head repeatedly against a radiator. It is not for one man to judge another; Aksenov has Chepcov pass judgment on himself. In this way Aksenov entertains the whole range of variations of hate, contempt, revenge, and Christian forgiveness, all of which he sees as a fitting response to Stalin's evil. In this imaginative process, he expiates his guilt at being unable to take action in daily life, while taking action here according to Gurchenko's philosophy.
5. Bulgakov and The Burn. In opposing political power through spiritual authority, Aksenov follows the Russian romantic literary tradition from Puškin to Solzhenicyn, in which literary artists are the earthly representatives of Christian values. Aksenov's faith that literature can affect political life is supported by the section "The Evolution of a Type Discovered by Zošchenko." Zhdanov is the next evolutionary stage of the type described by Zošchenko's boors and bureaucrats and Bulgakov's dog-turned-man Sharik (Heart of a Dog). Aksenov identifies the chief conflict of his time as "Zošchenko vs. Zhdanov." The evolution of his generation away from believing in Zhdanov he attributes to the effects of the author's "sole defensive weapon—Awareness":
It took several years to comprehend the true force of that weapon. Then we admitted that it was this world, the world of calm little loners, the world of poets, that was the true world, and that the other one … was false, ephemeral, and already reeking of decay.
Zhepcov evolves out of Zošchenko's bathhouse attendant; Bulgakov's vision inspires The Burn at a deeper level. The importance of The Master and Margarita for Aksenov's generation as a whole and for The Burn has been recognized …, and its stylistic presence noted: "the evaluative ironic suffixes and particles in the speech of the neutral narrator …, the free handling of time and space, the system of doubles, the active inclusion of the fantastic in the weave of events."…
In fact, the very structure of The Burn is based on Bulgakov's novel, both the comic, fantastic dimension and the religious, eternal one. The former is signalled in the text: the fivesome, temporarily represented by a narrational "I," flies to the Crimea with two friends and participates in a series of festive adventures, which culminate in Yalta with a masked ball in the Café Oreanda. Through these scenes float pink tenruble notes, "like the money that cascaded onto the theater audience in Bulgakov's novel Master and Margarita" (as the translator renders "takaja pošla bulgakovšchina" of the original). The Yalta scenes deliberately evoke Master and Margarita: the barmaid calls the KGB to report the bizarre barefoot trio, but "Alas, the vigilant lady was unable to finish her report." But where Bulgakov would have this culminate in the retribution exacted by Azazello and company, in The Burn the trio is co-opted: the barmaid decides they are KGB agents too and feeds them Intourist goodies. The episodes culminate in a ball scene that parodies universal brotherhood: flower-children win over a major general, who faints at the "damned hallucination" of floating rubles. Everyone ends up at the police station,
the scene of a happening more bizarre than anything you might see in a foreign film…. The duty room was invaded by an incredible rabble of people,… two men in masks,… and a dubious-looking character of clearly foreign origin even though he had a Komsomol badge pinned directly onto the skin of his bare chest.
The dubious foreigner is Patrick Thunderjet, a professor from Oxford. Introduced at the beginning of the book as a friend of the five heroes, he is contrasted to Bulgakov's Satan, who appears suddenly in Stalin's Moscow. But Thunderjet has none of the metaphysical powers of the "foreign professor." There is no identifiable agent of the floating rubles in Yalta; though Thunderjet and friends "remind everyone present of the proximity of frightening infernal forces," his name refers only to his jet-setting, and no cosmic clap of thunder ever occurs. In Master and Margarita evil deeds are discrete, identifiable, however various in magnitude; in The Burn the boundaries between good and evil are diffuse: Gogolian pošlost' reigns with little hope of apocalypse. Bulgakov's heroes are redeemed through love and compassion; in The Burn the redemptive forces are memory (of fon Shtejnbok and Russian literature), which has been lost, and faith (in a Catholic Christ), which has emigrated.
The Yalta scenes are based on actual events that Aksenov describes in a review of G. S. Smith's Songs to Seven Strings:
Once upon a time there was a unique area in the Eastern Crimea near the ancient volcano of Kara Dag, a land of easy-going, unrestrained humor and a certain degree of frivolity, a Mecca for young Soviet intellectuals of the 1960s. During the summer seasons of 1967–68, in the tiny coves and inlets, accessible only to the initiated, the "Kara Dag Free Republic" was established. On a night of shooting stars, August 21, 1968, this first multi-party Russian institution since the Civil War was destroyed by the joint forces of the local militia, Komsomol vigilantes and a unit of border guards. This event remained unnoticed by the civilized world because of a similar operation in Prague.
Like the merriment in Bulgakov's Variety Theater during Stalin's purges, the Yalta scenes are a feast during the plague, set against the background of the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Like the Kara Dag intellectuals, the revelers at the Café Oreanda end up in the sobering-up station, where Chepcov wields his sadistic power over the forces of love and brotherhood. The Crimean setting bears the closest resemblance to an image of freedom that Aksenov can locate within the USSR, from "Wish You Were Here" to The Island of Crimea. But like the freedom of "Crimean Island," which ends in a Soviet invasion, the carnival free-for-alls of both the Yalta episodes and the Magadan "Crimea" are cut short by Chepcov's group arrests.
Master and Margarita and The Burn depict their authors' contemporary Moscow as fantastic in contrast to a realistically described historical past. Bulgakov's documentary scenes are based on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, and are interspersed among the fantastic events of Stalin's Moscow in the 1930s. In The Burn scenes in "documentary black and white," as Mal'cev put it …, are set in Stalin's Magadan of the 1940s, where Martin reads the Gospel according to Saint Matthew to Tolja, and a similar passion is acted out, the crucifixion of Tolja fon Štejnbok (Christ as man) cum Sanja Gurchenko (Christ as spirit). These scenes are interlarded among fantastic events set in Moscow of the 1960s. Bulgakov's cast is made up of comic caricatures; only the Master and Margarita are depicted realistically. In The Burn the only characters with psychological depth are Tolja and his mother. The mysterious figure of Sanja provides them, through Martin, with the connection to the ideal of the third model; he is the Holy Ghost, Martin is Father, and Tolja, the Son. In the role of Pilate, Chepcov does the authorities' political dirty work; like Bulgakov's Pilate, he suffers the torments of conscience and is forgiven, consigned to an extraterrestrial space by the author. Like the Master, Tolja is resurrected by a divinely inspired Gospel writer, the author himself, whose autobiography is the point of departure for the novel—both authors, like their heroes, are politically persecuted for their art, and are mirrored within the novels by parodies of Soviet writers, Ivan the Homeless and Pantelej Pantelej.
But who plays the role of Margarita? Bulgakov's heroine functions within the plot line as the Master's faithful lover and the preserver of his manuscript. On the metaphysical level, Bulgakov characterizes his muse by her bravery, constancy, selflessness, and, above all, compassion. These qualities enable her to redeem Frieda, and to resurrect the Master's manuscript, which underscores the theme of the religious dimension of art. The same role is played in The Burn invisibly by Aksenov's mother, Evgenija Ginzburg.
Like Bulgakov, Aksenov explores the problem of evil, and the role of the Word, religious and literary, in combatting it. Bulgakov's novel does so from an eternal perspective lent him by his approaching death. Aksenov's novel, written inside the madhouse, carries the present torment of memory and continuing schizophrenia, almost as if seen through the eyes of Ivan the Homeless. Spirit may win out in God's concept of time, but it suffers in the short term which humans experience. Sanja combines the pure, ideal aspects of religion, sport, and a free-wheeling Western style of life, but he has also been rendered impotent by forced labor in the uranium mines. As Aksenov once said, "Manuscripts don't burn, but they sure rot well" ("Beseda"). Aksenov's art has been burned by the Chepcovs of this world, who always get the oranges, the stars, the basketballs, the gold medals, and, in The Burn, a place on the moon, if only as a philosophical construct.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1199
SOURCE: A review of In Search of Melancholy Baby, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 28, 1987, pp. 3, 7.
[In the following review, Eder discusses the shortcomings of Aksyonov's book In Search of Melancholy Baby.]
Vassily Aksyonov, whose novel, The Burn, is one of the masterpieces of dissident Soviet literature, has been living in this country for the last half-dozen years. He is not really qualified to write about the United States. He is marvelously well qualified to write about himself in the United States.
In Search of Melancholy Baby does too much of the first and too little of the second. It takes a long time for an emigre to arrive; particularly, an emigre writer. The flowers are different, Josef Brodsky once pointed out; and more important, the words for the flowers are different.
Aksyonov is getting here, as we can see from the mordant and singularly voiced passages that sprout here and there in these American reflections. He is not here yet, as we see from the rather familiar generalities, sometimes whimsical and sometimes solemn, that threaten to turn his book into a Visitor's Book.
Or, if you like, he has arrived and unpacked everything but himself. He has still to make himself the metaphor for his America; the kind of thing that Vladimir Nabokov did with his fictional selves in Lolita and Pnin.
Aksyonov left the Soviet Union in 1980 after the failure of a Russian gamble. (Russian gambles are to gambles as Russian roulette is to roulette.) Along with other leading writers, Lev Kopelev among them, he attempted to challenge the long icing-over of the 1960s thaw by opening the deskdrawers in which Soviet writers were depositing their work and publishing a selection of them under the title of "Metropol"—not secretly but publicly. It was like planting strawberries in January.
Exiled, he crisscrossed the United States, speaking and occupying writer's residencies at universities all around the country. Finally he settled in Washington as a fellow of the Kennan Institute, and a teacher at Goucher College and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Aksyonov says fairly predictable things about the fresh and uninscribed minds he finds at Goucher, predominately a college for women. He is taken aback by the students' ignorance of world history and literature; and moved by their eagerness to be taught. A note of sharpness—one of his literary strengths and used too little in this book—comes when he compares the place to the Smolny Institute for Daughters of the Nobility in Czarist Russia.
Another sharpness, rich in possibilities, is his comment on the institution of the university writer-in-residence. "The writer is as common on American campuses as the cocker spaniel is in American homes," he writes. A comfortable kind of writer, he implies; and a comfortable kind of dog; lacking in literary and canine bite, respectively.
There are other sharpnesses, here and there. He goes into a left book store in Washington and examines the posters of Stalin, Brezhnev, Mao Tse-tung and Ho Chi Minh. Which, he asks the puzzled proprietor, does he find most attractive "in terms of male beauty?"
That is the astringent Aksyonov of The Burn. But much of the book is taken up by the polite Aksyonov of the refugee visa. At one point, in fact, a passing remark places the book's airiness in a sober context. The writer, who finally gained resident status after much pain and anxiety, lets us know that he is not totally past feeling that being offensive could lead to deportation.
There is not a great deal that is either offensive or particularly stimulating in the author's observations about motels, supermarkets, landscapes, junk mail, banks, food, the gay rights movement, or cocktail parties. In Washington, he remarks, the weather is humid and people talk about politics all the time.
Although not above noticing that there are rats in his neighborhood's back alleys, and that it can take forever to get anything fixed, he can be startlingly Pollyannaish. Living in a $1,200-a-month apartment, he speculates that American energies have nowhere to go "now that Capitalism has brought luxury to the millions."
He calls Bronxville—one of the most expensive New York suburbs—"the real America of neat little towns." He tells us that taking money from the rich will not remedy economic and social inequality; and that the ideal situation is inequality above an assumed threshold. That assumed threshold consists of everyone having a place to live, food to eat and clothes to wear. It is a lot to assume, even for a recent emigre.
Aksyonov is out of sympathy with the rhetoric and assumptions of the peace movement—understandably, as an exile from a country where the peace movement exists only to protest American missiles. Here too, he is polite, commenting that the United States' virtue is to allow foolishness as well as sense.
But politeness is not Aksyonov. There is a feeling of discomfort about the book, heightened by an English that is commendable but treacherous. "What has he got against America, that big wig German?" he asks of a critical European intellectual.
He is, as I say, not really here yet. A series of interleaved notes for a future novel about America promises that the author will have something more idiosyncratic to offer. Unfortunately, the notes are jumbled and unclear; a low-energy phase of Aksyonov's surreal current.
Some of the best passages, in fact, go back to the Soviet Union. A Soviet officer on the Chinese border laments that if war comes, the Chinese will invade and confiscate his new motorcycle. Isn't he afraid of the Americans as well? Aksyonov asks. No, the major replies, because the United States "respects private property."
He recalls the Hemingway passion that swept the Russian intelligentsia in the '50s and '60s. There was the emphasis on the solitary hero, of course; there was also the drinking. Russian culture, Aksyonov reflects, has a periodic need for some new romantic justification of alcohol. "Now Russians could drink with Hemingway in a new American cosmopolitan fashion."
And he writes of what American jazz meant to his generation: an escape from regimentation and the leaden cult of the socially commendable. One of the friends of his youth, now a general in the Soviet Strategic Air Command, is an impassioned jazz fanatic.
When Aksyonov tells him he is emigrating to the United States and will be able to hear their heroes perform live, the general replies:
"It's not the same. I don't go to their concerts when they come. You see, I don't want them to turn into living people, people like me. It would destroy my world. I need them to be inaccessible. I need their music to come from east of the sun and west of the moon."
The phrase blazes up in the fissures both of our world and of ourselves. Aksyonov, who once listened to a pirated version of "Melancholy Baby" stamped upon an old X-ray plate, has an artist's courage, not a general's. He has not found Melancholy Baby yet; he has taken the risk of never finding it. If he does, it will be in himself, wherever he is, and maybe even in Washington.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1219
SOURCE: "He Likes It Here, Mostly," in The New York Times Book Review, July 19, 1987, p. 5.
[In the following review, Lingeman comments on Aksyonov's In Search of Melancholy Baby, noting that the book, an account of Aksyonov's life in America after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, provides many witty and satirical insights into life in both countries.]
In 1980, after his novel of life among the Moscow culturati, The Burn, was published in Italy, Vassily Aksyonov was expelled from the Soviet Union. Now he is an outspoken skeptic about glasnost in the Russian literary diaspora. The Burn is written in a brilliantly subversive style, stuffed with satire, surrealism, anarchic Henry Milleresque bawdiness, and thrown in the face of Soviet realism.
His latest book, In Search of Melancholy Baby, an account of his new life in America, will earn its author no rehabilitative points with the Ministry of Culture. Actually, before his expulsion, Mr. Aksyonov published another book on the United States describing a visit he made here in 1975. But then he was a writer in good standing, with a car and a dacha in the suburbs; also, detente was briefly in the air. Now, he is a prominent dissident, stripped of his citizenship, and his reflections are as unwelcome in the Soviet Union as are Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's.
He might be said to have been drawn tropistically to America at an early age. Even Siberia, where he lived in exile with his mother, the historian Eugenia Ginzburg, was a place "farther from Moscow than from California." He vividly recalls his first naïve contacts with those Stone Age Soviet beatniks known as stilyagi, who introduced him to bootlegged songs by Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee and Louis Armstrong, surreptitiously recorded on X-ray plates. He reminds us that there is a sturdy pro-American strain in Soviet culture that survived the icy blasts of anti-American propaganda at the height of the cold war.
If Mr. Aksyonov brought to America more affinities than most Russian emigrants, he did not leave behind that sense of irony that is the hallmark of Russian literature. He notes, for example, that he came to America to write a novel about a Russian entangled in the Laocoönish coils of the Soviet bureaucracy and himself became bogged down in the paper swamp of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service, some of whose minions he finds as boorish as their Soviet counterparts. He describes a frustrating encounter with one civil servant in particular, a black woman who reacted angrily to his suggestion that the information on a certain form he neglected to fill out could be found in his computerized file: "Are you trying to teach me my job?… You have no rights in this country! You're a refugee!"
Mr. Aksyonov sensed a reverse racism in her outburst, but a Polish friend who had lived here longer than he offered some tempering observations about the complexity of interracial encounters in America, compelling Mr. Aksyonov to recognize that he was not as free of racist sentiments as he imagined. Welcome to America, where the rituals of race can be as intricate and subtle as court etiquette in medieval Japan—and as historically determined.
Mr. Aksyonov demonstrates that he has made considerable progress in penetrating to the reality behind the appearances of American life. He understands that the Watergate fuss was an exercise in the "consolidation of American democracy," rather than an orgy of irresponsible, destructive criticism, as many of his fellow émigrés saw it; and he grasps the elemental truth that "as patriotic as the great majority of Americans are, they do not identify their country with its government"—unlike you know where. He has considerable to say about provincialism and the complacent ignorance of many Americans about the rest of the world, rationalized by asserting that anything they don't know about isn't worth knowing about. He decries the commercialization of American literature, comparing the brand-name best-seller writers the system breeds with the nomenklatura—the elite—of the Soviet bureaucracy. He hates Los Angeles (in Hollywood "everyone's eyes seemed glazed over with dollar signs") and likes Washington, where he now lives contentedly with his wife, Maya. He finds the architectural hodgepodge of our cities baffling and decides that it reflects an indigenous esthetic, "American pop," which only someone born here can appreciate.
Outweighing these negative reactions, he inhales optimism in the American air, an energizing hope of finding something better, materially speaking. He attributes this tonic atmosphere to something he calls "beneficent inequality"—the opportunity for all to aspire to at least a middle-class level of material comfort. America's consumer society "offers a new kind of equality, an equality based on the marketplace rather than on Marxism or other social theories." Here the rich man has his Rolls-Royce, but the poor man can buy a Honda. Well, a Hyundai is more like it at today's prices, and how about the numerous poor women who are heads of households and hard pressed to afford public transportation? But Mr. Aksyonov hasn't regressed to Social Darwinism: he stipulates that the poverty line "must allow for a basic level of human dignity … a place to live, food to eat, clothes to wear."
Not that Mr. Aksyonov is uncritical of American capitalism. Noting the rat-infested alley behind his Washington apartment, he wonders about the efficiency of the four privately owned sanitation companies that are supposed to take away the trash but don't. In Russia similar conditions would cause a citizen to cry, "How is this possible under socialism?" No one in the United States, however, says, "How is that possible under capitalism!" He fears that the latter is "undergoing a Socialist warp of apathy, poor service, and hackwork," though I doubt that socialism has much to do with it.
Still, Mr. Aksyonov scores some satirical points in his observations of his adopted homeland; these are neatly captured in the translation by Michael Henry Heim and Antonina W. Bouis. He can be quite witty, as when he writes about his misadventures with American landlords and Texans who can't place the language he is speaking with his wife. What one misses in this account is a sense of the texture and quiddities of ordinary American life, and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, something about the nonmaterial values. The author bounces from Soviet émigré colonies in Soho and Brighton Beach to the tower above the Smithsonian Institution, where he had a fellowship at the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, to the campuses of some 50 universities where he has been a writer in residence, with stopovers at innumerable HoJos and Holiday Inns en route. His peregrinations are understandable in terms of the need to earn a living, but they have given him a somewhat skewed perspective and make his book a kind of mini-Watts Tower of bright, fragmentary vignettes—objets trouvés. It's a rhine-stone-cowboy-movie-Pop-upscale America. What is lacking is a sense of land and sky and what Lyndon Johnson used to call, "P-e-e-p-u-l folks!"
In The Burn, a character laments her lost "homeland—unhomeland, distant and sweet, stormy." Perhaps that is ever the fate of the exile, caught between the homeland unhomeland he left behind and the one to which he fled; uprooted from one, and not yet planted in the other.
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SOURCE: "The New Alrightniks," in The New Republic, Vol. 197, No. 10, September 7, 1987, pp. 36-38.
[In the following review, Baranczak discusses Aksyonov's In Search of Melancholy Baby, pointing out that the account "illustrates two sides of the émigré's problem at once."]
Every Nabokov fan remembers the scene in Pnin in which the hero, an émigré Russian scholar who has lived for years on an American college campus, attempts to purchase some sports equipment:
Pnin entered a sport shop in Waindell's Main Street and asked for a football. The request was unseasonable but he was offered one.
"No, no," said Pnin, "I do not wish an egg or, for example, a torpedo. I want a simple football ball. Round!"
And with wrists and palms he outlined a portable world. It was the same gesture he used in class when speaking of the "harmonical wholeness" of Pushkin.
The salesman lifted a finger and silently fetched a soccer ball.
"Yes, this I will buy," said Pnin with dignified satisfaction.
This captures perfectly the Eastern European's experience in this country. We come here with our portable worlds sharply outlined. The years of living there, the cultural stereotypes we have inherited, the semantic distinctions that our native tongues imply—all have created in each of us a repertory of mental mannerisms that we, in our naïveté, take for a reflection of reality. One has only to pass through the now-symbolic Ellis Island for this illusion to burst with a bang. It's not only that the New World turns out to be actually new and surprising at every step. What throws an Eastern European émigré off balance even more is that his semantic system itself seems not to correspond to American reality. A word that in his system of thinking referred to a nicely rounded object denotes here something like "an egg or, for example, a torpedo."
There are two ways of dealing with this problem. One is Pninification: the émigré sticks to his old mental habits and semantic categories, and gradually encloses himself in the cocoon of his Old World personality. (And he is at liberty to do so: this is, after all, a free country.) The other is the method adopted by the hero of Paul Mazursky's Moscow on the Hudson, who insists on playing his tenor saxophone like Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. He may be different, but he wants to join in, which is the only way (not always satisfactory, to be sure) of understanding the nature of the difference.
Vassily Aksyonov has chosen to join in. Written for an American audience, In Search of Melancholy Baby is a book-length autobiographical essay (whose chapters are interspersed with "Sketches for a Novel to Be") on a Soviet émigré's perception of America. (Aksyonov has lived in the United States since 1980.) The book illustrates two sides of the émigré's problem at once. In the spirit of a rich literary tradition dating back to Montesquieu's Persian Letters, it tries to reveal some truths about a country that only a visitor from a different part of the world can discern. At the same time, the encounter with America serves as a way of revealing truths about the Soviet mentality, and the Soviet reality of which it is a product. It's as if Montesquieu's device were used to say as much about Persia as about France.
Both of Aksyonov's inquiries spring from the overwhelming sensation of cultural difference that is the lot of every newcomer from behind the Iron Curtain. From smells to intellectual discoveries, from food and cars to natural landscapes and urban planning (or the lack thereof), from taxes and finances to interracial relations and sexual mores, from sports and cocktail parties to the literary scene and the political system: everything is new. Some of the oppositions of the émigré's experience are almost distressingly symmetrical; but founded as they are on the author's empirical observation of both worlds, they serve to convince us that the American and Soviet ways of life indeed differ in every essential aspect:
America's prosperity becomes apparent the moment you leave her large cities. In Russia the opposite is the case. What remains after the military has drained off most of the resources goes toward maintaining a minimal level of decency in the cities; the countryside and villages are left to rot….
Among the even more striking differences is the difference in the way people learn about what goes on in the economy. The citizen of a society with a "planned economy" has no way of assessing his country's coffers (Pravda's daily hip-hip-hoorays to economic growth and prosperity notwithstanding); the citizen of a free market society has a never-ending stream of hard figures to go by. The Soviet feels he is astride a gigantic inert mass; the American enjoys the sensation of rising and falling; of pulsating activity; it may look chaotic but it is very much alive.
From such observations a highly favorable image of America arises—the image of a society based on what Aksyonov calls "beneficent inequality" or "economic inequality in a framework of human dignity," a society "freer of xenophobia than any other nation," a society that sincerely sets itself the task of resolving all its inner conflicts. Aksyonov places himself unabashedly among the "Soviet Americanophiles," and he goes to such extremes in his enthusiasm for the USA that he begins to sound decidedly conservative by American standards. Though he declares his support for "liberalism," he means only (with a characteristically Eastern European twist) that in the age-long strife between the principle of liberty and the principle of equality he is on the side of liberty. His Soviet experience has taught him to distrust "the utopias of equality," which never work out anyway, and to place the highest value on freedom, in spite of the social and economic strings attached to it.
The political orientation of Aksyonov's readers will, I think, largely determine the way his portrayal of America is received. Liberals (this time in the American sense) will probably excoriate him for having painted too rosy a picture. The charge is false. From his vantage point Aksyonov can see the South Bronx as well as Beverly Hills. His account devotes a great deal of attention not only to "American fascinations" but also to "American frustrations." Aksyonov's greatest surprise, among these frustrations, was not the existence of enclaves of destitution or racial tension (he found the reality itself much less shocking than its inflated image in Soviet propaganda), but what he calls "American provinciality":
In the Soviet Union we pictured Americans as "citizens of the world," cosmopolitans; here we find them to be detached, withdrawn, sequestered in their American planet…. In a closed society like the Soviet Union, public interest … is directed outward, while in open, democratic America it is almost wholly inner directed. The outside world interests Americans much less…. Despite the Iron Curtain the Soviet Union is in many ways closer to Europe than Europe's closest political and economic partner, America.
Provinciality and isolation also mark contemporary American literature, he claims. Both these features, along with the pressures of the commercial market, have caused it to "simply take its place in the ranks of Western literature as a whole. Now the aura of the hazardous undertaking belongs to the oppositional literatures of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union."
Now and again, amid the oppositions, Aksyonov points out disquieting analogies—the paperscape produced by both countries' bureaucracies, for instance, and the fact that "while the U.S.S.R. inches toward capitalism, capitalism [in the United States] is undergoing a Socialist warp of apathy, poor service, and hackwork." Still, the most revealing parts of the book are those in which Aksyonov portrays not America, but popular Soviet misconceptions about America. These come in many shapes and sizes, from propaganda's outright lies (according to which America is a land of universal misery, oppression, and injustice) to the illusions of the "Soviet Americanophiles":
Soviet propaganda has piled up so many lies in its lifetime that it now gives reverse results: a certain brand of "critically thinking" Soviet citizen—and most of the new émigrés fall into the pattern—no longer believes a word of it; the critically thinking Soviet rejects both lies of propaganda and the scraps of truth the propaganda machine needs to make the lies appear true.
But beyond the fabrications of propaganda and the fantasies of the pro-Western intelligentsia, we find yet another Soviet vision of America. This is the body of genuine beliefs shared by party apparatchiks and their hired intellectuals, most especially the so-called National Bolsheviks. Aksyonov meticulously analyzes their writings on America. Theirs is a vision marked by utter "disdain for the strength of America and the West in general" and "contempt for America's lack of unity," which in the Soviet strongmen's minds can only be identified with decadence and degeneration.
Aksyonov argues exactly the opposite. For him, "If America was unified along Soviet or Iranian lines, it would no longer be America. It must therefore instill in its population a passionate desire to defend its multiplicity, its ferment, its intellectual and aesthetic waverings." He doesn't mince words in his conclusion:
Let me call a spade a spade: the anti-Americans of this world—Gabriel García Márquez included—are enemies of freedom and friends of a global concentration camp. The paradox of it all is that to remain what it is America must defend even its own anti-Americans.
Another "paradox of it all" (I would add) is that the first of the sentences quoted above has a rather right-wingish ring to it, while the second would probably be criticized as too liberal, if not leftist, by a good half of Aksyonov's fellow Eastern European exiles. Aksyonov's book should be compared with Solzhenitsyn's famous Harvard speech, or with Zinoviev's Homo Sovieticus. Their differences aside, Solzhenitsyn and Zinoviev share the notion that the very premises of democracy are the cause of its ultimate weakness, its ineffectuality in the struggle against totalitarianism. Aksyonov, by contrast, represents a position far more akin to Western values, far more supportive of them.
Which comes as no surprise, if you consider his background. His youthful cult of America in the Moscow of the '50s—when, as he notes, jazz was America's secret weapon, and the pro-Western stateniks emerged as the first Soviet dissidents—seems to lead directly into his present situation as a Russian writer who makes his home in Washington, D.C. To return to Pnin, there is a scene in which the hero says in his funny accent: "In two-three years I will also be taken for an American," and every American present roars with laughter. When Aksyonov declares in his final chapter: "Now I am … almost an American myself," we are compelled to take his words, accent or no accent, at face value—and, at the same time, to hope that he will never give up that "almost," which, for both the writer and his readers, makes all the difference.
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SOURCE: "Patriots and Other Suspects," in The New York Times Book Review, January 24, 1988, pp. 9-10.
[In the following review, Wood discusses several plays included in Aksyonov's collection Quest for an Island.]
The cold war appears to have ended not in a thaw but in a world of thin ice. Détente itself is perhaps inseparable from suspicion, and in an uncertain world dissidents are almost impossible to hold in any sort of steady focus. Heroes abroad, rebels at home, scapegoats, martyrs, traitors, criminals, they qualify for a whole range of prominent roles. The one role they can't have, sadly, is the one they most seek: that of the person who refuses all the overwritten scripts on offer. What if a dissident were to become a hero at home, for example, as Vassily Aksyonov imagines in one of his earlier novels, The Island of Crimea? "Who was the true hero of today's Russia, who was braver—the cosmonaut or the dissident? A childish question, perhaps, but worthy of serious consideration." The dissident as patriot: even in a state of détente such a picture is not intelligible to pursuers of un-Russian or un-American activities.
"We Russians are known for our imagination," a character ironically says in the same novel. He means that much party propaganda is just fantasy, but also that Russians are capable of imagining what reality makes little promise of. Mr. Aksyonov himself is a dramatic case in point. He was born in 1932, the son of the writer and dissident Eugenia Ginzburg, with whom he lived for some time in internal exile in Siberia. He became a doctor, a novelist and playwright, worked for the publication of hitherto banned writings (by himself and others) in an anthology called "Metropol," and was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1980. His other novels include The Burn and In Search of Melancholy Baby.
The four stories and two plays in Quest for an Island are carefully dated, and the dates themselves tell a story of disappointment and loss. A story called "Looking for Climatic Asylum" is marked January 1980, Moscow, and complains playfully about Russian weather. "The climate of our capital city is poor. I hope I'm not giving away a state secret by saying that Moscow's climate is none too good." An American visitor says he doesn't understand how people live there, and the narrator "naturally," as he says, takes this as "a political jape." It isn't. Asked if the climate really is any better in Copenhagen, the American says he doesn't see how people can live there either. Where can people live? California, where else? The narrator thinks of going abroad. "To capitalist foreign countries?" his wife asks warily. "Well," he mumbles, "warm foreign countries." In a dream he arrives in California and is made welcome by a policeman:
"'You're seeking political asylum, I take it.'
"'No sir, climatic.'
"'From Copenhagen, eh?'
"'No, but you're close. Moscow.'
"'Okay, go to the right.' He pointed, explaining 'Political asylum to the left, climatic to the right.'"
Awake again, and off to work, the narrator feels his Moscow world change; children play, moods lighten, memory colors the drab city.
"Suddenly I understood what it was. On that day, in the midst of winter, the scent of spring had broken through…. No, I simply couldn't live without the expectation of spring. There lies the sole, yet powerful charm of our wretched climate: expectation."
The last sentence is barbed, but the touch is light, and we shouldn't read this story as a heavy political jape after all. But perhaps the lightness itself is political, or what certain politics won't permit. The next story in this volume is dated May 1981, Santa Monica.
The other works in this collection are earlier (1967, 1977–78, and two from 1979), and reflect European travels as well as returns to Russia. "The Destruction of Pompeii" mischievously confuses the Roman and Russian empires, and projects a decaying world which is visited and renewed by the attentions of a scorching volcano, a second Pompeii. Quest for an Island is a sort of comic retake of Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice": Leopold Bar, "the most important essayist alive in Europe today," holidays in Corsica, "an island of little brave men and big cowardly dogs." Bar is the enemy of irony and smiles ("irony charts a path to capitulation"), and thus a reverse image of Mr. Aksyonov himself, who sees in irony whatever salvation there is.
Of the two plays, "The Four Temperaments" is a mock-Expressionist romp in which the angel of death is conducting an experiment in human progress, hampered by a shabby eagle with likable, unprogressive qualities, and by the fact that the script has the set falling down around him all the time, because there aren't enough hooks and nails and clamps to hold it up.
The other play, "The Heron," is (among other things) a parody of Chekhov, in which three sisters, two reformed intellectuals, a diplomat, an athlete, an informer, a manager and a couple of peasants grope for the lost meaning of life. They are situated near the Polish border, and some of them long for Warsaw as the Prozorov sisters long for Moscow.
All are tormented by the cry of a heron, who is also a Polish seamstress (no timid naturalism here). The heron, and the diffuse aspiration she comes to represent, redeem the characters and transfigure them, but since the set includes a rifle, and since Chekhov says a rifle hanging on the wall in the first act must go off in the last, the heron is shot. A dramatic rule becomes a brilliant metaphor not for destiny but for a spineless submission to rules. The heron bequeaths an egg, however, which both tempts and parodies our optimism, our need for uplifting endings. The last question (and the last line of the play) is, "Is there anything really left?" The date here is 1979, Peredelkino.
It is obviously impossible to judge Aksyonov's tone in translation, but from this collection, the work of several translators, we can guess at its sprightly irreverence; the cosmopolitan allusions and the shape of many of the jokes and similes must have traveled pretty directly from the Russian. Figures of speech keep becoming literal, for instance, as they constantly do with the Marx Brothers. A man is said to have lost touch with his native soil, and his son, a champion high jumper, says he has lost touch with the soil too: "two-and-a-half meters." Leopold Bar looks up at the empty night sky and thinks there is no God, then realizes that there is something there. Not God, as it happens, but "a dark gray, nearly black dirigible … hanging there before the dawn … asking no questions, giving no answers."
Mr. Aksyonov's irony is at its trickiest and most characteristic in his description of two "suspicious" characters in "The Heron." One is suspicious because he has jeans and long hair and a monocle, the other because his performance as a "crystal-pure" Soviet worker is so impeccable. Both are former intellectuals trying to live down their disorderly, scribbling past, their interest in jazz and poetry and the West and the like; and the grace and pathos in the gag comes from the shift in the meaning of "suspicious." The first character looks suspicious to official opinion (and maybe to others too, for other reasons: is he an informer?); the second is suspicious because his very acceptability to official opinion argues a life of self-suppression and distortion. A dissident is someone who protests all subjection to such antics, against the institutions that trade on our fear and fatigue and greed.
The most affecting piece in this book is the latest, the one written in Santa Monica. "The Hollow Herring" recounts with all the breezy allusive wit Aksyonov commands ("Can you think of a profession that is farther from faith than that of a Soviet basketball trainer?") the religious awakening of a basketball coach. Secretly christened as a child, he feels the old faith return to him, and in a scene which recalls, say, Philip Roth's story The Conversion of the Jews, crosses himself live on Russian television, and so do the team members, the team doctor, the second trainer and the masseur. Mr. Aksyonov relishes and underscores the reversals: Marxism-Leninism has become a religion in Russia, and so old or alien religions are now a form of atheism. But they are an atheism of the heart, Mr. Aksyonov seems to suggest; they respect the tenacity of the past and the plurality of the present.
Here as elsewhere, Vassily Aksyonov mourns the loss of what he calls "enchantment": "It must be that it's impossible to live without being enchanted by life," one of his protagonists says. If this is true, it's equally true in California and Copenhagen and Moscow. The sadder truth is that the unenchanted life, if not worth living, is nevertheless lived all over the place. What ought to be impossible is the imagination's acceptance of that fact.
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SOURCE: "On Soviet Dissidence as Both Sides Falter," in The New York Times, July 26, 1989, p. C21.
[In the following review, Hoffman faults Say Cheese! for its tendency to utilize jokes and satire only humorous to Russian readers, but asserts that the book provides an insightful look into Russia and its political regime.]
Among Soviet writers, moral dissidence has a long and honorable tradition. Vassily Aksyonov is one of the few, however, who have managed to match their oppositional message with an equally liberated style. In the Soviet Union, Mr. Aksyonov was celebrated as one of the most provocative voices—free-wheeling, satirical, formally daring—of the postwar generation. In 1980, he was forced to emigrate, after he instigated a bold effort to create the first uncensored magazine, Metropol, and after his novel The Burn was published in the West. In the United States, where he now lives, The Burn met with wide critical acclaim; and since then Mr. Aksyonov has published several books, including a highly polished collection of stories, Quest for an Island, and In Search of Melancholy Baby, an émigré's account of his fan-tasied and real encounters with his adopted country.
Although Say Cheese! is being published for the first time now, it was written between 1980 and 1983, right after Mr. Aksyonov was exiled; and while it has all the scope, ambition and toughness of his other writing, it is in many ways a novel caught in a classical émigré dilemma, between audiences, historical periods and worlds.
Loosely, Say Cheese! can be seen as a sequel to The Burn, or at least the next chapter in the saga of Soviet rebellion, dissidence and the doings of Moscow's bohemia. Whereas the action of The Burn unrolled during the 1960's and its mood alternated between the exhilaration of the first, fresh thaw and the leaden oppressiveness of the subsequent clampdown, Say Cheese! takes place in the murkier atmosphere of the late 1970's, when the air has begun to fizzle out of the ideological balloon and the war between apostasy and official religion has become more tired and pointless, though it is still ugly, brutish and long.
The beleaguered good guys this time are a group of feckless, innovative and politically problematic photographers who run afoul of the authorities when they decide to publish a small edition of Say Cheese!, the first uncensored photo collection in the Soviet Union. To their own enormous surprise, this seemingly insignificant gesture brings down on them the entire apparatus of K.G.B. surveillance, and the increasingly discomfiting attentions of the State Photographic Directorate of Ideological Control.
The story of the confrontation between the Cheesers and the collected forces of the Evil Empire gives Mr. Aksyonov a chance to compile a virtual guide to Moscow's underground life, activities and illicit etiquette. There are the lurking tails, and the practically uncloseted plainclothes agents; there are car chases, diversionary tactics for opening exhibitions and counterdiversionary punctured tires. There are also carousing parties, flowing vodka and camaraderie, soirees at embassies and lots of very vigorous and very anesthetic sex.
The action of Say Cheese! is episodic, and it jump-cuts between a large cast of characters on both sides of the great Soviet divide. But the novel has a protagonist in Maxim Ogorodnikov, or Ogo, a talented artist, daredevil and womanizer who philosophizes about the "astral" implications of photography and eludes his state pursuers with considerable élan. In an ingenious twist on the escape gambit, he manages to slip across those supposedly iron borders and go on a picaresque tour of émigré landscapes—from a social conference in West Berlin, where he shocks comrades from both East and West with his "anti-Soviet" views, to Paris, where multinational decadence lives and thrives, to New York, where, among his exiled Moscow buddies he finds squabbles, influence mongering and sheer intercontinental treachery.
All of this is material for black comedy or detective derring-do, and there are elements of both in Say Cheese! But the story Mr. Aksyonov ends up telling is much sadder and bitterer than that. "What do they want from us?!" Ogo shouts at one point, and the question echoes several times within the novel. There is, of course, no answer. The games of hide-and-seek that Mr. Aksyonov depicts have no rationale or goal, but they turn quite deadly nevertheless. His party apparatchiks are no longer the true believers of the Stalinist or even the Brezhnev era; they are bumbling opportunists who dispiritedly spout approved jargon, anxiously vie for position and power, and secretly admire the sophistication of their artistic victims.
Nor are their methods what they used to be. No one in the novel is sent to Siberia or given mind-addling drugs. But still, the expense of spirit exacted by the watchdogs' ubiquitous presence is enormous. Ogo, caught in the quagmire of stupidity, lies and perpetual shadowboxing, begins to suffer attacks of nausea and emptiness that bring him close to a sort of existential self-annihilation. His literal annihilation may or may not be an accident.
This is a bleak and complicated picture, and Mr. Aksyonov's tone, as he paints it, sometimes oscillates uneasily between acid mockery and more somber hues. In part, this is undoubtedly because of his theme's ambiguities, and its gradual darkening. But if his ironies are sometimes forced or his satiric thrust less than sure, it may be because Mr. Aksyonov, in this transitional novel, sometimes seems uncertain of the audience he is aiming for. What to a Russian reader may be an obvious laugh is often, to an American, a baffling inside joke; and Mr. Aksyonov sometimes seems to compensate for this double context by a harsh exaggeration of emotion, or by rather strained, jocularly explicatory authorial intrusions.
Still, for all the difficulties of cross-cultural translation, Say Cheese! is a disturbing and persuasive probe into the inner mechanisms of the Soviet machine on the eve of potential disintegration—or glasnost. The novel ends on a surreal and benignly whimsical vision that may be read as a premonition of a better era; in any case, one hopes Mr. Aksyonov's diagnosis is no longer accurate or in imminent need of non-fictional revival.
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SOURCE: "The Soviet Union Is No Joke," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 13, 1989, pp. 2, 10.
[In the following review, Zinik, a novelist, points out the autobiographical aspects of Say Cheese! and faults the novel for its use of 1960s Russian jargon.]
Vassily Aksyonov tells his story of Moscow life of the 1970s as an adventure yarn about a group of dissident photographers who, in spite of KGB schemings, produce an "underground" photography album, Say Cheese! and, having failed to publish it officially, smuggle it to the West. In flashbacks between the actions we learn life stories of all the participants of this enterprise, spearheaded by the ringleader of the group, Maxim Ogorodnikov, who walks recklessly through life on a tightrope between his seven ex-wives, his numerous lovers and colleagues, some of whom are KGB informers. His mother's apartment on Gorky Street is full of old Bolshevik memorabilia. His stepbrother, a Soviet journalist stationed mainly abroad, is also a KGB general assigned to the propaganda department.
The hero's physical strength and sexual prowess, his reckless determination and the sheer energy he always exudes make him a natural leader among his friends who, brave and honest as they are, cannot match Ogorodnikov's ability to tackle with the same panache as he does any dangerous confrontation with the authorities. In the course of expanding the official norms of artistic freedom, he makes his way from the basement studios of Moscow's "underground" to a loft party in New York's SoHo. As a result of his James-Bondian behavior, he is eventually deprived of all privileges associated with the Soviet elite. That incenses him so much that he braces himself for a head-on collision (in both the symbolic, and the literary sense) with the KGB. Crippled in a car crash masterminded by KGB operators at the end of his life journey, the hero does not lose his sense of moral superiority.
This tragic finale is a logical consequence of the profusion of cars that crops up from every corner of Aksyonov's book. Each and everyone of them, be it a KGB surveillance vehicle or a friend's banger, is described by the author with feverish obsessiveness and a loving attention to detail regardless of the appropriateness of the occasion. The same absurdly inappropriate attention is given, say, to the hero's clothes, especially to those with a foreign trade mark. The scarcity of goods on the shop shelves means that the opportunity to dress decently or to drive a decent car is the only proof that one belongs to that exclusive class of people who have access to the system of distribution of goods that others in the Soviet Union would not get for any amount of money in the world. Such access is granted to those who are either loyal to the party and system, or related to and affiliated with those who have already passed the exams and received the certificate of being ideologically kosher. Thus, the material aspects of Soviet existence, having acquired an ideological dimension, become part of the spiritual life of the country. Aksyonov's characters with material goods is meant to demonstrate that this corruption of spirit has encompassed the entire country. Nobody's immune. Everyone is either a scoundrel or an outright murderer and informer. Those who survive are changed beyond recognition. Ogorodnikov's life story is the epitome of such change.
In one blurb Aksyonov is quoted as saying that the character of Ogorodnikov in Say Cheese! is a "composite" of various persons he has known, but acknowledges that he "does look like me, just a little." Intentionally or not, Aksyonov's protagonist emerges from the novel as a rather unpleasant individual. Having read about Ogorodnikov, the reader might expect that once outside the Soviet Union, in the West, away from the accursed Soviet system, without its apparatchiks and lackeys to blame for his own mistakes, the hero would realize his own personal inadequacies. But no, not yet. With an amazing, motherly loyalty to his creation, Aksyonov is always at hand to provide him with emotional assistance to extricate himself from compromising situations.
The world outside turns out to be no better than the Soviet prison. Paris émigré life is run by the Cold-Warmongers who exploit every remark accidentally uttered by Ogorodnikov to whip up anti-Soviet hysteria. New York swarms with shady publishers and greedy gallery owners anxious to make easy money by capitalizing on the suffering of the Russian intelligentsia. This ignorant mob is manipulated by a sinister Alik Konsky. "Everything in his hands. He's a universally recognized authority on Russian photography. Didn't you know that in Moscow? Just imagine, he's started this snob idea in New York that Russian photography requires translation into Western languages…. And if you dare say anywhere that it's all bull, you immediately become an Eastern Barbarian and are sent off to the second rank."
If the figure of Ogorodnikov "just a little" resembles Aksyonov, the portrait of Konsky is undeniably that of the poet Josef Brodsky. In principle, there is nothing wrong in such direct borrowings from life—and Brodsky's life story is already a part of Russian history, open for everyone to borrow, free of charge—but Aksyonov's assault would have been understandable and expedient had he meant to debunk this westernized Nobel Prize laureate. Regrettably, though, Aksyonov uses a distorted version of someone else's life story to exonerate his own hero of existential crises that are not dissimilar to those suffered by the author. For that purpose, for example, Aksyonov makes his hero a victim of a conspiracy, orchestrated by Konsky and "his groupies" and not without KGB help, aimed to discredit Ogorodnikov artistically and to provoke him into an act of defection.
There is a lot of wishful thinking here. I wouldn't have touched upon the subject had the autobiographical and semi-documentary nature of this novel not been openly publicized in the blurb: "In 1979 Vassily Aksyonov spearheaded the effort to create Metropol, the first uncensored album of Soviet literature. He was forced to emigrate the following year when his satirical novel, The Burn, was published in the West."
In real life, Aksyonov was accused by some of his comrades-in-arms of using "Metropol" as a publicity spring-board—to jump over the Iron Curtain and land safely in the West. In Say Cheese! his photographic double is flying abroad, not to defect but to show the world that he is smart enough to outdo even the KGB operators. Disillusioned with the West, he returns to Moscow to face the music. It is his brother, a corrupt Soviet journalist and KGB man who defects to the West, while our hero is doomed to remain crippled in his motherland—again an allusion to a life story of a Russian novelist Andrej Bitov and his journalist brother Oleg.
In order to liberate his novelistic spirit and imagination, Aksyonov employs a number of devices, the main one of which is to present Soviet literature and the life of the Moscow literati, thinly disguised as that of the photography world. It works perfectly well as a witty metaphor at the beginning but slowly the parable becomes repetitive and over-strained. When Ogorodnikov arrives in New York, he discovers that, under the influence of the gifted manipulator, Konsky, in all major publishing houses "our negatives are treated with this idiotic translating developer, a mixture of potash and chili sauce."
Ironically, that remark about "idiotic translating developer" becomes a self-parody when applied to Aksyonov's novel itself. Every portrait in this action-packed "photo-album" is treated with "a mixture of potash and chili sauce," to blur the resemblance to a living prototype. Even Moscow geography and the names of the streets are slightly distorted to fit the style of an allegory, to distance the reader from the genre of memoirs into which the author is constantly slipping. Fortunately or not, these aspects of the novel will be lost on the American reader, who will also be relieved of the task of coping with the horribly outdated jargon, a brat-pack lingo of 1960s Moscow, spluttered out on every page with the generosity of a child with a bottle of ketchup (or chili sauce?). What remains is Aksyonov's nostalgia for the sense of camaraderie, with much boozing and swearing, being adored by aging girlfriends and hated by the Party mob.
The hero's pseudo-populist, folksy, bad guy's artificial manner of speech was employed in the 1960s by Aksyonov and his mates with the aim of distancing themselves from the vulgar crowd as well as from the newspeak of officialdom—of which, in fact, they were the most privileged part. That is, probably, the real tragedy behind Aksyonov's attempt here to extricate himself from the rest of the Soviet literary Establishment and to set the record straight. The "Metropol" enterprise was, in fact, not "the first uncensored album of Soviet literature," as described in the blurb, but indeed the first abortive mission to reform the literary Establishment from the inside, by official means. It is the intimacy of the inside information about the establishment that makes Aksyonov's account so remarkable. It is an emotional description of a bureaucratic mechanism in which Aksyonov was a prominent cog. The heroic deeds that Ogorodnikov and his lads commit on the pages of the novel say more about the harshness and stupidity of the Soviet officialdom (thoroughly exposed many times before) than about the tragic character of their predicament. Their tragedy is that they think they've become martyrs of the spiritual liberation of the nation, while in fact they've simply lost the privileges associated with their social position.
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SOURCE: "Correlation of Farces," in The New Republic, Vol. 201, No. 3896/3897, September 18 and 25, 1989, pp. 52-53.
[In the following review, Howe lauds the farcical aspects of Say Cheese! but faults the novel's attempts at seriousness in the latter half of the book.]
There's a lot of pleasure to be had from the first half of this novel, a satiric farce about the life of culture in Brezhnev's Russia. Vassily Aksyonov, an émigré Russian now living in the United States, writes with the happy abandon of a true farceur. He commands a taste for the ridiculous, cares little for cautions of verisimilitude, and has a ready supply of puns, jokes, and saucy footnotes. His episodic narrative might almost be taken for a picaresque tale, were its hero not deprived of the picaro's traditional freedom to roam and to poke about.
Say Cheese! draws upon Aksyonov's own experiences. In 1979 he was a central figure within a group of "intellectual gangsters," that is, serious Russian writers who wanted to issue Metropol, the first uncensored anthology of Soviet literature. The results proved to be most unpleasant, Aksyonov resigning from the Writers Union because it expelled two of his colleagues and a year later emigrating from the Soviet Union. In Say Cheese!, Russian writers are neatly transformed into Russian photographers, but the cultural bureaucrats harassing them in the name of the Party and History remain pretty much the same. The basic situation is ambiguous, one of neither total unfreedom or total freedom.
They are a lively bunch, these photographers. They carouse, achieve enviable results with women, snap fine pictures; but some nub of memory or imagination troubles them. They aspire, as they would put it, to the manliness that is a sign of creative independence. So they plan a picture album that won't be submitted to the censors: a seemingly innocent, even innocuous venture, but it sets off a flurry of intrigues and counter-moves among the cultural overseers.
The struggle that breaks out between the "New Wave" photographers and "the glands" (a nickname for "the organs" of State Security) is a curious mixture of the ominous and the farcical. Ominous, because the non-terrorist repressions of the Brezhnev regime are brutal enough. Farcical, because neither side, bureaucrats or artists, is prepared for a complete showdown. The situation has a certain resemblance to those silent-film comedies in which a multitude of violent motions settles into calm—yet with the crucial difference that "the glands" are still there, very real, very powerful.
Aksyonov's depiction of his photographers contains a motif of male bonding, rather innocent despite the virtuoso sex. They are quite serious artists, but also behave like rambunctious adolescents—and somehow Aksyonov makes it all very appealing. Allergic to political cant, the photographers are intuitively anarchist in spirit and style—which seems exactly right for farce, since in its disdain for official proprieties and big questions, farce is a genre with affinities to anarchism. It's also a spirit—anarchism—appropriate for the sclerotic Brezhnev regime.
Leading the New Wave is Max Ogordnikov, who combines genius with irreverence, and who is also a veteran skirt-chaser now into his seventh marriage. (During a visit to New York, Ogo rises, after an initial Stendhalian embarrassment with his publisher's secretary, to seven powerful orgasms in rapid succession. Talk of lucky numbers!) Ogo despises the cultural bureaucrats not so much because he is committed heart and soul to democracy, but because they evoke in him an irritable boredom: it's tiresome to have to submit your work to a dimwit like Fotii Feklovich, "First Secretary" of photography, a character who last inhabited Gogol's The Inspector General."
"I'm tired," explains Ogo, "of only playing their games, I'd like to play just once to my own taste, as if they didn't exist, after all it's not against them, just without them …" This strikes me as one of Aksyonov's cleverest strokes: to show how boredom with bureaucracy can lead to artistic defiance.
The resourceful Ogo manages, by tricking his bosses, to have an unsanctioned trip to Germany and the United States, with an eye toward getting the New Wave album published. In Germany he has a very funny encounter with an enraged ultraleftist bedecked in rags, who turns out to be (of course) the son-in-law of a billionaire. In New York, Ogo meets Alex Konsky, the émigré photographer who now "dictates [cultural] fashion." Reports another émigré: "In New York it's hard to work seriously in Russian art unless you kiss Alex Konsky's ass…. He's started this snob idea that Russian photography requires translation into Western language." This "unbribable genius of pure form" has become a virtuoso in the American art of making it, and it figures that he will stick out his foot to trip up Ogo's project.
But about halfway, alas, Say Cheese! succumbs to seriousness. There's a sound logic behind this: Aksyonov is being faithful to the social reality that constitutes his setting; and by the last third of the book, the conflict between New Wave and "glands" has turned quite deadly. While plausible as rendered history, the literary result is unfortunate. It's a case of historical conscience triumphing over a gift of farce; of reality over art.
Farce, as the masters of silent film understood, is a short-breathed form. It is a kick in the pants, a slide on the banana peel, and then do it again. And again. In farce, development yields to repetition, or more accurately, repetition is development—but it can't go on for 404 pages. Had Aksyonov cut his book by a third, mostly in the last third, he'd have had a marvelous piece of work. As it is, much of it offers acute pleasure.
I suspect, but of course I cannot prove, that there is another reason for the novel's decline into seriousness. With rare exceptions like the early Waugh and the early Amis, writers of farce seem to feel uneasy at the thought of staying with the mode they have begun with, as if it's a violation of man and nature. They want also to show that they are serious and thoughtful people, able to don the double-breasted suits of respectability. It never works.
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SOURCE: "Dissidents Abroad," in Partisan Review, Vol. LVIII, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 149-50.
[In the following brief review, Aksyonov's novel Say Cheese! is lauded as a "well-made, surprisingly fluid" book.]
Conformists are all alike; dissidents are all different—and more original. Andrei Sinyavsky's and Vassily Aksyonov's new novels are striking examples of this literary rule. Say Cheese! by Aksyonov is a very amusing and skillfull work, as it charts the waters of the dissident imagination. Goodnight by Sinyavsky (writing as Abram Tertz) is a strange, haunting mixture of narrative, commentary, and rumination. Both writers live in exile, Sinyavsky in Paris, Aksyonov in Washington, D.C. Sinyavsky spent seven years in a labor camp for having a premature criticism of socialist realism smuggled to the West, using the pseudonym of Abram Tertz. Aksyonov was forced to leave the Soviet Union for "treasonable" writings. Sinyavsky strikes one as the most profound and resourceful Russian writer today; Aksyonov as one of the most intelligent.
Say Cheese! tells the rambling story of Russian people caught in the Kafkaesque web of Soviet bureaucratic constrictions, evading the fatalities of the life dictated from above through irony, doubletalk, and cunning. (One is reminded of Joyce's "silence, exile, and cunning.") In a sense there is no story, only a series of comic incidents as everyone tries to escape from his or her prescribed existence. It is a well-made novel, surprisingly fluid in the agile twists and turns of the narrative and its utter disregard of earlier Soviet literary conventions. It has the free flow of an American-style novel, but it is not a blockbuster. It is a contemporary, not a modern, novel.
The prevailing spirit of Say Cheese! is irreverence, which I suppose is the basic substance of dissidence. In this respect, Say Cheese! reminds one of the eighteenth-century British picaresque novel, set, however, in Stalinized Russia. It turns around the escapades of a group of underground photographers, called Cheesers, who defy the government with unsocialist photography. The main character, an antihero, Max "Ogo" Ogorodnikov, is a sexual and political adventurer who moves from woman to woman, place to place, caper to caper, thumbing his nose at authority, and ending up at a swish party in New York. It is most entertaining, but it raises the question of topically dissident writing. For Gorbachev, in taking Russia at least partly out of its past, has lifted it to a new level of problematic freedoms that tends to make earlier pictures of Russia seem somewhat out of date.
However, the novel does recreate a sense of what appears to be the life of the country, even now in the Gorbachev era. One gets the impression of an interweaving of identities, a whirlpool of spying, infiltrating, snitching, defying the regime, whoring, drinking, evading the secret police. The KGB penetrates every bit of life, sometimes comically, sometimes brutally. The whole is Russia. Everyone is playing cat-and-mouse with everyone else. And it is all drenched in suffering, opportunism, soul-seeking. Looking for sexual recognition, Max has had seven wives and countless women. There are fifty characters moving in and out of the pages of the novel, all making their way through the ambiguities of Soviet existence, puffing themselves up, mocking themselves and each other. And everyone plays his role, somewhere between belonging to and subverting the regime. Aksyonov tells it all with a sharp sardonic eye and ear, as he satirically catches the pieties of the official language. In fact, the novel is a verbal tour de force, chatty, and sprawling verbally over a landscape that seems so unreal to us, and is made both more and less real by Aksyonov's merging of reality with farce.
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SOURCE: "Counterrevolutionary Families Are All the Same," in New York Times Book Review, July 17, 1994, p. 6.
[In the review of Generations of Winter below, Parini, an educator, poet, and novelist, compares Aksyonov to Leo Tolstoy and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, lauding Aksyonov's "deft historical scholarship."]
Vassily Aksyonov is the most widely admired Russian novelist of his generation. A physician by training, he enraged the Soviet literary establishment with his jazzy second novel, Ticket to the Stars (1961), which featured the urbanized, Western-influenced youth of the day. Defying censorship at every turn, he produced a blistering sequence of novels and plays during the next two decades; in 1979, he was among the group that published a dissident anthology, Metropol, in a symbolic edition of one. The next year, with the appearance of his novel The Burn—a brilliant, surreal fantasia on Soviet life—he was forced to emigrate.
In exile in the United States, Mr. Aksyonov wrote several remarkable novels, including The Island of Crimea and Say Cheese! The post-modern, almost Pynchonesque feel of this recent work may have left readers unprepared for his latest novel, Generations of Winter, a masterly, rather self-consciously Tolstoyan epic that opens in the late 1920's and ends, hauntingly, amid the ruins of World War II.
Mr. Aksyonov's personal history has certainly prepared him for the task of writing this book. His mother was Eugenia Ginzburg, author of Journey Into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind, memoirs of the years she spent in the Stalinist camps at Kolyma and in exile in Siberia. A devout Marxist, she was arrested in 1937, when Mr. Aksyonov was not yet 5 years old, and "purged." She spent the next 18 years in prisons, labor camps and forced exile and did not see her son again until he was 16. Although he has written about this experience before, most notably in The Burn, Mr. Aksyonov takes full possession of his past in this rich work of memory and invention.
Generations of Winter operates on that tantalizing border between fact and fiction. Real figures—generals, politicians, artists—mingle with imaginary ones; even Stalin himself puts in several appearances, as do other major players in his murderous regime. The focus of the novel, however, is the fictional Gradov family, over whom Dr. Boris Nikitovich Gradov presides as a benign patriarch. Dr. Gradov is "one of the best surgeons in Moscow. Even 'makers of history' had to reckon with specialists of his caliber." As a result, he and his family enjoy Silver Forest, a lovely dacha outside Moscow that seems far from the madding Kremlin crowd; until the late 1930's, they continue to live as their bourgeois counterparts might have before the Bolsheviks seized power.
As in War and Peace, a handful of fictional characters engage our sympathy early in the novel, and we follow closely as they descend into the Soviet labyrinth, some never to return. In particular, we track the careers of Kirill, Nikita and Nina Gradov, the children of the great doctor and his long-suffering wife, Mary. Kirill is a keen Marxist who marries an equally ardent ideologue, Cecilia Rosenbloom; as party activists, they are the True Believers in the family. Nikita is devoid of political idealism; a military man to the bones, he rises quickly to become a leading officer in the Red Army. Nina is a cynical poet, a bohemian of sorts, and thus a threat to the family; one fully expects her to suffer at the hands of the secret police.
Alas, nothing makes sense in Stalin's world. It is Government policy to strike randomly, keeping the entire population in a state of perpetual apprehension. The military, the intelligentsia and the general populace are powerless as state terrorism spirals inward, crushing its own people: "Nothing special is happening," observes Nikita, in the eerily ironic tone that pervades the narrative. "The only thing that's happening is a silent conspiracy of millions upon millions of people who have reached a tacit agreement that nothing is happening." But something dreadful is happening.
It would be unfair to readers to say who gets swept into concentration camps and who doesn't; it is enough to suggest that the unpredictability of the plot keeps one perpetually frightened. Generations of Winter captures the anxiety, the Kafkaesque pointlessness of state cruelty, with ferocious artistry. The portraits of camp life and the torture chambers of the N.K.V.D. are harrowing. Indeed, we feel something like relief that World War II begins: at least in the context of global conflict, the ghastly panorama of human suffering described by Mr. Aksyonov seems vaguely comprehensible.
Through the character of Nina, the author derides the pretensions of the Soviet literary scene. "The literature of socialist realism was in full flower," he writes, witheringly. "Formalism had already been completely rooted out. Soviet poets, playwrights and novelists had been gathered up in a single union and were vigorously turning out the works the people needed." Generations of Winter is seeded with quotations from the great Russian poets, whom the novelist obviously reveres. (Indeed, one of the most moving scenes in his mother's memoir occurs when she and her son are reunited and recognize their deep connection to each other through a common interest in Russian poetry.) It is, however, unfortunate that the allusive resonance of this novel is, perhaps necessarily, lost in translation.
Mr. Aksyonov has never been easy to translate, in part because he relishes slang and likes hearing various levels of diction clash. But the translators of Generations of Winter, John Glad and Christopher Morris, seem at a loss to find the appropriate registers. A man who propositions Nina Gradov, for example, says to her, "Just look at me. I'm suffering because you won't put out!" A few lines later, brushing him off, she responds: "Yes, I'm married, you swindling nincompoop." In another chapter, we read of one character that a "thought flashed through Styopka's noggin." Elsewhere, a young man asks his friend. "Shall we hop on up to the Party Committee hall?" Similar oddities occur throughout the novel, but the sweep of the narrative is such that one soon overlooks them.
Again like Tolstoy, whom he invokes directly and indirectly throughout the book, Mr. Aksyonov pauses at several key places to reflect on the laws of history, attempting to bring his endlessly tragic story into perspective. That he does not succeed was perhaps inevitable; the enormity of Stalin's crimes against humanity will take centuries to absorb. But Generations of Winter is unquestionably a triumph for Vassily Aksyonov: an act of remembrance, a piece of deft historical scholarship and a substantial work of fiction that will sit comfortably in years to come on the shelf beside Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and the Kolyma Tales of Varlam Shalamov.
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SOURCE: "War and Peace, Part II," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 7, 1994, pp. 1, 11.
[Hochschild is a nonfiction writer whose works include The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin. In the review below, he asserts that the model for Aksyonov's Generations of Winter is Tolstoy's War and Peace and praises Aksyonov's realistic descriptions, calling the novel "absorbing" and claiming that "everything rings true."]
Near the end of her memoirs of Stalin's gulag, the writer Eugenia Ginzburg describes an extraordinary scene. She had just finished many years' imprisonment in Kolyma—the harshest, coldest, most feared region of the vast labor camp system, in the far northeast corner of Siberia, not far from Alaska. Like most newly released prisoners, Ginzburg had to remain in internal exile for some years more. Her husband also had vanished into the gulag, and, while she was in prison, one of her two sons had died in the siege of Leningrad. But the authorities permitted her surviving son to join her in exile. In 1948, he made the long trip to Kolyma, a 16-year-old with a knapsack on his back. She had not seen him for 11 years and greatly feared that they would have nothing in common. But "I found myself catching my breath with joyful astonishment when that very first night he started to recite from memory the very poems that had been my constant companions during my fight for survival in the camps."
To Russian readers the scene is even more moving, because they know that this tall, thin teenager with his knapsack grew up to become Vassily Aksyonov, one of the best-loved dissident writers of the 1960s and '70s.
Aksyonov stayed on in Kolyma with his mother for several years. There has been surprisingly little about the world of the gulag in his books so far, even though he left the reach of Soviet censors when he moved to the United States 14 years ago. He used a little of his Kolyma experience in his surreal 1980 novel The Burn, but there and in other books, his characteristic voice has been one of satire, fantasy and the grotesque, bold stylistic experimentation and comic use of slang. Some call Aksyonov a Russian J. D. Salinger.
Generations of Winter is a startling departure from all this. Except for occasional flourishes, its form is that of classic late 19th-Century realism, something as unexpected from Aksyonov as it would be from Salinger or Pynchon. As in what is clearly its model, War and Peace, the narrator is omniscient, and historical characters—Stalin, Molotov, Beria and others—stroll through the pages along with home-grown ones. Although Aksyonov's characters are not as memorable as Tolstoy's (whose are?), this is as absorbing as any novel I have come across in the last few years. I read it past bedtime at night and before getting to work in the morning, and found my mind wandering off to it during the day.
One reason people write traditional realist novels these days is that modern readers are jaded. Film, radio, first-person journalism, prying biographers and, above all, TV, have saturated us with reality. And so who are you, impudent novelist, to make up details about a prisoner's interrogation, or about what food was served at a Kremlin reception, or about what passed through Stalin's mind as he greeted his guests?
Aksyonov, however, has the authority to tell all this, and much more. His father was a high party official and member of the Central Executive Committee of the U.S.S.R. Both his parents spent many years in the gulag. Aksyonov himself grew up among exiles, the bereaved and survivors. Yet even if we did not know all this about him, we would hear no false notes in this novel. Everything rings true. Take this passing description of well-to-do players on a Moscow tennis court in 1930: "All three were representatives of the 'famous lawyer' type, a class that had survived the Revolution, returned fully to life, and now would take any case except one involving the defense of an accused man."
Generations of Winter pans across a quarter century of Soviet history, from 1921 to 1945. At center stage is the Gradov family, and their children, friends and relatives, all members of that caste which in Russia has always thought of itself as a race apart, the intelligentsia. Boris Gradov is a distinguished surgeon; his wife Mary is a pianist. Under the steadily darkening sky of those years, their dacha on the outskirts of Moscow is an oasis of music, books, poetry, good food and spirited talk.
The times sweep several of the Gradovs into prison, or into World War II, or, in one case, both. Army general Nikita Gradov, the eldest son, is arrested in Stalin's Great Purge of the late 1930s. After four years as a slave laborer in the gold mines of Kolyma, emaciated and barely alive, he is plucked from the gulag and given a high army command. A story most improbable—except that such things happened. Some of the officers who led the Red Army to victory, such as Gen. (later Marshal) Konstantin Rokossovsky and Gen. Alexander Gorbatov, had been half-starved prisoners a few months before. Russian history has always been stranger than fiction.
One thing that gives that history its aura of tragedy is that there seem so many turning points when it could have taken a different course. What if the Bolsheviks had not established their all-powerful secret police in 1917? What if they had not dissolved the Constituent Assembly of 1918, chosen in the first real free elections Russia had ever known? What if they had not suppressed the Kronstadt revolt of 1921?
Kronstadt was perhaps the last of the great "what if's." After it was over, the Soviet Union's course was fixed inevitably toward an absolutism more terrible than that of the czars. Thousands of radical sailors on the Baltic fortress island of Kronstadt mutinied against the government. They demanded such things as elections by secret ballot, free trade unions and the freeing of political prisoners. Trotsky and Lenin sent troops across the ice to crush the rebellion, with heavy loss of life on both sides.
In Generations of Winter, the young officer Nikita Gradov follows orders to help suppress the revolt. Sick at heart, he knows that he is betraying what he had hoped the Russian Revolution would be. For the rest of his life memories of Kronstadt haunt him. They come pouring out even when he is beaten into a state of delirium by secret police interrogators 16 years later.
For Nikita's father, the surgeon, the key act of betrayal comes in 1925. Officials ask him to give his medical opinion that army commander Mikhail Frunze needs an operation. (At the time, apparently, several doctors were pressured into doing this. Frunze, potentially a strong rival to Stalin, then died mysteriously during the surgery.) When Dr. Gradov at first balks, secret policemen make veiled threats against his daughter, and he gives in.
These two early betrayals set the pattern for more. The political betrayals are echoed by sexual betrayals. As with Dr. Gradov and his son, sometimes even these are almost life-and-death choices: Thrown into the gulag, Nikita Gradov's wife, a great beauty, becomes the mistress of a camp commandant to gain herself enough food to survive. When she and her husband are released and reunited, he sees her well-fed body and realizes what has happened. He cannot forgive her. The virus of betrayal then travels down through the generations to their teen-age son. He runs away from home to join the Red Army, only to find himself behind the lines fighting not the Germans, but the Soviet Union's nominal ally, the Poles.
Few of the characters in this novel are untarnished, and that is part of its emotional accuracy. The toll taken in any tyranny is not measured only in physical suffering, but also in complicity. The prisoner who has almost starved can recover; the friend whose denunciation sent him or her to prison never can. And even without denunciations, tens of millions of Soviets had to make countless other betrayals to keep their jobs or their lives: teachers taught history they knew was false; scientists embraced Lysenko's wishful-thinking biology; writers hailed Stalin as the greatest genius of all time.
With a hand never too heavy, Aksyonov shows us what it was like to live through such times. Moreover, he gives us men and women who are painfully aware of their complicity, but who must go on living nonetheless. And go on they do: At the end of Generation of Winter's 600 pages some cycles of action are uncompleted, others are newly begun and key characters are still in moral transit. One senses a sequel to come. I await it eagerly.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1002
SOURCE: "A Russian Family Copes with Stalinism's Evils," in The New York Times, August 8, 1994, p. C16.
[In the review below, Lehmann-Haupt faults Generations of Winter for its use of archaic jargon and slang but nevertheless calls the book "monumental" and finds the language less distracting as the novel progresses.]
There are a few hurdles to overcome before you can get caught up in the powerful sweep of Vassily Aksyonov's Generations of Winter, a Tolstoyan historical novel that is a departure from the author's previous, less traditional fiction (The Island of Crimea, Say Cheese!, The Burn) and traces the roller-coaster fortunes of one Russian family from 1925, the year of Stalin's ascent to power, to 1945, the end of World War II.
"'So you're not afraid?'" asks an American journalist in Moscow on page 10 "with the directness of a quarterback shotgunning the ball across midfield into his opponent's territory." The metaphor seems as anachronistic as some of the slang the characters employ, with their references to women as broads, food as grub and the head as a noggin.
"'All right, let's go chow down!'" one character says "delightedly, even though at one time, he found this sort of Moscow Communist slang repulsive." "Chow down" is Moscow Communist slang? This will come as surprising news to veterans of the United States Army. In short, those who translated Generations from the Russian seem at times to be groping wildly.
Yet the deeper you get into Mr. Aksyonov's story, the more trivial the lapses in dialogue seem. What first catches your interest is the scene in which Boris Nikitovich Gradov, a fictional Moscow surgeon, is called away from a party at his home to attend to the Commissar for Defense, Mikhail Frunze, an actual historical figure, who has collapsed from a hemorrhaging ulcer. Frunze whispers desperately to Gradov that he doesn't require surgery. Gradov agrees. But a team of Kremlin physicians decides to operate anyway, and when Gradov objects, he is told to wait in an adjoining room. Of course Frunze dies, and Gradov begins to experience what will shortly become an epidemic of bad consciences.
This scene will later be mirrored when Gradov is called to the Kremlin to look after Stalin himself, who has gone into convulsions from being constipated. In the interval, both of Gradov's sons have been arrested and sent to the gulag—the older one, Gen. Nikita Borisovich, on the trumped-up charge of conspiring against the revolution with his immediate superior, Marshal Vasily Blücher; the younger one, Kirill, for being Nikita's brother.
When Gradov relieves Stalin's agony with an enema, the tyrant is wordlessly grateful. As the passage reads: "The human face surfaced and trembled nearby. Ask for anything, Professor, and it's yours. Ask me for your sons, and they'll be with you in two days. Ask me now, Professor, while I want to thank you; later on it will be too late." But Gradov cannot bring himself to ask a favor of a patient. Later, when he meets Stalin at a Kremlin gathering, they shake hands. "They looked each other in the eye for several seconds. If he asks me about his sons now, I'll destroy him, thought Stalin."
The Gradov family is endlessly appealing, from Boris's Georgian wife, Mary Vakhtangovna, who comforts the family by playing Chopin on the piano, to their daughter Nina, a tempestuously romantic poet who worships Osip Mandelstam. But the real protagonist is the novel's narrator, who modulates his voice limitlessly. He steps up close to describe the most intimate of love scenes and the most brutal incidents of torture in the basement of the infamous Lubyanka. He backs far away to report the great battles that turned away the invading Nazis in the winter of 1941 and the sickening massacre of Ukrainian Jews in a ravine near Chernigov in the summer of 1943.
This narrator waxes chatty when parsing Tolstoy's theory of history in War and Peace. He turns satiric in describing Lenin's return to earth as a large male squirrel. And he disappears from the page in Dos Passos-like intermissions that sum up history according to stories in the press.
That this voice is endlessly mutable is just as well, because some of the scenes it describes are so extreme in their cruelty or treachery that no appropriate comment is left to be made.
Irina, Nina Gradov's editor at Working Woman, a newspaper, remarks of an article Nina has written that it contains "traces of your habitual irony." She adds: "The time for irony is over, Nina. It is our fate to live in heroic times." To which Nina responds, "Without irony, Irka, it's simply impossible to get through these heroic times." Without irony, it's impossible to get through the events of Mr. Aksyonov's novel.
The narrator does convey movingly why good people continued to fight and die for the Soviet Union. After Nikita Gradov is rehabilitated and given command of a special strike force to attack the invading Germans, he is decorated by Stalin. At the ceremony, he wonders what would happen if he ordered his bodyguards "to wipe out this whole group." A moment later: "A wave of genuine, unfeigned enthusiasm suddenly washed over him, having its origins in his total attachment to everything that at that moment embodied his country, even to this collection of faces, to them especially and particularly, a group that just a few minutes before, he had imagined as the targets of his loyal machine gunners."
At the end of this monumental story you learn that Nikita's brother, Kirill, is still alive in the gulag. He has discovered Jesus Christ. For an instant you think that here is Mr. Aksyonov's message: the only rational response to Russian history is religious faith. But then you remember that up until this point Kirill Gradov has been the most rigidly doctrinaire of Marxists. All the narrator is saying is that Kirill has switched religions.
Or is that really all the narrator is saying? Maybe faith is his message after all.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3406
SOURCE: "War without Peace," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLI, No. 18, November 3, 1994, pp. 4-6.
[In the review below, Banville lauds Generations of Winter as a "major document of our times, and one with lasting power."]
In Generations of Winter Vassily Aksyonov has set out bravely, one might even say brazenly, to write a twentieth-century War and Peace, mingling fictional and historical characters in a great sprawling saga tracing the history of the Soviet Union. This first volume runs from 1925 to 1945; a second volume brings the story into the post-war era. The surprise is that he has succeeded to a remarkable degree. To predict at this point that his novel will prove as enduring as Tolstoy's classic is, of course, impossible. There is a certain coarseness in Aksyonov's literary manner which can be apt, certainly, for the task at hand—has there ever been a coarser place than Stalin's Russia?—but the book's sturdy, carpentered quality at times seems too clumsy to bear comparison with Tolstoy's exquisitely balanced artistic effects. All the same, Aksyonov's energy, inventiveness, and insouciance have resulted in what is surely a major document of our times, and one with lasting power.
Obviously any Russian author attempting to write a work on such a scale would find himself stumbling in Tolstoy's shadow. Aksyonov's solution to the problem is to turn on his heel and grin defiantly in his great predecessor's face. He has not so much struck the father dead as given him a playful pat on the cheek. The text abounds in references to War and Peace whether in an epigraph, in offhand allusions to Tolstoy's characters, or in passages such as this, from the preface to the second part of the book, which is called "War and Jail":
Not long ago, we were reading War and Peace—for the first time since childhood, we must admit, and not at all in connection with the beginning of War and Jail but for pure reading pleasure—and came upon a number of Tolstoy's thoughts on the riddles of history, which sometimes touch us joyfully by their similarities with our own thoughts but which at other times lead into a blind alley.
The plural pronoun suggests arch humor rather than even a small degree of modesty. Elsewhere Aksyonov plays a game with old-fashioned styles of narration, as in this passage from early in the book where we are first introduced to the heroine—or one of the heroines—of the book, Nina Gradov, who is destined to become a renowned poet, a sort of cross between Akhmatova and Tsvetayeva:
The front doors banged then, quick steps sounded, and Nina burst into the dining room. Her dark chestnut hair was disheveled, her bright blue eyes were shining, the collar of her overcoat was turned up, and she was carrying a briefcase under her arm, as well as a knapsack full of books.
"Hello, family!" she yelped. She rushed over to Veronika, kissed her on the lips and once on the stomach [Veronika is pregnant], then flopped down for a moment onto Nikita's lap, shook the hand of Kirill the Party worker, and said with tragic seriousness: "All that we have is yours, comrades tough as stone!" Like an English lady, she extended her hand to be kissed by Leonid Valentinovich Pulkovo and then bestowed a kiss on everyone else.
Passages such as this, which could have come from any second-rate nineteenth-century Russian novel—or novelette—make the reader's heart sink, but Aksyonov is fully conscious of the effect he is creating, and this portrait of the typical Russian heroine—the chestnut hair, the bright blue eyes—is weighted heavily with irony, as the reader will presently discover. The vicissitudes that await Nina, as well as her brothers Nikita and Kirill and sister-in-law Veronika, will very soon wipe off entirely any trace of an indulgent smile that the early pages of the novel may appear to wear. The horrors of Stalinism were far greater than those of the Napoleonic invasion.
Vassily Aksyonov was born in Kazan in 1933. His mother was the historian Eugenia Ginzburg (the book is dedicated to her memory and to that of his father, Pavel Aksyonov), and he spent much of his childhood with her in exile in Siberia. Memories of those years no doubt helped him to write the gulag sections of Generations of Winter with such immediacy. In the 1960s he was an energetic and, insofar as the times and the censors would allow, successful writer of novels, literary criticism, and screenplays. In 1980 he traveled to the United States, and settled in Washington to work on a novel at the Wilson Center. In January of the following year the Soviet government stripped him of his citizenship. Throughout the 1980s he lived in the US and produced novels, the best known of which is The Burn, and a cheerful and charming memoir, In Search of Melancholy Baby, of the splendors and miseries (very few of the latter) of the first years of his life in America.
In his work up to now Aksyonov has been exuberant, cocksure, and faintly "experimental," in a relaxed, late-Modernist way. With Generations of Winter, however, he has put together something more formidable, and what a tank of a book it is. It grinds its way with unstoppable force across the vast territory of the former Soviet Union, from Moscow to Siberia, from Georgia to the Western front during the Hitler war. So vast is the scale of the work, so palpable the passing of the years, that at the end of the book the reader feels he has completed an immense journey through space and time; looking back to the opening pages is like flicking through the earliest photographs in a family album.
The family in question is the Gradovs, headed by Boris Gradov, an eminent surgeon, and therefore a person of consequence, since the Party hierarchy likes to look after its own health. When the book opens it is 1925, the Revolution is still young, and the country, and especially its capital city, is feverish with a sense of the possibilities of the future. Already, of course, the forces of totalitarianism and repression are at work, as Stalin and his henchmen position themselves to destroy or neutralize their opponents. Aksyonov very cunningly implicates the Gradovs in the destiny of the country by making Boris a leading member of the medical team assigned to treat Stalin's opponent, the Commissar for Defense Mikhail Frunze, for stomach ulcers; Boris is an excellent doctor, and knows that Frunze does not need the operation that others in the medical team, and the political puppeteers controlling them, insist is necessary. During a crucial Politburo meeting Frunze suffers a hemorrhage and collapses. Stalin seizes his chance.
"We must bring in the best doctors," announced Stalin. "Burdenko, Rozanov, Gradov … the Party cannot allow such a son to be lost."
Trotsky was right, thought Zinoviev. This man will say whatever raises him higher than anyone else, even if only an inch.
Stalin walked over to the table and sat down. His seat, though one of many, suddenly appeared to be the center of the oval. Perhaps, in accordance with the rules of drama, attention was fixed on him because he had appeared at a decisive moment, or perhaps it was something else; whatever the reason, it was indeed Stalin whom the dazed members of the Politburo and the government were looking at. It was obvious that, all the different interpretations of the meaning of Frunze's illness notwithstanding, a motif of fate and gloom had been introduced beneath the arches of the Kremlin, as though a flight of Valkyries had winged past.
Stalin looked out the window for a minute or two at the indifferent clouds passing in the October sky, then intoned: "… but eternally green is the tree of life …"
The Party men, who had long experiences in emigration behind them, remembered that the great man himself, Lenin, had loved to repeat this line from Faust.
"Let's continue." With a benign gesture, Stalin proposed that they return to the order of business.
This passage illustrates very well Aksyonov's method. He is undaunted by the usual problem faced by the historical novelist, that of finding ways to neutralize the chilling effect of famous names ("I say, Mozart, isn't that young Beethoven over there?"). He mingles historical and fictional characters with such skill that only a reader with a detailed knowledge of Soviet history will be able to distinguish all of the real from all of the invented. He is not afraid to write of the top Soviet leaders and feels no need to introduce them with tiresome physical descriptions ("Trotsky was right, thought Zinoviev"). Also characteristic are the brief nod in the direction of postmodernism ("in accordance with the rules of drama") and the Wagnerian swish of those Valkyries' wings. What is most impressive in this scene, however, is the subtlety and economy of the portrait of Stalin, the self-serving monster posing as devoted Party man yet at the same time demonstrating that he is the true successor to Lenin. With that "benign gesture" Frunze's fate is sealed.
The document directing that the Commissar be operated upon is drawn up, and Boris, after an icy interview with a pair of Kafkaesque NKVD men, puts his name to it. Although he is allowed to remain outside the operating theater while the murder is being committed by the rest of the medical team, he knows very well that he has done something that will haunt him for the rest of his days. He retreats at once to the family dacha in Silver Forest, where his wife, Mary Vakhtangovna, will try to soothe his conscience with the Chopin études she plays at times of family crisis. Mary, a Georgian, is a figure straight out of Thomas Mann: passionate, artistic, loving, and a little silly; Aksyonov uses her to introduce the theme of the warm south, the land of blue skies and "ripe pears that resembled the breasts of young Greek girls," which is also, ironically, the birthplace of Iosif Vissarionovich himself, the Man of Steel who will wreak terrible damage upon the Gradov family and the millions of other families over whom he comes to exercise absolute power.
Aksyonov leaves no doubt whatever that the tragedy of the Soviet Union from the 1930s onward was largely the work of one man. The portrait of Stalin here seems broadly drawn but it also has many subtle touches. It catches his intelligence as well as his vulgarity, his genius for manipulating people as well as his stupidity as a commander, his slippery charm as well as his absolute wickedness. Generations of Winter is genuinely frightening in showing the tragedy of a vast country when put into the hands of the worst possible people. In this version of Animal Farm it is the stoats and the weasels who are in charge.
The narrative is a long descent from light into darkness. The early sections give a vivid sense of what it must have been like to live in a time of genuine social transformation, when considerable numbers of people, especially among the intelligentsia, felt the discomforts and privations of the post-revolutionary period could be cheerfully borne since sacrifices would be justified with the imminent arrival of the Future. Here is the book's opening paragraph:
Just think—in 1925, the eighth year of the Revolution, a traffic jam in Moscow! All Nikolskaya Street, which runs from the Lubyanka prison through the heart of Kitai-gorod down to Red Square, is filled with streetcars, wagons, and automobiles. Next to the open-air market, they're unloading crates of fresh fish from heavy carts. Beneath the arch on Tretyakovsky Street one can hear the neighing of horses, the tooting of truck drivers' horns, and the swearing of a cart driver. The police will hurry to the scene, blowing their whistles ingenuously, as if not yet entirely convinced of the reality of their exclusively local, nonpolitical—that is, perfectly normal—role. Everything has the appearance of an amateur production, even the people's fury seems put on. The most important thing, though, is that everyone's happy to play along. The traffic jam on Nikolskaya Street is, in fact, a cause for rejoicing, like a glass of hot milk for someone who has been shivering with fever: life is coming back, along with dreams of prosperity.
For many people Russia probably did look this way at a time of hope. Everything had been turned on its head and the new prospects opened up seemed dizzying. Aksyonov is good at finding the telling detail, such as the arrival in the Twenties of the Charleston: "the dernier cry of the season delighted the 'old fogeys' of the bourgeoisie but outraged the 'progressive' young people." Amid all the bustle many ignored the lowering shadow cast by the Lubyanka.
Very soon, by the beginning of the 1930s, the prison shadow reaches as far as the Gradov sanctuary at Silver Forest. Despite Boris's eminence, first his son Nikita, a brilliant military strategist, is arrested by the secret police, then Nikita's brother Kirill, a fiercely dogmatic member of the Party, is also seized. Both disappear into the wastes of the Siberian labor camps, although Nikita returns at the most desperate stage of the war to lead Stalin's armies in the campaign against the Nazi invasion. The descriptions of Nikita's time in the Kolyma camp are perhaps the finest and certainly the most terrifying passages in the book. Here again Aksyonov picks out details with accuracy and wit:
On the one hand, it was a horrifying thought that the police were purging the country of its best people, but on the other, it was the basis for a certain pride—you were sharing the fate of good men, not those from the gutter.
Despite the book's humor and narrative verve, I confess there were passages in it so painful that it was difficult for me to go on reading them, whether the descriptions of Gradov's parents' grief as their sons are taken from them, or the scenes of violence and misery during the collectivization period, or the account of the Nazi massacres of Jews, or of the "22 methods of active investigation," i.e., torture, used in KGB interrogations. Perhaps the most convincing villain in a book rich in villains—from Stalin himself through his fellow Georgian Lavrenti Beria down to the countless Party fixers and military opportunists—is the fictitious Semyon Stroilo, whom we first meet as the youthful lover of Nina Gradov. Stroilo is the archetypal cog in the totalitarian machine. A secret police spy, he plays the part of the Trotskyite proletarian for Nina's benefit and then, during a security police raid on a Trotskyite demonstration, points her out among others as an opponent of the increasingly powerful Stalinist faction in the regime. Later in the book he turns up as an NKVD colonel in charge of interrogations. Here he is seen losing control during the torture of an elderly Jewess:
Something suddenly snapped in Colonel Stroilo … his ardent heart was acting up, and his hands at that point were relatively unstained. He rushed forward, pushed aside his comrades surrounding the criminal, threw the old woman onto the couch, yanked her skirt off, bared the bitch's rear end, took off his solid, heavy belt with a star on the buckle, and went to work with it on her flaccid, decrepit buttocks. He kept at it until the bitch stopped howling and until he went into convulsions, convulsions of fountain-like ejaculations, as had sometimes happened in the days of his youth, many years before, with the professor's daughter [Nina]; he felt very awkward then in front of his comrades.
The word "ardent" in that passage is a masterful touch, as is the torturer's awkwardness before his bestial fellows.
Aksyonov admirably stays in control of his authorial emotions. He never allows his indignation or his compassion to gain the upper hand. There are none of the "big scenes" that a lesser novelist might have permitted himself in the course of an immense historical narrative. He keeps a skeptic's eye both on his characters and on himself as a narrator. Veronika, Nikita's beautiful and dissatisfied wife, is, in the old phrase, no better than she should be: she wants money and men and the world's admiration, and is determined to have them, whether as Marshal Gradov's wife in the upper strata of Moscow society, or in the wastes of the labor camp where she survives by prostituting herself to the camp commander.
The terrible vicissitudes of life, all the ups and downs and ups again have changed Veronika a great deal, thought Mary. Her entire life right now is a sort of challenge—to everyone around her, to impoverished Moscow, to the past. She goes around in chic outfits, wearing furs, earrings, all of which are daring, if not to say impudent.
These thoughts occur to the aging Mary Gradov, Veronika's mother-in-law, as she walks through the streets of wartime Moscow meditating on the fate of her family. Where we might have expected a misty-eyed version of the Eternal Mother, Aksyonov's sharp glance sees through a decent, self-deluding, snobbish woman:
Mary pretended not to notice the curious, delighted stares, not to hear the murmurs: "Marshal Gradov's mother in a streetcar, just think! Marshal Gradov's mother, what a lady, what modesty—no, can that really be Marshal Gradov's mother here in a trolley with us?" The news passed endlessly from people getting off the car to those getting on, while Mary Vakhtangovna sat bursting with pride, but not giving any indication that these discussions had anything to do with her, an upright, stern, humble Russian intellectual, the mother of Marshal Gradov, defender of the Motherland. "Look out there citizens, don't push like that—the marshal's mother is on board!"
The broader political argument that underlies the narrative—that the Revolution was started by bad men and hijacked by worse, who proceeded virtually to destroy Russia and its satellites—seems all too accurate and familiar, especially when considered from the perspective of the 1990s. Recently in these pages David Remnick provided an apposite quotation from Solzhenitsyn: "It is thanks to ideology that it fell to the twentieth century to experience villainy on a scale of millions." What allows Stalin, Beria, and Stroilo—no less than Hitler, Himmler, and Eichmann—to act as they do is the knowledge that the worst of crimes, enormities beyond the world's imaginings, could be justified in the name of an idea. Yet at the heart of the book also there is the sense that somehow Russia is a country cursed by fate and doomed to suffer endlessly. One of the more sympathetic characters in the book, the doctor Savva Kitaigorodsky, Nina's husband, puts this view as follows:
All of modern Russian history looks like a series of breakers—waves of retribution. The February Revolution was retribution for our ruling aristocracy's arrogance and narrow-minded immovability in relation to the people. The October Revolution and the Civil War were retribution against the bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia for their obsessive summons to revolution, for the stirring up of the masses. Collectivization and the campaign against the kulaks were retribution against the peasants for their cruelty in the Civil War, for beating up the clergymen, for the bloodthirsty anarchism. The current purges are retribution against the revolutionaries for the violence they wreaked upon the peasants…. As for the future, it's impossible to predict, but logically we can suppose that there will be even more waves, until this whole cycle of false aspirations comes to an end …
One should not presume to suggest that one character's words express the author's own opinions, but this bleak yet exalted view of destiny is consistent with the unexpectedly inspirational ending of the book, when Kirill Gradov, still a prisoner in the icy wastes of Kolyma labor camp, discovers religion in a scene of great intensity. The reigning spirit in these pages is not Tolstoy but Dostoyevsky.
As I earlier remarked, one can only give a preliminary report on a work of such vastness, intricacy, and ambition which is still only half-published; yet I am prepared to believe that Generations of Winter will live for a very long time, and be seen as one of the more significant historical and literary achievements of a terrible century.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1097
SOURCE: A review of Moscow Saga, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 387-88.
[In the following favorable review, Radley provides brief synopses of Generations of Winter, War and Prison, and Prison and Peace, which make up the three-volume set entitled Moscow Saga. Radley includes a brief discussion of three major techniques Aksyonov uses in the novels.]
Beginning in 1925 with a conversation between an American newspaperman and a politically intriguing Russian political scientist and ending with the final years of the book's central character, Dr. Boris Nikolaevich Gradov, Vassily Aksyonov's major fictional chronicle of the bitter Stalin years evokes all the grandeur of Tolstoy and all the inhuman psychology of Dostoevsky. Aksyonov, arguably the finest novelist now writing in Russian, has abandoned the allusiveness of much of his earlier work to write directly of Russian history and current events.
There are two sets of protagonists, real and fictional, in the three-volume Moskovskaia saga (Moscow Saga). The fictional ones revolve around the Gradovs, a family pictured in several generations, commencing with Dr. Gradov, a dedicated physician and author whose aim is to cure wherever possible. Twice he is given the possibility of helping Stalin: early in volume 1, Pokolenie zimy (Generations of Winter), he relieves the brute's crippling constipation, prompting the latter's exhortation to ask for whatever he wants. Gradov refuses, even though his two sons have been arrested and his daughter is in hiding. One son has become enamored of communist theory, though this does not save him from exile to Siberia, where, at the end of volume 2, Voina i tiur'ma (War and Prison), he has become a religious convert. The other son is eventually rehabilitated so as to serve as a general during the Great War, and then, on the point of arrest again, he is killed. The daughter is a poet reminiscent of Akhmatova, with whom she shares the terror of writing on threat of death.
On the eve of Stalin's death, Gradov is again summoned to the Kremlin, this time to confirm (or deny) a diagnosis Stalin does not wish to hear. This painful scene is a metaphor of the entire trilogy: our dedicated and moral, much-suffering hero must face his past—i.e., Stalin—and help it. He is professional enough to tell Stalin in volume 3, Tiur'ma i mir (Prison and Peace), that he "would recommend … a complete change in [his] way of life … [and that he] no longer work." As Gradov speaks, the reader goes back over all the horrors depicted in the earlier pages and contemplates what this means now to Russian history, and would have meant, if it had come true earlier. Would none of these all too familiar horrors have come to pass? We have been through the arrests, the beatings—a particularly brutal one of a Jewish woman that makes its disgusting leader, Stroilo, a Soviet bureaucratic horror, come to a sexual climax is a metaphor for them all—the camps, the war (Gorni [Babi] Yar is evoked in terrifying detail). Why not kill Stalin, the reader wonders?
Aksyonov's point is that where the real characters are concerned, the events must be those of historical truth. And that historical truth is everywhere. Major (Stalin and Beria in particular) and minor (Bazarov, a minor communist theoretician; Ordzhonokidze, a Georgian communist whom Stalin destroyed) characters are thrown into the novelistic mix. In every case where one interacts with a fictional character, the events are either true or believable. Thus Beria's befriending of a Gradov friend and taking him to Moscow with him to do his dirty work serves the historical novel's purpose: to make the reader aware that the Gradovs themselves are swimming, against their will, in this filth, all the while giving us the goods on the real perpetrators.
So much has been written, both fact and fiction, on this period, that it would have been unwise for Aksyonov to attempt to write investigative history. He does not try. He is giving us instead a re-created Russia and what some for the most part sympathetic folk did to survive it. Dr. Gradov is present from beginning to end, as a kind of unwilling patriarch who manages to live up to his own doctor's credo. His story, Aksyonov makes clear, is not unique. Indeed, it would have been completely lost had not the "packet" which contained it been "sold in 1991 for 300 dollars to an American tourist on the Arbat." The reader, however, will not learn history: he will, rather, learn of those possibilities ignored by history which now reside as fiction.
Aksyonov would not be Aksyonov without authorial tricks. I list three kinds below; the reader should note that there are many others. 1) The author intervenes on numerous occasions to inform the reader of what he is about to see, and appears as a weary but wise guide: at the beginning of part 3 he tells us of Stalin the "God," not "God, Creator of all Things" but rather the "usurper of the revolution's bright ideas" who, amazingly, owned five different cars in which he rode through Moscow. It is up to the writer to investigate this phenomenon: "And so, we have come to this moment where we begin our third volume, toward the end of the forties, when the country, having displayed miracles of courage, was burdened by the stunning fear of Stalin's five cars." This is where the fictionist outshines the historian: he can investigate the five cars and attempt an explanation, and in so doing he can possibly explain an age and an era.
2) The author/narrator invades the personal life of the Kremlin and its leaders, particularly its sexuality and its biological functions. The book is full of references to Stalin's constipation and Beria's "shit" and evokes, in particularly vulgar vocabulary, the vicious sexuality of the communist leaders. This coarseness is a calculated effect: it is Aksyonov's statement on the events. When Dr. Gradov cures Stalin's constipation, Aksyonov slyly stresses that this in no way meant that there was no shit left in Stalin. 3) At several points in the book, in classic Dos Passos style, Aksyonov provides actual contemporaneous press-clipping excerpts from Russian and Western books, magazines, and newspapers. This is always followed by a prose poem which serves as a perspective through time on the events: Aksyonov moves back to the eighteenth century only to jump forward to the 1980s.
Moskovskaia saga is a major work and a major achievement. A review of this length cannot begin to do it justice. Suffice it to say that anyone who cares about Russian literature today must read it.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 212
Bayley, John. "Kitsch and the Novel." New York Review of Books XXXI, No. 18 (22 November 1984): 28-32.
A review of The Island of Crimea, The Burn, and works by several other Russian authors.
Brown, Deming. Review of The Island of Crimea, by Vassily Aksyonov. Slavic Review 42, No. 2 (Summer 1983): 336-37.
Brief plot synopsis of and introduction to The Island of Crimea.
Eberstadt, Fernanda. A review of The Burn, by Vassily Aksyonov. Commentary 80, No. 1 (July 1985): 39-41.
Discusses the mixture of attitudes Aksyonov takes in The Burn.
Hosking, Geoffrey. "The Ascent out of Inhumanity." Times Literary Supplement 4095 (25 September 1981): 1087.
Discusses Aksyonov's two novels, The Burn and The Island of Crimea, and Aksyonov's place as a novelist of the 1960s.
Matich, Olga. "Vasilii Aksyonov and the Literature of Convergence: Ostrov Krym as Self-Criticism." Slavic Review 47, No. 4 (Winter, 1988): 642-51.
Focuses on the literary style and "antiutopian" quality of The Island of Crimea.
Muchnic, Helen. "From Russia with Candor." The New York Times Book Review (27 February 1983): 1, 32-33.
A review of Metropol, a literary almanac co-edited by Aksyonov and others, published in 1979.
Robinson, Harlow. "From Moscow: fiction, poems, and more." Christian Science Monitor (12 August 1983): B3.
A review of Metropol.