Vassily S(emenovich) Yanovsky Critical Essays (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Yanovsky, Vassily S(emenovich) (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Yanovsky, Vassily S(emenovich) 1906–

Yanovsky, a Russian mathematician and doctor, has lived in the United States for the last thirty years. He is the author of ten novels, among these, No Man's Time and Of Light and Sounding Brass.

The Russian doctor and mathematician, in the States for 30 years (and evidently in a state for those decades as well—a state of internal exile, a tyranny tempered by epigrams: "tainted meat plus spices—that is civilization"), is a kind of unexploited international resource. Vassily S. Yanovsky is the author of 10 novels, though he has no readership. Fortunately he has had one great reader, Auden, who wrote an introduction to "No Man's Time," Yanovsky's first novel to appear in English, in 1967, when the author was 60. (Others have been published in France and Italy. In Russia, he is a closed book.)

Auden called attention to the kind of playfulness ("unfailing tact") and beauty ("scenes I shall remember as long as I live") in store and apparently in stock, for Yanovsky's new book [Of Light and Sounding Brass] is as rich in authoritative verbal texture and vivid emblematic incident as its predecessor….

Nabokov is the right Russian writer to invoke, and of course he has been invoked, in any attempt to say what Yanovsky is like; but only "Bend Sinister" has the passionate intensity, the compulsive awfulness which is Yanovsky's particular forte, or perhaps fortress. As a novelist he defends himself, behind barricades of unlikeliness, from the likely charge that he is interested in ideas, that he is "religious" or even "scientific" (he is both)….

Tolstoy once described the young Gorky as a man who "watches everything, notices everybody, and reports to a God of his own." Perhaps all Russian writers do this. None reports to a stranger God than the heretic Yanovsky—who is concerned, in this double-chambered fantasy (Part One is also labeled "or Two," and the Epilogue is said to be the Prologue as well, so that the "Light" in the title may in fact be no more than "Sounding Brass," and the other way round), to chart, against all one-directional, irreversible "laws" of time, place and memory, how a man's mind and his biography go their separate ways.

The thematics of the novel is therefore a matter as well as a manner of division, duplicity, the fundamental two-ness which (from title to the system of coordinates given on a graph on the last page) prevails in this story, the retrieval of the life of one Kassianov, or Master Kassian. Half is the resonance of sounding brass, neurosis, nonsense and nightmare called "Rehearsal for a Confession." The other half, lost somewhere in a time-fold whereby a detachment of the Nazi army wandering through (is it?) Azerbaijan comes close to extinguishing the narrator long after Hitler himself has been defeated (or perhaps he was even invented) is portentously titled "A Certain Light."

In this narrative part of the book we are in the world of myth, the world where nothing ever happens because it always is. I have called it a fantasy world—there is the same kind of ominous utopia in "No Man's Time": sensuous, baffling, irreducible—but it is, really, the world of religion, the cyclical world where everyone has the same name and death has no dominion, merely dimension. Whereas for our world, of course—the world is greedily mocked in "Sounding Brass"—death is all mastery and has no meaning at all.

Yanovsky is very good at separating these ways of thinking, or at least of conceiving experience. His comedy and his acuteness back him up, where they do not forearm him; and it should be remarked that the astonishing translations of his books (by the author and his wife) suggest, as in Nabokov's case, that whatever may have been lost, something else has been gained in translation (a kind of shrewd thingness about the representation of experience) so that even the wildest or weariest excursions into moralism and confession are worked into the texture of a dramatized consciousness….

When we read on the jacket that the mysterious Dr. Yanovsky "has always divided his time between medicine and writing," we know—for he has taught us—that time can be divided and that it is indivisible and that it is still something else: call it poetry, or fiction. The words mean the same thing, something made.

Richard Howard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 17, 1972, pp. 7, 21.

Yanovsky's Of Light and Sounding Brass works at a [deep] level. Not having been prepared myself, I am eager to prepare others. In the first half of the book a middle-aged man named Kassianov is married to an invalid wife named Zora. She never speaks and she never gets up. Kassianov takes care of her but, in the absence of conjugal consortium, is attracted to other women as well. At the end of the first half of the book, she dies.

Since this event follows many pages of Kassianov's ruminations, it is in context thrilling. Meanwhile, his sexual adventures have terminated abruptly. Instead he divides or subdivides himself into at least three, who are given separate names. Kassianov remains more or less in charge, but he is also Nape and, or, Vishnevsky. Nape is utterly instinctive, practical, and competent…. Vishnevsky is lazy, frivolous, self-indulgent…. He is also greedy for seduction. Kassianov maintains an uneasy control over these satellite selves—rather fancying, after their crudities, his own sophistication, his own delicacies. But he is frightened of them too, uncertain of his power. Given so much internal debate and moral speculation, all in confessional form, Zora's death allows the story to pivot….

This is a sad, difficult, and beautiful book.

Mary Ellmann, in The Yale Review (© 1973 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1973, pp. 463-64.