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In September, 1965, a Soviet literary scholar named Andrei Sinyavsky, who was about to celebrate his fortieth birthday, was arrested and charged with subversion. Beginning in 1959, manuscripts of several works by Sinyavsky had been smuggled to the West, where they were published under the pseudonym Abram Tertz. These works included a literary manifesto, Chto takoe sotsialisticheskii realizm (1959; On Socialist Realism, 1960); a volume of short fiction, Fantasticheskie povesti (1961; Fantastic Stories, 1963); and two short novels, Sud idyot (1960; The Trial Begins, 1960) and Lyubimov (1964; The Makepeace Experiment, 1965). A small collection of aphorisms and reflections, Mysli vrasplokh (1966; Unguarded Thoughts, 1972), first appeared in the American periodical The New Leader a few months before Sinyavsky’s arrest, under the title “Thought Unaware”; this work was particularly important for its revelation of Sinyavsky’s devout Russian Orthodox faith.

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There had been considerable speculation in the West concerning the identity of the mysterious Abram Tertz, and Sinyavsky’s trial, in February, 1966, provoked international protest. (Yuli Daniel, another writer whose works had appeared pseudonymously in the West, was tried at the same time.) Receiving a seven-year sentence, Sinyavsky was sent to Dubrovlag, a complex of labor camps about three hundred miles east of Moscow, where there were sawmills and factories for producing furniture. It was during this time (he served more than six years of his sentence) that Sinyavsky wrote the bulk of A Voice from the Chorus.

The form of the book reflects the circumstances of its composition. In the labor camp Sinyavsky was allowed to write twice a month to his wife, Maria; everything he wrote had to be passed by the camp censor. Instead of allowing these circumstances to discourage him, Sinyavsky turned them to his own advantage. In addition to the meditations that became A Voice from the Chorus, Sinyavsky wrote a good part of a long critical study of Nikolai Gogol, V teni Gogolia (1975; in the shadow of Gogol), and a shorter study of Alexander Pushkin, Progulki s Pushkinym (1975; walks with Pushkin)—all this in the guise of letters to his wife. (As the critic Clarence Brown has remarked, the censor who inspected these letters “must have thought the Sinyavskys the most cerebral couple since the invention of marriage.”)

A Voice from the Chorus (the title is that of a poem by Aleksandr Blok) is an unclassifiable book, one that does not fit in any clearly defined genre. It comprises two sharply contrasting kinds of material. On the one hand, there are Sinyavsky’s meditations, reflections, pensees, aphorisms, ranging in length from a single line to several pages; the average page includes several entries. The subjects of these meditations are richly various, but there is among them a dominant theme: the nature of art. On the other hand, alternating with Sinyavsky’s reflective voice, there is the “chorus”: In these passages, which are italicized to distinguish them from Sinyavsky’s own words, one hears the diverse voices of his fellow prisoners— slangy, pungent, ignorant, pious, mean, whimsical, fatuous, wise. Sometimes Sinyavsky comments on these voices or provides a context for them:In answer to a question about Christianity and the New Testament—with a hurt expression: “Why weren’t the apostles Ukrainians?”

On other occasions he presents, without comment, a string of quotations from the chorus on a given topic, or simply a list of colorful expressions.

The book is divided into seven parts. The first six parts (comprising 316 of the book’s 328 pages) correspond to the years of Sinyavsky’s imprisonment, from 1966 to 1971. While most of the entries are not dated, there are a handful of dated entries scattered throughout the book, serving the reader as chronological markers. Similarly, while the text generally resembles a notebook or journal rather than a collection of letters, Sinyavsky has retained a few passages in which he directly addresses his wife, reminding the reader of the personal context of these meditations.

The seventh and final part of the book—by far the shortest—was written after Sinyavsky’s release. (In 1973, he and his wife and son were permitted to emigrate to Paris, where Sinyavsky began teaching at the Sorbonne.) Here, he records some of his thoughts on returning to ordinary life: his sense of disorientation (“the feeling of a dead man appearing at life’s feast”) but also his awareness that the book he has made now has a sovereign existence of its own.

A Voice from the Chorus

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The tradition of prison literature is a long and honorable one, and A Voice from the Chorus is a worthy addition. Andrei Sinyavsky, a young teacher and literary critic, had his writings smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the West under the pseudonym “Abram Tertz.” (The name is that of the “hero” of an underworld ballad.) The works were in no ordinary sense politically subversive. They rather represented, both in critical writing and practice, a reaction against “Socialist Realism” which in some eyes may have been even more dangerous. After successfully publishing in the West from 1959, Sinyavsky was discovered and arrested. With another author similarly charged, he was brought to trial in February, 1966. Despite protests from the Western world, and murmurs and disillusion within the Soviet Union, he was sentenced to seven years in “corrective labor camps.” Released in June of 1971, he later moved to Paris.

A Voice from the Chorus is not a narrative of prison experience; it is not really a narrative at all. Nor is it an analysis of that experience, nor an attack on the system. Comparison with The Gulag Archipelago, for example, would be irrelevant. During his six years in Dubrovlag, Sinyavsky wrote long letters to his wife—two a month were all the rules permitted, and these, of course, went through censors. She kept the letters, and the book is a series of extracts, often only a sentence or two, rarely more than a page, from the letters. What we have then, is a book of pensées. Although the prison experience adds interest, and may have sharpened or deepened the author’s thoughts, it is the explicit theme only rarely, and then the concern is usually with human conditions and reactions, rather than political or sociological observations.

In counterpoint to the author’s soliloquy throughout are snatches of conversation from the other prisoners—the “chorus” of the title. The sections are rarely connected—they are fragments, hardly ever more than a sentence in length—though often they are unified by a common note or theme. Most of the speakers are evidently ill-educated or uneducated, many are recognizably “ordinary criminals,” not political prisoners like Sinyavsky. According to the Introduction, the Russian of these passages is full of dialect, argot, and slang; and the vernacular is part of the message. Probably with wisdom, the translator has not attempted to convey this flavor in English, though there is a suggestion that one passage is full of malapropisms. The subjects of these chorus passages are frequently neither fixed nor clear, as snatches of overheard conversation hardly ever can be. The meditations and musings Sinyavsky himself sets down range widely, as is to be expected from a series of letters. The weather recurs, not merely as the staple concern it is with most people, but as a subject of reflection. Camp routine and depictions of relations among prisoners are there, but they are not of primary interest.

What interests Sinyavsky is art, and above all, literature. For the non-Russian, the references to Russian literature, which of course dominate, may fascinate, but not always satisfy—like the allusions in Russian novels to folk songs unheard of in the West. However, so much of the concern in these brief passages is with art and literature in general, not with specific criticism, that the difficulty is not great. What may seen remarkable to the reader is Sinyavsky’s familiarity with a wide variety of English literature. In fact, when the Tertz pieces first appeared, it was argued that they could not have been written inside the Soviet Union, so wide and sophisticated was the literary knowledge they displayed. One might expect familiarity with Shakespeare, and Hamlet is indeed the subject of numerous reflections by foreign authors; but the discussions of Swift and Defoe, the judgment that Robinson Crusoe, is the “most useful, exhilarating, and benign novel,” strike the reader as particularly well-informed remarks.

At one point during his imprisonment, the author’s wife had written him of reading to their small son Kipling’s story of the baby elephant who is almost victim to the crocodile, and the boy was in tears. The mother reassured him; he had heard the story before, and knew it came out right, but, said the boy through his tears, suppose this time he doesn’t make it? Sinyavsky takes the reaction and pursues an idea: this is the fascination of literature, that we can be enthralled even when we know the ending. This is why fairy tales should never be interrupted. This is why the “Great Drama” was not just a single occurrence, but is reenacted through the cycle of liturgical feasts.

The passage also points out several other of Sinyavsky’s consistent interests. Religion is an abiding concern, surprising perhaps in one reared in the modern Soviet Union, but not surprising at all in a Russian. Himself a Russian Orthodox Christian, the author discusses the tremendous importance of verbal differences in religious quarrels, as illustrated by the Old Believers’ insistence on retaining precise words in the Creed. There is the suggestion, elsewhere, that Catholicism is the religion of the Father, Protestantism of the Son, but Orthodoxy of the Holy Spirit. He does not pursue the comparison, but discusses (in one of the longer passages) the influence of the Spirit on Russia and the Russian character. Still another passage, this one from an article on early Russian church architecture, puts emphasis upon the Russian idea of the protective mantle of the Virgin.

Here again, no thorough investigation or amplification appears. Sinyavsky is not a theologian or even a spiritual writer, but a man writing his wife thoughts stimulated by something he has read, yesterday or ten years ago, or heard, or somehow else brought to mind. Here, too, however, the thought and insight can cast sparks. If primarily this is the result of a thoughtful and original mind, it is also a well-stocked mind. It is the very depth and range of Sinyavsky’s interests and knowledge that make sharper the contrast with his “Chorus.” Some of their remarks reflect sheer ignorance, whether of science or language; but nevertheless, the chorus often echoes a certain “folk-wisdom,” or “street knowledge,” and reflects a wide range of experience. Though all Sinyavsky does is to quote these bits and pieces, the arrangement somehow unmistakably conveys his compassion and his respect for the choristers as people. Their frequently disconnected observations cover crime and punishment, women and sex, money, and the other things that interest single men in barracks. Comments on the prison itself, or on the guards and other attendants, are rare. (The censorship may account for that.) Here, somehow again by arrangement, the atmosphere of the labor camp is conveyed, rather than in any extended discussion by Sinyavsky himself.

Yet the camp is the persistent setting and environment of the book—always there, whether mentioned or not. One feels, not so much the mention of forbidden zones, which does occur, but the pressure of enforced living with all these others, when solitude is plainly a necessity (occasional, but still a necessity) for a man like Sinyavsky. One feels, though direct expression is rare, his longing for wife and son. Yet complaint and self-pity are almost totally absent, and their very absence may make the horror of the camps and the system more real.

Perhaps what gives prison literature its special character is the separation from the rest of society; perhaps, as Dr. Johnson said of the prospect of hanging, it concentrates the mind. What gives this prison book its further character is the knowledge on our part that the crime for which Sinyavsky was sentenced—whatever the legal jargon—was his refusal to submit his mind, to stop thinking and writing, and the further crime that the world knew it. Perhaps, through the censorship, the “chorus” says something about both the pressures of the society and the resistance. Perhaps, as Hayward suggests in the Introduction, when Sinyavsky describes the code of honor among thieves, and their high respect for it, he is saying something about Soviet society. Such thoughts are bound to occur. It is a further consideration that the trial and imprisonment took place, not under Stalin, but years after his death. Systems and ideas have a way of outliving individual leaders.

The book itself is hard to assess as a whole, because it is a collection; some items in the collection are wonderful, while some inevitably produce a desire for further elaboration, or for more careful argument. But these weaknesses are offset by the virtues of brevity and multiplicity. The book’s organization and unity stem not from a scheme, but from the presentation of a single personality. There are books whose importance lies in their ideas, and others whose great value is that they put the reader in touch with a person. There are certainly ideas in A Voice from the Chorus, but it is our insight into one man’s mind which is truly exceptional. In the presence of the author’s courage and serenity one is both fascinated and impressed.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 106

Brown, Clarence, ed. The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader, 1985.

Brown, Deming. “The Art of Andrei Sinyavsky,” in Slavic Review. XXIX (December, 1970), pp. 663-681.

Fanger, Donald. “A Change of Venue: Russian Journals of the Emigration,” in The Times Literary Supplement. November 21, 1986, pp. 1321-1322.

Fanger, Donald. “Conflicting Imperatives in the Model of the Russian Writer: The Case of Tertz/Sinyavsky,” in Literature and History: Theoretical Problems and Russian Case Studies, 1986. Edited by Gary S. Morson.

Hayward, Max. Writers in Russia: 1917-1978, 1983.

Labedz, Leopold, and Max Hayward, eds. On Trial: The Case of Sinyavsky (Tertz) and Daniel (Arzhak), Documents, 1967.

Lourie, Richard. Letters to the Future: An Approach to Sinyavsky/Tertz, 1975.

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