Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.

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...

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A Voice from the Chorus

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

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...

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.