Authors: Andrei Sinyavsky

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Russian novelist


Andrei Donatovich Sinyavsky (sihn-YOV-skee) was the godfather of the post-Stalin renaissance in Russian literature. Born on October 8, 1925, into the family of an ineffectual radical idealist, Sinyavsky was reared as a true believer in the Communist system. Although well-educated, his parents held menial white-collar jobs. In his late teens Sinyavsky served in the Soviet army. Demobilized, he entered Moscow University in 1947, where he defended his dissertation on Maxim Gorky, the father of Socialist Realism, in 1952. Two friendships of his student years would have enormous consequences for Sinyavsky: Hélène Pelletier, the daughter of the French naval attaché who was permitted to attend Moscow University, and Yuli Daniel, whose bohemian apartment became a center for young intellectuals. Soon after graduation Sinyavsky was married to Mariya Rozanova, a student of art history. Although Sinyavsky had acquired some exposure to Western literature and art, he remained a fervent believer in the moral integrity of the Communist system. The first doubt arose when his father was arrested in 1951 on preposterous charges. In the early 1950’s Sinyavsky worked as a lecturer at Moscow University and then as a researcher at the Institute of World Literature. His articles were bringing him a degree of renown, but he wished to write fiction as well. Sinyavsky’s first story, “At the Circus” (1955), already reflects his love of the phantasmagoric and his persistent identification of the artist with the criminal.{$I[AN]9810000878}{$I[A]Sinyavsky, Andrei}{$S[A]Tertz, Abram;Sinyavsky, Andrei}{$I[geo]RUSSIA;Sinyavsky, Andrei}{$I[tim]1925;Sinyavsky, Andrei}

Nikita Khrushchev’s historic 1956 denunciation of Stalin’s twenty-year reign of terror shattered Sinyavsky’s illusions. His new friendship with Boris Pasternak, who had sent his suppressed novel, Doctor Zhivago (1957), abroad, perhaps inspired him to ask Pelletier to smuggle his work abroad for publication. Under the pseudonym Abram Tertz, two long works appeared in France in 1959: a theoretical essay, On Socialist Realism, decrying the sterility of Socialist Realism and calling for a new “phantasmagoric” literature, and a novella, The Trial Begins, which illustrated the essay’s literary thesis and was a powerful indictment of the Stalinist dictum that the end justifies the means. In 1961, his story collection Fantastic Stories appeared in the West, followed two years later by The Makepeace Experiment, an antiutopian political fantasy. Sinyavsky’s reflections on many themes, especially religious ones, appeared in a collection of aphoristic notes entitled Unguarded Thoughts. These Western publications created a sensation and endless speculation about the identity of their author. Sinyavsky/Tertz successfully led his double life for nearly six years. Pressure mounted after the fall of the relatively liberal Khrushchev in 1964. In late 1965, the Soviet government learned the identity of “Tertz,” and Sinyavsky and his fellow writer Yuli Daniel were arrested. Wishing to preserve the appearance of legality in the eyes of Western public opinion, Soviet officials orchestrated a show trial in February, 1966. Although the trial was closed to the Western press, the defendants’ wives smuggled out their own handwritten transcripts, which were published abroad. Sinyavsky was sentenced to seven years.

Sinyavsky was released in June of 1971, and two years later he was permitted to emigrate to France with his wife and child. The camp years had not been wasted. During his sentence he had utilized his bimonthly letters to his wife to pour out his thoughts on many subjects. Once in Paris, these letters, totaling some fifteen hundred pages, became the nuclei of three books. A Voice from the Chorus is a gathering of reflections inspired both by camp life and by the author’s philosophical and artistic interests. The other two volumes, V teni Gogolya (in the shadow of Gogol) and Strolls with Pushkin, are irreverent and highly personal meditations on two giants of Russian literature. Sinyavsky resumed his career as a creative writer with Kroshka Tsores (little Tsores), a brief novella exploring the theme of guilt and the artist. The major work of the emigration is Goodnight!, a long, highly fragmented, phantasmagoric memoir-novel about Sinyavsky’s life as a Soviet intellectual and secret dissident writer, his betrayal, his trial, and his years in a labor camp.

Sinyavsky, who secured a teaching position at the Sorbonne, was widely known and translated into many languages, but his life in emigration was not easy. Just as he found himself in conflict with Soviet society, he also found himself odd man out in émigré circles. Émigré journals at first welcomed Sinyavsky to their pages, where he published penetrating essays on the Soviet scene. His brilliantly eccentric views proved unacceptable to opinionated editors, however, and he soon found himself without an outlet for his writings. Partially in response, Sinyavsky and his wife established their own small journal. Beginning in 1978, Sintaksis served as a forum for the views of Sinyavsky and other émigré writers who urge a “pluralist” outlook in opposition to those who favor more traditional, if not authoritarian approaches to art and society.

Goodnight! is a distillation of Sinyavsky’s approach to fiction. Densely metaphoric and richly allusive, it makes heavy demands on the reader’s knowledge of culture and history (especially Russian), as well as of the author’s own life. Each of the memoir-novel’s five chapters centers on the events of a particular night. The biographic fact serves as a point of departure for numerous seemingly unrelated vignettes that ultimately form a sort of ornate, surrealist mosaic depicting one man’s life during the nightmare of Stalinism.

In spite of the structural and stylistic complexity of Sinyavsky’s writings, his themes are simple: Stalinist tyranny and the nature of art and the artist. Stalinism very nearly destroyed a nation and its culture–all in the name of an ideal, Communism. The means perverted the goal. So bizarre was that world that it could be rendered only by an equally bizarre, phantasmagoric art. Sinyavsky’s other theme was the transcending power of art and the inherently subversive character of the free artist. These two interconnected themes unite Sinyavsky’s oeuvre from The Trial Begins through Goodnight! and his critical and journalistic writings.

Andrei Sinyavsky introduced a fantastic, modernist, aesthetically oriented prose into a literature which had been stifled by a primitive, dogmatic Socialist Realism. Although the realistic strain remains dominant in Russian letters, Sinyavsky’s seminal essay On Socialist Realism and his subsequent fiction blazed a path for the revival of the fantastic. Both Vassily Aksyonov and Sasha Sokolov, the most important younger writers to emerge in the 1960’s and 1970’s (and later both émigrés), heeded Sinyavsky/Tertz’s phantasmagoric imperative.

BibliographyCarrington, Ildiko de Papp. “Demons, Doubles, and Dinosaurs: Life Before Man, the Origins of Consciousness, and ‘The Icicle’.” Essays on Canadian Writing 33 (1986) 68-88. A useful study of Sinyavsky’s story.Dalton, Margaret. Andrei Siniavskii and Julii Daniel: Two Soviet “Heretical” Writers. Würzburg: Jal-verlag, 1973. Along with a discussion of the other works that Sinyavsky wrote prior to his arrest, this study contains a detailed story-by-story analysis of the six stories from that period. Throughout, Dalton pays special attention to the unusual literary devices that often make the works difficult to interpret. Contains notes and a bibliography.Durkin, Andrew R. “Narrator, Metaphor, and Theme in Sinjavskij’s Fantastic Tales.” Slavic and East European Journal 24 (1980); 133-144. Durkin divides the six early stories into three pairs for the purposes of analysis, but his goal is to discern the thematic concerns and formal devices that link all the stories. He emphasizes the role of art and of the artist, as well as the theme of escape, or liberation.Fenander, Sara. “Author and Autocrat: Tertz’s Stalin and the Ruse of Charisma.” The Russian Review 58 (April, 1999): 286-297. Discusses Sinyavsky in his role as both cultural critic and provocateur, Abram Tertz; claims that by turning the discredited Joseph Stalin into a double for himself, Sinyavsky/Tertz reveals both the artistry of Stalinism and the mythical privileged place of the writer in Russian culture.Frank, Joseph. “The Triumph of Abram Tertz.” The New York Review of Books 38 (June 27, 1991): 35-43. A brief biographical and critical discussion of the events of Sinyavsky’s life and the nature of his fiction. Notes the importance of his trial for having his works published out of the Soviet Union.Haber, Erika. “In Search of the Fantastic in Tertz’s Fantastic Realism.” Slavic and East European Journal 42 (Summer, 1998): 254-267. Shows how the presence of an eccentric narrator who often plays a double role as both character and narrator, creating a highly self-conscious text is a basic feature of Tertz’s fantastic realism; claims that his narrators at times contradict and even oppose the characters and events they describe, thereby creating a tension between the content of the stories and the manner of their presentation.Kolonosky, Walter. “Andrei Sinyavsky: Puzzle Maker.” Slavic and East European Journal 42 (Fall, 1998): 385-388. Compares Sinyavsky’s works to puzzles; his pieces are not simply read, but contain historical references, allegorical links, language peculiarities, grotesque allusions, and autobiographical asides that require interpretation.Kolonosky, Walter. “Inherent and Ulterior Design in Sinyavsky’s ‘Pxenc.’” Slavic and East European Journal 26 (1982): 329-337. Accepting the notion that “Pkhentz” is, on one level, a work of scientific fiction, Kolonosky claims that it is primarily an allegory about faith, and he traces examples of Christian symbolism within the story.Lourie, Richard. Letters to the Future: An Approach to Sinyavsky-Tertz. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975. Lourie devotes a separate chapter to the Fantastic Stories; his analyses are distinctive both for his critiques of certain stories (he believes that only “The Icicle” and “Pkhentz” are totally successful) and for his efforts to show their relationship to other works in Russian literature. Includes notes, bibliography, and an index.Morsberger, Grace Anne. “‘The Icicle’ as Allegory.” Odyssey 42 (1981): 15-18. A short but interesting study of the story.Nepomnyashchy, Catharine Theimer. “Andrei Donatovich Sinyavsky (1925-1997).” Slavic and East European Journal 42 (Fall, 1998): 367-371. Claims that Sinyavsky’s works have been misunderstood; challenges the characterization of him as a political dissident and argues for a view of his texts as works that engage fantasy and encourage the fanciful.Peterson, Ronald E. “The Writer as Alien in Sinjavskij’s ‘Pkhens’.” Wiener Slavistischer Almanach 12 (1982): 47-53. Examines the autobiographical element in this stort story.Pevear, Richard. “Sinyavsky in Two Worlds: Two Brothers Named Chénier.” The Hudson Review 25 (1972): 375-402. Pevear contrasts Sinyavsky and Yevgeny Yevtushenko in an effort to elucidate Sinyavsky’s views about the tasks of the writer. Contains a thoughtful analysis of “The Icicle.”Theimer Nepomnyashchy, Catherine. “Andrei Sinyavsky’s ‘You and I’: A Modern Day Fantastic Tale.” Ulbandus Review 2, no. 2 (1982): 209-230. Notes Sinyavsky’s flaunting of his literary antecedents (Hoffmann, Gogol, Dostoevski). Prefers to view the story not so much as a study in mental disorder as “a realized metaphor–a literal working out of the vision of the artist as God” and thus as a tale combining both the biblical and the fantastic.Theimer Nepomnyashchy, Catherine. “Sinyavsky/Tertz: The Evolution of the Writer in Exile.” Humanities in Society 7, no. 314 (1984): 123-142. After providing a brief overview of Sinyavsky’s career during his first decade in the West, the author goes on to detail Sinyavsky’s concerns with the role of the writer in relationship to reality and society at large. Concludes with a discussion of Kroshka Tsores.
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