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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy

Writing in the Margins:
In Praise of Emigration

The novel Goodnight, signed by Abram Tertz and based on Andrei Sinyavsky's autobiography, contains a series of inserted texts, printed in a contrasting font and thereby set off from the body of the work. In one of these inserted texts, entitled "西觇," the author describes his (that is, Sinyavsky's) release in 1971 after almost six years of imprisonment for having sent his works abroad, into "emigration," for publication. "西觇," like the other highlighted passages in Goodnight, stands in a complex relationship to the novel as a whole and to its immediate textual context. In his prefatory remarks to "西觇," the author explains that in this "sketch" he is re-presenting the narrative of his release, chronicled in the preceding pages, "from a different angle or with a somewhat different focus." I am interested here in one particular episode in "西觇." Before he learns that he is to be freed, the author finds himself in a cell in Potma Transit Prison. Surveying the walls of his cell, the author discovers to his dismay that "The cell from top to bottom was eaten away by a shallow relief, as if flooded by a sea of rearing stone waves. It was impossible to write on this crust. The sharp, flinty crests world break any pencil, devoured drawings and symbols. One could not draw a cross, nor a curse word, nor a name, nor the date of a supposed departure, an execution..." Confronted by this hellish wall, which discourages writing, the writer writes: "I composed, I wrote, understanding perfectly well that that is not the way to write..." In this place where writing is forbidden he manages to write with a pencil on a copy of Izvestiya, both of which he--now a seasoned zek--has managed to smuggle through the search: "On the newspaper, more precisely on the margins of the newspaper and here and there between the lines of the unanimous headlines, without letting out of my sight the round peephole in the door and the thick cave-like deposits along the walls, I undertook with an uneven hand to mark down fleeting signs." The writer thus challenges the authority of the center by scrawling in the margins and by not reading, but writing "between the lines."

In his 1988 article "项踱嚯 桡疣鲨", Sinyavsky echoes this image. In elaborating his argument that emigration can be beneficial for a writer, Sinyavsky, hardly surprisingly, takes the concept of "铖蝠囗屙桢" as his point of departure: "The term 'estrangement" [ostranenie] has its origin in the word "strange" [Stranno]. It follows from that that writers generally speaking or, at least, some writers see the world, the most ordinary world, as a type of strangeness [strannost'] and therefore depict this strangeness." He then maintains that "landing in emigration, the writer becomes a foreigner [inostranets]. Moreover--he proves to be a foreigner in a double sense: both in relation to the countries to which he has emigrated and in relation to his own, native land, whence he left, evidently forever. And he ceases to recognize reality and tries to depict it and realize it anew, proceding at the same time from the two points of his es tranged, his foreign position." Sinyavsky goes on to explicate his "own experience as a double foreigner":

Passing through the little bystreets of the ancient cities of Europe, I don't understand what this is. Then suddenly I see [that it's] a book. The margins in this book are situated not on the edges of the sheet, but in the middle of the page--as a very cramped? roadway faced with compact/thick stone. And the print is located where the margins are usually placed in a book,--along the edges, as buildings hanging over my head. Sometimes the text lies under my feet like a roadway, which the buildings present themselves as pile-dwellings. And as a result I don't know what is beneath me. A street or a page? A city or a book? Perhaps both?

As in the passage from "西觇" discussed above, here the writer transforms the real situations presented to him by life into metaphor: the relationship between text and life becomes not mirroring but troping. That is, through metaphor, the writer discovers in the reality of his life an analogue for his vision of the creative process. The relationship between life and text, between cityscape and book becomes blurred. Emigration becomes less a physical displacement than a figure for the perceptual shift, the bifurcation of vision that gives birth to estrangement and metaphor, which, as we shall see below, are closely interrelated processes in Tertz's writings.

We need not, of course, look long or hard in Russian, or more properly Soviet, culture for a deeply-rooted conception of emigration not as a transplantation of the physical body, but rather as an imaginary space, a metaphor. The ideologically-charged term "internal emigre" was used as far back as the 1920s to stigmatize as outsiders--moreover, more or less implicitly hostile outsiders--people, often writers, who, while continuing to reside within the geographical boundaries of the Soviet Union, actually or apparently did not share the ethos of the politico-cultural system. Thus, in the first article in the Soviet press campaign launched against Sinyavsky and Daniel in the weeks preceding their February 1966 trial, the author, one Dmitry Eremin, maintained that the two writers had placed themselves "outside our literature, outside the community of Soviet people," that they were "emigrants of a particular sort: internal. They locked themselves up in their rotten little world. There their malicious passions seethed. There they dippled their quills into inkwells with poison." The crux of Eremin's argument is adumbrated in the title of his article: "襄疱忮痱". Throughout his article, Eremin berates the two writers for their "溻箴篪龛麇耱忸", for having masqueraded as loyal Soviet men of letters, while their overt activities were only "a false facade. Behind it was hidden something different: hatred of our system, vile mockery of what is most precious for the Motherland [Rodina] and the people [narod]." Sinyavsky's and Daniel's "crime" therefore lies not only in that (and here I am again citing Eremin) they "Both spit out onto paper all that is most vile and dirty," that they revealed what should be suppressed, but also that they, by the lights of Eremin and his ilk, had engaged in treacherous imposture. For Eremin, as for Sinyavsky and Daniel's other official Soviet detractors, you could not be both a respected member of the Writer's Union and a tamizdat author. The former could only be a mask for the latter. Membership in the nation is defined neither by geographical residence or legal citizenship, but rather by loyalty and conformity, which includes in fact being what one seems to be.

In his closing speech at his trial, Sinyavsky responded to Eremin and others who had attacked him in the press and in the courtroom by referring to his story "Pkhents": "In my unpublished story 'Pkhents' there is a sentence that I consider autobiographical: 'You think that if I am simply different, you must immediately curse me...' So there it is: I am different. But I do not regard myself as an enemy, and my works are not hostile works." It is certainly no accident that Sinyavsky adduced precisely the story "Pkhents"--a story about an "emigre"--to exemplify both his narrowly autobiographical and, more important, his more broadly theoretical stance. Nor is it an accident that "Pkhents" was among the first written of Abram Tertz's fantastical tales. The first-person narrator of "Pkhents" claims to be an alien from another planet, who was the sole survivor when the spaceship in which he was travelling crashed on earth and who subsequently adopted a false identity, hiding his true self behind a forged facade. "Pkhents" is an extraodinarily rich story, arguably the most powerful of Tertz's stories and one of the great Russian short stories of the twentieth century to which I cannot do full justice here. For my present purposes, I will merely point, first, to the narrator's relatively transparent figuration of the Soviet underground writer as an "internal emigre" and then direct your attention to two passages in the story in which the alien creature explicates his dilemma as a being caught between two worlds between which he must translate. In the first excerpt the narrator laments his own problems getting his bearings:

You can see for yourself--a creature from another world. Not from Africa, not from India, not even from Mars or your Venus, but even farther, even more unattainable. You don't even have such names, and I myself--lay out before me all the astronomical maps and plans there are available--I will not be able to find, honestly, I will not be able to find that magnificent point where I was born.

First of all, I am not a specialist in astronomy. I went where I was taken. Secondly, it is a completely different picture, and I couldn't recognize my native sky in your books and papers. I even now--go out on the street at night, raise my head and see: again it's not right! And I also don't know in which direction to grieve. Perhaps, from here it's impossible to see not only my earth, but even my sun. Perhaps it's registered on the other side of the galaxy. It's impossible to figure out!

The emigre's situation here confronts him with the relativity of all perception, all system of measurement, all representation. He has forced on him the realization that there is not one center--sun--but at least two. He is trapped by maps of reality that cannot show him the way home.

In the second instance I am adducing here, the narrator of "Pkhents" imagines what might happen if he were to shed his disguise as a humble Soviet bookkeeper and unmask himself. He is confounded by the impossibility he foresees of answering the questions scholars would inevitably pose him:

How can they understand me when I myself in their language can in no way express my unhuman essence. I do nothing but dodge all over the place and make do with metaphors, but as soon as it comes to what is most important--I fall silent. And I only see the solid, low GOGRY, I hear the swift VZGLYAGU, and the indescribably beautiful PKHENTS overshadows my trunk. Ever fewer and fewer of these words remain in my fading memory. The sounds of human speech can only approximately convey their construction. And if linguists were to crowd around and ask what it means, I would say only GOGRY TUZHEROSKIP and make a helpless gesture.

Metaphor thus becomes the only means of translating, albeit approximately, between two languages, two systems of coordinates, two worlds.

In "In Praise of Emigration," Sinyavsky adduces as the "simplest case" of estrangement "Gulliver in the country of the Lilliputians, where the Lilliputians in one episode appear in the role of writers and therefore describe, as something strange [strannoe], extraordinary, the most ordinary things extracted from Gulliver's pockets: a handkerchief, a comb, a pocket watch..." This observation written by Sinyavsky in emigration echoes a passage from A Voice from the Chorus, written some two decades earlier in a Soviet hard labor camp and signed by Tertz:

...Let us note: Swift describes the contents of our pockets as an amazing phenomenon or a peculiar case requiring proof. Gulliver's watch is not a watch, his comb is not a comb, his handkerchief is not a handkerchief, but something unimaginable in the eyes of the Lilliputians, which does not yield to understanding and therefore is stretched out into pages of exciting plot. Swift's discovery, fundamental for art, was that there are no uninteresting objects on earth as long as there exists an artist who fixes his gaze on everything with the incomprehension of a dullard. "It's understood, it's been understood for a long time!"--voices are heard all around--"They are just scissors! What's all the fuss?" But the artist cannot and should not understand anything. He is unfamiliar with the word "scissors." Stepping back a few paces and continuing to be amazed, he undertakes to describe them in the form of a riddle [zagadka]. "Two ends, two rings, and in the middle a tack." Instead of comprehension, instead of answers--he proposes representation. It is enigmatic [zagadochno].

Here, as in "Pkhents," the writer locates the origin of the estranging perspective specifically in contact with an alien other who views the world within a framework of radically different coordinates of measurement. He, moreover, explicitly connects the other's vision with an inability to name, which turns description into riddle.

In Soviet Civilization, Sinyavsky comments on the danger of realizing metaphor in life, a danger that for him lay at the heart of Stalinism:

Lenin, of course, was speaking metaphorically when he used the term "agents of the bourgeoisie" to describe Mensheviks or Western Social Democrats; or when he accused them of "selling" the interests of the working class. Lenin didn't think that they were literally in the pay of the world bourgeoisie or acting at the behest of a foreign secret service. But Stalin took everything literally: an "agent of the bourgeoisie" equaled an actual spy. In this sense, the trials and executions of the thirties were nothing other than literal translations of Leninist metaphors. On Stalin's orders, the Soviet Chekists and investigators began torturning people arrested as agents of the bourgeoisie so that they would confess to spying for the Japansese, the Germans, or the English. The metaphor was taken to its real-life conclusion.

And like any metaphor made real, the result was a monstrous and fantastic scene.

Stalin's mistake is to read literally and therefore realize metaphors in life-to horrific result. The root of this mistake lies in the inability to read figuratively, that is, to see from two perspectives at the same. The aesthetic stance embodied in the dual personae of Andrei Sinyavsky and Abram Tertz, which corresponds to the inherently outsider status of the emigre, is restorative because its inherently dual perspective carries the possibility of returning metaphor from life to the literary text, just as Sinyavsky transforms his own life into metaphor in his texts.

What I seek to prove from my remarks above are three key and intimately related points about the centrality of metaphor in Sinyavsky's works. First of all, for Sinyavsky metaphor is, I would argue, as much a philosophical category as a literary trope. That is, metaphor becomes a figure for the way language works. There is always the slippage between the perspective of the self who speaks or writes and the perspective of the self who reads or hears, and only metaphor can bridge that inevitable hiatus-no matter how imperfectly. Second, metaphor becomes a recuperative strategy, returning the realized metaphor to the literary text, where it belongs, from reality, where it does not. And, third, emigration has been a persistent metaphor in Tertz's works from the beginning, even before Sinyavsky or his works crossed the border out of Russia, because for Sinyavsky the writer in transforming himself into text, into language, into Abram Tertz, inevitably condemns himself to exile from his self.

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