A Soviet Heretic: Essays (Quartet encounters) Paperback – 1 Oct 1991
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This illumination from Yevgeny Zamyatin will help you discover and read good literature that brims your heart and soul with pleasure. It shoots its rays into the dark recesses of the human heart, into the dark energy of cosmic space and into the very heart of primordial energy itself.
The introduction by Alex Shane lets you know right at the outset that you will be cozying up to a mind that has conquered Mount Everest and from that vantage is reporting on shadows and shifting brilliancies, sunrise, sunset, the flaming arc passing over our lives and the dark crevices of our souls.
The editor's preface notes that Yevgeny Zamyatin . . . "is a consummate craftsman, he was enormously concerned with the problems of craft. But he also is a thoroughly `engaged' writer, equally involved with the problem of the artist in society--a problem, as he saw it, both political and philosophic. He had an extraordinary sense of time, of the constant flow and flux of history. And it was perhaps his refusal to accept the absolute--as well as the romantic humanist values he refused to abandon--that brought him into sharpest conflict with the absolutist."
The book proper begins with three Autobiographies: the first written in 1922, the second 1924 and the third in 1929. The first two are pale pencil sketches of less then two pages each. In the first autobiography Yevgeny writes
"And so you insist on my autobiography. But you will have to content yourself with a purely external view, with perhaps a fleeting glance into darkened windows: I rarely invite anyone to come inside. And from the outside you will not see much.
The third autobiography, a large detailed painting containing many narrative brushstrokes makes one eager to continue reading to better understand the way Yevgeny saw the world, especially Russia and the arresting affect it had on its artists. Yevgeny saw that some artists became propagandists; others became dull craftsmen not wanting to rock the boat. And then there were a few, who like Yevgeny, wrote imaginative, independent, boisterous pieces that went of like a bomb shooting shrapnel into the bureaucracy; their writings led to the gulags or exile.
The book has five sections. The first section contains the three autobiographies previously mentioned and the remaining four sections contain the essays.
The second section, The State of Russian Literature, contains fifteen essays, each highly instructive and as beautifully written as a novel by Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. Illustrative is the essay, On Synthetism which developed new ways to view literature. In this essay Yevgeny boldly starts out:
"+, --, -- -- These are the three schools in art, and there are no others. Affirmation, negation, and synthesis--the negation of negation. The syllogism is closed, the circle is completed."
This precise statement was written by a successful engineer who supervised building ships for Russia and various technical institutes.
Yevgeny shifts gears and continues on in a beautifully poetical style:
"The plus: Adam--nothing but clay; the world. The moist emerald clay of grass; peach warm, the naked body of Eve against the emerald; cherry red, Eve's lips and breast tips, apples, wine. Vivid, simple firm coarse flesh . . . Realism, Naturalism.
"But now Adam is satiated with Eve. He is no longer drawn to the scarlet flowers of her body, he immerses himself for the first time in her eyes . . . he finds the misty glimmering of another world. And the emerald grass pales; the red, firm lips are forgotten; the embracing bodies untwine. This is the minus.
"Years, minutes pass--and Adam quivers again. He has touched Eve's knees and lips. Again the blood rushes up to his cheeks; his nostrils quiver, drinking the green wine of the grass. Away with the minuses! But today's . . . Adam is already poisoned by the knowledge of the other, once glimpsed Eve, and together with sweetness his kisses leave on the lips of this Eve a bitter touch of irony. Under the glowing flesh Adam, who has gone through negation, who has grown wiser, knows the skeleton. But this makes his kisses still more ecstatic, his love still headier, the colors more vivid, the eye still keener, grasping the most fleeting of lines and forms. Thus synthesis."
The third section, The Writers Craft: four essays that illuminates the field of Arts and Crafts. In the essay, The Psychology of Creative Work, Yevgeny shows the reader how to leap upward after showing him the ground from which to leap.
The fourth section, Eight Writers and One Painter, contains eight fascinating essays beautifully written, each concerning a different artist; Alexander Blok, Fyodor Sologub, Chekhov, Kustodiev, Andrey Bely, Maxim Gorky, H. G. Wells, O'Henry, and Anotole France. These illuminations have the potential to bring one much pleasure by spreading light into the breadth and depth of literature and affording us the opportunity to see more clearly the men who helped create this marvelous place.
Section five contains two letters. One is Yevgeny's letter of Resignation from the Writers Union written in 1929 after it failed to support him in his efforts to have his novel WE published in Russia after it had already been published in various languages around the world. The other letter is one Yevgeny wrote to Stalin requesting that he be permitted to leave Russia with his family to live in France. It is a five page letter which starts out:
"Dear Yosif Vissarionovich,
The author of the present letter, condemned to the highest penalty, appeals to you with a request to change this penalty to another.
My name is probably known to you. To me as a writer, being deprived of the opportunity to write is nothing less than a death sentence. Yet the situation that has come about is such that I cannot continue my work because no creative activity is possible in an atmosphere of systematic persecution that increases in intensity from year to year."
This is indeed a courageous example of "Speaking truth to power." One can only imagine the results if on the day this letter was presented to Stalin he was having a bad day. Yevgeny was allowed to live in exile in Paris, France where he died in 1937.
Thirteen portraits, pencil sketches by Yury Annenkov, are scattered throughout the book. They are so beautifully done they arrest your eyes and take your breath away. I assiduously lingered over each one, my eyeballs absorbing them, studying them, loving them; it was difficult to leave them. These sketches alone are worth the price of admission.
This book is recommended for anyone wanting to increase their appreciation of literature and bring exceptional beauty and pleasure into their lives.
Neil Bezaire, Carlsbad, CA, February 2009