Books: From the Land of Shadows : Big Book from Screwsville |
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Big Book from Screwsville

The Yawning Heights by Alexander Zinoviev
(Bodley Head, London, and Random House, New York)

Somewhere in the middle of this enormous book there is a tiny story about a Soviet trainee pilot with slow reflexes. The flying instructors are not allowed to fail anybody. So they just give him his orders a long way in advance. He passes the course and goes to the front, where on his first mission he does not drop his bombs until he gets back to base. Equality has been achieved. The Yawning Heights is about a society which has succeeded in what it set out to do. Its author, Alexander Zinoviev, is not entirely posing when he claims to be engaged in the dispassionate analysis of a historical movement which has fulfilled its aims.

The Yawning Heights has been five years reaching us. It hardly needs saying that we are lucky to be reading it at all. The author’s dateline suggests that he finished writing it in 1974. But the first Russian edition of Zyayushchiye Vysoty did not come out until 1976. Published by L’Âge d’Homme in Lausanne, it is a neat paperback volume closely printed on thin pages. There is a grainy full-length photograph of Zinoviev on the back. Dapperly clad, he stands in front of a squalid building which a signboard proclaims to be the Philosophy Faculty of Moscow University, where he was a Professor of Logic until the regime began treating him as an enemy. His previous books had been academic philosophical works which won him an international reputation and abundant prestige within his own country. Like Andrei Sakharov, Zinoviev was rebelling from a position of privilege.

The Russian edition was reviewed in the New York Review of Books for 14 April 1977, by Aleksandr Nekrich, himself a distinguished scholar who had sacrificed his career to the truth. Nekrich’s review — which retains the status of a primary critical article — was a clear indication that a book of the first importance was on its way towards us. The French edition of the book, Les Hauteurs béantes, was published later that same year, once again by L’Âge d’Homme. Though elegantly printed, in sheer bulk it was about three times the size of the Russian original. Since the translator, Wladimir Berelowitch, wrote with unfaltering terseness, it was already becoming evident just how much meaning must be compressed into Zinoviev’s idioms and coinages. In fact the translation made embarrassing demands even on one’s French. But by now there could be small doubt that the book was of capital significance. This time the photograph was a typical piece of histrionically lit Russian portrait photography with Zinoviev looking like a cosmonaut who did not very much want to take off.

Onward to 1979. Finally the English edition appears. It is even bigger than the French one. The grainy Philosophy Faculty photograph is once again on the back, although by now it is out of date: Zinoviev came to the West last year. The layout is not at all elegant. The sub-headings which in the Russian and French editions help break up the text into sections of invitingly browsable length are here meanly set up exactly the same as the body-type, so that the whole thing flows on and on like the Don. But the translator, Gordon Clough, has done pretty well. If that sounds grudging, it should be remembered that the first translations of works such as this are crucial to their future history. Partly due to an inadequate translation, Zamyatin’s We made little impact when it first came out in English, and thus we were deprived of a prophetic insight into the nature of the totalitarian state. Zamyatin guessed a lot in advance. It could be said that Zinoviev is merely being wise after the event. But the event is of such magnitude, and his wisdom is of such a unique kind, that The Yawning Heights can only be thought of as a work vital to the continuity of civilisation. It would have been a disaster if the translation had misfired. Luckily it sins only through sounding like a translation. Otherwise the book has survived its journey. It has been heading our way like a planet on a collision course. Now it fills the sky and we can see all the details.

In The Yawning Heights the Soviet Union is portrayed as a garbage-dump called Ibansk, which is a way of saying Fucktown, or Screwsville, as well as of implying that the average Russian — Ivan — lives in a place just like it. The word Swiftian can easily be applied to the physical details of Ibansk. There is a lot of human ordure lying about. Going to the lavatory bulks large amongst Ibanskian activities. It is basically a very shitty scene. But Zinoviev’s whole point is that he can’t really exaggerate no matter how hard he tries. Really Ibansk is just the Soviet Union with the lavatory doors taken off. The book is less a satire than a sociological treatise on the level of Weber or Pareto. Everything that happens in Ibansk has already happened in the Soviet Union. But nobody has previously managed to make an entirely coherent picture of it.

An Ibanskian in the Street shouts ‘Arrogant blockhead!’ and is immediately arrested for insulting the Leader, even though he was only abusing a workmate. Everyone in Ibansk understands how things are. They just can’t face the facts any other way except a few at a time. Much of the book is made up of dialogues and speeches in which characters with names like Howler, Bawler, Truth-teller and Schizophrenic severally advance their theories about the degree to which the Ibanskian official ideology has been realised in Ibanskian life. This comic symposium of voices echoes the actual history of the way we have always come to be informed about the Soviet Union. Since 1917 there has been incessant argument about whether the Soviet Union is communism gone right, communism gone wrong, or communism not yet arrived. But in Ibansk such a discussion is shown, often by the very terms in which it is conducted, to be camped in the air. Ibanskian society has its own imperatives which ideology exists only to serve.

The first imperative is that mediocrity shall prosper. Those who stand outside or above are dangerous because they are in control of themselves. Moral worth is automatically subject to persecution. The Boss (Stalin) rose to the top because he was a complete nonentity. Hog (Khrushchev) repudiated the Boss only in order to preserve power. In Ibansk the only reason there is no unemployment is that everyone is engaged in the imitation of work. Real work requires a limited number of people, but in the imitation of work there is no limit to the number of people who can be employed. Everything is deliberately kept inefficient. Inefficiency leads you ‘to reduce to a minimum your number of contacts with people on whom you depend for anything; i.e., it leads in the final analysis to a self-imposed restriction of demand’ (page 284).

Few protest because nearly all are involved. Truth-teller (clearly based on Solzhenitsyn) and the other dissidents are wrong to suppose that the government is oppressing the people. The government is expressing the people’s will. Even the intelligentsia polices itself. With mediocrity the universal norm, material inequality is more important than ever. By struggling for their fair share of unfair advantages, the intelligentsia put a trump card into the hands of the leadership and automatically eliminate potential trouble-makers from among their own number.

In Ibansk the leaders are decorated for being leaders and then decorated again for being decorated. Whatever is achieved is achieved in spite of them. ‘But things still get done. They can’t all be like that.’ ‘They are all like that.’ (page 371). In the arts, the mere fact of becoming known is a guarantee of bad faith. The sculptor Dauber (based on Zinoviev’s friend Ernst Neizvestny) spends most of the book trying to be defiant. He ends up carving busts of the Leader out of snotoplast and turdotron, convincing himself that he is carving them in a defiant way. ‘The whole horror of our existence lies in the grandiose scale and inescapability of triviality’ (page 481). Ibansk is one big yawn.

The above hardly begins to summarise the elaborately detailed picture Zinoviev paints of life in Ibansk. But the reader can already see that this is a fantasy whose inspiration lies in the real world. One’s estimation of the book will mainly depend on whether one feels the correspondence between Ibansk and the Soviet Union to be exact. And surely, by and large, it is. ‘An amoral society wastes a huge amount of energy’ (page 800). Like Ibansk, the Soviet Union purposely squanders its own human resources. The destruction of talent is not incidental to the system of administration. It is fundamental. Stalin’s career, to take the most extreme possible example, can’t be explained in terms of variations in ideology. Variations in ideology have to be explained in terms of Stalin’s career, which was solely devoted to eliminating every trace of human individuality which could not be brought under the regime’s direct control. Tolstoy’s portrait of Napoleon in War and Peace is a possible literary ancestor of the idea that the man of destiny can be a cipher. Solzhenitsyn took the same line about Stalin in The First Circle. But really such a view needs no credentials. In the case of Stalin it is simply right. After the early disasters in World War Two it became evident that Stalin’s brains were made out of the same clay as his feet. But just because the fact became evident did not mean that it could be acted on or even admitted.

Again, Zinoviev is surely right about what Sakharov has called ‘the full tragedy of creative life’ in the Soviet Union. To speak only of the arts, and of the arts to speak only of literature, it can be taken for granted that any writer over the last fifty years who has not been persecuted by the State is simply not worth reading. Learning to read Russian brings rich benefits, but the prospective student should be warned that he will not be able to retain any comfortable illusions he might have about this century being as fruitful as the last. It is like walking out of a garden into a desert. The catastrophe was already in the making before Stalin came to power. Those gullible Western authors who go on junkets to Moscow and Leningrad at the invitation of the Soviet Writers’ Union, and who come home to declare themselves impressed with how many poets are published in Literaturnaya Gazeta and how many copies of his new book a Soviet poet is accustomed to see printed, are kept safe by the language barrier, as well as by their natural obtuseness, from realising that the Writers’ Union is an organisation which exists in order to seek out talent and make certain that it is expunged.

Zinoviev deals harshly with Yevtushenko, who appears in The Yawning Heights as Snottyhanky, ‘the favourite of young people, the secret police and the Americans’ (passim). Yevtushenko is such a preening booby that it is easy to be tempted into feeling superior to him. A sceptical inner voice should warn us that in the same circumstances we might be even more glad than he obviously is to accept a privileged position as the crowd-pleasing bard with a licence to be just so irreverent and no more. But the point to make is that the real poets are condemned to silence. The same applies to every other area of Soviet artistic life. Even the performing artists are allowed to achieve eminence only on the understanding that they will be given no new material worth performing. It was easy to be happy for the Panovs when they reached the West but impossible to admire the ballets they brought with them. Soviet creative life is ‘a tragedy of unrealised possibilities’ (page 547).

According to Zinoviev, the Soviet Union is not a society which has fallen short of its ideals. It embodies them. As a linguistic philosopher with something of Karl Kraus’s gift for dissecting rhetoric, Zinoviev is able to show that communist theory has always been nothing but a project. The social laws governing Soviet communism are to be deduced only from what actually goes on in the Soviet Union. This proposition, central to Zinoviev’s thought, is expounded at length in a second book, Svetloe Budushchee, which has not yet been published in English. The Russian and French editions were both published by L’Âge d’Homme last year. In French the book is called L’Avenir radieux and in English it will probably be called The Radiant Future. It tells the story of an academic whizz-kid doing what he has to do in order to get on. A friend of his writes a treatise about the real nature of Soviet life. These two main characters can be thought of as incarnating the two sides of the argument that must have raged in Zinoviev’s head when he found he could no longer put up with his own success. ‘Communist society’, argues the friend, ‘can be thought of only insofar as it is an empirical phenomenon, and not as an abstract system.’

But not even a man as clever as Zinoviev can quite escape the debilitating effects of the life he so brilliantly describes. Like Solzhenitsyn, he has to a certain extent been infected by the very absolutism which he condemns. He is hard on the dissidents. He gives them credit for bravery in such a terrible battle, but says that in the end they help to buttress the state. This is a neat argument but it is open to the same objections which Zinoviev, possibly following Karl Popper, makes to Marxism: there is no conceivable way of disproving it. Anything that opposes the Soviet state buttresses the Soviet state as long as the Soviet state is still there. Here Zinoviev fails to take the historical view, which must always allow for the unexpected consequences of actions. Moral opposition might serve the totalitarian state in the short term but could well undermine it in the long. Nor is Sakharov’s standpoint to be summarily belittled. Sakharov, who has been through all the same degrading experiences as Zinoviev, has never lost sight of the possibility that the Soviet leaders, while deaf to moral arguments, might well be obliged to allow a measure of liberalism when it becomes clear that without it the Soviet Union will no longer be able to maintain itself as a first-rate power.

Zinoviev is unfair not just to the dissidents but to the intelligentsia as a whole. There can be no doubt that for Soviet artists and academics life is largely as squalid as he portrays it. But the persecuted far outweigh their persecutors, and it is a kind of materialism to suppose otherwise. Since Gumilev’s murder in 1921 the Russian intelligentsia have been living in a nightmare. Without exception the outstanding talents have been killed, silenced, or exiled. The good work that has survived is scarcely a hundredth part of what would have been there if things had been different. It has been a cultural disaster without parallel in history. Yet does anybody suppose that names like Gumilev, Akhmatova, Pasternak and the Mandelstams mean less because of it? They mean more. Nadezhda Mandelstam willed her dead husband’s poems to a just future. Even if it could be proved that such a future will never come, would her gesture mean nothing? It would still mean everything.

Most unfortunately of all, Zinoviev is hard on the ordinary people of the Soviet Union. By suggesting that they are unusually compliant, he comes close to resurrecting the ‘mysterious Russian soul’ which he is ordinarily at pains to say does not exist. If Soviet society is as he describes it, then there is no mystery about why most people collaborate with the authorities. Most people are not heroes. It is fancy talk to suggest that they are sharing power. They are sharing powerlessness.

Solzhenitsyn is right to insist that the Soviet government is an imposition, and Zinoviev is wrong to imply, even as a comic exaggeration, that nobody is innocent. Zinoviev says himself that the social laws of the Soviet Union have to be seen from the outside if you are to make sense of them. Seen from the inside, they are impenetrable. On this particular point, Zinoviev probably still feels himself to be an insider. When he was dismissed from Moscow University his friends and colleagues demanded that he be stripped of his medals. He can be excused for taking a sour view of his fellow man.

But in those areas where Zinoviev is uncharitable his arguments refute themselves. Probably it was only an element of self-contempt that ever led him to advance them. By a process which The Yawning Heights describes in vivid terms, merely to grow up in the Soviet Union is to be compromised. Zinoviev should take heart. The mere existence of this book shows that to dissent is worthwhile; that the intelligentsia, of which he is a worthy representative, maintains its real traditions, despite all; and that not even the Soviet Union can be entirely confident about its ability to obliterate individual thought. ‘A society which officially adopts the slogan that the interests of the people transcend those of the individual is a lawless society. And that’s all there is to it’ (page 575). The proposition is simple but hard to take in. Nobody wants to believe that all those millions of innocent people died in agony for nothing. Not even The Gulag Archipelago could get the message across if you didn’t want to listen. But Zinoviev has found a way of joking about it, and nothing travels further or faster than a joke.

New Statesman, 1979.