Photograph by Sergej Bardin
Sally Laird (1956-2010) was a British slavist, journalist and translator of contemporary Russian fiction. Our conversation for her book "Voices of Russian Literature: Interviews with Ten Contemporary Writers" (Oxford University Press) took place in 1994 in London. We spoke in English therefore I feel that some my statements are expressed clumsily e.g. when I said about Paul Celan's betrayel of Czernowitz I meant that his loss of the soil of Czernowitz brought him in the end to the water of Sein. Igor Pomerantsev.
As an émigré you’ve had the opportunity to travel widely and exploit that experience in your writing, but Ukraine remains a central source and location in your work - and not so much Kiev but specifically Chernovtsy, the town where you grew up. Your hero - or heroes - appear to be still rooted there. Is that true of you too?
No, you know that’s a trick of mine, because actually I’m completely rootless. But, as you know, all the great writers - however cosmopolitan they may have been, like Joyce - they all had their small motherland which they exploited and excavated for the whole of their lives. Dublin isn’t a great world capital, but Joyce exploited it to end of his days - precisely because he was so cosmopolitan. Having no real roots I could have chosen anywhere - Kiev, Baikal. It isn’t a question of memory as such but of which memories you choose to recreate, which direction you choose to dig in. Anyway, I chose Chernovtsy as the most charming and intriguing variant of small motherlands. But it’s a trick, it’s cheating.
Of course Chernovtsy isn’t just ‘anywhere’, is’t it? Even if you use it as a kind of provincial disguise, it has its own distinguished literary history.
In my time it was absolutely provincial, godforsaken. There were probably a couple of dozen intelligent people in the entire town. Virtually no one to talk to. But in my writing it’s the capital of Atlantis, the capital of a vanished empire, or a kind of mirage situated on the border between two empires, the dead Austro-Hungarian and the Soviet.
In a way, certainly, I was very luck - firstly because of the Austro-Hungarian empire no longer exits, and secondly because it its final period it was culturally so great: some of the most interesting events in the culture of the twentieth century happened there. Later Chernovtsy became part of the Soviet empire, but still in my day it wasn’t completely ‘sovietized’. I remember once asking my father as a child: Daddy, have you ever been abroad? And he said: Why, we are abroad here! Chernovtsy wasn’t the Donbass, it wasn’t Sverdlovsk, it was a place where people were arrested for speculating in foreign currency! That was unheard of outside Moscow or Odessa. Yet there in the 1960s these great old Jews, geniuses of finance, were sentenced to death for dealing in dollars - as if capitalism had been flourishing on the side all the while, in bribes. And the doors to the outside world were never hermetically sealed, as they were elsewhere. There was always contacts with the outside, with America, with Israel; parcels arrived, people visited, and the Jewish emigration started there in the 1950s, much earlier than elsewhere. The place had only become part of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and thirty years on you could still get a whiff of its old bourgeois charm - very secret, very decayed, but still as a child you smell these things. So it’s a unique place, and I’m quite proud of myself for having had the cunning, even when I was very young, to choose the right motherland, so that I can pretend for the rest of my days that I come from this mirage, this Atlantis.
You can pretend that it chose you rather than the other way around?
Well, as a matter of fact, I’m afraid what you say is right, it did happen the other way round. Because actually I don’t believe in my own intellect or wisdom. I think that Chernovtsy chose me as before it chose the Austrian poet Paul Celan. By the way, when Paul Celan betrayed Chernovtsy and settled in Paris, Chernovtsy didn’t forgive him and in the end he committed suicide.
What does that example mean to you?
I didn’t betray Chernovtsy. I still exploit and still pretend that is where I come from and that I’m here only temporarily.
When did you find out about Celan? He wasn’t exactly honoured in the Soviet Union, was he?
I must have been about 18 when I discovered him - and when I went on to discover some surviving friends of his, a small, cultivated circle still living in Chernovtsy. Although they were really just in transit at that stage - this was the late 1960s - because shortly afterwards all of them emigrated to Israel.
To what extend hat Jewish culture survived in the town?
There was still a big Jewish population but you should bear in mind that they weren’t, say, Hassidic Jews. They were like well-to-do Indian intellectuals, buried away in the provinces, who persist in the illusion that the eimpire still exists and speak the Queen’s English better than most Englishmen - so in the same way these Jews from Chernovtsy kept up Austrian, German-speaking traditions even though the empire had vanished and Atlantis drowned. Right up to the 1930’s, all through the period when Chernovtsy belonged to Romania, the language of the gymnasium was German. But it was specifically an Austrian tradition - Kafka, say, was cultivated rather than Thomas Mann, and that’s not just my hypothesis - Paul Celan’s friend said the same thing when I asked this question of them. There was this peculiarly Austrian, individualistic perception of the language and the culture.
As far as Jewishness went, people were of course aware of their Jewishness and kept up certain traditions. One of the most interesting Jewish philosophical seminars - permanent seminars - was held in Chernovtsy. But it wasn’t narrowly Judaistic, it drew on a broader culture.
Chernovtsy is obviously unique in its particular mix of peoples and cultures, but one can think of paralles - Milosz’s Vilnius, for instance.
Yes, Milosz is a faker just like me. I remember reading with a certain pride - though I have no right to be proud - how Milosz in his memoirs tries rather humbly to compare Vilnius to Chernovtsy and Trieste: he knew they were the real capitals of Europe! He wanted to be a citizen of Atlantis too.
Milosz has an outsider’s fascination with Jewishness, whereas you look upon it - don’t you? - as a partial insider.
Not really. My hero is somehow accepted into the company of Jews, but I never felt completely accepted. They were a kind of élite, that’s how I understood Jewishness. We were strangers. My father was Jewish - unlike my mother - but first of all he was a journalist, which meant a Party man, a communist functionary, part of the establishment. Secondly, he came from Odessa - that’s where he’d learned Yiddish (which I was very proud of - a foreign language!) - so the Jews from the western Ukraine didn’t see him as one of theirs.
Of course when you’re a child you don’t make all these distinctions, but in retrospect I can see that my friend’s parents were probably less open and sincere with me than they were with their own circle.
Later on I realized that my father was a stranger in many ways. He had cut himself off from his own roots in Odessa. Once in London, in the library at the School of Slavonic Studies, I came across a manuscript about the Odessa synagogue in the late nineteenth century, written by a certain Pomerants whose family were closely associated with the synagogue - and I realized these must be my relatives. My father had turned his back on all that. On the other hand he never rejected his own Jewishness, and he certainly experienced anti-Semitism. He had left Siberia for Kiev at the height of Stalin’s anti-Jewish campaign, and he wasn’t able to get a job on a newspaper there, even though he was an excellent journalist by Soviet standards. Which is how we end up in Chernovtsy.
So you were part Russian, part Jewish, living in Ukraine. Hod did you relate to the Ukrainians themselves? Did you speak Ukrainian?
Yes, I do speak Ukrainian, I was taught it at school. My family never rejected the local culture in the way many Russians did, particularly the children of Soviet army officers, many of whom simply refused to learn the language and showed what seemed to me an absolutely unmotivated, groundless arrogance towards to the whole culture. I learned there what “imperialism” meant, because they really did behave like imperialists.
I have many, many negative sides but at least I’ve never been infected by this kind of national or social arrogance; even as a child I couldn’t understand it. I think I recognized instinctively that it was destructive - destructive to oneself - and by nature, egotistically, I rejected it; I was simply greedy for everything good and positive. So, for example, I wanted to speak perfect Ukraininan - I remember my tears when I failed to get top marks after learning everything by heart! Later I realized that you can’t learn a language mechanically, you have to love it from the inside. Curiously enough I started speaking Ukrainians - the children of émigrés - who didn’t understand Russian. But I always had -still have- a feeling of intimacy towards that culture.
You were born in 1948, just after the war …
1948 really! I look young for my age.
But was there a strong ‘post-war’ flavour about your childhood? Was it a time of material hardship?
No, on the contrary, my childhood was absolutely excessive, baroque, rich, flourishing. Just imagine exchanging Siberia for this land where grapes and apricots grew and people made wine! What luxury! Plus at the simple, political level there was this colossal change - the shift from mass repressions under Stalin, when everybody was afraid of everything because there were no rules of the game, to the epoch I grew up, in the epoch of selective repressions where you knew the rules and could survive perfectly well if you kept to them. Ours was what I’ve called ironically the ‘luxury’ generation, in the sense that at least we grew up without fear.
Do you know how your parents reacted to the changes at the time?
My father hated Stalin - that was absolutely clear. I remember quite clearly seeing my mother crying when the news of Stalin’s death was announced on the radio, and my father saying to her: “What are you doing? What are you crying for? One more despot has died, good riddance!; On the other hand he’d devoted the better part of his life to communist propaganda, so he had to have his arguments and justifications. So Stalin was bad but Lenin and the Revolution were good - he played these intellectual games, like a lot of other people.
And as a child, of course, I had no reason to disbelieve him. What kind of intricate, perverse child suspects his country or his parents of lying to him? I was a normal child, I believed in life, I believed in words, I believed in my parents.
So when does suspicion begin?
Well first of all I’d received this early vaccination against Stalinism, which stood me in good stead. And then there was my father’s permanent, obvious tension about the anti-Semitic atmosphere, which created an inner conflict for him. So, two more or less objective factors. But the third factor is always subjective, it comes from yourself.
For instance, I clearly understood something about the situation of Ukraine, even if I wasn’t sure about the whole regime. In my first year at the university I remember we had our first lecture on the history of the Communist Party, and the lecturer asked us what language we preferred to be taught in. Well about 85 per cent of the students were Hutsuls, western Ukrainians from the mountains who hardly spoke a word of Russian, and only 15 per cent were Russians or Russianized Ukrainians. But this minority raised such a hue and cry - of course we want Russian! You must teach us in Russian! - that they immediately go their way; the rest of the students just sat there like frightened mice. I saw all this and was terribly shocked - it was all so obvious, and completely repugnant.
So this much at least I understood. Plus by that time I had started writing, and when you start writing with your own hands you begin to understand what others are doing. So when two Moscow writers - Sinyavsky and Daniel - were arrested in 1965 I naturally identified with them, I felt some professional solidarity. And that was also the time that samizdat got going and we started reading all those forbidden things. So there were all these factors that created a certain atmosphere and reacted inside me.
Did you by that time have a particular intellectual circle where you talked about what you were reading and writing?
Yes; you know there were some nice, fine young people at the university who were mad about literature. Nowadays the fashion might be to listen to rap or techno or whatever, and in the fifties it was jazz that was all the rage, but for us in the sixties it was literature that counted. If I’d been born in another epoch I would probably have been a musician, but literature was the thing we all talked about then. Though at the outset you don’t know what you’ll choose in the end, and I remember intensive sessions reading philosophy and literary criticism as well.
What clues did you use to guide your reading - granted the official curriculum can’t have given you much guidance?
It gave none at all - except negatively! It was only after emigrating that I realized I was self-taught. I see how my son relies on reading lists and recommendations, how students here trust in their teachers’ judgements. Whereas we had to elaborate this intricate systems for ourselves.
For instance, you’d get hold of the names of the so-called ‘revisionist communists’ in Czechoslovakia or Poland, and find the works they’d written before they got arrested. Or you’d gather clues about classical philosophers who were rejected from the official Soviet union. It was all very complicated, but it gave us good practice, it was a time of intense intellectual research. And we were young, full of hope, we didn’t know exactly where fate of life would turn us - so we were greedy for any kind of information, for words, for ideas. I remember cinema played a colossal role. Now and then you’d see some masterpiece of Western cinema. One time it might be Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1956), and you’d live in the atmosphere of that film for six months. Then Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) would come along, and that gave you air to breath for another six months, or a kind of air cushion to sit on and carry you through.
I’m not sure we were the poorer for having to discover everything for ourselves instead of having things served to us on a plate. I remember going to Amnesty International meeting the first year I was in Germany, and I innocently spent the evening discussing Austrian symbolist poetry with one of the organizers, a nice fellow. You know that these Amnesty types are like, you’re one yourself. But by the end of the evening I’m afraid he’d decided to leave Amnesty. ‘I see now that the situation in the Soviet Union is excellent. If people like you could have grown up there it’s not such a tragedy!’
So he was disappointed in you?
Absolutely. He’d set out to help people who’d been completely degraded, emptied, hollowed out, who’d perhaps make him feel a bit superior - and unfortunately I was naive and didn’t give him the chance.
But knowing about Austrian symbolist poetry didn’t protect you from being arrested …
No, although if I’d left Chernovtsy for Moscow instead of Kiev I would probably never have emigrated. Moscow was always more liberal and more anonymous - you had to be an outright dissident to attract attention there. Whereas in 1972, when I moved to Kiev, virtually every Ukrainian intellectual, anyone who stopped to think for a moment, was being physically arrested. The KGB was a socialist enterprise, a bureaucracy with a plan to fulfil, figures to notch up, reports to write, and they were beginning to run out of ‘dissidents’ by the time I appeared. They needed new recruits. In that sense I was dragged into the whole thing. I don’t say they had no pretext at all, but more or less any pretext would have done.
These life events are very boring, very banal, but anyway they came for me one day when I was in Odessa - I’d just taken a swim in the Black Sea and was half-naked when two senior officers turned up to arrest me. They could perfectly well have arrested me in Kiev, but for some reason they came to Odessa and spent a week interrogating me there. Perhaps it made a pleasant sort of business trip for them - they could go swimming in the evenings. They were adventurers in a way. But what really gets me is that they paid for all those arrests and investigations out of our own taxes! They arrested us at our own expenses!
And what did they charge you with?
Oh, spreading anti-Soviet literature - Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, Solzhenitsyn’s Gualag Archipelago, a collection of articles called Under the Rubble. And they were quite right, I can own up now -I did pass those books round to lots and lots of people. And what else - listening to foreign radio stations and having contacts with foreigners. Imagine, in Soviet parlance that one phrase - ‘having contacts with foreigners’ - spoke for itself, it required no further argument!
And what about your own writing? Was that ‘incriminating’ too?
They tried to find something in it, and I really sympathized with the poor KGB officer who had to sit down to read all my stuff. I remember him seeing a portrait of Igor Stravinsky on the wall of my flat in Kiev and saying - ‘Ah! Pasternak!’ So the poor man had to wade through all this modernistic, stream of consciousness stuff and try to extract something here and quote something there. And the problem was there was nothing to find. There’s no anti-Sovietism in my prose or poetry because I simply ignore it, it’s not interesting. I mean it’s fine for politics or journalism but for belles-lettres it’s too superficial a theme, it’s not existential, it’s simply not interesting.
In your play Can You Hear Me? we meet a rather sophisticated KGB officer who would surely have understood what your writing was about. He creates a rather witty montage out of the recordings he's made of the writer under his surveillance, a writer whom he clearly appreciates, and who - judging from the views he expresses - is rather like you.
But he was from Moscow, he wasn’t one of these provincial types. It’s clear now that some of the Moscow KGB men really were like the officer in my play: I know of one who’s a top intellectual, he can quote Oscar Wilde or James Joyce better than I do, or possibly even better than you do.
I’m afraid your play would have disappointed some of our human rights activists.
I’m afraid the truth is always unpleasant and disappointing.
But when you started to write, did you consciously think of yourself at least as an ‘un-Soviet’ writer, if not an ’anti-Soviet’ one?
Literature belongs outside political states and borders. Your family might be Babel and Joyce and it makes no difference that one of them is Russian and the other Irish. It’s clear that Pasternak’s poetry, say, is closer to Rilke’s than to most of Russian poetry, or that Andrei Bely’s prose is a kind of Siamese twin of James Joyce’s and has nothing to do with Maksim Gorky’s. One can distinguish only between their different sensual or intellectual perceptions of the world. But all Europe comes from the same roots. What is the East, what is the West? Byzantium kept more of the traditions of the Roman Empire than Rome itself, which was overtaken by so-called barbarians who later turned out to be not as barbaric as all that.
I was never concerned with this ‘Soviet’ or ‘anti-Soviet’ thing. I took it for granted that there simply people you were fascinated by, kindred spirits, and you were entitled to them and they to you.
Still, there seems to me an underlying challenge, almost a provocation, in your first novella-cum-essay Reading Falkner. It’s as close to a manifesto as you get: a declaration that this is the path you want to follow, not the path prescribed by either ‘Soviet’ or ‘anti-Soviet’ literature, and a challenge - let no one dare to take this American away from me!
Yes - a manifesto in the sense that behind my words there was, I think, the feeling that my generation had been betrayed - betrayed by our teachers, by the state, actually by our parents. And the only solid ground we had was literature, real literature, art. Books didn’t betray us, but people did. That’s not an accusation, it’s a fact.
How betrayed you?
They lied to us! And writers didn’t lie. I don’t want to sound accusatory. It doesn’t mean that I criticize my parents or that I’m angry with the state. It’s a statement of fact, and that’s why my first novella is a manifesto dedicated not to people but to literature - and to Faulkner who was the embodiment of that.
Of what? Of truth?
Truth? Well, no … genius. You know how when we’re very young we’re all maximalists, we ignore mere talents or gifts, we appreciate and recognize only geniuses. So I think that was just a sign of my young maximalism - only the most beautiful would do! You know Dostoyevsky’s game: we should be able to love the ugly girls too. I’m afraid I still have trouble with that. Only beauties! Only geniuses! But I’m not quite so maximalist as I used to be.
The point is that beauty’s higher than truth, but in the sense that it includes it, it includes morality, it includes wisdom and intelligence too. The false or the nasty or the stupid can’t be beautiful. I don’t mean that great writers can’t be stupid or nasty; outside their writing - in interviews, say - many of them sound like idiots, as you may have noticed. Outside their texts they’re quite helpless. But if their texts are talented they will be all these things - beautiful and true and wise. There’s no competition between these things.
Did you believe, when you started writing, that you would be able to publish your work and find an audience in Russia? Or was that one reason why you left - that you saw no future for yourself as a writer there?
No, I just ran away in order not to be put in gaol. Plus I was married, my son was 9 months old, and we were living with my parents-in-law in their apartment. I was such a headache and a disappointment to them, constantly at risk of being searched or investigated, and it gave me a bad conscience; I felt I was spoiling their lives. Anyway I had no desire to be a hero, unlike certain dissidents who felt it gave them a certain cachet to be arrested - proof that they were real men. I didn’t feel I needed that, so when the KGB advised me to get out I took them at their word.
By that time you had had some poems published in the Soviet Union, hadn’t you?
Yes, a few were published in Smena, a Moscow magazine for young people. In terms of quantity it was quite good - the circulation was one million. But the last time I was published was in 1973.
This was the time of deep, deep stagnation, of sclerotic faces, of gerontophilia - as if we were living in an H.G. Wells novel. We’d been flung back in time, we were troglodytes. I knew I had no hope of publishing my work then - but still, it was only the threat of arrest that made me emigrate. It was very bitter, in some ways. Afterwards I sometimes wished they’d forced me to emigrate earlier, when I was younger - it might have been easier to establish myself as a writer here.
One doesn’t sense that bitterness in your writing. Or at least, you never dwell in your writing on these events - your arrest, exile, and so on - which you referred to just now as boring and banal. It’s as if all this, the political situation and its particular impact on you, belongs to some uninteresting outer shell, while the core of life, its curiosities and pleasures, remains completely intact.
I think I just have this natural predisposition to take even the most negative, destructive situation and turn it into something creative. Basically I’m such an animal, I have such an instinct for survival. I remember once talking in Kiev to an old Ukrainian poet, a really talented man even though he wrote official stuff about Lenin and so on in parallel - and he looked through my poems and said: ‘Why are they so optimistic?’ And they are optimistic, yes, in the sense that I have this greed for life, this triumphant happiness of pure survival. Maybe it’s foolish, but in an existential sense I suppose it is optimistic.
But what a parody of life: here was this officially recognized poet commending my ‘optimism’ - ‘We need such poetry’, he said - when I was hardly even published, and had no hope of being, however ‘optimistic’.
Because you ignored the outer realities of your life as somehow irrelevant?
Yes, and I think that’s the most insulting experience of all - not to be hated, not to be criticized, but just to be ignored. Not included in your landscape or your discussion, simply not to exist in your work at all.
Similarly one doesn’t feel the ‘bitterness’ of exile in your work …
Only the sweetness!
Perhaps one senses only a slight gnawing guilty conscience in one or two of the poems you wrote immediately after emigration - as if you were annoyed at your conscience for distracting you.
I had a bad conscience because I didn’t feel any nostalgia.
But does exile actually help to tune the memory, to crystallize things, to invest experience with that kind of filmic aura one feels in, say, Nabokov?
Looking back in delight - you can’t but write sweetly. You can’t but do that. Either you love your life, or you don’t. I love my life, I love my childhood and youth, and I look back with delight!
Of course exile alters one’s relationship to one’s subject, but not in the sense you mean. Anyone who emigrates loses something of colloquial language - because colloquial language exists not just in individual dialogues, it belongs to a particular setting where new idioms, new bits of slang are born every day. In emigration that language starts to atrophy. So emigrating made me write in a colder, more literary language - more standard from the grammatical point of view.
If you look at the American tradition - Salinger, Mark Twain, Truman Capote - see how many dialogues they have! Theirs is a truly colloquial tradition, compared to the English, where narrative is still dominant. In that sense you could say that I stopped being an American Russian and turned into an English one.
A second thing that happens in emigration is that you start hearing your own language against the background of other languages - so that you see it as one particular note on a musical scale. And a third point for me was that I discovered here the language of broken Russian - remnants and relics of the language in people who’d emigrated from Central Europe and knew Russian, but interpreted it in their own, let’s say Polish, way.
Which is the language of your heroine-narrator in Beloved - writing to her Russian lover and getting all her stresses wrong.
Yes, and all this gave me a colossal new feeling for my own language. In emigration you can hear the whole symphony of different languages and recognize your own note among them - and paradoxically the more distant you are, the more distinctly you hear it.
But what of the other emotions that accompany exile? Don’t they intrude on your writing at all?
The principal emotion you experience in emigration is loneliness. Loneliness makes you angry and anger is a great fuel for writing. But it’s like printer’s ink - it loses its smell when it dries on the printed page. You won’t catch a whiff of the original fuel.
What’s the anger about?
It’s a kind of creative anger - it’s not against any particular person. It’s a fight with the language, but it’s like playing chess with yourself - whoever wins, you are the winner.
The mention of chess brings me back to Nabokov. Is he one of your heroes? Is he one of your heroes? I see a strong kinship in your meticulous language, your focus on the detailed recreation of sensual experience.
Nabokov was a late discovery - I discovered him after I’d written Reading Faulkner and other pieces. It was like finding out you have an illegitimate brother: on your twentieth birthday your father takes you aside and says, by the way, you know you’ve got a brother in Kharkov! I read Nabokov when I’d already become a writer myself - and said to myself: I see, I see, I have a brother in Kharkov!
But we’re quite different in the sense that Nabokov always worked with plots, he loved plots. Every piece he wrote was written with a proper beginning, development, and end: you set it on the shelf and it exerts its own separate magnetism; you take it down and you can turn it over in your hand.
I have a different relationship to my own texts. I see them as if from an aeroplane. As a reader you may see only the separate fragments, but for me … I don’t want to sound too grand, but for me it’s a whole space that I’m looking at from up here, a whole world that I’m creating, and if I live enough maybe I’ll succeed in finishing it. At least that’s my idea, whether I’ll succeed or not I don’t know. But this is my world that I’m making, it has its characters, some of whom emigrated with me, some of whom got left behind, but in the end it should make something whole, through it won’t be a novel in Graham Greene’s or indeed Nabokov’s sense.
Traditionally the novel traces the psychological development of the hero through changing circumstances, and in your work the potential for that is there, even if the ‘novel’ is a good deal propelled by your own life and in that sense, necessarily, open-ended. But it’s as if you disdain to psychologize yourself - you leave that to the reader.
One should leave something for the reader to do. If you offer a piece of life, it’s up to the reader to deal with it psychologically. It’s true that I’m not especially interested in this type of analysis - psychologizing is the prerogative of cleverness, of intelligence, rather than artistic talent, though many people mistake it for literature.
But the point about me is that I’m an impressionist, not a story-teller - and of course I’m absolutely not unique in that. Writers can be divided between those who plot and those who don’t. Marcel Proust’s great work has a plot only thanks to the fact that he died, physically! My failure to tell ‘proper’ stories has caused me great trauma now and then - one of my girlfriends left me because she needed stories and I couldn’t tell her any; I kept honestly offering her my impressions but - she was quite insatiable.
I’m not saying it’s better to write this way or that - there are simply different perceptions of life, people are stimulated and motivated by different visions. For a long time these different ways of writing - Romain Rolland and Marcel Proust - have coexisted happily side by side. It’s the same with painting - the Russian realists, say, and the French impressionists. Some paintings demand that you tell the story. But what’s the ‘story’ of Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe? It doesn’t have one, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth looking at.
It’s such myopia to start blaming other writers for not choosing one’s own path - like throwing stones at one’s own greenhouse. When Russian writers - especially abroad - start insulting and dismissing one another, as they’re prone to do, they’re simply ruining their own house - and the net result is that no one will read them either! Writers above all should know that every word we utter speaks only of ourselves, and that no one, but no one, takes our words just as we intend them.
In this respect I learned a lesson from Nabokov. For years he went unrecognized, and it made him so bitter. If you read his essays on nineteenth-century literature, you see they’re marvellous, he writes brilliantly, he has such taste. But as soon as he gets to the twentieth century - Pasternak, Faulkner - he starts hating and condemning, all he can express is his own terrible bitterness. I’ve had my moments of bitterness too, but I try to express it a bit more decorously. Like pretending I’m an Austro-Hungarian writer. It’s a way of saying you: you may not appreciate me, but the Austro-Hungarians certainly do, or at least they would do if they existed.
Many writers start out with poetry and then abandon it when they start writing prose, whereas you’ve carried on with both in parallel. But you’ve mixed the two genres to the extent that your prose is distinctly ‘poetic’ and your verse, at least in Russian terms, is quite ‘prosaic’. Must there be a clear border between the two? What defines each genre?
Writers of both poetry and prose have to define their genres themselves. What I call poetry should be taken by my readers as poetry, and what I call prose should be read and treated as prose. The writer’s will and definition must prevail. There is no other way, I’m afraid - it depends on the will and the self-understanding of the writer.
Unlike literary critics, who are paid to worry about these things, readers don’t concern themselves with genre - why should they? Their aim is to get a specific pleasure from reading, whether it comes from poetry or prose. The writer’s duty is to give them that pleasure, to offer them a good piece of work. After all, when we eat, I don’t know, a nice piece of butter, we don’t ask ourselves where the cows came from, the Alps or the Carpathians.
If a writer finds a new way of giving enjoyment - a new source of milk - so much the better. What jury or ministry can tell him it’s not allowed? We’re not children.
In your story ‘My Motherland is Solitude’ the narrator is a traveller who says that he’s always been looking for the right place to be, a place where there were ‘the ideal proportions of blue, moisture, love, light, wine.’ Is travel - the pursuit of this ideal, or simply new pleasures - a necessary accompaniment to your writing?
I think my constant travelling is a form of neurosis, actually. Every three months try to turn this neurosis into something creative and constructive. Plus I think that as a writer I’m a kind of parasite; I’m very superficial. For me ‘superficial’ is not a negative word. Because I think that appearance, the outside, the external aspect of thins is always the most eloquent. To be superficial is to believe in your own eyes. If you want to know what’s going on inside, why not start from what’s most striking, most evident, most eloquent? So as a parasitic, superficial writer I thank God that the globe is gigantic and that I’ve exploited just 2 or 3 percent of it so far. I haven’t even exhausted Spain yet.
If what you’re searching for is blueness and light and wine - forgetting for the minute moisture and love - England was perhaps an odd place for you to settle for so many years.
Yes, well from a sensual point of view - the cup of English tea is not my cup. The liquid theme of my prose is wine, and wine in England exits only symbolically. It’s not the kind that gets me excited, or gets into my prose. But a lot of my poetry, you’ll notice, is devoted to England - not because it’s exotic but because England has simply been part of my life. Especially since my son started going to school there: when a British boy comes home to his family and tells them what’s been going on at his school, his parents willy-nilly start living his life too.
But there are many things I love about England. It has its national game, and that’s what counts. I’ve lived in many countries now and it’s a terrible thing to say, but many countries have no game at all, no aesthetic touch. France, for example, does have a game - a kind of duel with love; and Holland has this aestheticism of the interior - that’s why they don’t have curtains; and Russia, as I realize now, at least has this Dostoyevskian hysteria of words, which I’ve always hated but which I’ve started to appreciate now, seeing how many people lead completely vitaminless, unaesthetic lives - whereas the Russians at least have a game of sorts, however unappealing.
While Britain, of course, is a permanent theatre. Have you noticed that even when you’re robbed in Britain there are certain aesthetic, theatrical rules of behaviour - like the robber apologizing before he robs you? And every word in English means the direct opposite of what it says. English is a form of semiotics that’s being invented all the time. So living in England is a very intense linguistic exercise; it requires artistry - you have to keep in good shape or you’re outside the game. Speaking is performance, so willy-nilly you become a performer, an artist. That’s where the excitement of England comes from.
Do you feel that taking part in this sort of ‘performance’ has changed your own personality?
Yes, definitely. When I speak with Russians from the metropolis I feel that I’am less serious than they are. They’re interested in the pure truth, whereas I’m afraid England has spoiled me - positively - in that regards. I’m more interested in the conversation itself than in arriving at the truth or building hierarchies of goodness. Thanks perhaps to England I’ve learned how relative hierarchies are and how illusory ‘truth’ is. So there are colossal lessons to be learned from England if you’re open to them. Whereas the poor Germans - they used to have a wonderful game with soldiers, moving them here, there, and everywhere, but now they’ve been deprived of their game and they feel bored.
I’m afraid anyone reading this would be horrified at your cynicism!
Not at all. Cynicism has to do with morals. We’re not speaking about morals here but about games, aesthetics.
How does it feel after all these years to see your work - some of it written a long time ago - published in Moscow and St Petersburg?
If I were younger I would feel so sweet about these publications, and of course they do give me some pleasure now. But I still work in virtual silence. In Russia, at least, there still isn’t the kind of literary criticism to deal with work like mine. Writers themselves have to give birth to new forms of criticism - it was Pushkin and Gogol who gave birth to Sainte-Beuve, not the other way round, however arrogantly poor Sainte-Beuve wrote about Flaubert. A new writers offers new possibilities to critics who are open. I read with pleasure a little essay in the magazine Volga, written by a young medievalist who’d discovered my work, and I felt that it had been born from my own prose and poetry. But that was an exception. Russian criticism today is so hierarchical, so full of inferiority complexes - that’s why Russian critics are so arrogant and closed-minded.
You wrote a number of essays in the late 1980’s about what you called the ‘raw meat’ syndrome in the perception of Russian literature, whereby martyrdom and authorship were supposed to go hand in hand. Writers were seen as prophets; the more they’d suffered, the more authority they had, and literary criticism - both in Russia and abroad - ran the risk of becoming less a discussion of art than an account of tortures undergone. Do you think that’s less true today? Has Russian literature been to some extent ‘normalized’ by the demise of the old regime?
There are some signs - indirect signs - that Russian letters are in better health these days. You know, literature has its politics and its superpowers - like Tolstoy or Homer, and it has its finance, it fees and royalties; it has its sports - literary prizes and so on - and its current affairs. So when, for instance, I wrote about this pseudo-prophetic motif in Russian poetry, as a social problem of the Russian somewhat current, nearly ten years on. But something has changed. Life has shown writers their place - it’s told them: your place is quite modest, quite humble! And writers will have to accept that and stop puffing themselves up like toads.
Perhaps that’s been another lesson of England for me, because writers in England to know their place. Of course every writer’s an exhibitionist who’s eager to attract the attention of the world, if necessary by making grand pronouncements about politics or ecology or whatever. But the wonderful lesson on England is that society has the right not to listen. You can read a writer but you don’t have to listen to him pontificating about global problems. So what’s good about the English is that they haven’t corrupted their writers by taking them too seriously. They’ve told them: know their place! Go and write a good book! That’s much harder than proclaiming your views about the moon or the Soviet regime.
No writers in Russia are having to learn this too. I met some young poets in St Petersburg recently and they talked exactly like the young Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot - their only theme was money and banking and publishers’ deals. They were a pack of wolves. And I was so glad to see how naturally and immediately they’d reacted to the situation - doubly glad, because meanwhile they’re writing very good poetry and prose.
You call your polemical essays ‘current affairs’, but of course they have a strong literary touch as well; they’re artistic works. The essay seems to me a genre that suits you: many of your novellas - Reading Faulkner, or The Hound of the Basques - seems to me as much essay as fiction. But with a few exceptions - Andrei Bitov, for instance - the essay seems an underdeveloped genre in Russian letters. Or am I wrong?
No, you’re right, in a way this genre has been lost in Russian literature. We’ve had what we call the ocherk, a sketch or feature in a newspaper or journal, which has been a part of ‘underground’ writing as well as of the official press. But that’s different from the essay, which is a genre of the mature personality - and until now there hasn’t been a place for mature, independent personalities in Russia. You know, all these millions of personalities got minced up in Russian life: all their energy went on self-defence, on confrontation, on surviving as individuals. That’s why there could be no relaxation, no freedom. And a vacancy has consequently been left in the literature.
I think that’s one reason why I work so eagerly in this genre - because I feel this vacancy, the absence of this acutely personal, individualistic gesture. In England there has never been this problem; essay-writing is an art cultivated even in school. A writer like Anthony Burgess found it natural to write essays and fiction in parallel - and in fact he was a better essayist than novelist. But for me, as a Russian, it’s existentially interesting o try myself out in this genre - to discover whether I have a personality. The essay is like a small fiddle - the only question is whether you can play.
I especially like working on small essays. It makes me feel like a sort of medieval artisan. Here’s this small vessel you’re making which has to be yours, has to bear your fingerprints - no one else can do it for you. It can’t be made on a conveyor belt in factory. Maybe I like this sensation particularly because I’ve always felt inferior about working so badly with my hands. We had these lessons in carpentry at school and I was always bottom of the class, and later on, when my father had a heart attach and couldn’t work, I had to work for a year as a turner, and there again I was the worst in the shop.
So writing these small essays is a way of overcoming this feeling of inferiority. I feel the same way when I’m making a radio programme, editing the tape and cutting out one syllable or sentence here and putting it in there, changing the radio syntax of the piece. I like it, I feel it’s my job, it’s work. I think craftsmen in the Middle Ages must have got great pleasure making their vessels or their jewellery. So I take this medieval pleasure and pride in my craft too, using not just my imagination but my hands - to mould each word and put it where it should be. I do my best. I hope it will give pleasure.