Anatole Broyard Books of the Times

New York Times / 1976

Of Lydia Chukovskaya’s first novel, “The Deserted House,” The New York Times Book Review wrote: It “promises to take its place with ‘Ivan Denisovich’ as one of the most impressive examples of the genre of Russian ‘purge literature’ ” The Times Literary Supplement said: “Remarkable and superbly written. Of all the ‘purge’ books that have come to our knowledge ‘The Deserted House’ is the most moving of all.”

GOING UNDER. By Lydia Chukovskaya. Translated from the Russian by Peter M. Weston. 144 pages. Quadrangel/The New York Times Bnok Company. $6.95.

Miss Chukovskaya is described by the publisher of her new novel, “Goipg Under,” as “the last person to shelter Solzhenitsyn,” and he has repaid her with a statement, quoted on the dust jacket, that evades literary evaluation, either by accident or design. “Having harvested [the] truth,” he observes, “Lydia Chukovskaya was not afraid to express it out loud.” When “Going Under” was published in Britain, Germaine Greer, who may no longer be germane, wrote in The New Statesman: “Chukovskaya’s calm prose shakes the heart with grief and outrage for one of the greater man‐made calamities of our time…, a very important book indeed.”

Now that I have read “Going Under,” I must gently disagree with Miss Greer. The book is dull, ‘stodgy, amateurish and almost wholly bereft of ideas. And while I have not read “The Deserted House,” I am convinced, in my “heart,” that it cannot have been a good book. If It had been, some trace of its competence would have shown itself in this one. What we have here is a prime example of literary politics: the praising of a novel for its “message,” its “honesty,” its “courage,” as if these were esthetic criteria.

Ignorant of Advances

Since the advent of Jack Kerouac, “protest” literature has been generally overpraised. Novels by blacks, novels by women; novels by counterculture authors, or by any “disadvantaged” minority have been championed, regardless of their quality as ‘fiction, by, the “concerned citizens” among book critics. If you are a freedom fighter, all is forgiven. With the cosmos on your shoulders, you can hardly be expected to trouble with something so elitist as craft.
Continue reading the main story

While I’m not so sure about our homegrown writers, there do seem to be extenuating circumstances for Russian novelists. Miss Chukovskaya, for example, sounds as if she has been brainwashed. She seems totally ignorant of the advances modern fiction has made — in fact, she writes as if she were trying to reconstruct a theory of the novel out of the most antiquated and sentimental English models. Perhaps that is all she is allowed to read of Western literature.

Except for the topical references, “Going Under” creates the impression that it had been written outside of time. The inadvertent poverty of the author’s style is more poignant evidence of alienation than her story of political repression. Judging by the enthusiastic response to Miss Chukovskaya’s work, however, it seems to be accepted practice that on the black market of Soviet sensibility one must be grateful for small savors.

In her righteous sincerity, the author quotes with contempt the political doubletalk of Soviet newspapers—yet her own prose is just as bad, crusted with clichés even staler than theirs. She writes of the “apples of her cheeks,” of “plumbing the depths fearlessly,” of “gnawing questions,” of “thorns” in her heart, her brain, and her “gorge.” Her heroine’s heart grows heavy, her efforts to look on the bright side are “fruitless” or “to no avail.” On every other page there is a reference to the snow “crunching gaily” under her feet when she is happy, or resembling dirty cotton wool when she is sad. In fact, this recurring weather report is the only “technical” trick in the author’s repertory.

“Going Under” is about a group of Soviet writers who are taking a rest cure in the Russian‐controlled sector of Finland. To all appearances, the rest cure seems to be a luxurious free vacation conferred by a grateful government, yet a Jewish poet is snatched away by the police in the night, and everyone else at the place seems to live in fear of his life. It is difficult to make out how these writers qualify for this sort of V.I.P. treatment if they are not more securely established.

A Pathetic Fallacy

The heroine, Nina, is a translator who is secretly working on a piece of protest literature. She refers to her “real” writing as “making a descent” or “going under.” At first, she is content with her descents and communing with nature in a pathetic fallacy of a birch grove where a fir tree is a “happy prisoner” and the birches are, “like little girls decked out in their finery … dancing round the Christmas tree.” Then, alas, the cynical discussion around the dinner table thrusts a thorn into her heart, brain and gorge and her troubled spirit seeks solace in the company of Nikolai Aleksandrovich Bilibin. She has not enjoyed the company of her fellow man since her husband disappeared in a purge. Alas, again, Bilibin’s work turns out to be a dishonest propitiation of the forces that be. He is a despicable coward who prefers spiritual to physical death.

In “Going Under,” there is an infant who dies in its mother’s arms as she stands in line to try to obtain news of her husband, who has been arrested. There is a little girl, dressed in Dickensian rags, to whom Nina reads fairy tales. Hardly more mature are the discussions in the rest home, in which “cosmopolitan taints” of any kind are abhorred. And yet, Nina appears, like the author, to have had access to Pushkin, to Pasternak, to Herzen and other great Russian‐ authors. She unfailingly quotes their most undistinguished lines.

“Going Under” suggests that the stifling influence of Soviet “official” culture outweighs older authors like Pushkin. It suggests, too, that a country’s literature needs the stimulation not only of freedom, but of other nations’ art as well. Of course, there is another possible explanation: that Lydia Chukovskaya is simply one more bad writer with good intentions.