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Writing on the Wall

An anthology highlights the divide between sanctioned and forbidden literature

Joshua Cohen
November 18, 2009
(round and round by ratterrell / Robert Terrell; some rights reserved.)
(round and round by ratterrell / Robert Terrell; some rights reserved.)

Styles exist only in retrospect. A Late Style is only late if the author dies immediately after, or, more dramatically, during, the work. An Early Style is only early if the author grows and changes. Regionalisms, and ethnic or national literatures, seem artifactual: today, French and German literatures are remarkably similar; with the invention of the internet, and the flat affect or concise, casual expression that medium demands, a new international style may threaten.

Twenty years after the fall of Communism, it’s clear that two literary styles were created in the Soviet Union: one was the official style of Socialist Realism, the other the Underground response. By order of the State (though those orders changed by decade and by country), Socialist Realist literature in the Eastern Bloc had to be about, and for, the proletariat; it had to depict the daily life of that population; that depiction had to be in a realist style, which is to say it had to be accurate to the ideal of proletarian life, and contain no experiments, or formalisms; and, finally, it had to support, but not independently further, the objectives of the Communist Party (these were the four dictates decided upon at the first meeting of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934). What resulted was a literature of direct language, of direct address—an anagogical, or fabling, literature in which no story could be told without a moral in mind, explicit or implied. The goal of this literature—this literature had goals—was not to entertain but to instruct, to make a new type of man by making a new type of writer: not a poet of inky individuation, but, as Stalin put it, “an engineer of human souls.”

It is this tautology that enabled that other style: a Socialist Realist writer must write about reality in a realistic style, but he must also remain partisan, and at all times reinforce the party line. When these two impulses become contradictory, the writer risks shading into the realm of irony, or satire; and suddenly what had been didactic and simple becomes complex, or “subversive.” This, of course, was the literature of those writers who wrote for oblivion, or for the drawer, for a dimly free future, or for a cynically regarded, because illegal, posterity. The writers of the Underground, who remained (mostly) unpublished under Communism, who, if they published, did so (mostly) in samizdat—a Russian word meaning “self-published,” either copied by hand, or by carbon on a typewriter—comprised the only authentic style under Communism, but only in retrospect. In its day its practitioners were scattered among too many countries, and too many languages, with each responding both to a general Soviet politics and, too, to the particular censorships of their home cultures (it appears to have been easier to get away with writing subversively in Yugoslavia than in Russia, for example).

Socialist Realist novels were occupied with the outside, the surface: a man is discharged from the Red Army as a hero and returns to his village, becoming a town, currently occupied with its reorganization around a new, nationalized cement factory (the novel Cement, by Fyodor Gladkov)—this is all exterior, a series of events or plot points supposed to demonstrate fate, outlining a life lived by political calling. By contrast, Underground literature—which we should instead call “real literature,” the only true literature of its time and places—was absorbed with the inner life, with the thoughts and so the psychology of characters. Show a Red Army veteran working productively in a cement plant and you have propaganda, but tell us the thoughts of this man and you have an artwork, and a dangerous one at that.

The Wall in My Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtainis an anthology jointly produced by a website that focuses on literature in translation, Words Without Borders, and a new press, Open Letter, similarly tasked with publishing translations, based at the University of Rochester. The roster of contributors is immense and impressive, including Mircea Cărtărescu (Romania), Péter Esterházy (Hungary), Durs Grünbein (Germany/East Germany), Zbigniew Herbert (Poland), Paweł Huelle (Poland), Ryszard Kapuściński (Poland), Milan Kundera (Czechoslovakia/France), Dorota Masłowska (Poland), Victor Pelevin (Russia), Vladimir Sorokin (Russia), Andrjez Stasiuk (Poland), and Dubravka Ugrešić (Croatia/Yugoslavia). All these pieces—stories, novel excerpts, poems, essays, memoirs—have appeared before (with the exception of a fine introduction by Keith Gessen), but it is good to have them in one volume, both for purposes of comparison and also because each is so short and potent that when one is finished another becomes immediately necessary.

Kundera exposes the origins of Underground style in Kafka’s response to technological bureaucracy; Pelevin remembers drinking wine under the stars as a teenager, being fascinated by the idea of a collapsed society managing to put a cosmonaut in orbit; Cărtărescu recalls losing his virginity (read: innocence) to a girl who’d later work for Securitate, Romania’s secret police; while Ugrešić offers a manifesto on writing about Communism for the free market—on the commodification of the Eastern experience for the satisfaction of Western readers (and, too, for the enrichment of formerly Eastern writers).

Indeed, Ugrešić’s essay, “The Souvenirs of Communism,” is simultaneously a perfect end to, and perfection of, the style that was the Underground. She writes: “The literature of the post-communist showdown with communism was just as clichéd in its ideological strategies and artistic achievements as the literature of Stalinism had been. And for that very reason, all the more penetrating. The authors of these works managed to find the pressure points in the imagination of the Western reader. It turned out that the pressure points are not the inconceivable absurdities of communism, but simple, understandable things: poor dental hygiene and empty shops.”

One might add to her list: also disaffected, angry scribblers. Ugrešić’s rage at the rude selling of the Eastern narrative is nothing but her disappointment at being denied, in midcareer, her style. Having survived the fall of the Wall, Ugrešić—along with the majority of the writers in this anthology—had only retrospection left. However, it is because she has to chosen to reveal to us not the Socialist Realistic surface of retrospection, but instead its deeper, inward consciousness, that she remains a writer of necessity and power.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. His first essay collection, Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction, will be released in August. In 2017 he was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. He lives in New York City.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. He is the recipient of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, for The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. He lives in New York City.