YUZ ALESHKOVSKY is the author of eight published novels (and he is quick to point out the distinction between written and printed books); Kangaroo, his second work of "free prose," is the first to be translated into English. He was known in Russia for his children's books and his popular songs. He emigrated to the United States in 1978.
I approached this interview with Yuz a bit awkwardly, both because I have written admiringly about his work and because I have known him for quite some time. But then a book by a Russian author, no matter how good he is, can easily be lost in this predominantly English-speaking world. Of course, it will eventually be found, "discovered," hands will be clasped, etc., and I wouldn't mind waiting for this discovery were Yuz 30 or 40, but he's 57 years old. And as for knowing him personally, what is it they say at carnivals? "I know you, mask." Or, as John Clare said, "Even those whom I knew best/ Are strange, Nay! Stranger than the rest." Hence this interview.
Joseph Brodsky: What does it feel like to be, to exist in a culture with which your relationship (to begin with, your command of the language) is, to put it mildly, somewhat strained? In other words, didn't you have some missionary ideas when you came to the United States? Didn't you, like some of us, entertain an ambition to temper -- better yet, to frostbite, to freeze -- Western culture a bit by informing it about the Russian experience? That is, to toughen up this Western culture of theirs into a culture without an adjective? That is, didn't you, too, have this missionary streak in you -- not toward your compatriots only, but toward the entire world?
Aleshkovsky: No, that's not me. I didn't aspire to freeze or toughen up anything. A prose writer is no missionary. His concerns, as a rule, are quite immediate: to work, or to facilitate the conditions for working. To put the mundane grandly, to follow his fate, his calling. The choice we had -- to leave the country or to face the prison music or some other form of state-sponsored martyrdom -- took you away from your calling, one way or another. Still, the former gave you a margin of independence. And I was hellbent on following my fate as a writer. I didn't want the tragic gaze of my reality to mesmerize me into silence, into writing paralysis. So I quit the country because I was resolved to meet my fate, no matter what. Of course, I'd prefer my Western readers to see modern history, its Russian part at least, through my prism. The best one can hope for is that one's view of things will be shared. The job of literature is to convey one's experience so that the species won't have to repeat it. But if I don't have that many illusions about it, it's largely because I had very little of that missionary streak in me to begin with.
Brodsky: Where were you born? Who were your mother and father? In other words, how did it come about that you sank so low that your work was so vehemently hated by the authorities?
Aleshkovsky: I was born in Siberia, in Krasnoyarsk. The name of the street where the hospital stood was Dictatorship Street.
Brodsky: Which you regard as something prophetic, no doubt.
Aleshkovsky: As both prophetic and humorous. For it's strange that people should be born on Dictatorship Street. At such an address, they should only die.
Brodsky: You are an incurable romantic, I am afraid.
Aleshkovsky: Well, at any rate, the bulk of my life I spent in Moscow. As to how I sank so low that my writing turned out to ruffle the fur of all that zoo upstairs, well, I don't know . . . I suppose this had to do with one's attempts to maintain one's dignity. For in our 300-million-strong nation . . .
Brodksy: Are we already 300 million? Good Lord!
Aleshkovsky: Last week's figures. Seems like the old boys have gone sluggish with the executions . . . Well, anyway, in our 300-million-strong nation, nobody doubts what's going on. On every level: in the administration, in the military, in the party, in agriculture, in industry. Nobody has illusions as to the nature of the beast. A man in the street/bar/taxi/baths will set you straight better and faster than any Sovietologist in the best Western university. But while for any of these people to tell the truth is a sideline, say, a pleasant deviation, for a writer it is a matter of human dignity, integrity -- finally, sanity. I didn't want to turn into a nervous dreck, that's why.
Brodsky: Right. But what made you, a professional truck driver, pick up the pen? What pushed you from behind the steering wheel into literature? To put the mundane grandly?
Aleshkovsky: I guess I started when it became frightfully clear that the libido is triumphant on all fronts. . . . But by and large I suppose I resorted to writing because writing seemed to me the only way to dodge the terror of existence. To outwit or outsmart it, perhaps. Although, on the other hand, it's odd for me to talk about the terror of existence, for I've always been known as a cheerful creature.
Brodsky: But then cheerfulness has to do with comprehending terror, doesn't it? It's just one way of maintaining dignity. The other choice is whimpering . . . Yet what I am really after is whether you are conscious of what it is that has been pushing you to write all along. And since I have reason to expect from you a metaphysical aria here, let me narrow your options somewhat. Let me offer you five choices: divine intervention (God or Muse), social injustice, an insight (or something you regard as such) into the human condition, a really good story or plot, some other writer's influence. And may I suggest one more: the language itself.
Aleshkovsky: Well, social injustice or justice, chaos or harmony -- those are particulars of one's reality. And that reality itself, in turn, is a particular of a huge process incomprehensible to us. And the closest I can come to determining the origins of my pen moving across a great deal of paper is to admit the desire to attach, to glue, myself to that huge incomprehensibility. The speck of my provisional existence, to the whole of time. So that I don't evaporate altogether, so that something will remain. Something recognizable as mine. For the display of creative energy, however modest, is a scarecrow against death, is a projection of one's self to where one is not supposed to, and most likely won't, tread. In the moment of the creative act, man, I repeat, constitutes a scarecrow against death, with all its scythe-cum-carcass paraphernalia. In this respect, writing is like love-making. Better still, like making children, although this may amount to puncturing that great sublimation idea.
Brodsky: Not necessarily. For it's not the latter that is the sublimation of the former -- or the other way around -- but that both are just outlets for one's creative urge. Which simply gets channeled now this way, now that. On the whole, the sublimation argument is silly and could be best used in the defense of pornography. The only thing that may be wrong with your scarecrow assertion is that some may interpret it as a mixture of narcissism and self-pity. Although, given the human condition, it's odd that one can be reproached for pitying oneself. Or for trying to outsmart death.
Do you have any particular sentiment vis-a -vis Kangaroo? No matter how many moons ago you wrote it.
Aleshkovsky: Kangaroo for me was a rather unique experience. That is, it was an occasion when, perhaps, for the first time in my life, in some magical way my rational and my, let's say, spiritual sides found themselves locked together -- or were brought into a focus which I experienced as a sense of form for this novel. Naturally, as you know, one never seriously ponders the formal aspect of a work-to-be. That is, in advance. The form evolves in the process of composition, it grows, so to speak, the way a pearl does.
Brodsky: Your remark betrays the sensibility of a poet.
Aleshkovsky: You're the one to know. . . . On the whole, though, I agree, because the core, the deep-down essence of any writing, be it a novel or an essay, substantially obeys the laws of poetic accretion. After the fact, when the work is done, when a structure has emerged, it can of course be appreciated as a prosaic structure.
Brodsky: As when they cry "It's a boy," no matter what the mother and father were trying for or had in their genes.
Aleshkovsky: And the writing of Kangaroo was for me a qualitatively new experience of precisely this sort: the poetic accruing of both history -- Soviet history, I mean -- and reality (Soviet, too), as well as my place in it. So much so that my hero in that novel, with whom, I should hope, I have very little in common . . .
Brodsky: Save for his linguistic habits . . .
Aleshkovsky: . . . save for his linguistic habits, reveals through his phantasmagoric features his poetic genealogy. Anyway, I had never experienced anything of the sort until I wrote Kangaroo. . . . I don't want to fashion a theory out of my memories, I just want to recall the way it came about. You know better than anyone that the birth of an image -- or the concept of a work -- is a magical, sacred affair, a sort of vision. So the moment I sensed the image of Kangaroo, the moment I got the hang of the whole, I became awfully agitated. For suddenly I realized the possibility of finding myself inside the medley of history -- yet not in the capacity of victim or scholar -- no: I found myself inside it as a writer, as, if you will, its plotter. And I realized this position's mythological, phantasmagoric possibilities. I felt all of a sudden that I can talk about anything! That given this form, I can take on the entire world, Russian or foreign rulers, shoemaking, erotic or gendarmes' fantasies, military or space-age hardware, descriptions of weather, my personal hang-ups, the future of the nation -- well, you name it. To say the least, this novel's form allowed for maximal saturation of a page with content. And without a great deal of effort . . . the absence of which makes the creative process especially pleasant. As well as memorable.
Brodsky: What do you know about the fate of your books in Russia? Do they get back home, and what sort of feedback, if any, do you receive? I realize how awkward it may be for you to answer this question, but I wouldn't know whom else to ask.
Aleshkovsky: What's my discomfiture in comparison to that of the KGB? For in spite of its mind-boggling efforts to castrate the aforesaid millions of Russians intellectually, in spite of its diligence, dedication and budget, our books -- mine, yours, others' -- do get through and are read. By fewer readers, of course, than one would wish for or the nation could provide . . . say, by 2,000 or 3,000, or maybe only 200 or 300 . . .
Brodsky: In a closed society, the smaller the number, the more awful is their detonation. In the final analysis, it's not the size of the bomb that matters but the fact that the room is sealed.
Aleshkovsky: Especially if those hundreds are an intellectual elite: literati, movie people, and so forth. Maybe the word is not "detonation" but "resonance" . . . Of late, of course, smuggling books into Russia has become a lot more difficult than in the days of de'tente. Nonetheless, they get through, and the response, such as it is -- oblique and conspiratorial -- is reassuring. And those snippets, hints, semi-quotes in the mail from there are more significant for me than all the local reviews or dissertations. For our readership is there, and I say this not because I'm mesmerized by those millions but because the real life of our language is there. My fan, or the greatest expert on my writing, may live on the Fiji Islands, but my readers, my audience is back there, east of Warsaw.
Brodsky: And yet, wouldn't you agree, perhaps, that way back in Russia, we -- our generation, at least -- were in a sense more American, in terms of this idea of individualism, than Americans themselves? That to act on one's own in a society permeated with a sense of communality, where everybody minds someone else's business, was a tougher act to follow than here, where one's independence is written into law?
Aleshkovsky: Yes, but that was inevitable -- especially if you were a writer. Literature, after all, is a highly private enterprise. In this sense, the writer is always an American.