There's a Russian saying that a pessimist is a well-informed optimist. As an exiled Russian writer, I prefer to be a badly informed pessimist -- in other words, an optimist. -- Vassily Aksyonov
The pessimistic view: After 15 years of harassment by the authorities, arrests and deportations of writers, contemporary Russian literature has been largely destroyed in the Soviet Union.
The badly informed pessimist: Russian literature lives on anyway. This weekend it lived on at the University of Southern California, where many of the best writers of Russian prose and poetry gathered under the California sun to share thoughts and hopes and angers.
The writers who gathered here are hardly pioneers. They refer to themselves as members of "The Third Wave" of Soviet emigres. The first wave left home after the Bolshevik Revolution, the second at the end of World War II. The commissars have been squeezing the life out of Russian culture for most of the last 64 years, yet Russian culture still blooms, a stubborn flower for all seasons.
Getting most of the leading Russian writers to come from around the world to Los Angeles for this conference was not simple. Professor Olga Matich of USC first had to raise the money (from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, the National Endowment for the Humanities, USC and UCLA), then had to overcome the factionalism within the emigre community.
She succeeded remarkably well, but not totally. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the senior figure of Russian literature in exile, did not deign to answer Professor Matich's invitation from his redoubt in Vermont. Joseph Brodsky, probably the most gifted poet now writing in Russian, was committed to be in Rome this weekend.
But most of the other major figures were here: Andrei Sinyavsky, now a Parisian, whose 1966 trial for writing anti-Soviet material (under the pseudonym Abram Tertz) began the dissident era; Viktor Nekrasov, an extremely popular writer about the war and winner of the Stalin Prize as a young man; Vassily Aksyonov, an idol for Soviet young people for two decades; Vladimir Voinovich, court satirist to the Brezhnev reign and recent arrival from Moscow; and Sasha Sokolov, 35, the youngest of this group, whose "School for Fools" was described by Vladimir Nabokov before his death as the best book published by any Russian in the Third Wave of emigration.
Sokolov missed Friday afternoon's session of the conference, however. He was being questioned, he said, by two agents of the FBI. In both Canada and the United States, apparently, Sokolov has been told that he is suspected of being a spy, perhaps because his father was well-known as a spy in the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa after the war. (Sokolov was born in Canada at the time, so was eligible for Canadian citizenship, which he now holds.)
Sokolov joked about his troubles in an address to the conference. When crossing the border between Canada and the United States, he said, the border guards asked him his profession. "'Writer,' I answered. I am immediately searched." In fact, he said later, he is often openly tailed in Canada, and repeatedly questioned by the FBI here. It may not be funny to Sokolov, but it is laughable to his friends here that two national police forces are spending their time keeping tabs on the young writer, whose energies go principally into extraordinary books of surrealistic imagery and experimental language.
Support for the optimists: Sinyavsky, now an old man, with a Russian muzhik's flowing white beard, survived his trial in 1966 (he and Yuli Daniel, who is still in Russia, were the first writers in the history of the Soviet state to be imprisoned for what they wrote). He survived prison camp. sNow he lives and writes in France, where his wife edits and publishes a tiny journal called Sintaksis, which exists primarily to publish Sinyavsky's works.
Vladimir Voinovich has been fighting the idea of emigration for most of the 1970s. During those years several of his books were published in America in English, but nothing has been published in Russia for years. Finally, last year, Voinovich decided that it was fruitless to stay. He came to America for the first time this spring and in New York found himself riding in a taxi driven by another recent emigre from Russia, who recognized him a countryman.
"Voinovich recounted their conversation here. "What do you do?" the taxi driver asked. "A writer," Voinovich replied. "Who are you?" "Voinovich." "Oh, I have read all of your books!" the taxi driver said excitedly.
Vassily Aksyonov has been spending his first months in America as writer in residence here at USC. "Of course you lose something" by leaving your homeland, Aksyonov said here. "But a new country opens up new possibilities . . . of course I miss my old Soviet beaches that I lived with all my life," he went on, grinning underneath his mustache." But when Aksyonov used the English word beaches, he meant the Russian slang for bums. "But now I live in Santa Monica near an American beach, and it's not bad!"
Russian writers can publish in the West both in Russian and in translation. One session of this conference was a round-table discussion involving editors of six Russian-language journals that are published in Paris, Israel or America. Two of the best-known Americans at this meeting were Carl and Ellendea Proffer, whose Ardis press in Ann Arbor, Mich., has become one of the most interesting and important small publishers in the world. Ardis publishes Russian literature in both Russian and English; its volumes are prized possessions in many private libraries in Russia.
Support for the pessimists:
Maria Rozanova, Sinyavsky's wife, brings out the journal Sintaksis virtually by herself, on a shoestring. They print 1,500 copies of each issue, "but half of them lie at home," she adds. Some writers decline to write for her, she told the conference, because they fear if they appear in the journal associated with Sinyavsky, they won't be invited to write or other journals run by anti-Sinyavsky Russians.
Factionalism is rampant. The best-financed Russian journal is Kontinent in Paris. Vladimir Maximov, its chief editor, refused to attend this conference, in part because Sinyavsky would be here.
Money is short. Most of these writers are living from month to month on meager royalties, income from non-writing jobs or subsidies from various angels. Professor John Glad, a Slavic scholar and translator from the University of Maryland, said here that "for $100,000, I could save Russian literature." He might be right.
Publishing in translation is neither easy nor lucrative. This was explained here by Ashbel Green, an editor of Alfred A. Knopf in New York, who has published several emigre Russians. Green revealed grim facts: y
"Literature and writers are not treated as seriously here as they are in the Soviet Union . . . serious American writing has a small audience, and one that I fear is not growing. . . Americans are in many ways an insular people. . ."
Green brought whistles of surprise from the crowd when he said that none of the internationally famous foreign writers that Knopf publishes -- including Nobel laureates -- has ever sold more than 15,000 copies of a single book in hardcover. The typical novel by one of these foreign authors sells less than 5,000 copies and does not get published in paperback, he noted.
How does a writer react to the loss of his native land, to separation from the language with which he works? "I try to imagine what it is like to be a writer in exile," said the playwright Edward Albee, who participated in this conference, "and I cannot."
These Russian writers do not have to imagine, but they do have to cope. "Unfortunately I am a part of Russian literature," said Eduard Limonov, 37, a controversial novelist whom many of the older Russians here dismissed as "a pornographer," but who has clearly made a mark. "I would just as soon have been born in America." Limonov said, "and be part of American literature -- it would suit me better." But this was a minority view. "I will write first of all for the readers I know best," Voinovich said of his new life in exile. "If I tried to write for American readers, I don't think it would work out." Of course this means writing for people whom these writers expect never to see again. And that is a gloomy thought.
Unless you are determined not to be gloomy -- like Vassily Aksyonov. Hey, he said, conditions for these emigres aren't bad at all. "Nobody's shooting anybody," he said.