Nightingales

John Bayley

  • Nightingale Fever: Russian Poets in Revolution by Ronald Hingley
    Weidenfeld, 269 pp, £12.95, January 1982, ISBN 0 297 77902 8
  • Russian Writers and Soviet Society 1917-1978 by Ronald Hingley
    Methuen, 296 pp, £4.95, June 1981, ISBN 0 416 31390 6
  • The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Russia and the Soviet Union edited by Archie Brown
    Cambridge, 492 pp, £18.50, February 1982, ISBN 0 521 23169 8
  • ‘Novy Mir’: A Case-Study in the Politics of Literature 1952-1958 by Edith Frankel
    Cambridge, 206 pp, £19.50, November 1981, ISBN 0 521 23438 7

Consciousness has to live, at least notionally, by extremes. It is by turns enthusiastic and cynical, believes and disbelieves. It wants to be snug and comfortable, but its peak moments, when it feels most alive, come out of crisis and extremes – illness, accident, bereavement, jealousy, longing. ‘I wouldn’t have missed it for anything,’ it will say to itself about a quarrel or a war, some episode of general misery.

English consciousness admits this general truth with a smile and a shrug, while not taking it too seriously. It can live beside it and around it. But the Russian intelligent – still more the Russian poet – flings himself into the arms of the paradox with joyful cries. Pasternak’s poem ‘Waves’ describes the process.

Curling, furling
At misery’s full tilt,
Towards me rush my own deeds –
Crests of past experience.

‘Misery’s full tilt’ is an apt description for the kind of frenetic euphoria to which Pasternak saw the poet of his age as condemned. Literature had always been a potentially risky business in Russia, but after the Revolution the poet could be seen as a figure divine yet doomed, his calling – if a true one – a form of protracted suicide.

Ah had I known the way of it
When launching my career –
That verse is deadly, murderous
Haemorrhage gushing from the throat!

The poet was the victim of a ‘lofty malady’ – the title of one of Pasternak’s longer poems. ‘There is no hope,’ proclaims a lyric of Mandelstam,

for a heart ever burning
With nightingale fever.

Dr Hingley takes the phrase to characterise his study of the four greatest poets of Russia’s post-Revolutionary age.

All four say, in this context, the same thing: Mandelstam with the most unemotional distinction.

Starling-like I might have chirped my days away ...
But I can’t. Obviously. No question of it.

Translation gives only a bit of the clipped and staccato effect. Akhmatova writes of ‘torture by happiness’, and of the need for ‘gaiety and fear at the heart’; Tsvetaeva, in any ordinary sense the most vulgar of the four, of

how much sombre dire anguish
My fair-haired head contains.

This sort of thing might look like posturing: indeed, in any of the four except Mandelstam one could find lines and exclamations which sound in translation like the most commonplace ‘anguished’ poet of the Nineties, Max Beerbohm’s Enoch Soames or Gilbert’s Bunthorne.

Such an incongruity reveals an important truth. As a result of the Revolution and its ideology, processed and imposed in public language and propaganda, anything that a poet could utter in his own private language suddenly acquired a special authenticity. The intimate feelings and mannerisms of a poet can become as precious and desirable as real coffee in a besieged economy. There is nothing absolute about the virtues of any poetry: the nerve, the authority of its creation must recruit themselves from the circumstances, public or private, that created them. Tennyson’s Idylls of the King drew inspiration from his sense of what the reading public of the time needed to hear. Now their art remains, but not that life which once gave it real meaning. In Russia, circumstances have not changed, and the uncompromisingly personal utterance of these four poets retains its almost mystic authority. In the West, it would be a question of the poet talking about himself, as poets do, while an open society remained largely indifferent and unmoved.

The Waste Land has achieved, in its still mysterious and resonant privacy, something of the sense of power of these Russian poets. But to get some sort of parallel for their continued authority of speech we must come closer to our own time – to the poetry of Robert Lowell or of Sylvia Plath. There the language of poetry has the same kind of mesmeric power and the same air of constant danger. But it is, of course, danger of a different kind – the danger that boils up from within and makes living for a poet a hazard which the poetry can express with a wonderful and frightening precision. In a sense, this internalised threat could be said to be a kind of substitute for the hazards the Russian poets faced, its reality equally a challenge to the poet and a kind of guarantee of his poethood. To cut your throat, to die by a self-inflicted Pasternakian haemorrhage, is not necessary if the state will do it for you.

The sense of solitude, the acute consciousness of self, is as marked in Lowell or Plath as in these Russians. But the powerful state inadvertently lends the poet its own kind of objective power. ‘Only in Russia is poetry respected,’ Mandelstam once remarked. ‘It gets people killed. Where else is poetry a common motive for murder?’ The radical difference between the Russian poets threatened from outside, and the poets of the West threatened by their own neuroses from within, is that the former are evangelists of a word that is sane because it is open but not public. Every good poet, however dotty, reaches through his work what Lamb called ‘the sanity of true genius’. But the conditions under which they wrote diffuse through the wildest words of these Russian poets an odour of sanity ‘as broad and general as the casing air’. Whatever their oddity as individuals (‘You were silly like us, your gift survived it all,’ as Auden wrote of Yeats), their poems, particularly Mandelstam’s, seem oases of calm strength and beauty in a mad and murderous world.

Much of our poetry draws its powers from an opposite process. Some of the best poems of Sylvia Plath, even of Lowell, seem to extend into the reader their own menace of madness, held under marvellously tight verbal control, as if to prophesy of a more general madness in our society, in all our ways of living and being. However complete its achievement, such poetry is by instinct demoralising, whereas the Russian poets restore to the individual a blessed thankfulness that humanity is a resident of the private self, uncorruptible from without. A famous early poem of Mandelstam’s expresses this divine gift of personal being with an almost naive economy.

A body’s given me – what shall I do with it,
So one and so my own?
For the quiet joy of breathing and living
Tells me whom I am to thank?

Clarence Brown, whose translation that is, observes in his excellent book on Mandelstam’s poetry that ‘so one and so my own’ (Takim edinim i takim moim) trembles, both in Russian and English, on the verge of the comic. That is indeed the point – in a little verse epigram Mandelstam refers to a tramcar as ‘so number 8’ (takoi vosmoi) – and this simple emphasis on personal identity is strangely prophetic, though the poem was written several years before the Revolution, of what it would do to the individual, and how it would try to regiment the poet into a cultural shock brigade whose faceless members were all saying the same thing.

Milosz’s ironic observation – ‘They say war is good for you’ – has its own sort of application to these Russian poets. They are in a sense war poets, but their poetry was never distracted by the poet’s being actually involved in battle and the problems it brings, problems of attitude and expression. A poet involved in war becomes a committed poet, virtually a poet of revolution: the strength of these poets lies in their passivity, in the fact that the violence and extremity of their situation turns them more and more into themselves. They had no death wish. Gumilev, Akhmatova’s husband, a good poet but not on the level of his wife and the other three, certainly had one. He was a volunteer constantly at the front in the l9l4 war, and he was shot by the Bolsheviks, on a trumped-up charge of counter-revolutionary activity, soon after it ended. In a sense, his degree of participation drained him of his poetic self. The four with ‘nightingale fever’ passionately preserved theirs. However much they felt doomed by their vocation, they had the instinct of survivors, which makes the fate of Tsvetaeva, who hanged herself in Tashkent, and Mandelstam, dead in a far-eastern Gulag, particularly poignant. Both Mandelstam and Pasternak successfully avoided the call-up in 1914, Pasternak pleading a leg broken in childhood. Later he was to write wryly that ‘the accident of one evening saved me from two world wars.’ He was the most accomplished survivor of the four.

Being oneself in an age which demands that the individual sacrifice himself for the gleaming heights of socialism is, of course, the burden of Dr Zhivago, which in some ways resembles Akhmatova’s long and haunting verse narrative, Poem without Hero. (The Russian does not need the article, ‘a hero’, and the sense is conveyed better in English without it). The being of the doctor, and that of the poetess, are an implicit and total rejection of the Soviet-style hero, of any conceivable figure who would either embody the ideals of the new order or denounce them. Solzhenitsyn and the new generation of refugee writers are all in their way heroes of the second kind. The nightingale poets were not a bit like that. Even Tsvetaeva, the most perverse of them and the one with the most explosively tedious Russian-style ‘soul’ (she was, in fact, in equal parts German, Polish and Russian), only championed causes that were lost, just as she only valued love as it died or was rejected. In 1914 she expressed her enthusiasm for everything German, and in 1919 wrote a series of moving poetic tributes to the White armies, the ‘swan host’: but when for a time they looked like winning she wrote an equally passionate plea on behalf of the rebel underdog, the Stenka Razin. When the Reds won, she read her pro-White poems at a Moscow recital attended by the Red Army, to test her theory that no one understands poetry at recitals. She was right: there was prolonged cheering, but, as Hingley observes, her audience had been ordered to come for a cultural evening and had instructions to cheer at all meetings anyway.

Tsvetaeva’s mercurial posturing was her own way of being herself, which contrasted with the quieter or more delphic ways taken by the other three. Akhmatova, the most effortlessly imperious, simply identifies the destiny of Russia with her own. She will never leave her country, and since its true voice has been silenced by the barbarians she too will be silent, which for many years she was. Mandelstam’s most moving poems about the ruin of Petersburg ‘in the black velvet of Soviet night’ (the reference is to the velvet which draped the scaffold at an important execution) are marvellous and mature reveries on the theme of ‘so one and so my own’, on friendship, women, the individual and the blest poetic word.

We shall gather together in Petersburg
As if we had buried the sun there,
And for the first time we shall utter
The blessed meaningless word.
In the black velvet of Soviet night,
In the velvet of the universal void,
The dear eyes of blessed women still sing,
Immortal flowers still bloom.

Meaning has become the property and pretension of the state; the words of poetry have abandoned it. The buried sun is possibly the poet Pushkin – in another version, ‘Soviet night’ reads ‘January night’, the month in which Pushkin was buried in the snow after his fatal duel. Now the capital is a place of total alienation. Only ‘an angry motor’ hurtles past in the darkness, screeching ‘like a cuckoo clock’.

There is for me no need for a night pass,
I do not fear the sentries:
For the blessed meaningless word
I shall pray in the Soviet night.

What is striking in the poem – it was written in 1920 – is the absolute and calm assurance that night – the ‘night that knows no dawn’, as Akhmatova calls it – has indeed descended. The poem has the authority of a prophecy already fulfilled. That it was prophetic rather than indicative of actual conditions at the time of writing – at least as regards the freedom of the poet and his ‘word’ – is shown by the fact that the poem was published in 1922 in the collection Tristia. When it was reprinted in 1928, however, the poet took out both references to the ‘Soviet night’, and revised the poem in the interests of discretion and concealment. The Soviet night was indeed about to descend.

It is difficult to overemphasise both the gravity and the simplicity entailed on Mandelstam’s poetry by the circumstances in which it was written. Most poets of the modern age ‘confront’ it by a species of irony or of fantasy. When in ‘Lapis Lazuli’ Yeats writes of ‘gaiety transfiguring all that dread’, this is the poet trying out his own kind of reaction to a doom-laden situation invented for the poem itself. Not so very different is Auden’s stance in September 1939.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages ...

Poetry is annexing a self-conscious status, not that of the ‘blessed meaningless word’ but of a select and private élite: and yet the ‘affirming flame’ they show is self-deprecating, careful to show that it can make nothing happen. Stephen Spender’s ‘political’ poetry of that pre-war time is simpler and more moving, more Russian in instinct, but from the poet’s – or any imaginative writer’s – point of view the problem in the West of taking an attitude to tyranny and terror is an insoluble one. The more he ‘confronts’ it and tries to understand it, the less convincing he becomes. Imagination dies: the theoretical and unreal become offensively rampant, as they do in writers who are sycophants of ideological tyranny, as they do, too, with writers in the West who make use of the unspeakable from a distance and for display – essentially vulgar displays like the recent book and play on Hitler by George Steiner and Christopher Hampton.

Only books of a very exceptional kind – Solzhenitsyn’s and the memoirs of Mandelstam’s widow – can confront the nature of the tyranny directly, and they do so, not by the poetic word, but by putting first-hand experience in order with the patience and endurance of memory. The Russian poets who had inherited, even if unwillingly, the Fin-de-Siècle traditions of Russia’s silver age were suddenly to find in them a new and striking imaginative validity. For their predecessor Blok, who had hailed the Revolution in his mystical poem The Twelve, its reality was asphyxiating. ‘All sounds have ceased,’ he used to say before his death. Not so unlike Mayakovsky, who followed him in his own way into the same impasse, he expected new sounds, new styles of poetic vitality.

But paradoxically it was the old preciousness that became the new and true elixir. The poets whom Sartre, referring to Villiers de l’Isle Adam and his contemporaries, called ‘Knights of Nothingness’, the kind of poets who had withdrawn into ivory towers, suddenly became guardians of the living flame. While the waves of cant washed over his homeland, it was this solitary poet and not the peasant who was dans le vrai. Dr Zhivago, whose name personifies life, zhiznaya zhizn – true and lively life – sits alone night after night in one of Pasternak’s most haunting poems. In the cold and dark his single candle burns on the table.

Pasternak, whose early collection is called My Sister Life, overdoes the life symbolism. But it is a strange reversal that the poet who now spoke for the age should be the kind of poet who once considered himself outside it. Private poetry becomes the best public poetry in an age and society in which the public sector is all-powerful and all-demanding. In a revolutionary situation a receptive solipsism turned out to be what mattered most to real poetry. But not solipsism alone. ‘So one and so my own’ includes the past – a vision of European culture which Mandelstam said was the true meaning of Acmeism. ‘I’m also a contemporary,’ he asserts in one poem: they can tell it by the Moscow Garment Combine jacket which fits him so badly.

Just try to tear me away from the age –
I promise you, you’ll twist your neck!

As his widow was to write, ‘the sick son of the age’ suddenly understood that he was the healthy one. And when he heard in 1928 that some elderly bank clerks were to be shot he sent a copy of his poems just published (the same collection in which the references to ‘Soviet night’ had been altered) to Bukharin, who had befriended him, with the inscription: ‘Every line in this book argues against what you plan to do.’

Mandelstam is a poet as versatile as Auden and he can exhibit the same brilliance in gusto. An instance would be ‘Poem 233’, written in 1931, in which the poet drinks to ‘everything I’ve been reproached for’, to ‘military asters’ (which, as Clarence Brown plausibly speculates, must be Czarist officers’ epaulettes), to fur coats, and asthma, to the waves of Biscay, the cheeks of haughty English girls, and the quinine of distant colonies – the list in Russian has subtle connotations and fantastic verbal beauty. The poet ends by deflating his own excited and defiant posture. He will drink, yes: the only problem is shall it be in Asti Spumante or Château Neuf du Pape? In something like the same spirit his younger self had entertained the habitués of the Stray Dog cabaret in Petersburg with an epigram he claimed to have rendered from a forgotten Classical author.

‘Delia! Where have you been?’ ‘Lying in thearms of Morpheus.’
‘Woman, you lie! For I have been lying there myself.’

In English you get a pun thrown in, but miss the past tense ending which shows the sex of the speaker.

Mandelstam’s boast is true. Of the four poets he does show himself to be the closest to his age, most deeply aware of its horrors, most tenderly in touch with what survived. But the four could hardly be more different and the Nightingale Fever took them each in a different way. Tsvetaeva, the only one to emigrate, though she returned in 1940 and hanged herself soon after, is the wildest of the four, the least human and moving, though there is no doubt of her extraordinary talent. In dire poverty in a Paris suburb, she turned out a stream of lyrics, long poems and plays, many dramatising her view of love, renunciation and disaster as the synonymous trinity presiding over the poet’s high calling. Meanwhile her young daughter made hats to pay the rent, and her husband began his devious connection with the Ogpu which was to lead to the murder of Russian refugees in France and to his own summary liquidation when he returned to Russia. The most instructive part of Dr Hingley’s book is his account, not of Tsvetaeva’s life in Paris and sad end, but of the work she accomplished there and during her earlier time in Berlin and Prague. In two superb verse sequences, she celebrates her stormy love affair in Prague, in which the pair doomed to love’s inevitable ending are compared to poets, and poets to Jews.

In this most Christian world
Poets are Yids.

The collection in which these appeared was significantly titled After Russia. It was followed by two verse plays, Ariadne and Phaedra, in which Tsvetaeva set out her characteristic views on love and its superior passions when sexless, and a remarkable piece called ‘Rat Catcher’, based on the Pied Piper story, in which an equally lofty scorn is poured on Bolshevik rats and fat European burghers.

The four poets all knew each other intimately, Russian conditions bringing about a peculiar and unique degree of insideness in their literary relations. Tsvetaeva may have had a brief affair with Mandelstam during the 1914 war; later, and in her passionately personal fashion, she was in love with Pasternak, whose oddly equine profile she described with an affectionate shaft of wit as combining ‘both Arab and his steed’. (Mandelstam was known as ‘Rabbit-Leopard’, a reference to his timid look and large ears and to his unpredictable acts of suicidal daring, as when he was alleged to have snatched some signed death-warrants from the hands of a drunken and murderous Cheka agent.) Tsvetaeva worshipped not only Pasternak but his poetry, and wrote him long letters from her Parisian exile; against Akhmatova’s poetry she directed penetrating and often well-found criticisms. Mandelstam, for most of his writing career, thought little of the verse of either woman; and Pasternak in his turn did not care for Mandelstam’s.

The famous story of how Stalin rang up Pasternak and asked whether his fellow poet was ‘a genius’ is hard to interpret. By his own admission, Pasternak evaded the question, and Hingley feels he was right to do so: had Stalin thought the poet who lampooned him a genius, he would have snuffed him out all the quicker. But it seems likely that this view is unfair to Stalin and too kind to Pasternak, who like many geniuses could not bring himself to acclaim the same powers in another artist. In his grim way, the dictator may have recognised this, remarking that he had expected a more positive defence from a fellow poet. Both naive and solipsistic, Pasternak was thrilled by the call, thinking it might be the preliminary to heart-to-heart talks about the future of art and Russia. But when he rang back the Kremlin there was naturally no reply.

All these tales are familiar today, principally from the memoirs of Mandelstam’s widow, and though Hingley’s book is full of lively chat and incidental interest, both factual and biographical, it has an air of being done rapidly and at random, and is lacking in any critical perspective on the work of the four. Hingley is also a better translator of prose than poetry, although it is admittedly an impossible task to render any of these four into anything verse-like: Hingley succeeds best with the squelchy, helplessly word-logged images of the young Pasternak, which often have something of a doggerel quality in the original. But it seems a pity he has not devoted his wide knowledge to a more sober and less superficially popular type of publication. How much more worthwhile for the poetry-reading public – and who else should this book be aimed at? – would be a really generous and judicious selection in the original from the work of these poets, with a commentary and a plain prose translation. That would illuminate, that would widen the bounds of human happiness. Only a smattering of the language is needed to pick up so much that way, a genuine apprehension of the art of these poets that Hingley’s book cannot begin to give. But probably there is no money in it, as is shown by the withering away of the Penguin foreign poets series. Very sad.

As a source of information and sensible comment, Russian Writers and Soviet Society is as useful as Hingley’s earlier book on the Russian 19th-century background, and so is the comprehensive Cambridge encyclopedia on Russia and the Soviet Union, a massive volume edited by some of the most respected names in the business. It deals with Russian history from the Dark Ages to the present, with all things political, industrial, cultural and geographical – an indispensable work of reference for amateur Kremlinologists. A more specialised study of quite peculiar interest is Dr Frankel’s close examination of the history of the ‘liberal’ Soviet periodical Novy Mir, to which she has given the accurate subtitle ‘A Case-Study in the Politics of Literature’. This sheds light on something much more subtle in the strange ways of Soviet conformism than the usual crude business of censorship and the rule of an optimistic Socialist Realism with its ‘positive’ characters.

Tvardovsky, editor of Novy Mir for more than two decades, was a remarkable man, a member of the Party who owed everything to it, but also a passionate believer in good literature, and a supple and cunning operator on its behalf during the whole succession of Byzantine intrigues, each tentative advance, each taking fright and facing about, that occurred in Soviet literary policy between Khrushchev’s speech after the death of Stalin and the final expulsion of Solzhenitsyn from the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn himself has written a memorable account of Tvardovsky and their friendship in his long literary memoir Bodalsya telenok s dubom – The calf butted the oak. There Tvardovsky appears as almost a tragic figure, thrown into relief as in a novel against a background of party and union intrigue. One of Dr Frankel’s intentions seems to be to produce a more soberly documented study of the editor and his colleagues and policies at Novy Mir and of the real nature of the limited successes they achieved. This is a valuable service, because, while no one could doubt Solzhenitsyn’s sincerity and affection, he was determined to see Tvardovsky as a kind of symbolic figure, a man too decent and upright for the time and for his position, like Samsonov, the commander of the Russian army destroyed at Tannenberg in 1914, of whom Solzhenitsyn – at the time of the climactic troubles of Novy Mir – was constructing a memorable portrait for his novel August 1914: ‘That same psychological and national type, that same internal greatness, strength, purity – and the practical helplessness, and the inability to keep pace with the times. I began to explain Samsonov through Tvardovsky and vice-versa – and understand each of them better.’ Solzhenitsyn is turning Tvardovsky, as novelists will, into a figure in his own personal mythology: and yet, as Dr Frankel stresses, the real one did stand for something beyond the unholy trinity of Socialist Realism – narodnost, ideinost, partiinost – for some basic quality of the Russian soul and the Russian classics which is rendered by yet another abstract noun – poryadochnost, a fundamental decency.

Tvardovsky was of peasant origins and himself a well-known poet: his long narrative poem Vasily Terkin, concerning a simple Soviet soldier in the great patriotic war, had achieved enormous popularity, even among the soldiers themselves, as Solzhenitsyn testifies – the only two popular books in his battery were Vasily Terkin and War and Peace. Popular, he says, because they told the truth, not the Soviet truth. The latter commodity is considered so important by the Establishment precisely because the former has meant so much in Russian writing; and at the time of the ‘Thaw’ Ilya Ehrenburg went on the record in delphic style by praising Stendhal’s novels for their ‘exceptional truthfulness’. But of course the concept soon gets tangled up again. Novy Mir set out to tell the truth about Soviet shortcomings, not just down on the farm or in the factory, but in the hearts and minds of Soviet citizens. One of the first texts was a poem by Tvardovsky himself called ‘Distance beyond Distance’, in which an author, an editor and others engage in argument on a long-distance train, the friendly editor suggesting with a joviality worthy of Orwell’s O’Brien that there was no need for his services, since every author now – whatever his intentions – in fact conforms naturally by a sort of automatic instinct. About the same time Novy Mir published Seasons of the Year by Vera Panova, a leisurely conventional novel about two families, which nonetheless sharply departed in two particulars from ‘Soviet truth’. The son of the admirable Party woman, a conscientious and humane official of proletarian origins, is a skunk and an unprincipled criminal, but protected by his mother and surviving triumphantly at the end of the novel; and the father of the other family, a corrupt Establishment grandee who finally shoots himself when his crimes come to light, is a warm and responsible and loving husband and father, adored by his wife and teenage Komsomol children.

This departure from the proper formula excited a great deal of agitation and opposition from the conformist critics in other reviews: but, as Solzhenitsyn was quick to point out, such a change amounted in practice to very little. The crucial point was that ‘truth’ was still firmly tethered to the Party machine. Never mind if Panova violated a Communist sacred cow in portraying a youth, impeccably brought up and uncontaminated by the capitalist past, still turning out a first-class shit; never mind that her devoted and beloved Soviet father was a crook and embezzler on the side: the system could easily adjust to such truths, and indeed – the ultimate irony – enforce these and others like them as part of the new Socialist Realist line. The final horror, against which men like Tvardovsky were powerless, and which caused him to go on such colossal vodka benders that he became known as ‘the distillery in trousers’, was that anything they encouraged and published, inside the system, could be not only digested by the system but turned into its new orthodoxy. He published A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: and within weeks it is dangerous – in terms of his job, his livelihood and his reputation – for a good tolkach, a member of the Writers’ Union, not to approve warmly of the work and to applaud how it was done and the need for doing it. What mattered, in fact, was not ‘truth’ but the machinery for enforcing it. As long as the latter existed, backed up by the Party and KGB, even Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 66, with its line ‘And art made tongue-tied by authority’, frenetically applauded when it had been surreptitiously understood at a recital in Pasternak’s translation, could become required reading, correct doctrine, in terms of the Party line itself.

This grotesque situation gives a special interest to Dr Frankel’s account of the intrigues and in-fighting in the higher spheres of the Soviet literary establishment, centred on the sensitive area represented by Novy Mir and its editors. In practice, of course, no very drastic changes did take place, but one cannot help wondering what would have been the impact in the West of Dr Zhivago if – as Khrushchev was rumoured to want – it had first been published in Russia. Or Cancer Ward, or The First Circle? The strangely naive thing about the system, Glavlit, and the censor, the spravochnik, who has a sort of telephone directory at his elbow listing all impermissible subjects, is that it does not seem to realise how all-powerful it is. Where literature is concerned, it can equally decree either permissiveness or puritanism. Solzhenitsyn naturally saw the point, and the gyrations of poor Tvardovsky and his friends afforded him much grim amusement. As a character remarks in Cancer Ward, ‘when everyone starts talking the new way all at once, you don’t notice there’s been a change at all.’ Our fashions change in similar ways, but they are not dictated to us. Suppose critics lost their jobs if they didn’t speak the jargon of Structuralism, and suppose that now nothing could get published here except Science Fiction and the higher pornography?

Art is destroyed, not by the fact, but by the ideology of censorship. Things forbidden cannot harm art, may even be good for it (as Pushkin amusedly noted): but nothing can more effectively deprive it of real meaning than a series of constantly changing edicts about what it should mean, what it should do. Mandelstam, whom Tvardovsky had no use for, in spite of his love of good literature, perceived this when he wrote of the black velvet of the scaffold where art is finally decapitated, where the ‘blessed meaningless word’ loses its head.