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You know you’re getting old when trimming your toenails becomes an ordeal. They don’t look as if they belonged on your feet (not that your feet are nice to look at, either). They belong to a scaly creature. The trusty clipper can barely cut them.

Sex: What was it?

There are many learned people who say with absolute self-assurance that time is an illusion. They tell us this with a palpably self-satisfied air—they’re tough enough, see, to dispense with strongly held but childish notions.

In connection with another piece I’m working on, I’ve been re-reading this and that by Andrei Sinyavsky (one of my favorite writers). In the year before his 1966 trial with Yuli Daniel (after which they were sent to different destinations in the gulag archipelago), a collection of aphoristic musings was published in The New Leader under the name of Sinyavsky’s alter ego, Abram Tertz (whose last name means “bandit”; he figured in Odessa’s underworld ballads). The collection was titled Thought Unaware. Later it was published in book form, in a different translation (much better, so I think), titled Unguarded Thoughts. I once possessed two copies of this very little red book—so that if I loaned one and it wasn’t returned, I would still have a copy. Then I gave a copy to my son, Andrew, who was partly named for Sinyavsky.

(When Andrew was very small, I used to sing to him—though I’m terrible at singing—when he was settling down to sleep. I sang, for instance, “Children of the Heavenly Father.” I also made up little songs. One went like this: “Andrew in Russian is Andrei, John in Russian’s Ivan / Andrei Sinyavsky’s in Paris, so far away from home.” There was, and still is today, a photo of Sinyavsky on one of my bookshelves.)

A while after that, I loaned the remaining copy to a friend, and never got it back. Some time I hope to acquire a replacement. Meanwhile I have had, for decades, a photocopy of the New Leader piece. Here’s how it begins: “You can live like a perfect fool, and still magnificent thoughts will sometimes begin to creep into your head.” Worth tracking down. Of course, like all writing, it’s of its time and place (many women—and not women only—will be impatient with Sinyavsky’s generalizations about women, and so on). Maybe for the unforgivable sin of not sharing our state of enlightenment, he will be deemed not worth reading.

When I read a writer whose voice (even in translation!) makes a strong impression on me, I start thinking in sentences like his, like hers. Often this becomes an inner speech, “in my head,” narrating and commenting. This takes the form of parody as well as “mimetic homage.”

If you want to read a single piece by Sinyavsky, to see whether he is your cup of tea, try “The Literary Process in Russia” (again published under the name of Abram Tertz; Sinyavsky also published essays and books under his own name). It appears in the 1976 anthology Kontinent, which presents in English translation pieces selected from the first two volumes of the émigré Russian journal of the same name. (The anthology was a paperback original published by Anchor Books.)

Sinyavsky’s essay (the title parodies Soviet jargon) begins with an epigraph from Osip Mandelstam’s Fourth Prose:

I divide all works of literature throughout the world into those permitted and those written without permission. The first are so much garbage; the second sort are stolen air. I want to spit in the face of those writers who write with prior approval; I want to beat them about the head with a stick and sit them all down at table in Herzen House, having placed in front of each one a glass of police tea and given each of them an analysis of Gornfeld’s urine.

If some of this strikes you as obscure (who, for instance, was Gornfeld?), never mind. You can easily look those details up; I think you get Mandelstam’s gist.

So, Sinyavsky tells us, taking off from Mandelstam, “all true writing—even when no clash with authority is involved—is something forbidden, something reprehensible, and in this illicit element lies the whole excitement, the whole dilemma of being a writer.”

If you think, from this excerpt, that Sinyavsky is puffing himself up, and if moreover this sounds to you very much like a lot of the huffing and puffing we hear daily (about writing that is “subversive,” “transgressive,” and so on, ad nauseum, while miraculously being showered with prizes and public acclaim), you need to read the whole essay. Sinyavsky was a Russian Orthodox Christian, and his understanding of humankind (himself included) is not romanticized. “Quite honestly,” he says, “whenever I earn any money—and I earn it regularly from my literary works—I am amazed each time it happens and I carry the money away in haste, clutching my pocket, crouching slightly like a burglar removing the silver cutlery from the scene of the theft.”

Having said that, I want you to understand that I am not putting forward Mandelstam’s and Sinyavsky’s accounts of “true writing” as normative. That would be absurd. Writers are forever framing what they do in sweeping terms. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. But let us suppose, for the moment, that a young reader of this column (who has never before read Sinyavsky) is delighted by the Mandelstam epigraph, tracks down Sinyavsky’s essay, and finds it enormously energizing. A question then arises: What would it mean for a writer in the United States today—a Christian like Mandelstam and Sinyavsky, but working in a society and a time very different from theirs—to write “without permission”? Not in some dreary reflex, the equivalent of a Nazi salute in 2018, morally and intellectually bankrupt. Not that! But still and nevertheless “without permission.” I would love to know.

John Wilson was the editor of Books & Culture from its first issue (in 1995) to its last (in 2016).

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