|Appearing in the December 1953 issue of the journal Novy Mir, this essay attacked insincerity, the varnishing of reality, glorification of objects and events over people, and the lack of genuine conflict in socialist realism. It provoked a firestorm of controversy and marked the beginning of The Thaw in Soviet literature. Remember: "Just say NO to tractors!"|
Sincerity--this is exactly what, in my view, is lacking in some books and plays. And one must ask, how can one be sincere?
Insincerity--this is not necessarily a lie. Artificiality is also insincere.
When we read, for example, the stylists, we are left with an unpleasant aftertaste. We see too many carefully sought-out, chosen, and mannered thoughts and words; we strain too much to follow the manner of the writing, and, therefore, we miss its substance. These works are complicated, artificially complex, and they oppress today's reader with their obvious construction.
But there I was reading a novel which had no stylistics--for it had no style in general--and it left me just as cold as those books filled with coquettish tricks. I have in mind The Deciding Years by S. Boldyrev. The artificiality in this work arises not from the manner of writing, but from the far-fetched nature of the characters and the situations. This, so to speak, is another mode of the construction of novels and tales.
The boredom arising from S. Bodyrev's book might be explained by his literary helplessness. But its basic vice lies in its obvious construction. Of course, a struggle was waged and continues to be waged at the nation's metallurgic factories for the optimal use of blast furnaces. But this struggle can become a fact of literature only if the thoughts and feelings of the writer are included in it. But there is none of that in Deciding Years. Seemingly, everything in this book is correct; but from the point of view of art, everything is absolutely wrong. We don't feel the soul of the author here, we don't get to know his own thoughts. All we get is something too well know, having no emotional basis, and flavored with the cult of the personality of the novel's hero. Therefore, one cannot believe in the characters in this book. The hero here is a superhero. He is planned out, premeditated, made up, perpetrated. In the novel, certainly, there are no sins against the technology of metallurgy or against the organization of blast furnace production. But it contains an unpardonable sin against art: it is an artificial novel.
Everything that is done to fit the mold, everything that is not from the author, is insincerity. Where things have not been delved into, not pondered over--there you'll find the "mold". Things fit the mold when there are no particular thoughts or feelings, just a desire to be an author.
In the history of literature, artists have striven for confession (ispoved'), not just advocacy (propoved'). The rhetorical novel disappeared because it was at odds with the nature of man, who grew bored with lessons and arguments while in school. On the other hand, the epistolary novel enjoyed general success because the personal letter seemed more frank. When the reader began to feel that the letters were composed for him, and not for the addressee, when it degenerated into a widespread device, the epistolary novel lost favor and disappeared. The episodic novel was attractive not so much for its diversity of colors as the behavior of the heroes in the various situations. The charm of theatre lies in the fact that it gives us a clear depiction of the everyday life of people, who do not suspect that I am watching them. Therefore, they behave as themselves. When the author awkwardly lets me know that the men and women on stage are aware of my presence, it becomes uninteresting for me to watch them, and for them life becomes constrained. I also would feel bad and would talk and act in a strained manner if I knew that a neighbor had drilled a hole in my wall and was staring at and eavesdropping on me.
The history of art and the rudiments of psychology cry out against artificial novels and plays. The degree of sincerity--that is, the directness of a work--should be the first measure of its worth. Sincerity is the basic component of that sum of gifts which we call talent. Sincerity distinguishes the author of a book or play from the constructor of a book or play. To construct a work, all you need is a brain, cunning, and experience. To create a work you need talent, that is to say, first and foremost, sincerity.
Sincerity is lacking not only in works done to fit a mold, and the mold is not the worst form of insincerity. A work done to fit the mold strips a work of its effectiveness and leaves us indifferent, without, however, engendering direct distrust of the literary word. This arises from a different type of insincerity which we call "varnishing reality". This was born not only of the hypocrisy of the critic--the writer himself is no less guilty. It has put down deep roots and has become varied in its methods....
No matter how rich the methods of varnishing reality, they are easy to spot.
The most crude of these methods is the fabrication of complete and total prosperity. You read some books and you are reminded of that period, lost in the history of literature, when the action of the novel played out under the sun of some unknown country and the landscape was all liana flowers. Just as these novels gave off the aroma of amazing, unknown fruits, so, too, some of our works issue the delicious aroma of pelmeni. This clumsy method had its most obvious visual-olfactory manifestation in film scenarios where the whole kolkhoz has a savory, abundant banquet. . . . .
Fabricate your own prosperity.
Learn how to make:
. . . .
This method of varnishing is quite naked, primitive. It brings a work of literature closer to the meaning of the word "novel" when it was used as a synonym for invention. But why do we need invented prosperity when we have a real prosperity that we have won--vast and fundamental! Fortunately, the presentation of life through pelmeni is too crude to be widely used.
There is a second method that is more subtle. It doesn't set the table with jellied pork and roast goose; but it removes the black bread. At least that's how it's done in one "industrial" novella. The author says nothing about the factory hostel and cafeteria, which were foul. He doesn't hang any earrings or brooches on anyone, but anything nasty or foul also is excluded.
The third method is the most clever. It consists of selecting a subject in such a way that all the problems of the theme remain out of the field of view. The distortion here is arbitrary selection. Using this method, one novella was written about a prosecutor. By the will of the author, the hero dedicates all his efforts to the reconciliation of a tiff between a couple of lovers. He appears even more noble because he is not at all required to get involved in such matters. However, it turns out that crime, with which he is required to fight, does not exist in the region. And here you can't find fault with the author--he has his own particular subject. Although this is a more crafty method, all the same, the reader feels the insincerity.
. . . .
Writers not only can, but must cast off all methods, devices, and means of avoiding contradictory and difficult questions. The duty of a writer, having received a clear program for the advancement of our nation, is to help this program precisely in the difficult questions. Our literature needs builders, and not professionals bards. A bard busies himself with singing the praises of joy, whereas a builder creates it. A writer, drawing his enthusiasm not from the publisher's cash box, but from our great achievements and our great programs, must never try to stifle problems; rather, he should search for a solution to the problems of our complicated and very interesting time. Why do we need idealization when we already have and are, by ourselves, bringing into reality our ideal?!
. . . .
The writer, like any living person, is not immune to incorrect thoughts, to tastes and opinions born in any given moment. Genuine sincerity is not objective truth. Even the most subjective measure or transient thought can be sincere. But the sincerity that can lead to the truth of life, to the Party's truth, is not a mood. Such sincerity is greater. It encompasses the mind, the conscience, the attitude--much more than can be explained. It demands an intensity which is not necessary for insincerity. Sincerity is always complex.
PRODUCER OF THE STANDARDHe has many names, but you can't tell them apart or remember them. Their names are known to their building managers and their close friends, but not to readers. They are as alike as stearin candles or door locks. Reading them is uninteresting and difficult--as difficult as it would be to eat the same borshch and cutlets day after day in a soulless cafeteria.
Their muddy books are depressingly monotonous! They have stereotyped heroes, themes, beginnings, and endings. They are not books, but twins; read two or three of them and you already know the look of the next one. They are full of well-known platitudes. You might think that they were produced not by man, but by assembly line. Read the first, and you're left indifferent; but by the third one, you're feeling insulted. A man says of this book, "It's mine." But I ask, "Yours? Just what in it is yours?" And I get into a conversation with him:
HE (insulted): How am I worse than the others, and how are the others better than me? Everything in my book is indisputable and correct.
ME: Excessively indissputable! So indisputable that it comes out as platitude. And platitude is always irreproachably correct. Do you understand such a dialectic contradiction?
HE: I understand that you permit yourself to call my politically precise formulas platitudes. Look! Speak plainly, don't rave.
ME: Your formulas? No, they are not yours at all. You copied them down, which means you didn't live them. You appropriated them, not mastered them. If it were otherwise, these formulas, instead of becoming a student's crib notes for you, would have become a feeling. A feeling, in turn, would have given you the means to artistically realize any plan. But what's the point of talking to you about a plan, when all you have is a scheme.
HE: What impudence! What do you mean by scheme?
ME: The scheme lies in the fact that your hand was led not by your soul but by vanity. The scheme lies in the fact that you're trying to pawn off a weaving of facts and words as a novella. The scheme lies in the fact that you have produced a joining of your book to others.
HE: Wait, wait. You're awful pushy. Am I really to blame because others have written on the same topic and about the same people as I have? Certainly, our heroes are bearers of common ideas!
ME: With you, they are obsessed by ideas, but don't embody them themselves. Even their dreams are logical. For them, a normal, confused dream is precluded. And how they talk among themselves! Tirades taken from radio programs. Is this really how normal people talk, how human speech flows, especially when there is a conversation between two people?
Remember how your hero gave his daughter a watch because his living standard had improved? Pulled right from the newspaper columns, he forgot that in a family the living standard never improves, but life gets better. Remember how your mechanic from the machine-tractor station dreams about a girl who has caught his eye--about how together they might repair the inventory? Did he really get married only for this? Does he really have his machine shop at home, too?!
Or your miner, exclaiming: "I really want to use the lengthened bore-holes! I wish my day off would end sooner!" Where did you find such a mole, who spends all his time digging underground?
Or the speech of a character in another one of your novellas, talking to his wife who had taken a can of milk from the farm! That's the kind of language they use at meetings or in prosecutors' speeches during cases of theft, but not in face-to-face conversations between people.
I could provide endless examples like this, taken partly from novellas published in thick journals. They fool themselves with the novelty of your name, not realizing that you are not new, but old, very old. To be obsessed with ideas, to use a great idea for trivial causes--this belittles the importance of the idea; it doesn't enrich the idea, but impoverishes it.
HE: For trivial causes? And what kind of causes was I supposed to come up with? I wasn't summing up an epoch, wandering through the centuries. I wasn't talking about peoples, revolutions, or wars. I was just describing one little village. Come on, what do you want?!
ME: At last, you've given yourself away! What right did you have to write about a village if it wasn't, for you, the center of the universe, didn't consume your every thought? The village is a place far from comfortable, but I didn't read your concern about this. . . . You have no pulse beat, and this is why there is no pulse in your book. In short, you have nothing inside.
HE: Oh, this is too much! Let's say my book is not so good, but your tone is ten times worse. And what absurd demands! I didn't intend to use my book to slip in among the ranks of geniuses. I set myself a modest, small task.
ME: Yes, one must chose a task to fit one's skills. But even in a modest task don't dare to avoid the great and difficult. You must seek it out for yourself, not run from it. You know how to write a book about the people in one little village? Write it so that the whole world would read it.
Yes, yes, don't raise your eyebrows in surprise. There are many books about peasants, and if you're going to write another one about them, you have to do it in such a way that the new book, with a new illumination of life, opens a new account. In other words, don't write a book unless you feel it is particularly needed, if you don't feel necessary, even inevitable in literature.
HE: So in your opinion, literature should consist only of geniuses?
ME: No. It's more likely you will never write landmark-books, and will only produce ordinary works. But your purpose should be great, your work should be never-ending, your treatment exhaustive, and your goal the most distant. Otherwise, your book will not come out ordinary, but hackneyed and gray. And hackneyed books are harmful for our nation. I was recently in an agricultural region where in the last year seven people stopped using the library. When the librarian met a young fellow on the street and asked him why he stopped coming for books, he answered, "I already read three novels, and they're all about the same thing." During the year, the library acquired 45 new users, which covered the loss. But the loss can never be removed from the writer's account. Writers have to recognize that drab, similar books discredit literature. Therefore, writers need a slogan: A bad book is worse than no book at all.
HE: It's all very easy to say. You yourself should try to write....
ME: And we do try, if we are strongly drawn to it. We will not write without an internal attraction. Why is your work bereft of dramatic effect? Because you yourself did not experience it. And where would you get it from? The village did not inspire you with the plan for your book, but the desire to fabricate a book led you to the village. When village life attracts writers to itself, when the problems of the village move them, then their books will attract and move readers.
A novel should illuminate some dark side of life, but you ride around choosing a lexicon, episodes, complications for the plot. Therefore, your subjects are just little subjects, and the conflicts you have searched out are not conflicts at all, but just finds made by a blind chicken which is glad when someone gives it grain, too. These are not conflicts, but only little duels, so to speak, "duels of honor" with a subsequent reconciliation of the flaccid opponents. Therefore, I always understand the purpose of this bit of dialogue, of that piece of scenery. All of your moves are clearly visible. And you set up everything at the beginning to make sure that there can be only one outcome. You smooth over all the problems, even though you know that, in fact, they are not eliminated and remain alive. That's what really irritates us readers.
The poverty of your composition, the quick identification of the plot, the premeditation of the scheme, the drabness and muddiness--all this leaves us indifferent to the book. The all-purpose nature of your solution to every situation, achieved through deceitful rhetoric irritates us. We are insulted by this deceitful method, reducing all ideas, problems, and situations to nothing. In every situation when boredom or bitterness arises in us readers, when our fate changes, you must be either thoughtless or dishonest to beat us, the defenseless, with empty, dry sentences. This is the cruelty of talentless people.
HE: Enough! Now it's your turn to listen to me. Let's say my works are dull--but there is not a single new word in anything you've just said. Maybe I am the producer of the standard, but there are no fresh thoughts in your attacks. Talk about dullness and over-simplification has become just as stereotyped and fashionable as the dull books themselves. At home, you've been cursing me for a long time now; but now this year, the critics, having quickly become smarter, have mastered cursing the production of standard after standard. They have started to lecture me, telling me to get out of the circle into which they themselves pushed me.
...In my soul, I agree with you. But you don't know the real cause of dullness in books. There is a lot you aren't aware of. When I exclaimed, "You should try to write yourself!", I wasn't talking about the difficulties of creation, but about the conditions of literary life. I tried to write in conformity with the critics.
They assured me that they had your trust, and, acting in the name of the reader, they proclaimed themselves irreproachable and they labeled me as inclined to various vices. In their opinion, I'm always feeble-minded, I blunder in every attempt to take an independent step, I am eternally in need of corrections and straightening-out. Well, they straightened me out so much that you are sickened by my straightforwardness. Although the Party has several times reined in these people who have fostered the enthronement of cliche on the stage and in books, they nonetheless continued to hold on to their misappropriated title as connoisseurs of the living truth and they continued to assert that for me, this truth is unknown, hidden under a yashmak.
There was nothing left for me to do but hide from these people behind a combine, a blast furnace, or a tractor. In my novellas, the tractor served as a matchmaker and registry office, divorcing, bringing together, arguing, appeasing, reconciling. This tractor was never a "Chelyabinsk", one that carried out its own great task on the field, never involving itself in things which were not its concern. No, my critic is not like this tractor.
A Chelyabinsk Tractor
Read about this and other
Patriotic Tractors at:
How could I not fear him? Reviews, expressing opinions, which would lead to lively arguments, were never written about me. On me, they only passed sentence. They either pat me on the head or slapped me on the neck.
Publishers often took their cues from the critics. They always reacted cautiously to me and my manuscripts. They were only interested in whether it would receive a pat or a slap. To combat their doubts, I brought them a plain and featureless manuscript, like a fustian robe. So that there would be no wrinkles, stitches, patches, or flounces...so that it would be easier to iron....
However, I had only one publisher, "Soviet Writer". I tried "Young Guard", but they were interested only in manuscripts on the theme of youth. For them, the hero must be a conqueror of worlds, who is still of Komsomol age. Then I dropped in at "Goslitizdat" (i.e., 'State Literature Publishing House'). But it turns out they only publish classics. I had no grievance against that--we need a special publisher for the classics. But I had to go somewhere.
So I made myself so (as you would describe it) indisputable that "Soviet Writer" could find no "but" against me. It's no simple matter to squeeze yourself into the publisher's plan. It's not so capacious, even though we put out a great quantity of artistic literature. In the thick literary-artistic journals (there are a total of three in Moscow) their plans are already packed full like a long-distance train. Chances of being published there are small. Therefore, it makes no sense to go from editor to editor. The only thing left to do was to drive into the journal offices on a tractor. A tractor is powerful, growling, thundering, perhaps deafening. You can't argue with it or push it aside.
You'll ask, why didn't I seek out a different means of transportation, why didn't I appeal to the Union of Soviet Writers? I did appeal, but it got me nothing. The creative section of the Union of Writers can only recommend, that is to say, it limits itself to good wishes. It has only a consultative voice, meaning that no one has to listen to it. At meetings and get-togethers it's crowds and gossip, or reports that go on for hours, tossing us back to the same initial questions. It's not surprising that in these conditions I'm just marking time in my books.
Do you really think that I willingly resort to rhetoric and have not escaped from that circle which so bores you simply because of my own limitations?! No, this rhetoric isn't me--it's my opportunism, my lack of will, my weakness. I allowed those who advocate playing it safe to do with me as they will.
But calm down. The atmosphere in the editorial offices has begun to clear up. Nowadays they don't let you in on tractors. Now these platitudes cause some editors to furrow their brows no less than you do. This should encourage both of us, and I'm thinking about real works. Wait a year or two and you'll get them.
ME: I'd like to believe it. But I am greatly displeased by everything you've said in your own defense.
Up to this point, I supposed that whereas the essence of an actor's art lies in that which he does not express, the essence of a writer's art lies in the opposite talent. I don't forgive your weakness. And I doubt that only it and outside obstacles are to blame.
Why is all your bitterness poured out onto someone else and not onto yourself? After all, it was you who wrote the books! Perhaps the indignation you turn on other people serves as a safety valve into which you pour your internal dissatisfaction with yourself?
What would you do if there were no critics? Who would you blame for your bland and conflictless works? Can you not admit that, in the final accounting, creativity is not determined by reviews or the situation in the Writers Union; it is determined by you.
You're a bad writer if you're constantly accommodating yourself to others. And although there are many sins on the souls of our critics, I don't believe that they demanded from you: "Write badly, write uninterestingly!"
As for the apparatus of the Union of Writers, creative sections, and so on--how does this matter to me as a reader? Has an improper situation arisen in the Union? Well, change it. I only fear that, in your union, everyone thinks that the present order of things is bad, but nobody knows how to make it better. And I don't understand why that would prevent you from writing interestingly. I've heard that Shakespeare didn't belong to any union, and he didn't write badly.
And who's going to believe your contention that a good, interesting book wouldn't somehow find its way into print? This can be asserted only by someone who feels aggrieved, whose manuscript did not find approval outside of the circle of his own family and friends. And I reject your slander on editors and publishers. They are not a special layer of society set in opposition to the writer's world; they are your brother-writers. As it should be, they are Communists. Why would they place obstacles before worthy books and choose the dull ones for publication?
And what if you did find such an editor? Is he really the only judge for you? Certainly it isn't so. We can admit that among writers there are people who are not gladdened by another's success, fearing that they will be overshadowed, squeezed out.
But certainly there is no author who would not seek to have a rejected work considered in different journals, by different editors, at different levels of the Union of Writers.
No, I find everything you've said in your self-justification unconvincing. Obstacles would not prevent the appearance of genuine works of art. Rather, you have not written such works. You've been scurrying among journals, theatres, publishing houses, hastily churning out novels and plays. Did you know what exact values you wanted to defend in your latest novel? Did you read your manuscript to dozens of people, carefully watching their faces to see if they felt the book, if you carried them over into your own world? Did you ask your listeners what they hated and what they loved and what they wanted to do after their return home from your book? Did you have the feeling that your novel was just as necessary to man as food and clothing? Did you consider your novel about people in the village to be a new window through which things can be seen more clearly? No, probably you didn't do, consider, or think any of this. Otherwise you would not have turned the conversation to editors and the union, you would not have belittled a great and important theme. A real writer, it seems to me, will always find an appropriate task; but no organization of the Union of Writers will be of help to a false writer.
I am dissatisfied with the machinelike din in literature, with the monotony, the bombast of endless verse. I need more serious and heartfelt books. And I'm not convinced that the "cleared-up atmosphere" in editorial offices will quench this intense longing.
The whole selection of love poems rained down upon me by Literaturnaya Gazeta sounded like a new threat. Will not the importunate whispering of lovers come to irritate me just as much as the tractor previously deafened me? And I don't want the tractor to be completely silenced in literature, because it is an indispensable part of our life, and not just scenery in the fields. I don't want to be transported from the factory shop to a boring stillness, from one exotic world to an opposite but still exotic world. Don't stumble around from extreme to extreme, comrade writer! Otherwise you will again lose the connection with me, the reader.
I want my longing, my thirst for great, true writing to rouse you up. But don't, under any circumstances, produce a "reevaluation of values"; don't think, for example, that the value of love should replace for me the value of work. But definitely change, review, improve your relationship to me as a human being. Don't disavow anything in me, don't foist anything upon me. Find a new synthesis, the center of which will be me, my work, my thoughts, and everything in my life, feelings that even I myself don't know and which will help you discover these new heights. And, most of all, raise me up to these heights with yourself so that I may see the world better.
Then, you will no longer be drab, but many-colored, and your creative harvest will be great. People will hang on your every word, and, who knows, they might even take you along with them as they proceed to Communism.
FEATURES OF CREATION AND FEATURES OF OUR CRITICSIt's bad when what comes from the critic are not sounds, but echoes. It's bad when he doesn't suggest anything, but himself awaits suggestion. It's bad when he doesn't discover names, but only popularizes those which are given to him.
As a rule, among us, popularization occurs without a penetration into the essence of the works themselves. Articles appearing after the awarding of the Stalin Prizes usually turn out to be only enumerations, not reviews of literature.
The very development of criticism has proceeded in an odd manner. It has been working out its positions not as a result of constant, thoughtful observation and synthesis; but it has been done occasionally, when certain writers have fallen into error and the Party press subjected them to criticism.
Some critics fashioned a type of specialization for themselves out of the search for errors among writers and their brother-critics. These are professional exposers, dissectors. They don't demonstrate how to write properly, but they always know when something is wrong.
The methods of many critics are methodologically incorrect. This assertion might seem paradoxical, but their methods are predominately impressionistic.
If there should chance to be in a story or novel some intimate details of everyday life--for examples, details of love--the critics immediately baptize this as naturalism. But they don't see that description of industrial technology just for its own sake is also naturalism of the purest form.
The task of a critic is not just to uncover the patriotism of a writer or the topicality of theme he has chosen to illuminate. The critic should evaluate the role of the book in literature and point out what it has to offer that is new in comparison with previous works. We want to learn from the critic what has come with this book and what comes from it. We're interested in knowing what kind of furrow it has hoed, where it has left its mark, on what it has put its seal. The critic doesn't answer these basic questions, leaving us in complete darkness. We know the names of many authors, we know their books, but we have no idea at all about how literature is indebted to them, about what they have contributed to it. Ignored as well is an essential element of genuine criticism--a comparison of creative works. This causes us to lose our bearings.
When the novels of S. Babaevsky appeared, I didn't learn anything from them which had not already been revealed in other books on the same topic and even simply in newspaper articles. I didn't understand why the critics were so unrestrained in their praise of these books.
Then G. Nikolaeva's Harvest came out. In light of the program which has been laid out before us for the improvement of our nation's agriculture, one could make some serious criticisms of G. Nikolaeva's book. But this novel is far more multi-layered than the books of S. Babaevsky; its conflicts are incomparably more serious, the characters more genuine. There is a fascination in this book. However, the critics just tacked G. Nikolaevna on to S. Babaevsky; they gave no indication of the unique features of Harvest.
I have just read Raion Days by Valentin Ovechkin. Even approaching it from a purely utilitarian point of view, it is obvious that it contains a host of important discoveries. Ovechkin speaks of things which previously were not described. Before him, these topics were avoided, treated with silence. Some writers didn't see them at all; others considered these things to be under the jurisdiction of higher authorities and would not undertake to discuss them without their approval. But this writer took the topics and spoke about them so as to aid the higher authorities!
And then I understood that before Ovechkin, in many books on the theme of the kolkhoz, everything was wiped clean, all the sharp edges had been cut off, the corners broken off. I understood that Tutarinov (Babaevsky's hero) overcame simple obstacles; he did not deal with or even see the genuinely complicated problems of village life. Today he looks not so much like a hero as a little angel on an Easter cake. He is sprinkled with praise, like colored poppy seeds; but lick him, and he melts. On the other hand, the heroes of Ovechkin are seekers. They keep their eyes open. They do politics. It's not just that their own thought is not constrained; but they also awaken ours. The writer clarifies life for us, and changes it. After this, we sense that life has outgrown the novel of S. Babaevsky, and that the emotionally thin characters of G. Nikolaeva's lack that searching for ideas, those discoveries and surprises with which Ovechkin continually suprises us.
This is what the elementary and necessary path of the comparison of several books leads us to. But, for some reason, this path is closed off with a barrier.
"Yes," a friend said to me, "but literature cannot always be so direct. Raion Days is a collection of sketches, not a novel. In this genre it's easier to take the bull by the horns."
Well, in the first place, not every writer can be classed by genre, and Raion Days are not sketches of the usual sort. Ovechkin's "Visitors at Stukachi" is written in the short story genre, but the quality of thought is not diminished as a result; rather, it has grown with the added color. One involuntarily reads the clear speech of the grandfather-watchman several times; it becomes imprinted on our memory because, along with the metaphors, ideas are imprinted.
In the second place, it is not merely a matter of taking the bull by the horns. Certainly, Ovechkin could have turned his artistic notions about Machine Tractor Stations and kolkhozes into a report to the Central Committee. But, instead, they rightly became a literary theme when the reader could see in them living tractor and combine operators, district party workers, and hear the play of their voices, and feel in these people the pulse of constantly evolving thought.
It is precisely the new thoughts that excite us in this book. Therefore, we ride with Ovechkin, we search out, get astounded, decide and think so we can again decide. We're not satisfied when Ovechkin sends us off in a carriage, not allowing us to learn everything to the end. But if we didn't find out everything together, we'll figure it out ourselves. Ovechkin doesn't have to sum everything up--our thought has already been aroused.
Transporting us around the region, Ovechkin involuntarily, without intending to, forces the kolkhoz chairman of the Kuban station to grow dim, to fade away. We feel the boundary lines of Babaevsky's novel, the absence of problems in it. Reading the novel leaves us with nothing to think about.
Isn't it the sacred duty of the critic to mention all this to readers and writers?
I have never set eyes on V. Ovechkin or S. Babaevsky, but it is clear to me that V. Ovechkin should be brought closer to the reader, just as S. Babaevsky should be brought closer to V. Ovechkin's method of questing. But criticism tucks our writers away into a "golden fund", and doesn't compare, contrast, or bring things together.
And among the writing brotherhood itself, there are people so strange that they beg not to be compared. I once heard a poet say, "We can divide the praise among ourselves. Let's not argue...." But is praise really something you divvy up, like candy among children, so that no one feels offended? Is it really a matter of ambition and pride and not a matter of establishing truths, without which forward progress is impossible? And do poets not know that in literature, as in every art, the importance lies in differences and only differences, not in communality! (The communality of the Communist world view is implied and does not require special mention.)
Those who established the principles of Marxism contrasted the dramas of Shakespeare and Schiller. Belinsky contrasted Pushkin to other contemporary poets and assigned to each a particular place. . . . But our critics, fearing they might insult someone, leave readers in complete ignorance as to who contributed what to our literature and as to how writers differ one from the other....
However, it is not solely a matter of timidity. Laziness, probably, plays a not insignificant role. To write about a book in this manner is far easier than to trace its significance on the author's path of creativity or--even more difficult--in the development of a theme or of a given genre. To do this requires systematic observation, study, generalization. So writers remain in ignorance about their own essence, about their strengths and weaknesses.
I have a friend. While still a young peasant lad, he wrote some heartfelt, sincere, but, at that time, of course, not very masterful poetry. Now he is an army political worker. Voenizdat (Military Publishing house) published a book of his war stories. The book was praised. So highly praised that the young writer got disoriented. If a reviewer is erudite, thorough, and honest, he should first of all ask himself: What does this book contribute that is new? And he would answer: In terms of its contents and subjects, it contributes nothing. He would find that all novellas repeat war episodes which were contained in the works of Aleksei Tolstoy, Kazakevich, Bubennov, and Gonchar. He would point out to the author the derivative nature of the selection of topics. At the same time, the critic could not fail to feel that this 101st book about people in war reads like the first book. The battle episodes aren't very thrilling; but the soldiers' moods and thoughts are described with a genuine, heartfelt strength--they excite, disturb, call to us. The book brings about this effect through its language. In places it simply captivates us. The author's language, gentle, wraps everything up in a warmth you can touch. In these words there is no pretentiousness, nothing forced; they stand firmly and easily in every sentence, like trees in a garden; they sound joyful and sadly lyric and give significance to a story that was first heard long ago. The sentences here are not dusty, the lexicon is not empty. This is a real poetic gift.
The reviewer, however, didn't trouble himself to look into the well-known war novels. He didn't trouble himself to clarify what distinguishes this author. And with his review he sent the author on the erroneous path of seeking out effects, collisions, and dramas. He should have said: Don't look for and describe these things; your strength lies in something else; you are a lyricist, a poet, a man of soft tones, a describer of the movements of the soul and not of tragic events. Be yourself....
It is an important task to examine a writer's first book. It's like advising your son which school to apply to. This task must be entrusted to the most conscientious of critics.
But when an author puts out his fourth book, the motif of his creative work still escapes the critic. To say that a writer and his books are characterized by a patriotic feeling, love for the people and a belief in tomorrow is to say nothing. These feelings and faith are inherent in the vast majority of Soviet citizens; it is in our nature. It is impossible to be a writer without them. They are not a mark or measure of a writer's personality. But it is precisely these marks which we must search out. Any poet--as long as he is not completely without talent--must have them.
Criticism does not study the characteristics of the creative work of our writers. Why? Maybe because they're still not dead? But authors are written into the history of literature while still alive. Such a history takes shape in every country along with the strengthening of criticism. Many old writers would have unjustly been forgotten if criticism had not protected them. Our critics are afraid to inscribe contemporary Soviet writers into literature, they are afraid to hand over to tomorrow, they're afraid to cross out those who have been raised up on a paper airplane and are being held aloft merely by the wind or a string.
Please understand me correctly: I'm not talking about the creation of literary royalty, not about a selection for immortality, and not about pronouncing sentence with no right of appeal; rather, I'm talking about the study of the characteristics of the creative work of our writers, their role in the movement of literature, and about the truth in all this.
Finally, many critics have significantly disoriented us with a scholastic, not at all Marxist interpretation of a series of practical literary problems.
Having remained silent for many years about most important principle moments--about the obligatoriness of conflict in literature, about the necessity of illuminating the negative sides of our life, about the need for satire, and so on--some critics have now begun to speak so zealously about these questions that you might thing they were the first to discover them. In actuality, all these discoveries were made thousands of years ago.
No one among us disputed them; but hypocrites tried to eradicate them. They did not understand that literature without its component elements is a cart without wheels or a horse without legs. The 19th Party Congress set these people straight. Then they turned around 180 degrees and started to sew confusion with their judgments on the "positive" and the "negative". Writers, in their turn, with a shortage of the capacity to resist, rushed to "introduce the negative" into their novels and novellas. At a club meeting, one writer even beseeched: "Comrades, what should I do now if I've already prepared a manuscript solely about the positive?" They told him that he had to seek out a proportion of one to the other. There have been speeches and articles about "proportion", the "proper combination", the "elements".
But none of this is correct! The 19th Party Congress suggested that writers create clear, artistic images, create the typical in their works. This means that they must contain colors, colorations, and beauty, not elements of positive and negative.
We must appreciate the current efforts of critics to overcome the stagnation of thought common to some editors and publishers. We can even agree to forget that the critics themselves, in their time, constricted the consciousness of these people. The energy of criticism is useful in this question. But the Party awaits not a mad rushing about of writers, but truth in literature.
Of course, there is still much that is negative in our daily life as well as in mankind itself. These final vulgarities are particularly difficult, persistent, and long-lived.
We will noticeably improve the living condition in 2-3 years; but there is not a straight line between this and a man's soul. If one neighbor gets a new apartment after others have, envy may subside but mendacity, for example, will not disappear with the acquisition of rooms.
And what is reinsurance? It is at least ten vices. It's egotism, cowardice, blind pragmatism, lack of ideas, and so forth, including meanness. It is clear that overcoming these vices demands far more effort and time than, let's say, ending the lack of livestock or the shortage of goods.
These vices, which the Party has called on us to castigate, must, to use the words of Chekhov, "take the efforts of an entire generation", and, possibly, more than one generation of writers. But neither shortages in daily life nor human vices can be "elements" of a play or novel. You cannot "balance" them with other "elements"--prosperity, love of labor, kindness, optimism, and so on. An artistic work must be organic, and not slapped together from positive and negative.
Theatrical critics, with their judgments on the positive and the negative, have caused particular muddle. They have written things contradicting the common sense of the reader. For example, when discussing at length whether or not a play can have negative heroes without positive ones, four serious counter-questions naturally arise:
a) If the negative heroes manifest their negativity by themselves, what's the point of having positive ones hanging around on stage?If we have a Marxist-Leninst perception of life, if we have common sense, feeling, and a true eye, then we can and shall write about everything, falling into neither a black nor a rosy light. The writer himself is aware of the relation of bad and good in life, and he does not need judgments about quotas for one or the other. An author, attempting to fulfill these quotas, conforming himself to the absurd prescriptive directives of critic-scholars, is not a writer at all. People who are now introducing an "element of the negative" into their books are not worthy of respect. It's possible, of course, to find an equilibrium between "varnishing reality" and a "gloomy picture", but the very search, the very calculation, dooms the work to being unartistic. With that point of view, the work can be complied, but not written, for this is not the point of view of art. A writer will not give an artistic heart to a novel by marking off one-third, one-half, one-quarter.
b) Why raise the question which Gogol answered more than 100 years ago with his "Inpsector General" and "Theatrical Departure"?
c) Why try to introduce some sort of average where no average can exist?
d) Why turn us away from literary questions to questions of arithmetic?
The writer himself can and should verify that his book does not avoid the hidden vulgarities of life, does not soften the vices and painful manifestations widespread in society, and that it gives clear, inspiring images of Soviet people whose example can encourage and inspire.
One must give one's manuscript to people who are bad off, who cannot easily be made happy. If the book does not raise their spirits one iota, does not add to their strength for life, does not improve their work for Communism, then the book has an organic flaw and must be rewritten.
When the book passes this test, it must be given to the self-satisfied. If it turns out to contain nothing to rouse them from their happy self-assurance, from the feeling that everything everywhere is good, then the book is still not finished.
After it survives this second test, it must still be subjected to a third. Walk with it past houses with memorial plaques, where people without whom literature would be poorer lived, created, and thought. If this doesn't make the writer think, if he doesn't feel bitterness over something undone, then he isn't a writer at all and he should find himself a different profession. If, however, having measured his manuscript by this high mark, the writer doesn't totally loathe his work, this means that the work will be needed by people and that it can be taken to the publisher.
OBJECTS AND PEOPLEWriters have already argued out just about everything: Heroes, the role of characters, the creation of types, genres, and dozens of other subjects. It begs the question: Do our writers and critics really have to endlessly repeat themselves in this way? Yes, sometimes it is necessary. Questions of art and creation which might seem old can arise anew and cause excitement in a different situation; in changed conditions of life they can acquire a new quality.
So it is. But isn't it time, comrades, to move on to new problems? For almost a quarter century the critics have been bringing us back to the same circle of questions, not realizing that many of their arguments have become scholastic, that we have grown sick and tired of them, that literature needs a push onto new paths, for we have entered a new period of life.
As I see it, the first task of critical thought today is to lead writers to a widening of themes, to a change of the interpretation of problems. This is the main thing, for the reader has to draw something new from literature.
It seems to me that Ovechkin's sketches have a significance which even he himself does not suspect. These sketches have shown us how limitless are the boundaries of art, how one can and should introduce into literature the vast problems of our economic life. After reading this book, small in terms of size, every writer will confirm for himself that there is nothing prosaic in our life, that the multitude of its as yet unilluminated sides can become genuine art.
Shortages in the economic sphere, confusing the feelings of thousands of people and giving birth to many ideas, have turned out to be no less noble and no less stirring as topics than the age-old literary themes! And, mainly, they present problems of great weight. The writer who opens such a vein is a pioneer, a founder. Critics thrash about over the problem of what type of conflict is possible in current conditions if there are no kulaks or negligent cooperative directors; a genuine writer showed up and pulled out a whole handful of these conflicts--here, dig in! Better yet, look around and you will see for yourself. It's true that there exists no fundamental ill among us, so dare to see a large ill in a small, not universal, disorder; dare to spy out a great ill in a combine operator's split feelings, interested, on the one hand, in harvesting rare grains and, on the other hand, in getting a large harvest. Look how great is the diversity of problems still among us! On the evening when a fragment of "Raion Days" was published in Pravda, an engineer-metallurgist told me that he read the sketch with such interest, as if it were about his own factory, because at his factory there are dozens of such conflicts.
The critic should occupy himself with the problem of bringing everyday life to light in literature. This is very complicated.
A German once told me: "Your literature is very rich in content, very significant, but there's no coziness in it." In fact, the settled style of life, domesticity has gone out of our literature. But really, what place could they have in book about construction sites and war?! During those times, we weren't sitting at the tea table or settling ourselves into soft armchairs. Literature was severe, like life, and we required nothing else.
....How many days we spent on missions away from home! How many times we changed our home! How many years we waged war! This life was our daily life, and we didn't want any other. We would have suffocated in bedrooms and on park glades; we would not have been able to stand ourselves.
Now we have built many homes with bathrooms and refrigerators; we have declared war on the housing shortage and all sorts of shortages; we will be 100 times more concerned about the human person. Houses by a factory should be built at the same time as the factory; in any town you should be able to buy everything. Yes, this is necessary. Yes, we shall live well. And all the same...all the same, while struggling for a comfortable everyday life, we must remain above everyday life.
To date, our novels have talked little about what has occupied people in their personal lives. But this does not mean that henceforth we must give detailed descriptions of what people eat. Our hero never gets lost in everyday life, never gets swallowed up by it. An important job of the critic is to teach us to fight for a well-balanced everyday life, so that we might lift the reader even higher above everyday life.
In one of the dreams of Vera Pavlovna, Chernyshevsky spoke thusly to her about the future: "Strive for it, work for it, bring it closer, bring everything that you can from it into the present."
With this quotation, I'm not referring to the theme of a science fiction novel. It would be interesting and useful to read what life will be like under Communism. Such a description might even prove prophetic; but this is not what's most important. Jules Verne turned out to be a prophet, while Balzac did not prophesy. But Balzac is more important to us than Jules Verne. We can marvel at the imaginings of a science fiction writer which have come to llife--but that is all. The writer must bring communism closer by educating the people for communism; and for this imagination is not necessary, for we know beforehand how mankind should be.
To educate people means to devote oneself to people. This is why it would be useful to clarify the place which events and description occupy in our literature. Do they not occupy a place at the expense of mankind, a place greater than necessary to bring to light the role of man in an event and the influence of the event on a man?
Tolstoy described the Battle of Borodino in great detail. But for him, this description was not an end in itself. If we count up the number of lines in E. Kazakevich's novel Spring on the Oder that are dedicated to the movements and actions of all sorts of armies, it turns out that only a third of the novel talks about people. Therefore, in my view, this is a bad novel, irrespective of how many disconnected virtues it may have. The description of facts in M. Bubennov's novel White Birch is greatly excessive. Is this not the reason that we still have an incorrect understanding of novels as "documents of the epoch"? Surely, artistic documents should in some way be different from the genuine document of history, and not merely copies of them. A novel is not required to describe the technique of war, or of a factory, or of an event as such. A novel should not be a substitute for historical, military, technical, or other data. A work of art, as is well known, should reflect the experience, doings, and feelings of people. Events, scenery, and facts must be subservient to this, must be introduced only in service of this. A "document of the epoch" should not document it. We want to find not documents in it, but the soul of the epoch.
The Patriotic War and the construction of factories should not be excluded from our literature. But they will stir us only if they cease being a theme in and of themselves and become a setting for the life and action of man.
No matter how great the temptation to linger on a particular event, if it does little to illuminate the role of the hero, it must be mercilessly cast aside. Some books are burdened, weighed down with material about objects. Education is brought about by thoughts and ideas, not by things and information.
The predominance of events over man in a book, the fact that they overwhelm and crowd man out is one of the reasons such a book might have a short life. Events are superceded by new ones, and books and plays concerned with describing these events get old.
We say, "I wrote and industrial novel", "I published a novel about trade", "I did a play about America". In other words, we are writing about events, not people. People serve only as a contrived embodiment of a preplanned program to portray events. It's clear that such works cannot give any intimate feeling of life, that any change in the given country or given economic sphere will toss such novels overboard, even if the inertia of criticism and the author's own efforts continue to keep it afloat.
One can and must produce novels that are both topical and ageless, that is to say, eternally topical. Incessant lofty talk about the fact that our life is too fast-paced, that it is hard to keep up with it, and that works get old in the process of writing--all this is evidence of the artistic impotence of authors, who are repeating unpersuasive and tiresome arguments.
Yes, life is fast-paced. But it is we who are guilty before life, not life before us. For we are trying to catch up with time, instead of trying to outpace it. We get swallowed up by today, and we don't think about tomorrow. Events overwhelm us, and we don't see the chain of events. In this situation, it is entirely natural that the morning will change everything that was written the night before, and we will never finish our novel (no wonder most of our authors produce only between one and three books), or we'll publish a book afflicted with rickets.
Of course, for great literature you need, first and foremost, great writers. But you don't have to be a genius to avoid being eternally helpless. For this, an author needs only the most elementary self-determination. He simply should not place himself in a situation where every fresh radio report raises the alarm of what he should do now. If, in this situation, the novel "falls apart" or "flies away", then it wasn't a novel. When a writer has firm ideological moorings, then his novel is insured against time. On the other hand, a book tied too firmly to petty events of the day is doomed not to outlive the day....
In our Soviet land, the tasks of the day change and will continue to change; but the perspective will not. No matter how headlong we race forward, this perspective was and will remain certain. Therefore, we can always produce literature today without worrying about it. We are not historians, and we have no reason to wait until today slips into the past and becomes fixed in time. But we must write about the role of man in the great developing events of our time with an unflinching look at the events themselves and at the events in the personal lives of people. We should not worry ourselves about the circumstances of the day. Then not only will we avoid trailing behind events, but we will be able to guess at the following events, suggest fresh thoughts, blaze a trail to new judgments and create a book for the long term. I shall elucidate with an example.
In a remote district, a half-sketch, half-story was being written about the life of a kolkhoz. It was being written incorrectly, for things pushed people into the background. The sketch writer walked about the village, got interested in cheese-making, asked about the greenhouses, and got excited about the growth of profits. Along the way, he jotted down the names of the brigade leaders and Stakhanovites who won awards. The sketch was published and, of course, immediately forgotten. Much time past, and the new law on agricultural taxes appeared. The sketch writer pulled his old notebook out of the archive. He found these notes in it:
"I can't understand it: the kolkhoz is rich, the payments for a work-day aren't bad, but my hostess doesn't have a cow or a garden, just potatoes and cucumbers..."
"Unheard of! It turns out that she chopped down the cherry trees herself! She explained it to me this way: 'When there's a harvest, the cherries aren't worth much. And when there's no harvest, I still have to pay the tax for every tree. So I chopped them down. A lot of people have done it.'
"This family lives only on what it gets from the kolkhoz, just like on many poor kolkhozes people live only on what they produce on their own private plots. But here they're grateful to the kolkhoz, concerned only for it. My hostess has 205 work-days. That's not a little for a single mother with three children, the oldest of which is 15. At the same time, in order to free up the eldest daughter the woman hand to give up her cow. The kolkhoz has little pasture land, just enough for the farm. The forester allowed my hostess to have her cow graze in the forest, in exchange for the eldest daughter helping him with the planting. So one girl was working so that the other could take the cow to graze, while the third one, a four-year-old child, was left alone without supervision. It's obvious that this situation couldn't go on for long. Because of the tax, they couldn't buy feed at that market, where a pood of hay goes for 20 rubles. So they took the cow to the market. That's the kind of contradictions we still have in our life!"
Reading his notes, the sketch writer saw how incorrectly he understood the concept of topicality. He wrote not about the fates of the kolkhoz workers, but about things and objects in the kolkhoz. He did not look at the achievements and mistakes of the kolkhoz through the eyes of the kolkhoz workers. He wasn't looking at it from the perspective of development, but from the view of petty events which crowded out perspective and thought. If he had written about man and not about cheese-making, his story would still be alive, it would have been topical for years.
The Party places man at the center of its attention. Novel, plays, and poems should also be written about man.
So many conflicts and themes! ... Here's what was overheard on a recent trip:
From an engineer:
Look what I have to deal with after work! I haul forty buckets of water for the vegetable garden. What do I need it for? But my wife can't be running to the market every day. It's five kilometers! And you can't blame the factory store. They have to barter in pencils and beer and potatoes and thread. It's as if it has everything, but when you need something, there's nothing there. You go to the club, but it's empty there, too. They don't like to bring us new films, because everyone shows up to watch it on the first night, and on the second day, no one comes. So they don't bring any films at all. I went to the theater with my wife two years ago, but after the show we don't want to be walking across the fields and ruts. That's how we live! Our homes have been built with all the conveniences, but life, as one factory worker recently put it, is "totally inconvenient".
There are seven factories, seven large collectives, seven workers settlements all in the same situation, each one secluded from the others. And in the city, where 30,000 people are living, where they have parks and good streets, roads to the kolkhoz, a normal life--in all these years not only have they not built any new homes, but the old ones are falling apart. Why are we all separated from each other? Why is the old and well-equipped city falling apart, while in the wastelands we have created comfort with inconvenience?
I have a bathroom, a vacuum cleaner, a refrigerator; but look out the window--bare steppe. There's nowhere for me to go once I leave my bathroom. Five kilometers away there the city gardens, music, markets full of fruits...and a line for the bath house.
From a willful man:
Why did the prosecutor drag me in? Who knows! Thank God he'll leave me alone now.
It all started when they sent me to the kolkhoz for the harvest. I'm a metal worker at the district industrial combine, and the regional Party committee decided that they needed Party supervision of the combines and tractors. And, it turned out that it really was needed, only in a completely different sense...
I saw a combine heading out into the barley. Barley, as you know, is a short plant, and what's more, it was overripe. Well, of course, the combine shook out all the grain with the chaff and everything got crushed. As you can imagine, I couldn't restrain myself and I turned to the kolkhoz workers:
"Comrades," I said, "doesn't it break your hearts to see the grain destroyed?"
And they answered, "How could it not hurt to see such an outrage! Our chairman is supposed to give a shining report to the raion Party committee on the combine's capabilities, but we understand all too well that the combine shouldn't be let near such barley. But what are we going to replace it with?...."
Well, I didn't waste my time bargaining with them. I stopped the combine and saved sixteen hectars. One day later, I got called to the Bureau, charged with willfulness, with supporting the self-serving attitudes of backward elements among the kolkhoz workers, and mainly with underestimating the combine. At that moment, other kolkhozes were using their combines poorly, so they had to attack me as a precaution. I'm not saying that the raion committee wanted to chew me up, but it was important to print in the papers that the matter concerning the person guilty for the enforced idleness of the combine has been turned over the prosecutor. The prosecutor, of course, had to question me, I had to sign a statement promising not to leave the area, and so on.
One and a half months pass. There's a snowfall, and a raion-wide alarm is raised: the potatoes are laying under the snow! They order me to take other metal workers and machinists and go harvest.
We drive to the kolkhoz, and the kolkhoz workers are going in the other direction on the road, to the market.
Well, fine. We begin to dig potatoes. We dig for one day, two days. We look and see that what we've dug up is almost nothing. By nightfall, my machinists are collapsing, they can't straighten their backs, and they have to wake up at two in the morning. I see that this is just not going to work. All the potatoes will be lost. And I just couldn't stand that. I call together the kolkhoz workers and make them a proposition: every sixth sack of potatoes they collect they can keep for themselves, just so long as no potatoes remain in the ground after a week. And what do you think? They dug with such overfulfilling-the-plan fervor that I was back at my machine shop within five days.
And what happened after that? After that they again called me into the raion committee. One secretary accuses me of introducing alien methods in kolkhoz affairs. A second secretary defended me. A representative from the oblast committee listens and listens, then he says to them: "I don't understand, comrades. Who's guilty? The one who, with incorrect methods, saved the potatoes, or those who, with correct methods, left the potatoes under the snow?"
Then I told the representative, "In general, I'm incorrect; I'm a criminal. They made me sign a statement promising not to leave the area."
The prosecutor grew red. "What are you talking about? I ended your case long ago." And the next day the summoned me to officially inform me of this.
From a people's judge:
They say that a judge is subservient only to the law. Yes, that is true. But sometimes this is unfortunate. Sometimes life is in contradiction with the law, the law puts up obstacles against the proper organization of life. When that happens, someone suffers, and so does my conscience.
I reviewed a matter concerning an exchange of living accommodations. A teacher and his family--six people--were living in a place of 19 square meters. An old pensioner and his wife had two adjoining rooms measuring 42 meters. The two families wanted to do an exchange. You'd think this idea would only meet with approval. It satisfied logic, common sense, and our policy on living accommodations. But, alas, it did not satisfy the formula concerning, "the inequality of living space, forcing suspicion of a concession made out of self-interest."
Yes, it's highly probable that the teacher--whose family had three working members and was comfortably off--paid the pensioner something for the extra space. Such things often happen in apartment exchanges, but no one can ever prove it. But is this really important and decisive?!
In this situation, what was important and significant was the appropriate distribution of living space that this exchange would accomplish. And, really: why do the old folks need 42 meters? It's hard for them to clean it and pay for the upkeep. And imagine how the teacher's family lives with one daughter and her husband behind a curtain, a second daughter--a student at a music college--has to practice her lessons out loud, the head of the family is correcting papers in the evenings while his 70-year-old mother is confined to bed with illness and his son-in-law is doing drawings until two in the morning.
Can there really be any doubt that the communal department should have approved this exchange immediately without bringing the matter to a judge? During the examination of this case, there were 40 people sitting in the courtroom and their mood, their sympathies on this matter were as clear as mine.
But the chairman of the city soviet insisted that the exchange be denied. He accused the petitioners of being speculators in living space. It didn't matter to him that once of these "speculators" had worked for 37 years on the railroad and that the other one was a teacher for a quarter of a century. The chairman of the city soviet, referred to the notorious "inequality of living space" although he couldn't help but understand that nobody needs to exchange equal living space. He relied on his firm prohibitive rules, and didn't want to see that, in their essence, these rules became obsolete long ago.
I went to a consultative meeting. Both of the people's chairmen supported unequivocally granting the petition. And I...I though of the appeals commissions, about the possible suspicions of bias, clashes with local leaders, and dozens of other things connected with an "illegal" decision. And once I decided, in this particular case, to improve, instead of impede, the lives of Soviet people, I felt like a daredevil and a hero.
And how often I have to act the hero in different cases where I am simply obeying the dictates of my conscience! Sit in the courtroom yourself for a while and you'll agree.
Life gives us 100 times more such stories than does the publishing house "Soviet Writer". You could nit-pick through them, but still there'd be a wide selection left. Our life, rich in content, hides many conflicts and themes. And if they are still not reflected in literature, then the blame for this falls on writers writing about objects and not about people. People's lives are full of dissimilar and diverse affairs and thoughts.
To understand the genuine themes of life, to introduce into novels conflicts which are concerned with the personal daily lives of people--this would greatly increase the influence of literature on life.
It seems to me that today not all of our books participate in the changes of life. Of course, a book is not a machine, the action of which is plainly visible. The influence of books is gradual, latent, and it is difficult to monitor. But not impossible. If a commission of critics, using a carefully thought out, unbiased program, were to study the influence of books on people of various ages and different layers of the population, we could draw more than a few surprising and instructive conclusions. We would see that the print runs of some books are not always in proportion to the degree of the influence of those books on people and that in some very well know and widely disseminated novels something for mankind is lacking. Digging to the bottom, searching to the end, we will find that what is lacking is genuine--not abstract--conflict.
For the full Russian text of
"On Sincerity in Literature"
("Ob iskrennosti v literature")
An abstract conflict exists on paper, but it doesn't live. Of if it does live, it doesn't move us. An abstract conflict creeps along speculatively; a real conflict is in our home, our kolkhoz, our office. And when you introduce a real conflict into a novel, just see how it fractures psychology, how it forms or uncovers character; and the mundane becomes vital, the prosaic becomes poetic, the book excites, the thoughts of the reader quickly move forward and he acquires a thirst to be active.
The enrichment of themes seems to me the most necessary of literature's necessities.
Translated by Eric Konkol
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