Tertz, Abram

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TERTZ, Abram

Pseudonym for Andrey (Donatovich) Sinyavsky. Nationality: Russian. Born: Moscow, 8 October 1925. Education: Moscow University, degree 1949, candidate of philological sciences 1952. Military Service: Served in the Soviet Army. Family: Married Maria Rozanova-Kruglikova; one son. Career: Senior research fellow, Gorky Literary Institute, Moscow, until 1966; lecturer in Russian literature, Moscow University, until 1965; arrested for alleged anti-Soviet writings, 1965, sentenced to seven years' hard labor, 1966; released from prison, 1971. Immigrated to France, 1973; assistant professor, then professor of Slavic studies, the Sorbonne, Paris, from 1973. Russian citizenship restored, 1990. Founder, Sintaksis literary journal. Awards: Grolier Club Bennett award, 1978. Died: 1997.


Short Stories

Sud idet (novella). In Kultura, 1960; as The Trial Begins, 1960.

Fantasticheskie povesti. 1961; as Fantastic Stories, 1963; as The Icicle, and Other Stories, 1963.

Liubimov (novella). In Polish as Lubimow, 1963; in Russian, 1964; as The Makepeace Experiment, 1965.

Uncollected Short Story

"Pkhents." 1966.


Spokoinoi nochi. 1984; as Goodnight!, 1989.

Other (as Andrey Sinyavsky)

Kto kak zashchishchaetsia [Who Defends Oneself Thus]. 1953.

"Chto takoe sotsialisticheski realizm?" In L'Esprit, February1959; as On Socialist Realism, 1961.

Istoriia russkoi sovetskoi literatury [History of Soviet RussianLiterature]. 1961.

Lysukha (Naturalist Stories). 1961.

Poeziia pervykh let revoliutsii, 1917-20 [The Poetry of the FirstYears of the Revolution], with A. N. Menshutin. 1964.

Mysli vrasplokh. 1966; as Unguarded Thoughts, 1972.

Druzhnaia semeika [Friendly Family]. 1966.

Fantasticheskii mir Abrama Tertsa [Fantastic World of AbramTerts]. 1967.

Medvezhonok Taimyr [The Bear Cub Taimyr]. 1969.

Khrabryi tsyplenok [The Brave Chicken]. 1971.

For Freedom of Imagination. 1971.

V nochnom zooparke [In the Night Zoo]. 1973.

Golos iz khora. 1973; as A Voice from the Chorus, 1976.

Progulki s Pushkinym [Strolls with Pushkin]. 1975.

V teni Gogolia [In the Shadow of Gogol]. 1975.

Kroshka Tsores [Little Tsores]. 1980; as Little Jinx, 1993.

Syntaxis: réflexion sur le sort de la Russe et de la culture russe. 1981.

"Opavshie list'ia" V. V. Rozanova [V. V. Rozanov's FallenLeaves]. 1982.

Osnovy sovetskoi tsivilizatsii. As La Civilisation Soviétique, 1989; as Soviet Civilization: A Cultural History, 1992.

Sny na pravoslavnuiu Paskhu [Dreams of Orthodox Pashka]. 1991.

The Russian Intelligentsia. 1997.


Critical Studies:

On Trial: The Case of SinyavskyTertzand DanielArzhak, edited by Leopold Labedz and M. Hayward, 1966, revised edition, 1980; "Sinyavsky in Two Worlds: Two Brothers Named Chénier" by Richard Pevear, in Hudson Review 25, 1972; Siniavsky and Julii Daniel', Two Soviet "Heretical" Writers by Margaret Dalton, 1973; "Siniavskii: The Chorus and the Critic" by Walter F. Kolonsky, in Canadian-American Slavic Studies 9, 1975; "The Sense of Purpose and Socialist Realism in Tertz's The Trial Begins " by W. J. Leatherbarrow, in Forum for Modern Language Studies 11, 1975; Letters to the Future: AnApproach to Sinyavsky-Tertz by Richard Lourie, 1975; "On Tertz's A Voice from the Choir " by Laszlo M. Tikos, in International Fiction Review 2, 1975; "The Literary Criticism of Tertz" by Albert Leong, in Proceedings of the Pacific Northwest Conference on Foreign Languages, 28(1), 1977; "The Bible and the Zoo in Sinyavsky's The Trial Begins " by Richard L. Chapple, in Orbis Litterarum 33, 1978; "Narrator, Metaphor and Theme in Sinjavskij's Fantastic Tales " by Andrew R. Durkin, in Slavic and East European Journal 24, 1980; "'The Icicle' as Allegory" by Grace Anne Morsberger, in Odyssey, 4(2), 1981; "Sinyavsky's 'You and I': A Modern Day Fantastic Tale" by Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy, in Ulbandus Review, 2(2), 1982; "The Writer as Alien in Sinjavskij's 'Pkhens"' by Ronald E. Peterson, in Wiener Slawistischer Almanach 12, 1983; "Conflicting Imperatives in the Model of the Russian Writer: The Case of Tertz/Sinyavsky" by Donald Fanger, in Literature and History: Theoretical Problems and Russian Case Studies, edited by Gary Saul Morson, 1986; " Spokojnoj noci: Andrej Sinjavskij's Rebirth as Abram Terc" by Olga Matich, in Slavic and East European Journal 33(1), 1989; Abram Tertz and the Poetics of Crime by Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy, 1995.

* * *

The life of the writer Abram Tertz began in February 1959 with the publication of the essay "On Socialist Realism" in the French literary journal Esprit. The work showed a sharp wit, a freedom of discourse, an incredible erudition, and an originality of juxtapositions that testified to an intimate knowledge of contemporary Russian reality, and it bewildered readers and critics in the West as well as Soviet literary bureaucrats. Both came to the conclusion, although for different reasons, that behind the name Tertz there stood an émigré writer. A secret investigation was begun in the Soviet Union, which three years later succeeded in uncovering his identity.

In that span of time several additional works appeared in the West under the name Tertz. The short novel The Trial Begins was published in 1960 in the French émigré Polish journal Cultura. In 1961 a collection of five stories was published under the title Fantastic Tales, and in 1964 there appeared another short novel, Lyubimov, which was translated into English as The Makepeace Experiment. Two other works, Unguarded Thoughts, a small book of notes and reflections, and the story "Pkhents," came out in 1965 and 1966, respectively. Unguarded Thoughts was published several months before and "Pkhents" a month after the arrest and trial of Andrey Donatovich Sinyavsky, the creator of the figure of Abram Tertz.

Sinyavsky was a senior staff member at the Gorky Institute of World Literature and a well-established critic and scholar of Soviet literature. Associated with the liberal journal Novy Mir, he was looked upon as a promising member of the circle of literary critics of the post-Stalin era. He was best known for his numerous articles on contemporary Soviet poetry and for works on literary and art history. Although he represented its most liberal tendencies, he was still very much a part of the Soviet literary establishment. A graduate of Moscow University, he wrote his dissertation on Maksim Gorky, the father of socialist realism, which became the only type of literature permitted by Soviet authorities. It was precisely this aesthetic that the author Tertz attacked in the essay published in Esprit.

Tertz was more then a pen name protecting the identity of its author, for it was a voice separate from that of Sinyavsky the critic. The name was the embodiment of Sinyavsky's ideas on the freedom of creative experimentation and artistic imagination not permitted by the constricting canons of socialist realism. According to Sinyavsky, Tertz—the name probably coming from quasi-romantic ballads of crime in Odessa—became a materialization of his own writing style. A number of critics interpret the name as Sinyavsky's conscious foreshadowing of his future in Soviet society as an outsider and criminal.

The works published under the name Tertz are full of experimentation with form, style, and characters. The author created characters that took on roles as outsiders, roles that allowed them to lead simultaneous existences in the world of the author's creative fantasies as well as in that of Soviet reality. The works became an embodiment of the author's call for a "literature of grotesque and phantasmagoric fantasy," as expressed in the essay "On Socialist Realism." The protagonist in the story "Pkhents," for example, is an alien who, after his spaceship crashes, is forced to live behind a human mask and to hide his cactuslike body in order to fit into a conventional form. The story creates a picture of everyday life under the Soviet regime, which suppressed any deviation from officially sanctioned norms. In the novel The Makepeace Experiment the protagonist uses mass hypnosis to convince Soviet citizens in a small town that he can perform miracles and create a utopian state. The attempt fails, and the utopian state turns into a dictatorship. Although the work was viewed as a critique of Soviet ideals, it was mainly a comment on the absurdity of Soviet existence, in which an individual human life had to be justified in terms of its relation to a common goal. By showing Soviet social constructs within a realm of fantasy, the works underline their utopian nature, thus making the reader wonder which world is more phantasmagoric, the real one or the one created from the writer's imagination. In the words of Deming Brown, "His 'unreality' is extremely real. His grotesque comes from montage, juxtaposition of scenes and characters."

The innovative elements of the prose style of Tertz have their roots in the works of classical Russian authors such as Gogol, Dostoevskii, and Saltykov-Shchedrin. Their formal explorations connect them to the pioneering experiments of the literature of the early Soviet period, which were halted at the end of the 1920s by the establishment of Stalinist culture and its demand for the unification of literary style. The works use a variety of traditional literary devices and employ dialogues and monologues as well as various types of narrative, yet the author masterfully mixes these elements in order to create an overall sense of irony. In the story "Tenants," for example, the protagonists, a drunk writer and a ghost living in his flat, are engaged in a pseudodialogue. The ghost introduces the writer, a new tenant, to the communal apartment by using a monologue as a device from which the reader can deduce the writer's occasional responses. Another story, "Graphomaniacs," is written in the first person, with the protagonist, another writer, relating the events of his own life while constantly inserting his literary pieces into the fabric of the narrative.

Among the formal explorations undertaken by the author can be found many elements borrowed from Soviet discourse, including party slogans and bureaucratic jargon. These elements were such a natural part of everyday Soviet reality that they at once created an air of realism in the phantasmagoric world of Tertz and deeply offended the authorities. This is why the works published under the name Tertz were used as evidence in the trial against Sinyavsky, which began in Moscow on 10 February 1966. Max Hayward wrote the following about the trial: "It was the first time in the history of the Soviet Union that writers have been put on trial for what they had written. Many Soviet writers have been imprisoned, banished, executed or driven into silence, but never after a trial in which the principal evidence against then was their literary work." Sinyavsky was sentenced to seven years of hard labor in the camps of the "strict type." Because of the efforts by his wife, he was released after five years and nine months. In 1973 he was allowed to emigrate to France, where he taught Russian literature at the Sorbonne.

During this period Sinyavsky continued to publish extensively under both names. As a literary critic he completed a study of Gogol entitled In the Shade of Gogol, a monograph on Russian folklore titled "Ivan the Fool," and a book on the works of the Russian philosopher V. V. Rosanov. Under the name Tertz he published A Voice from the Choir, an unusual mixed work written in the labor camp and consisting of notes as well as letters to his wife, and A Stroll with Pushkin, a critical study. Here he made an attempt to take Pushkin off his pedestal and to treat him not as a monumental figure of Russian literature but as a human being with faults and shortcomings. The work uses two of the author's principal devices, irony and hyperbole, to analyze the creative work of Pushkin within the framework of the poet's personal life. When first published in 1975, the book was controversial among émigré writers and was attacked by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Debate over the work gained renewed strength when fragments were published in the Russian literary journal Oktjabr in 1989.

In 1980, under the name Tertz, he published another work of fiction, "Little Jiitalnx," combining the worlds of fantasy and bitter reality. The protagonist is named Sinyavsky, which has led some critics to discuss the autobiographical elements in the work. The novel Goodnight, published in 1984, is an autobiographical novel in which the writer addresses the events of his own life and the life of his father, a true revolutionary and party official who was arrested in 1951. Although the author Tertz disrupts the chronology of events in his usual way, he makes an attempt to create "a different order of reality," one that will help him understand his turbulent life.

Sinyavsky's The Russian Intelligentsia appeared in 1997. The book is a reflection on the author's visit to Russia and addresses his thoughts on the struggle for Russian democracy. In the work he examines the historic role of Russian intellectuals and their responsibilities to the new society in its attempt to come to terms with democracy.

—Marina Balina

See the essay on "Pkhentz."