LIWRE 2011

Anthony Kudryavitsky ©
Surviving the Silence



As it happened, I've seen two different translations of this year's conference topic. One version was 'writer beyond words', and the other, 'writer and the unspeakable'. They appear to be very different, and I don't know which translation is correct. Talking about the latter version of the topic, writing about the unspeakable is, of course, important. However there's the danger of falling into sensationalism, journalism and generally, into any other kind of hasty writing. As I see it, writing about the unspoken of is more important in literature than writing about the unspeakable.


In these notes I am going to talk about the historical aspects of dealing with Silence in totalitarian countries. As Vladimir Nabokov once put it, 'Literature belongs to the department of specific words and images rather than to the department of general ideas.' Unfortunately, the general idea in the Communist Russia was to encourage and publish only those writers who supported and even glorified the regime. It was the Government policy, especially strict after the last world war. The other writers had to remain in silence, no matter if it was their choice or not. Many Russian writers of those days of the past were banned from publishing. Some others chose to refrain from publishing anything openly. Writing 'into the table' became customary for them. Their work captured frustration, suppressed ambitions and hidden energy of several generations of Russian people.


Joseph Brodsky in one of his lectures compared Mark Strand and Charles Simic, well-established American 'poets of silence', as he called them, to Russian 'unofficial' poets who had to dwell in silence, due to having no other literary space. Silence had its own poets, they were writing unconventional poems, and they were not in a hurry to get their works published in a prestigious magazine or on the pages of an anthology that claimed to present 'the best of the best' in Russian writing but in reality only presented conformist, much publicised writers. They all are completely forgotten now, and deservedly so. 'After Pasternak, Russian poetry sustained a pause,' the late great Russian poet Genrikh Sapgir used to say. It was destined to be a long pause.


Some of the writers who preferred to dwell in the quarters of silence are already in the land of Nod, the quarters of eternal silence; some others learned how to rework silence into poetry. They fed on silence, made it theirs. Silence found room between the lines of their poems, or broke those lines into clusters of words, or into separate words, or even into syllables. Quoting the American poet Leonard Schwartz, 'in their "poetics of silence" the words count as much for the silence they make possible as for what they say themselves.' E.g. poems by the late poet Gennady Aigi are deriving entirely from words and sometimes from single syllables and sounds. He created his own language, an independent and unique speech or, if you like it better, chant. Rea Nikonova, the poet from the South of Russia, even produced a catalogue of different kinds of silence. She knew very well what she was talking about as she had lived in a small Russian town for quite a long time.


One can say, the times of oppression are behind. These days everybody can publish anything openly in many countries, including the modern days' Russia. However there's another category of writers who now dwell in silence: those who refuse to submit to the new dictatorship of today, which is the commercialisation of literature. Many of them write in their own way and not according to the canons imposed on them by the publishers and the critics. Writers belonging to this category sometimes find themselves on the outskirts of literary life. To them, the only consolation is the thought that their time will come. As we now know, the previous generations of writers survived the era of silence, even if they had to put up with an oppressive regime. I am sure that the new generation will find their way to do the same. As Vassily Kandinsky famously said, 'Even absolute silence is a loud speech.'