Natasha Zusmanovich.

The problem of authorship in Zaltsman’s literature.


The present paper discusses the problem of the author’s status in the book “Madam F.” of Pavel Zaltsman [Zaltsman 2003]. This book represents, in our opinion, a remarkable number of different literary phenomena. Firstly, it concerns the book’s content. Short stories and novels comprising the book strike by their brightness and freedom of the author’s imagination, extreme openness and greatly polished style of writing. We have to keep in mind that all of them were written during the Stalin and post-Stalin epochs by an ordinary Soviet state employee, entirely depending on the Soviet authorities. According to Boris Grois, the communist ideology in the Soviet Union had constructed by itself a kind of “endless text” in which the life had disappeared and dissolved [Grois 2003, p.111]. Under the conditions of the Soviet system, when everything around, starting from the high art and ending with the everyday life, was controlled by and aligned with the communist ideology, Zaltsman’s literary work contradicted all the official rules and norms of that time. It is possible to say that the writer’s artistic way lied in an absolutely different dimension. Undoubtedly, he was one of the earliest representatives of the so called “Soviet unofficial art” which developed in USSR during a long period of time in spite of constant oppressions from State’s authorities and in an almost complete isolation from its potential audience.

Since an independent creative work became practically impossible after the decree of the Soviet authorities from 23rd of April 1932 which, in order to subdue all Soviet culture to the governing body of the communist party, required from all Soviet people of art to unite into common artistic collectives according to kind of their activity, Zaltsman was obliged to work, as one used to say at that times, “into the desk”. While writing the stories, which lately entered into the book, the author, by all means, did not conceived to himself any possibility to publish it elsewhere in the USSR or on the West even in remote prospects. According to recollections of the people who were acquainted with the writer, Zaltsman always felt very harsh aversion towards everything that was associated, one way or another, with the very concept of “Soviet writer” or “Soviet literature”. At that point he was entirely at one’s with O. Mandelshtam who wrote at his “Forth prose” that only literary works, which were composed without any official permits, have right to exist [Mandelshtam 1991, p.41]. Zaltsman’s young years fell on the period of the great Stalin’s terror. Then, during the Second World War, the writer endured the first, most terrible winter at the besieged Leningrad. As a result, he knew very well from the personal experience what the unfable human physical sufferings are and very appreciated a relative peace and possibility to abide by his artistic vocation, which, in spite of quite unfavorable circumstances, he succeeded to achieve later in his life. That was the main reason why any thoughts about publishing his manuscripts behind iron curtain, which could lead to an unpredictable change of his live, were rejected by Zaltsman primordially. It is possible to say that the writer quite resigned himself from the present reality and even didn’t take into account another ways to expose his literature to the public besides reading some part of it to a very restricted circle of trustworthy friends. This leads us to another original phenomenon of Zaltsman’s book.

Zaltsman’s writing is characterized by the rhythmical unity, exact estimation of each phrase, which occupies the only right place suited to it in the whole artistic stream, very carefully thought out vocabulary, natural fluency of subject’s changes, simple elegancy of the dialogs, and many other features that make his novels and short stories so fascinating, impressive and easily carried our minds away. If we put together such professional stylistic quality of the literature with the writer’s intentions and the reasons, which caused this kind of his artistic expression, we could realize how phenomenal it is. In fact, it would be not an overstatement to claim that the best examples of Zaltsman’s writing style are not inferior in anything to the best examples of wide known and repeatedly published literary works and could rank on a par with most respected of them. And such a talented author was able to work, in our case, exclusively for himself, just because of his personal interest, without any connection to and feedback from the external world. Even if we would accept a somewhat arguable viewpoint that the real artistic works could be composed only this way, still, in our case, the very reason for the first writer’s impulse was quite original: during one of the numerous political campaigns of struggle with so-called “cosmopolites”, Zaltsman was fired from the cinema studio where he was employed for many years as an artist and to which he devoted a lot of energy and interest. It is then when, according to the recollections of Zaltsman’s daughter, he started to write a prose, mostly to fill an unexpectedly appeared free time. We could describe the arisen situation in words of Anna Akhmatova: so long To one hope of which will be lesser, Instead there will be one more song [Akhmatova 1987, p.21]. Just in Zaltsman’s case these words could be applied not to the romantic sphere, but to such boring for the poet thing as the political regime.

Concerning the status of the author, we can find maybe a most wonderful phenomenon among all that were already mentioned above, and this phenomenon is a mere Zaltsman’s sudden appearance in the Russian literature. But first let’s try to define what the very notion of author means nowadays, and what interesting, in the framework of this meaning, could bring to us the artistic figure of Zaltsman, except of the sole fact that his book finally was published at 2005 in Moscow, after surmounting all possible and impossible obstacles.

The second half of the twentieth century brought a principally new view on the concept of author of a literary work, especially the new definition of the term “author” itself. According to Grois, “classical modernism considered an author’s individuality as a kind of objective reality, which was defined by specific place of a holder of this individuality in space and time or by chain of his presiders” [Grois 2003, p.128]. In other words, previously the writer was always linked inseparably with his biography and individual features of his personality. As Michel Foucault notes, exactly such characteristics of the author, together with portraits of all other figures appearing in his lifestory, during a long period of time were much more significant for critics and public, than any analysis of his works themselves. But from the certain moment the process of writing itself begins to dominate absolutely over all others forms of literary work. According to Foucault, contemporary writing is much more self-referential, than writing for social communication. “It is primarily concerned with creating an opening where the writing subject endlessly disappears” [Foucault 1977, p.126].

In the case with Zaltsman’s texts we can say that for the overwhelming majority of contemporary readers its author, per se, is primordially absent. What seems interesting to emphasize is that here “the writing subject endlessly disappears” purely unconsciously, without any explicit author’s declarations in the spirit of the new literary epoch (about which Zaltsman could hardly be aware), or any his special intentions in this direction. The fact of the author’s disappearance in his writing could be rather explained as an essential consequence of not literary, but political conditions. And only the end of the epoch, which created those conditions, allowed the subsequent birth of Zaltsman-author: the first acquaintance for general readers with him took place twenty years after his physical death. Nevertheless, the fate of Zaltsman’s manuscripts was and, to the large degree does remain at the present moment very uncertain. In spite of the fact that his first book of novels and poetry enjoyed an active support and even raised a kind of astonishment from certain circles interested in the Russian literature and artistic avant-guard (in particular, the group OBERIU from which Zaltsman-writer partially originates), the future of his other, unpublished, texts seems to be vulnerable to various occasional circumstances.

Therefore, we can say that Zaltsman’s author status unites in itself a number of different aspects. Those readers for whom his name means nothing – as far as it doesn’t appear in any literary-historical context – and, hence, does not carry any additional semantic meaning, probably would fully agree with Samuel Beckett as cited by Foucalt: ”what matter who’s speaking?”. For such readers this principle is given a priori, and naturally precedes the act of the reading itself. Of course, there is nothing unique or merely unordinary in this position: it is not a problem at all to find today a book with an unknown name on the cover. But what interesting in the case of Zaltsman is that he himself was stuck to the similar principle of the author’s anonymity. In Foucault terms, we can characterize all Zaltsman’s prose as one, which constantly strives for self-erasing. Even in those very seldom cases when the narration is carried on from the first character, the personage of the narrator himself always remains maximally impersonal and quite abstract. Nor at “An encounter by the mirror”, neither at “A friend’s wife”, neither at “Reflection”, he never exceeds the scopes of the event currently described. In the same manner he never refers to his past in order to impart him more artistic effect. Also we never know anything about his personality – nor his name, neither his age, neither, for example, his profession. More than this, one of these stories (“An encounter by the mirror”) represents a definitely bold attempt to merge the story-teller with his imaginary reader: at the final of the story the author overcomes the world of reality and transforms to those who reads the story. At this encounter “the very identity of the body writing” [Barthes 2000, p.125] dissolves in the reader’s subjectivity: the latter replaces the former, and the former ceases his existence at that moment. “It is quite possible that the reader interested to know who I am? Or where he can meet me? I can point it out. When the reader stands in some long corridor at some awkward dark hotel, or in a lobby which leads to an empty balcony, or at a barber’s shop, or at a lavatory where there is a mirror ­– any mirror – like a small and dull one always present in a doorway or any office which usually is almost unilluminated – the reader has to wait close to the door and listen carefully that nobody comes and no one is around, then he can entrance there and look into the mirror. But beforehand he must firmly to lock the door behind him. And then we can meet” [Zaltsman 2003, p.90].

At the other story (“An envelope”) the narration is carried on behalf of some group of persons lacking any definite individual attributes. As it usual at Zaltsman, we know neither their names, nor age, nor social status. As if the reader has the opportunity to guess all this by himself. The question about the author’s identity seems at this case absolutely irrelevant.

We suggest that such methods quite naturally involve Zaltsman’s works into the discourse of author’s death, which was proposed by Roland Barthes in his famous article under the same title. This, in its turn, makes us to think about the author’s voice at the whole Zaltsman’s literary masterpieces. If we look on it from the point of view of the reader who is familiar with the writer’s biography, we easily realize that in spite of some additional emotional burden brought by this extra knowledge, it does not predominate in any way over the content of Zaltsman’s book. Of course, we cannot entirely exclude attempts of such reader to seek for explanations of Zaltsman’s texts in his particular personality, and to make on this way any complementary conclusions about the writer’s inner feelings above what could be derived solely from his works. Nevertheless, the essence of Zaltsman’s poetics lies very far from these kinds of interpretations. In the Zaltsman’s case we have quite an unordinary situation. As was already mentioned above, his texts were composed in an atmosphere in which he could not even to dream that one day they will find the real reader. Quite the contrary, he could be fully confident that everything written by him will stay intact as just a matter of his private life. Probably that was a major reason why his author’s voice never really interested him during the work on his novels and short stories – if there is nobody who can read them, there is no for whom to transmit, that way or other, any materials concerning his personality or to drew up any special biographical models. As a result, the writer was most of all worried about such composition of the reality, that tries to follow as much as possible the main artistic principle of his teacher Pavel Filonov – the concept of madeness, the crafted completeness of the work of art and extreme creative efforts during all process of the work. Paraphrasing the words from one of Zaltsman’s novels we could say that in his relation to writing “the talk about the author is not the subject of this story”.

Another, possibly less deliberate, but at the same time quite likely reason of the author’s constant strive to escape his individuality, could be the strategy which was typical to the Russian avant-guard artists that formed, to a large degree, the early artistic ideas of Zaltsman. As Boris Grois points in his book “The art of utopia”, “namely the striving to break up own individuality which was established by tradition and find behind it their original, true but ulterior one and rejection from individual in favour of the roots toward “originality” made the prophet of avant-guard so obvious individuals and eccentric personalities” [Grois 2003, p.128].

Therefore, it is possible to conclude that Barthes’ theory about the elimination of the author and his entire replacement by his writing has in the present case a very bright realization. And perhaps, this is a main reason for such a great stylistic convincingness, which reveals here the writer’s imagination. Like at Mallarme, who is cited by Barthes, the core of Zaltsman’s literary work lies exactly in the word and not in the writer’s particular emotions. So, for him, the figure of the author is indeed just somebody who is writing. His starting point is fixation of words on the paper and not the desire for personal revelations. The writer’s attention that does not fix on encoding of his intimate feelings thereby extends the sphere of its emotional and intellectual influence on the reader, who is, finally, due to Barthes’, as well as due to publishers of Zaltsman’s book efforts, is restored in his own rights.

Along with the analysis of the development of relationships between the author and his readers, there is also another, not less interesting, aspect about which one constantly thinks during the reading of this book: the influence of the book on some quite unexpected transformation of a common perception of the author’s lifetime. In spite of all author’s efforts to put a distance between his internal world and the historical dictate of the current epoch, nevertheless, the surrounding reality and its events remain one of the main sources of the writer’s artistic expressions. One can say that any literature utterance, without depending of its philological virtues, always may serve as a kind of “antiquarian investigations, aimed primarily at elucidating the past, the life and letters of older generations” [Leerssen, p. 111]. If we turn our attention to some episodes from the book, we could find in it quite a lot of new material for the reconstruction of our view about seemingly well known time of Russian history just fifty years ago. Some of these Zaltsman’s stories and novels, especially the play “Ordinamenti” (supplied by the author with a sarcastic formalistic subtitle Comedy), which encloses the prosaic part of the book, offers to reader, who is interested to understand how different historical events could influence the formation of social order and common psychology under the vigilant leadership of literature workers (recall the popular Stalin’s thesis that writers are “the engineers of human souls”), a lot of new and quite unexpected materials for reflection. That is, on our opinion, the most typical from those seldom cases when we can distinctly discern the author’s voice that directly penetrates into reader’s perception by presenting the problems, appearing in the course of narrative, under very unusual for that historical epoch angle. One of the main topics of the aforementioned comedy is an ethic side of the philosophical concept of the historical necessity, which took increased interest by contemporaries on the background of all XX century events. In this connection, Joseph Brodsky once remarked that this concept itself, which came to Russia together with Marx’s “Capital” and which, after the Bolsheviks’ coming to power, prevailed there for a long time, met from the very beginning a heavy opposition from the side of many Russian’s writers. A striking example of such opposition, according to him, is Dostoevsky’s “The Possessed” (also known as “Demons” or “The Devils”, 1872) [Brodsky 2001, p. 90]. Consequently, Zaltsman’s interest in this theme establishes some kind of relation between him and the moral traditions of the Russian literature of late XIX century. But the fact of Zaltsman’s dethronement of the concept, which one hundred years after Dostoevsky’s death, substantially entered, along with the rest of Marx’s theory, into the sanctum sanctorum of the Soviet ideology, seems to us quite astonishing and strange. We should note that Zaltsman never made any attempts of openly oppose his mode of thinking to the Soviet official system. Also, he never was a participant of the so-called dissident circles, bar organizations. In other words, we have the right to regard Zaltsman’s interest for this principal postulate of the communist party as just a private opinion of one of the Soviet citizens. And the fact that this theme, seemingly occupied one of the crucial places at inward life of this writer and this man, seems to us, not without ground considering ourselves as experts in those generation, even not so much original, but just really uncommon and almost exceptional.

For instance, Zaltsman, in all probability, appears to be an only (non-emigrant) writer of the Soviet epoch, who is mentioning in his works such absolutely tabooed, seemingly forgotten without a trace as not actual for his time, albeit not from a distant past, events, such as execution of the Tsar’s family or purposeful annihilation of the whole generation of the Russian intellectuals – “the wonderful formation”, which was created “at the cost of the prolonged preparations” [Zaltsman 2003, p.165], how he determines it. And he not just mentions it casually, but makes an attempt of philosophical comprehension of the October Revolution’s crimes by means of the theory of different stages of historical development, developed by him, and the latter occupies one of the central places in the work. Namely, the execution of the Tsar’s family has been served, according to the author, as the main incitement of the following communist’s crimes which were raised to the rank of the law: “You see, about last two centuries the civilized society had in some ways regulated this question. Of course, from time to time some excesses happened also in this field. But, firstly, relatively seldom, and, secondly, they invariably qualified as a crime. But in our century, belonging to another stage, all this has been changed. Reconsideration of this question began from one episode about which you probably even didn’t hear. It is not about some robbers who did it in the heat of the moment and hurriedly. Not, children were killed on the base of well thought-out order. There were three girls and one very ill small boy. If I am not mistaken, it happened in the same room with their parents. And this murder was not considered as crime by all means. It was, so to speak, blessed by the approval of the local aboriginal leader. And what is more curiously – everybody immediately forgot about it: diplomats in their uniform sheepskin coats, actresses that liked to set fir-trees on the festivals, customers of GUM and ZUM (Moscow central warehouses – N.Z.), tribunes of moral, film makers and writers. The writers especially forgot about it. Only one poet mentioned it in passing, but in a strange manner – either confusedly, or confounded. And all the rest of mankind forgot about it hand in hand in one time. So it is also obviously didn’t come to your attention. Instead, it became very fashionable that children handing over flowers to the fathers of cities and nations. And following this example of labor initiative, such a practice took a wide scale” [Zaltsman 2003, p.166].

As was pointed by L. Gossman: “For each context will activate the potentialities of the text in a different way, by making different elements in it emerge as structurally significant” [Gossman 1990, p.23]. But no matter how we would wish, by reading these lines from “Ordinamenti”, to release, according to Gossman, “the text from bondage to any particular context”, the figure of the author who wrote them “at these dead years when it was possible only to scream alone with yourself or keep silence half suffocated” [Vodennikov 2006], distinctly and inevitably comes forward. This happens because the context of the epochs itself, our and Zaltsman’s, dictates to us such a perception. We can say that the writer, at this and other multiple occurrences, unintentionally forestalled his time and this fact is so much evident that it is just impossible not to put attention to it. At the same time, Gossman’s statement that “innumerable individual literary acts, performed at various moments in the course of the literary culture and graphically preserved as texts, are constantly available to be projected against a wide range of contexts, no single one of which, perhaps, need be considered the sole appropriate one” [Gossman 1990, p.23] is certainly right and applicable here. It is quite likely that our perception of Zaltsman’s texts could differ noticeably from those readers whose knowledge about reality of the Soviet and post-Soviet periods of Russian history is less full and clear than ours. It could happen also the opposite – that with time some of the historical facts mentioned in Zaltsman’s book without, as usual, any concrete names and places, would become widely known, and that would give opportunity for a new reader to see some new contexts in correlation between the text’s author and his time.

Citing References:

Akhmatova 1987 –– A. Akhmatova. Compositions.Moscow, “Art and Literature”, 1987

Barthes –– R.Barthes. The Death of the Author. “Authorship: from Plato to the Postmodern. A Reader” by Burke Sean. Edinburgh University Press, 2000. pp. 125-130.

Brodsky 2001 –– J.Brodsky. Why Milan Kundera Is Wrong About Dostoyevsky. Compositions, V.7. St. Petersburg, “Pushkin’s fund”. 2001. с. 87-96.

Foucault 1977 –– M.Foucault . What is an Author? Trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. “Language, Counter-Memory, Practice”. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977. pp. 124-127.

Gossman 1990 –– L.Gossman. Literary Education and Democracy. “Between History and Literature”. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and England, 1990.

Grois 2003 — B.Grois. The art of utopia. Moscow, “Journal of arts”, 2003.

Leerssen –– J.Leerssen. Ossian and the rise of Literary Historicism. “The Reception of Ossian in Europe”, ed. H. Gaskill (London: Continuum). pp. 109-125.

Mandelshtam 1991 –– O.Mandelshtam. Fourth Prose, Moscow, “Interprint”, 1991

Zaltsman 2003 — P.Zaltsman. Madam F. Moscow, “Lira”, 2003.