Yevgeny Zamyatin: a brief biography

Yevgeny Zamyatin is among my literary heroes. A subversive writer who protested first the Czarist and then the Bolshevik governments in Russia during the tumultuous period between 1900 and the 1930s, Zamyatin was multi-talented and pretty damn close to fearless. He wrote novels, short stories, political essays, literary criticism, and plays; edited literary magazines and journals; served on editorial and theatrical boards; mentored the Serapion Brothers Literary Group; lectured on Russian literature, naval engineering, and creative writing; and designed warships for Russia and England during World War I.

Somehow, with all that on his plate, he also managed to find time to be exiled on three separate occasions. The first time, he was a student in St. Petersburg (known in the Soviet years as Petrograd) who regularly participated in demonstrations against the Czarist government and was caught hiding an illegal printing press in his dorm room. He was exiled from the city in 1905, but he sneaked back in to finish his degree in 1906. Through a bureaucratic loophole, he was able to stay and begin his teaching career at the Polytechnic Institute. He was exiled from the city again in 1911 and then sent to Ukraine in 1913 to get him out of Russia. He worked on warships in England from 1916-1917, where he became an associate of George Orwell (Orwell’s 1984 would be heavily inspired by Zamyatin’s ideas and his novel We). Zamyatin managed, again, to sneak back into St. Petersburg, this time for the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Although Zamyatin had been a Bolshevik since his student days, he was (like many others) repulsed by the brutality of the civil war that followed the Revolution, as well as the pressure for conformity which the new Bolshevik government imposed on society. Zamyatin was as quick to criticize the authorities of the Soviet regime as he had been those of the Czarist regime, earning him epitaphs such as “The First Dissident,” “The Devil of Soviet Literature,” “The Soviet Heretic,” and “the most left-wing man in Russia.” His 1920 novel We became the first novel banned in the USSR; it wasn’t even published yet, and had only been read in literary circles in manuscript format. (It was published abroad in 1924 and would go on to inspire Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Vonnegut’s Player Piano.) Truth in literature, empathy toward others, and a deep awareness of reality were paramount in Zamyatin’s philosophy. He once wrote, “It is not possible to build on negative emotions. Genuine literature will come only when we replace hatred for man with love for man,” (The Goal).

In 1931, after being systematically banned from publication and from the theater, and removed from his teaching positions, he wrote a letter to Stalin requesting to leave the Soviet Union to live abroad. Here is a quote from that letter which pretty well displays Zamyatin’s lack of fear:

I know that I have the very uncomfortable habit of saying what is not advantageous at a given moment, but whatever I believe to be the truth. I never concealed what I think of literary servility, toadyism, and coat changing. I have always thought and I continue to think that such things are as degrading for the writer as they are to the revolution.”

Yevgeny Zamyatin to Yosef Stalin, 1931

As much to Zamyatin’s surprise as anyone’s, Stalin granted passports to Yevgeny and his wife. The Zamyatins traveled in Germany and Czechoslovakia before settling in Paris, where they met Marc Slonim, the man who had published We. Sadly, Zamyatin’s health deteriorated rapidly; he had heart disease. Slonim sheltered him and helped nurse him through his final years before Zamyatin died in 1937.

The striking thing (to me) about Zamyatin’s ideas, his philosophy, his writing advice, is how deeply rooted they are in his particular moment in time and place, and yet how universally they apply. Some of Zamyatin’s quips and quotes could belong just as well to an L.A. punk rocker of the 1970s or a Zen philosopher as a subversive shouting his message from the early days of the USSR.

Yevgeny Zamyatin, the “Devil of Soviet Literature”

A few fun facts:

  • As a child, Zamyatin was bitten by a rabid dog. He didn’t tell anyone until two weeks later, because he wanted to see what it would feel like to have rabies. Luckily for him, he didn’t contract the disease
  • Zamyatin struggled with math as a child; he chose to study engineering specifically to challenge himself
  • Zamyatin applied Einstein’s theory of relativity to his writing style, which is why he avoids chronological narration, changes point of view, utilizes multiple planes of action, and expands time relative to the moment in his work
  • Zamyatin was deeply inspired by Dostoevsky, particularly his concept that the irrational is the ultimate source of freedom and individuality (most famously expressed in The Brothers Karamazov in the Grand Inquisitor sequence)

Zamyatin quotes:

  • “We have long become overgrown with calluses; we no longer hear people being killed,” The Dragon: Fifteen Stories
  • “If I mean anything to Russian literature, I owe this completely to the Petrograd Secret Service.”
  • “Irony, sarcasm, and satire are the most effective weapons of progress…for stopping man kneeling before someone or something.”
  • “There are books of the same chemical composition as dynamite. The only difference is that a piece of dynamite explodes once, whereas a book explodes a thousand times,” A Soviet Heretic
  • “Who knows who you are…a person is a novel: you don’t know how it will end until the very last page. Otherwise it wouldn’t be worth reading to the very end,” We
  • “Knowledge! What does that mean? Your knowledge is nothing but cowardice… You just want to put a little wall around infinity. And you’re afraid to look on the other side of that wall,” We

If you’re curious to read some Zamyatin, I can’t recommend enough the short story “The Cave.” It’s my favorite of his works that I’ve read. The novel We, as you can tell from this post, is probably his most important piece in terms of influence on literature.

Advertisements

The Wisdom of James Herriot

I don’t know how much of what I’ve written this week I’ll end up keeping vs. cutting. I finished a chapter tonight which may well be completely replaced. But I’m not sorry I wrote it, because 1. I enjoyed writing it, and 2. it gave one of my characters room to open up on the page–not that I didn’t already know certain things about him, but just like with real people, it’s one thing to know a character, and another thing to really empathize with them, to feel what it’s like inside their head. Whether the scene is integral enough to the plot of the novel or not to keep it remains to be seen, along with whether or not it’s anything a reader would care to sit through when there are much more adventurous moments to be had in the book. In a first draft, you can’t worry about that kind of stuff, or you’ll never finish. Be generous with your first draft and ruthless with your second, I always say. Or, in other words, write the first draft as a writer and the second as an editor.

Image result for james herriot

Alfred Wight, a.k.a. James Herriot with doggie. Image cribbed from James Herriot Twitter account.

And speaking of writing, I just finished re-watching the excellent BBC series All Creatures Great and Small, based on the autobiographical books of a Yorkshire veterinarian. The books were written under the pseudonym of James Herriot, real name Alfred Wight. I grew up on his books, which both my mother and my grandmother read to me as a child, and on the BBC television series which aired on PBS when I was little. The time period is the 1930s-50s, the setting rural Yorkshire, the style funny and touching by turns, and the characters (both human and animal) portrayed with a beautiful balance between honesty and compassion in the narrative. Herriot’s (or rather, Wight’s) stories are as ingrained in me as if they were the mythos of my personal culture. So when I finished the series and sat down to check out the special features, I was thrilled to come across a 1970s interview with the author.

There were several things in the interview that particularly struck me. First, Wight spent twenty years saying he was going to write a book before, at age 50, he ever attempted the task. He described his struggles with learning to write from the heart, rather than trying to write “well,” with finding his own voice in the shadow of the literary classics he loved. And then his struggles with rejection letters and the inevitable depression that accompanies their repetition, disasters like having an editor who liked his work but asked him for rewrites leave for another company by the time he did the rewrites, and a host of other obstacles. And yet, he ended up with one bestseller after another, translations into languages for readers all over the world, and a TV series on the BBC.

Second, I was struck by the accuracy of his portrayal of himself and his wife, and their relationship, based on the books in comparison to things he said in the interview. It can’t possibly be easy to portray anything that close to home without skewing it. And I’m sure there’s some of that, but it made me smile to see him act so much like the James Herriot I knew from his books.

Third, the interviewer asked several times, in different wording each time, why a multi-national bestselling author was, at that time, still working full time as a country vet. Wight’s answer: He loved being a vet, his love of being a vet is what he writes about, and he felt it was important to balance his writing life with the activity his career provided him with. All of which just makes me love his books more, because of the depth of his feeling for his work with animals–and the people who care for them. But that third component, balancing creativity with daily life, struck me in particular. It’s something all but the most successful writer struggles with: balancing a day job with writing. And yet, here’s an author who could easily have lived on his sales, who felt that without his day job (if you can call a job where you’re on call 24/7 a “day job”), he wouldn’t have been as productive as a writer. Granted, he wrote about what he did for a living. But still, it’s a point to ponder. We tell ourselves we need time to write, but is it time we need, or is it motivation, self-discipline, and drive?

For my own part, if I’m honest, it’s the latter. Thank you for the reminder, “Mr. Herriot”!

Guest Post at SRAS’ Art in Russia Website

My final article for SRAS’ Summer 2013 program is posted!  You can read it here:

Program Review: Art and Museums in Russia

I’m very excited about everything I learned while I was there, and excited to carry these experiences and this inspiration forward – in my academics, my creative life, and my personal life.  It’s been an amazing summer, and I’ve still got a month to do more awesome stuff with myself before I stuff my brain full of more awesomeness this school year!  Woot!

When I Go to Russia….

For half my life now, I’ve wanted to go to Russia.  In less than a month, I’ll be heading to St. Petersburg for a four-week program on museum studies and the history of Russian art.  The first question most people ask me when I tell them I’m learning Russian is, “Why Russian?”  I find this question incredibly irritating (I’ve never heard anybody question why any other language) but that’s a rant I don’t need to get into here and now….

Anyway, the answer is, because I love Russian literature.  It’s what got me started being interested in Russia, starting with Dostoevsky and expanding to Lermentov, Bulgakov, Chekov, Gogol, Pushkin, and Turgenev.  No, I’ve never managed to really get into Tolstoy, in case you’re wondering.  And though Dostoevsky and I disagree on some major philosophical points, he remains one of my all-time favorite authors.  His ability to make thoroughly despicable people into heartbreakingly sympathetic characters and his intense portrayal of the fragility, beauty, and horror of the human psyche at the height of his literary career is impressive in itself, but his growth and change as an author is possibly even more admirable.  In his early works, he writes like an awkward, dreamy young man (not unlike many of his early narrators).  After his arrest, mock-execution, and exile, his writing flourishes – all his early skill with writing beautifully-crafted words from the heart bursts out of his dream-state youth into full awareness of the realities around him, and his full strength as a writer, as a social commentator, as an observer of human behavior, finally came through.

As a writer, I find the intensity of his development inspiring.  I can’t say that I ever want to experience a last-minute pardon from execution or a decade’s imprisonment in Siberia, but I can say that I hope that any difficult, frightening, awful times in my own life (because, let’s face it, everybody experiences some hard times) will push my writing to new levels, open me up to new and profound possibilities, and strengthen my creativity into something with real power behind it.  A good writer is a nice thing to be, but to be a great writer takes not just ability, but growth.

The Dostoevsky Museum isn’t on my program’s list of sites, but I’ll definitely go on my own to see it, and his grave site nearby.  I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say about that visit when the time comes!