Young Soviet Writers About Themselves


Respond to a questionnaire circulated in 1962 by the magazine
Voprosi Literaturi (Problems of Literature).


1. What experience of life did you have before you took up writing? When and where were your first works published?

2. What problems, characters and conflicts in the modern world do you consider topical? How do you study life? How do you gather material for your works?

3. What do you consider to be the writer's responsibilities in the process of forming new, communist qualities in society?

4. Which traditions in classical and modern literature do you respect? What experiments in the field of literary form do you consider the most promising?

5. Who of the writers of the older generation gave you professional help and what form did it take?

6. What are your creative plans for the near future?

Vasili AKSYONOV, 30
Russian prose writer

1. I hold a medical degree and have practiced as a doctor for four years after college. So I can say that my path to literature was fairly natural, the doctor-author being a traditional figure in Russian literature.

I don't think a spell of work in some other profession is essential for a writer. What is more important is that he should have obtained some spiritual experience. However, there's no harm in his having had both.

I began to write prose when I was at college and was a member of a literary youth club in the Petrograd district of Leningrad. My first short stories were published in Yunost (Youth) in 1959. Just a year later the same magazine published my short novel Colleagues and in 1961 my novel Star Ticket.

2. I don't approach life as something to be "studied." The study of life is an unconscious process. People about whom you intend to write later at once put up their guard when they feel you are studying them. I try to make myself one of them. That isn't always easy because I consider it not quite playing the game to conceal the fact that you are a writer. Of course, it's very helpful to visit different parts of the country. Our country, thank God, is big.

I am still interested in the process of the formation of character of our Soviet youth. More recently I have grown interested in what goes on in characters that are already mature.

One of the most important problems of modern times is, I consider, how to overcome the inertia of the "cult of personality" in the life of society and in people's souls.

I think that the relationship between science and life is an extremely important problem. The spiritual life of the new technical intelligentsia--isn't that interesting?

And there conflicts lie ready-made. You don't have to invent them.

3. Bearing in mind the educative role of literature, the writer must avoid like the plague any moralizing or didacticism.

Life, for all that, is probably a better teacher than literature.

The unequivocal adherence to the truth of life--that is the operative law of the writer's participation in the formation of the man of the Future.

4. The traditions of Russian classical literature, the traditions of Tolstoy and Chekhov. I am enormously interested in Soviet literature of the twenties and early thirties. Reading Babel and Andrei Platonov--that is a good school.

Hemingway, Faulkner, Boll, Salinger--that too is a first-rate school, apart from the pleasure you get from reading their books.

Experiments in form should, I think, go on in all directions. Failures and blunders are unavoidable in experiments but in the long run progress in literature is inevitable.

I think about form when I'm not writing. When I write I don't think about it. Somehow things work out by themselves.

5. Valentin Katayev, as editor of Yunost, read the manuscript of my first short novel Colleagues. He picked to pieces the first third of the book. That part of the book really was very bad. I rewrote it. I'm going to keep the manuscript with Katayev's cutting remarks in the margins for the rest of my life. I am keeping the favorable comments too.

6. I have just finished a new novel: Oranges from Morocco. It's about young people in the Far East.

I've sent to Soviet Writer Publishing House a collection of stories, some of which have not been previously published. I'm thinking of writing a satirical play in which I want to show an individualist adapting himself to the realities of our life today. My next novel will probably be about scientists, and about the small Siberian town where they live.

Vasili BYKOV, 38
Byelorussian prose writer

1. Four years on active service. Ten years in the army after the war, in the Ukraine, Byelorussia, the Far East.

2. The same problems that have always been topical--the problems of the truth of a work of art and of the sincerity of the author. For that reason I consider as really topical true-to-life characters who aren't invented or "assembled" but are taken directly from life with all their human complexities.

3. To expose evil in all its forms and depict the goodness that is to be seen above all in the greatness of human spirit.

4. The traditions of critical realism, I think. (The second part of this question seems to me rather unimportant: form has no independent, decisive meaning. The thing is to be honest, true to life and artistic.)

5. The best help I have received from writers of the older generation has, it seems to me, been given in the form of their books. And in this connection I'd like to mention Alexander Fadeyev's The Rout , Mikhail Sholokhov's And Quiet Flows the Don, Victor Nekrasov's In the Trenches of Stalingrad and also the books of some authors of my own generation--Grigori Baklanov, Yuri Bondarev, Emmanuil Kazakevich, though I began to write considerably later than they did.

6. Subjects drawn from the last war, for in it are to be found many principles that are applicable to our days and will be valid in the future.

Russian poet

1. I am a graduate of the Moscow Institute of Architecture. I do a lot of painting. I think the best way of acquiring experience of life is to live. And that is what I did before I took up writing. My first poems to be published appeared in 1958, in Literaturnaya Gazeta.

2-3. The main problem of contemporary literature is to look deep into man's mind, into the interior of his soul.

Communism comes through the heart. And the heart belongs to the realm of poetry.

4. I don't think it profits a writer to feel any affinity with his literary predecessors. "Incest" leads to degeneration. Andrei Rublev, Joan Miro and the later Le Corbusier gave me more than Byron.

In poetry as in architecture technical skill has reached a high level.

You can build a house on the point of a needle. People have had enough of rhyme. Every sixteen-year-old schoolboy can rhyme brilliantly. In our poetry the future lies with associations. Metaphorism reflects the interdependence of phenomena, their mutual transformation.

However, the point is not form. Form ought to be clear, boundlessly restless and charged with profound meaning, like the sky in which only a radio locator can detect the presence of a plane.

5. Boris Pasternak. He was the only poet to whom, from my school-days onwards, I showed my poems.

6. Poetry is an improvisation. You don't plan it.

Ivan DRATCH, 26
Ukrainian poet

1. I like to make people face the sun. At first their eyes ache a little but then how much it improves their vision. The world becomes dearer, more familiar, more palpable. I like to make people face the sun of art. I have discovered it in the sky of life some time ago but only recently have I begun to understand it.

I was born in 1936. My experience of life: school, a teacher of the Russian language and literature; then an instructor in a district Komsomol committee, military service in the sappers, the university.

My first poems worthy of the name were published in a local paper called the Leninist Banner.

2-3. I am worried about the pessimistic mood and skepticism of a section of the youth of my generation. The writer must help people understand the reasons for that depressing condition and assist them to overcome it. He ought to take the offensive against the inertia of those sad times of the past connected with the cult of Stalin, an inertia still to be found in many fields of our life. He should help to get rid once and for all of the fashionable influence of the Weltschmerz, the pessimism of West-European youth.

Very important too for me are problems of national development. The only solution here lies in the fraternal union of the Soviet socialist nations, in a true understanding of Lenin's teachings on the nationalities question. Sometimes it is annoying and shameful to find things like nihilistic moods, disrespectful of national susceptibilities, or--what is just as bad--a narrow-mindedness that reeks of nationalism. A correct understanding of the national question is necessary in art too: it must never be forgotten that a tree can grow only in its native soil, draw sustenance only from its native sap; only then can it support the wide international sky on its green shoulders.

4. I love Ukrainian literature--from Taras Shevchenko to Ivan Franko and Lesya Ukrainka--it is a very democratic literature. Vasil Stefanik, one of the most interesting and profound Ukrainian writers of the 20th century, taught me to look hard into the human soul.

I find it difficult to imagine my inner world without Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Garcia Lorca and Hemingway, the early Tychina and Blok, Rylsky, Dovzhenko and Fellini. But I think the strongest influence on my artistic perception and understanding of the world has come from the artists Vrubel, Picasso and Ciurlionis and from that giant of talent--composer Sergei Prokofiev.

They teach me to undertake big things and not to borrow ready-made ideas. If you are an artist, then create new worlds, make your own universe with its own suns and galaxies.

5. If I am to speak of the help I have received from writers of the older generation then I can say that most of it has come in the form of well-wishing or passing critical remarks. One reads with envy, for example, of the severe, exacting and benevolent attitude of Flaubert to the young Maupassant.

6. At present I am working on a poem called In the Golden Dawn, on a film scenario The Year of Birth 1937 and on poetic variations on the theme of the works of Taras Shevchenko and folk songs.

Russian poet

1. In the first place we must define what is meant by "experience of life." I take that phrase to mean not external events in a man's life but the refraction of those events in his psychology.

Before I started writing I had seen a good deal the war, work on a collective farm, timber-rafting and going on geological prospecting expeditions. I thought I had acquired some experience of life. My first book, Prospectors of the Future, published in a light-blue cover to match the contents, was full of self-confidence. However, real experience of life came later when life taught me my first lessons in suffering, doubts about myself and disillusion in many other people.

Incidentally, maturity is often conditioned by the number of mistakes one makes about others. But, of course, there is much more to it than that. Maturity is also the ability to see the good in others and to fight for that good. That is why I have remained an optimist.

But my optimism is no longer light-blue or rosy. It is made up of all the colors of the spectrum, including black.

For that reason I must say that my real experience of life did not precede my literary work but came somewhat belatedly in its wake.

My very first poems were published in the paper Sovietsky Sport, in 1949. They were a comparative analysis of the ethics of American and Soviet athletes. They had only a vague connection with poetry. The only thing I can say to justify them is that I was very young then and that I was most eager to get into print.

2. The word "topical" has been so compromised by some crude critics that I prefer to substitute for it the simple Russian word "daily" as it is employed in the phrase "our daily bread." For me everything is "daily" or, if you like, vital, that can be defined briefly and universally as life. It isn't enough to limit oneself to the phrase "to study life." I haven't studied life with a sort of microscope; I've simply lived. Sometimes I have written poems which, incidentally, I include in the idea of "having simply lived."

3. I think of communism as a sort of symbolic state where the president will be Truth, served by two ministers, Gentleness and Strictness. In my view, those two ministers will be enough.

The writer, then, ought to be the prototype of a communist state of that nature. In the first place, he must be gentle in his attitude to people, he must love them and understand them. But he must be something else too: he must be implacably strict both towards his own failings and towards those of others. However, I'd like to say that an author has the right to be merciless and severe with people only if he knows how to treat them gently too.

4. I try to learn from everybody--even from minor writers. Some writers exist, perhaps, only to write a single line which can prove useful to us. That more than justifies their existence.

I shall be happy if but one of my lines helps someone of a later generation.

If one is to speak about experiments in the field of artistic form I must say with genuine regret that I have paid insufficient attention to this. The opinion that I seem to have invented something in this field is exaggerated. But I follow with joyful envy the formal experiments that others make.

Unfortunately, up till now there is no estimation of the contribution that Semyon Kirsanov has made to the development of poetic form. The same is true of Andrei Voznesensky's contribution to the development of poetry. But formal experiment must never become a fetish. I once said to a poet, expressing myself in musical terms:

"In your poetry there is too much of the Ride of the Valkyries and too little of Solveig's Song...."

The poet, happily, was not hurt and, it seems, understood what I meant.

If, as the result of piling up the most brilliant rhymes and dazzling metaphors, the delicate springlike innocence is lost then poetry forfeits is axiomatic property the power of touching the human heart.

In conducting formal experiments it is not enough to be bold, one must be careful. It is just as rash to deny all the achievements of one's literary forebears as it is to follow them blindly. As for myself I take the risk of sounding eclectic by saying that I would like to combine in my poetry some of the characteristic features of Mayakovsky, Blok, Esenin and Pasternak. How far I shall succeed I naturally don't know.

5. The greatest professional help that an older writer can give is the exacting and gentle eye that he turns on the work of young writers.

I constantly feel on myself the attentive, benevolent eyes of poets as different from each other as Pasternak and Zabolotsky, Lugovskoy and Kirsanov, Antokolsky and Simon Chikovani. Some of these poets are no longer alive but nevertheless I feel their gaze on me.

A strong influence on my poetry was exercised by what Alexander Mezhirov accomplished, but more strongly I was influenced by what he did not accomplish. The bias and captiousness of Yaroslav Smelyakov and Alexander Tvardovsky in their talks with me were also extraordinarily valuable although I cannot agree with many of their opinions.

6. To live!

Yuri KAZAKOV, 35
Russian prose writer

1. My experience of life is probably that of most of my generation. In my childhood and youth--war, a gloomy, hungry life and then study, work and again study.... In short a not particularly rich experience.

But I am inclined to give preference to my "inner biography." For a writer that is particularly important. A man with a rich inner life can rise to the task of expressing his time in his writings though his life may be lacking in outward events. That, for instance, was the case of Alexander Blok.

My writing began to appear in print in 1952. The first work was a one-act play, The New Lathe, published in an anthology.

2. I have not yet chosen any special problem. It seems to me that any author who has the audacity to enroll himself in real literature is concerned for all his life with one and the same set of problems.

Happiness and its roots, suffering and the overcoming of suffering, moral responsibility to the people, love, understanding of oneself, attitude to work, the tenacity of base instincts--those are some of the problems I take an interest in.

I am constantly meeting these problems in various forms in the works of all our most gifted writers of prose and poetry.

I make no special study of life and I don't collect material except in those cases when I am given a special assignment by my editors.

Generally speaking, I don't understand the term: "the study of life." You can understand life, you can meditate on life, but you cannot "study" life--all you can do is to live.

I travel a great deal and after each trip I have one or two stories to tell sometimes quite a long time after I've returned.

This doesn't depend on any plan.

3. I do not think literature has an immediate and direct effect on the life of a man and on his ethics. As an example you could take many unfair, slovenly critics who, of course, have read Tolstoy, Chekhov and Hemingway--read them but without learning a thing.

All the same, I believe in the educative power of literature. And I think a writer who spends all his life advocating the goodness, truth and beauty of man does raise the moral qualities of his contemporaries and successors, those of them, of course, who are willing to read and think over what they have read. How profound are the qualitative changes that take place in human nature under the influence of literature I do not venture to judge. It probably varies with everyone.

What is important though, is that the writer should perfect his own moral qualities. Then he will have the right to teach others something. A low spiritual level in a writer inexorably shows in his books. And such books either bore or sadden the reader. And sometimes make him feel ashamed.

4. The tradition of being honest to oneself and to the reader.

As for experiment, the form should serve the idea. And the most fruitful are those experiments where the researcher is trying to express his idea in the fullest and most powerful way.

Generally speaking, every experimenter, if he has talent, arrives in the long run at simplicity.

5. Konstantin Paustovsky wrote to me some four years ago an absolutely wonderful letter. Besides, I heard and read many kind words about myself from Vera Panova, Yefim Dorosh, Victor Shklovsky, Evgeni Evtushenko, Ilya Ehrenburg, Mikhail Svetlov, Victor Konetsky.... I need not mention how much kindness I received from the late Nikolai Zamoshkin in whose seminar I studied for five years.

And I remember well those encouraging words and feel happy that I had such gifted tutors. I am grateful to them.

6. With trepidation and hope I am now starting an anti-war novel. That, by the way, is an important problem, perhaps the most important one today and it is painful to think that one might write about it with insufficient strength.

How I want to write about it honestly and powerfully!

Lithuanian poet

1. The first vivid and complicated experience of life that I had was associated with were the years I spent after the war in the countryside, a period full of drama and very profound class conflicts in Lithuania. It would require more than one life to analyze such an experience, for history was being made before my eyes.

My first poems to appear in print were published in 1953 in the Lithuanian magazine Jaunimo Gretas (The Ranks of Youth).

2. In my opinion the most topical problem of our days is the problem of humanism. Characters and conflicts are topical only insofar as they are connected with the problem of humanism and with its solution.

The study of life? There are two lives: the life that goes on around me and the life within me. You cannot study either of them separately. Surely, every day you live is a synthesis of those two lives, experience and material for the writer. For that reason I say that to study life means to live.

3. The responsibilities of the writer consist above all in cultivating and fostering the humanistic qualities in man. The conscious, beautiful and active man. And in the realm of aesthetics to develop his taste, his aesthetic ideals, his sense of beauty.

4. I understand and accept all progressive and innovatory traditions. Innovatory in their time, I mean. But I cannot live without contemporary literature in the full sense of the term. I make no secret of the fact that I find it much more interesting to understand the present rather than the past.

It is difficult to speak about formal experiments in a general sense, for they don't exist in the abstract. One must always speak concretely, having in mind this or that work, this or that trend in the literary process. In new (and young) Soviet poetry I see a tendency leading to the associative method of thought and expression, to the growth of metaphors. I think that poets' experiments in that field are very promising.

Big and difficult trials on the path of searching for new forms are awaiting prose, too, especially the novel. I am convinced that the modern novel will travel the same road as poetry. And the faster the better.

5. Everyone and no one. Everyone, because I cannot imagine myself without the older generation of writers. And they have helped and still help me with their works. Only in that way do I understand the professional help that one writer can give another.

6. This year I hope to prepare a new volume of poetry. My strongest wish is to complete a trilogy done in various genres: a poem, a novel and a play. The play has still to be written.

Anatoli PRISTAVKIN, 31
Russian prose writer

1. This was my experience: dozens of children's homes, years of vagrancy over the face of Russia during the war, a job in a canning factory at the age of twelve, then in an aircraft factory, a wireless operator at an aerodrome and so on until my military service started. Perhaps that is why my characters are either former inmates of children's homes or people who began working at an early age. My poems were printed in various newspapers and anthologies from 1952 onwards but I consider that my literary career began in 1959 when Yunost published my first sketches.

2. Each generation has its main tasks. Every person who shuns that principal task finds himself on the fringe of life. We are first and foremost the representatives of our own generation, our task is to see the main thing and to write about it. The scale of a writer is formed by three factors--his talent, his civic or human qualities, and his correct understanding of the tasks that face the generation he belongs to. As concerns the latter, I am firmly of the opinion that one must live with one's generation, not merely visit it on a special assignment but live with it, that is, experience all its difficulties, and its joys. That is fully within the realm of possibility for young writers, and some do it. I too try to do it.

3. I see here two sides of one and the same thing. The formation of the man of the future is impossible without struggling against what hinders the process. At present that means, no doubt, struggling against the vestiges of the "cult of personality." The "cult" engendered not only bad methods of leadership but brought with it indifference, bureaucracy and the degradation of the human personality. Probably the most grievous thing we had to experience in those years was the oblivion of the main thing in life: everything we do should be done for man. From a match-box to the Bratsk Power Station, everything is for him, for the man of today, our own kin, our living contemporary. In my opinion, communism is not only a society of abundance, it is something loftier, a society of great respect for the human personality. The writer is obliged to help bringing to the fore everything that serves that cause.

4. Strange to say, my first prose was strongly influenced by lyrical poetry. But Gorky is vitally dear to me and I found it more difficult not to be true to him than to myself. I return more and more frequently to the prose of Tolstoy and Chekhov too and sometimes it seems to me that it is not in departing from them but, on the contrary, returning to them at a new stage, to their power of profound analysis, to the dialectics of psychology which so many scorn, that true innovation is to be found today. In general I am fond of the lyrical, diary form, for it provides scope and opportunities for unaffected expression; I consider it one of the most promising forms which reaches with ease the heart of the reader. In this I include sketches too. I recognize any form if it enables one to use modern means to attain a truthful representation.

5. My instructor in the seminar at the Literary Institute was the poet Lev Oshanin to whom I owe much in my development. My other "teachers" were the editors of Literaturnaya Gazeta. But I feel a latent resentment towards the older generation of writers in general. I know from what I have read that the writer Grigorovich, having read the first stories written by the young Chekhov sent him a friendly letter. I know that Gorky of his own free will sent his good wishes to many of the living writers of the older generation. I swear that neither I nor many of my writer friends received any such letters on their successful debuts in literature. And we who are often working in the dark, sometimes find a few warm words indispensable. We don't want to hear them from the platform, nor at a section meeting of the Writers Union, we want to hear them in a way as was done by Gorky, the kind and understanding man. After all, they are something like plant food for plants, they could make us work twice as hard and grow proportionally.

6. I am writing a book about the beauty of nature, about sunrises, about fishing, about wild strawberries and cream and all kinds of very tender green and blue things. I have dreamed for years about that book, I've collected notes, tales and impressions and have told no one about my intoxication with the beauty of the earth when I wandered over its surface with a rucksack and a tent.

My plans for the near future are to write a novel about my generation. I want to speak at last about the main thing I saw and understood during the several years I lived at Bratsk. After that I'm going to spend another long spell at some construction site. So that I can live and work with those about whom and for whom I write.

Translated by Ralph Parker

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