Thank You Asya!

Today is International Women’s day and it is a great occasion to celebrate some fantastic women. There is one woman in the history of Russian literature that is hugely influential, yet for some reason often overlooked. She is mentioned in connection to some of the greatest publications of the 1950s and 60s, such as Solzhenitsyn’s One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, many of Grossman’s publications, Dombrovskii’s The Keeper of Antiquities, works of Viktor Nekrasov, Vasil’ Bykov, Vladimir Tendriakov, Fazil’ Iskander and many more… The woman I am talking about was a literary critic and the editor of the literary submissions in Novyi Mir (1958-71),-  Anna Berzer (1917-1994). Novyi Mir was a literary journal that published some of the most challenging works during Khrushchev’s Thaw period in the 1960s USSR.

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I myself came across Anna (or Asya as she was affectionately called) when studying for my PhD. There was always some confusion surrounding my thesis, why did I choose two authors that are so different? Well, as it turns out they have more in common than it seems. One thing they have in common is their close relationship to Anna Berzer. After the publication of For a Just Cause she became very close to Grossman and has written an autobiographical narrative about his last days Farewell (Proshchanie). There, she describes her visits to his hospital bed and how she receives his final novel Everything Flows. She narrates all the details of what was happening in the editorial offices of Novyi mir  and what was said about Grossman at a time when his novel Life and Fate was under “arrest”. It is a unique document from the perspective of the person that was closest to Grossman towards the end of his life.

Equally, her impact on Dombrovskii was immense. It was in great part thanks to her that his novel The Keeper of Antiquities was published at all. She edited the novel into the great work of fiction that we know now. Her skills are impossible to overestimate as it is largely because of her that the novel has such an uncanny feel. It depicts the very feeling of the 1937 terror, yet it withholds it from the reader. This is exactly what she wanted to maintain – the suffocating fear of the terror. When the novel was published Dombrovskii dedicated it to her with the words: “To dear Anna Samoilovna, without whom this novel would certainly not have seen the light of day.With love and gratitude, Dombrovskii.” Even when his novel The Faculty of Useless Knowledge was published abroad in 1978 (as it would have been forbidden in USSR), he also dedicated it to her: “The author dedicates this book to Anna Samoilovna Berzer with profound gratitude on behalf of himself and all others like him.”

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And there were many more like him whom she helped. In an article dedicated to her Inna Borisova explains the tenacity of Anna Berzer. She had no fear, only stamina and determination. If she has received a work of truth then it is her duty to make sure the public hear it. Her commitment was both to the authors and to the world. She was an excellent literary critic and often pointed out that a work needs to be published at the right time. If Fathers and Sons was not published in the 1860s, she used to say, then it would have lost some of its impact. And so, the same can be said for many of the works of 1960s (many of which unfortunately had to wait until 1980s, when they lost some of their impact in wave of publications). This is why she had a sense of urgency and achieved such incredible publications.

Anna Berzer certainly fought for literature and is one of, to my mind, unsung heroes of her time. Bulgakov’s saying that “manuscripts don’t burn” infuriated her. She pointed out that this was said by the devil, and we should never become complacent. Anna Berzer’s role and approach to literature is truly inspiring. Her knowledge and editing skills have created the some of the greatest Russian novels of the 20th Century. To me she is a true hero and I hope we will speak more about her as time goes by.

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Dombrovskii Stories III: How The Ape Came Back To Its Creator

If there is a sense of magic in Dombrovskii’s novels, then there is also a sense of magic in his life. In 1943, after several years of internment in a labour camp, Dombrovskii found himself nearly paralysed and in a hospital bed. There he started writing his novel The Ape Is Coming For Its Skull as a way of escaping his own weakness and anguish. Firstly, just lying on his back, and later sitting up. The novel wasn’t published until 1959, and this is why….

Iurii Dombrovskii lived in Moscow at the time and one day a small Jewish man turns up in his flat carrying a basket. He walks into the kitchen and asks: “Who is Dombrovskii here?” Dombrovskii answers: “Well, I am, why?” The man doesn’t believe him and demands to see his documents. The only documents that Dombrovskii has is his notice of release. The man studies it in detail and once satisfied passes him a bunch of papers from his basket. Dombrovskii is shocked – it is his novel The Ape Is Coming For Its Skull. 

The novel was confiscated from him during his arrest in 1949.

“You see, – the guest says, – I came to Moscow to see my boy. I kept the manuscript at home. I flicked through it and didn’t like it. But I thought, here I am going to Moscow, maybe I should take it to the writer, maybe he is pining for it.”

“Who are you? – Domsbovskii asked.”

“You see, I worked as an archivist for them. They started burning papers and I thought, why should a whole book be burned? I’ll go to see my boy and take it with me…”

Dombrovskii got very excited and did all the could to thank the man, who wasn’t interested in pleasantries was happy to leave.

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This novel could have disappeared to the flames, but as Bulgakov’s Woland says: “Manuscripts do not burn”. The only way that manuscripts are saved are by the acts of individuals, those who not only consider the value of the work but also its value to the person who has written it. The novel was published in 1959 by “Sovetskii Pisatel'” in a revised form. This was an important step for Dombrovskii. The novel depicts the importance of the printed word, and we can be happy that Dombrovskii is not the only one who felt this way.