Outside Looking In — Just the Way He Wanted It
In the Great Russian Literary Tradition of Alienation and Marginalism,
Friedrich Gorenstein’s Death May Give Him the Status He Was Denied in Life
Courtesy: MIKHAIL KRUTIKOV
The name Friedrich Gorenstein, the Kiev-born author who died March 2 in Berlin at the age of 70, rings few bells in the English-speaking world outside the small circle of aficionados of contemporary Russian prose. Small wonder: During his life Gorenstein cultivated his status as an outsider, positioning himself outside both official Soviet culture and the dissident anti-communist camp.
This image, partly self-inflicted, partly impressed upon him by a hostile environment, had roots in the writer’s homeless childhood. His father, an Austrian communist who immigrated to the Soviet Union to become a professor of political economy in Kiev, was arrested in 1934 and never heard from again. From the age of 3 Friedrich accompanied his mother, a teacher of children with mental and behavioral problems, in her peregrinations around the country as she tried to avoid arrest by Stalin’s security police for being the wife of an “enemy of the people.” She apparently froze to death on a freight train in the severe winter of 1941, running away from the advancing German army. Her son grew up in orphanages, became a manual worker at the age of 16 and eventually graduated from a college of mining engineers in 1953. He worked in mines and the construction industry until 1961, when he was admitted to the prestigious screenwriters’ course at the Moscow Institute of Literature. For the next two decades, Gorenstein made his living writing for Russian films and television — his greatest achievement being the film “Solaris” (1972), a philosophical parable disguised as science fiction, directed by the noted Russian director Andrei Tarkovski.
But Gorenstein was not satisfied with his work in the film industry; not only were just five of his 16 scripts actually produced, but it was the word, not the image, that he truly valued. He established his reputation as a writer with his only Soviet publication, the early autobiographical novella “A Building with a Little Tower” (1964), made possible because of the relatively liberal ideological climate of the time. From the mid-1970s his fiction began to appear regularly in various émigré Russian publications in Israel, Germany and the United States. In 1980, following his participation in the samizdat literary almanac Metropol, he was forced to leave the Soviet Union and thereafter lived in West Berlin, supporting himself from books published in German and French as well as from a German victims’ pension.
Gorenstein was “rediscovered” in post-communist Russia and even became a literary celebrity after the publication of three volumes of his selected works in Moscow in the early 1990s. However, his popularity proved short-lived, and until recently some of his major works were available only in foreign editions, most of which were issued by the small New York-based Russian press Slovo/Word. Not only his contentious political views but also his iconoclastic literary tastes, which he flaunted in articles and interviews, contributed to his alienation from the mainstream of Russian cultural life.
Yet despite his marginality — or perhaps because of it — Gorenstein always felt himself part and parcel of the great Russian literary tradition. His attitude to that tradition is different from that of his celebrated Russian-Jewish literary precursors, Isaac Babel and Vasily Grossman. Whereas Babel tried to have his Soviet cake and eat it, too, by inscribing himself into the new Soviet ideological and stylistic idiom and preserving his autonomy as a Jewish artist — a delicate position which sometimes led him to ambiguity if not compromise — Gorenstein was always a staunch opponent of all forms of totalitarianism and antisemitism.
Like Babel, he was attuned to the nuances of Russian-Jewish idiom, but he was also able to elevate this “Jewspeak” from the level of melodramatic ethnography to the philosophical heights of classic Russian literary discourse. He was less reverential toward the grand narrative of Russian literature than Grossman, whose magisterial novel “Life and Fate” was a successful 20th-century recreation of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” From his carefully articulated position as a provincial Jew, Gorenstein relentlessly challenged Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, both of whom he denigrated as ideological writers. Yet like his great predecessors, Gorenstein wrestled with the big questions of Russian literature: the nature of evil, the destiny of Russia and its people, the alienation of the “little man” from the society. His closest literary precursor was Anton Chekhov, who also tended toward the parochial and ordinary.
It may be that Gorenstein’s significance as a writer and a thinker will become evident gradually, as his self-imposed image of a literary provocateur and intellectual anarchist fades and more of his works filter into readers’ consciousness. He left a large and diverse legacy: one unfinished and six finished novels, dozens of novellas, short stories, plays and film scripts, as well as numerous articles, essays and pamphlets. He wrote biographical and historical novels, dramas, science fiction and metaphysical parables, but his greatest achievement remains the realistic fiction based on his own life experience, such as the novella “Travel Companions” (1989), his only book published so far in English.
On a local train that slowly progresses through the peaceful Ukrainian countryside in that book, the Jewish narrator, a successful Moscow writer and journalist, listens to the life story told by his travel companion, a Ukrainian village invalid who survived the horrors of collectivization, hunger, German occupation and Soviet prison. In this modern replay of Sholom Aleichem’s “Railroad Stories” the motifs of displacement and chaos reach truly macabre dimensions that are offset by the tranquil beauty of the cross-country landscape — “abundant in natural grave spots, which facilitate the technology of mass executions and burials,” as the narrator dryly observes.
The train’s route runs through Berdichev, once a thriving Jewish commercial town and the setting of many classical Yiddish novels beginning with the books of Mendele Moykher-Sforim. In Gorenstein’s fictional universe Berdichev also occupies a special place as the symbol of Jewish homelessness, “a ghost-town, a town which is dispersed over the country and the entire world, a town populated by people who may have never set their foot on Berdichev streets: a Moscow professor, a New Yorkyer, a Paris artist.” “Berdichev” is also the title of Gorenstein’s most Jewish work, an unsentimental play about the life of Soviet Jews in the wake of the Holocaust, which he defined as “a drama is three acts, eight scenes and 92 scandals” (1975).
The writer’s most ambitious work is “The Psalm” (1981), subtitled “a novel-meditation about four of God’s punishments.” This 450-page novel-parable tells the story of the antichrist, disguised as an ordinary Jew visiting Russia in the 20th century. The book caused an uproar among nationalist and Christian intelligentsia in Russia, including Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who took it as a Jewish attack on Christianity. Gorenstein’s antichrist is the last biblical prophet who is sent to test Christianity against its own moral foundations, ultimately accusing Christianity of producing the demonic forces of communism and fascism that hold Holy Russia and Christian Europe in thrall. The controversial religious component of the novel may indeed be disturbing for a reader accustomed to a culture of political correctness, but there is no gainsaying its outstanding artistic power.
Suffering from cancer during his last year, Gorenstein continued working on his play about Hitler, in which he wanted to trace the character’s development from a “nasty petty demon” to the “evil genius of mankind.” He spent his last months in a small and gloomy Berlin apartment located near former S.S. headquarters, surrounded by his family and his beloved cats, whom he named after the characters from “Solaris.”
Mikhail Krutikov is the author of “Yiddish Fiction and the Crisis of Modernity, 1905-1914” (Stanford University, 2001). He last appeared in these pages writing about the memoirs of Alexander Bovin, Russia’s former ambassador to Israel.