Manuscripts don’t burn.
April 5, 2007
I spend the day devoting a lot of thought to samizdat. In a nutshell, samizdat is the word used to describe the grassroots publication process that occurred during Soviet times. The term itself literally means “self-published”. People would pass around manuscripts that did not conform to Soviet standards of writing (such as The Master and Margarita… gee.) As far as I know, printing presses were far and between, and these operations were highly illegal, so these manuscripts were all basically a few copied typed out on typewriters, or mimeographed, or even handwritten. People receiving these were asked to make more copies and continue the distribution.
This subject came to mind during my Central European Lit class today, where it was explained that the book we were reading (The Questionnaire, by Jiri Grusa– a really fabulous Czech book) had initially been published entirely as samizdat. While the term was being explained to the members of the class who do not study matters Slavic, I started thinking about the changes this must have made to the way the recipients of these manuscripts viewed books as physical objects. As far as I can gather, in the most extreme form, these would be printed on extremely flimsy paper, bound with a paperclip or in some other haphazard way. You would get the book for a couple of days and then have to pass it on to your buddy Ivan or Andrei… all keeping this very much on the down-low, of course. If you could make extra copies, that would be great, but vast risks would also be incurred.
It’s interesting to think, coming from an utterly different perspective, how this would have affected your relationship with the book itself. We’re so used to thinking of writing either in terms of bound books, which are solid and dependable, or in terms of things you find on the Internet, which aren’t nearly as tangible, but still instantly accessible. Here, the object itself is so ephemeral, but also it seems that being so rare, and having this whiff of danger about it, these manuscripts would have had a much higher symbolic meaning to the people who managed to get their hands on copies. There’s no real way to replicate this to the fullest today– what with the lack of living under a totalitarian regime, and all that, but I’d love to see an art project designed along these lines, just to see how people would interact with works printed on something this fleeting.
(The title is a famous quote from Master and Margarita. I found it circumstantially fitting.)