• Difficult Lessons: Remembering Andrei Bitov (1937-2018)

    Andrei Bitov loved fools. Which other kind of heroes would allow a writer of his insightfulness to deconstruct not only the Soviet system’s contradictions but also more general human follies? He did not appreciate the violence that can stem from foolhardiness and faith in twisted ideals, but he loved the everyday kind of fool. The fool who cannot see beyond his nose, yet believes firmly and with absolute certainty in the objectivity of his knowledge.

    The source of this theme has its roots in his biography. Bitov, who died a week ago in Moscow, was born on May 27, 1937, in Leningrad. While studying at the Leningrad Mining Institute in the late 1950s, he began writing after joining the poet Gleb Semenov’s famed literary circle there. Bitov would soon go on to develop his own particular style, a curious mix of intensely psychological portraiture and postmodern structural and stylistic playfulness. By 1965 he was a published author, a member of the Union of Soviet Writers, and one of the forerunners of the Youth Prose movement, a group of writers who contributed to the magazine Iunost’ (Youth) and whose heroes sought freedom in a corrupt and all-consuming system.

    The publication of his most well-known novel, Pushkin House, in America by Ardis in 1978 and his participation in the almanac Metropol, which its contributors did not provide to state censors in advance, in 1979 led to a decade-long ban on his works. Unlike many of his peers, however, he did not seek refuge in emigration. The advent of glasnost’ permitted his reentry into the Russian literary sphere, and since the fall of the USSR, Bitov became a major cultural figure, amassing numerous major prizes both abroad and at home and founding the Russian branch of the PEN Club in 1988, of which he became president in 1991.

    Bitov thus came of age in an uncertain era. Born at the height of the Great Purge, his generation witnessed both the end of Stalinism 20 years later and of Communism in Russia another 35 years after. He felt the shock of these changes and in the process came to understand the relativity of cultural values. What was permissible one day could just as easily disappear the next day. The reverse also held true: with perestroika and glasnost’ came a wave of writers who had never been published in the Soviet Union. Suddenly Bitov became a contemporary of Vladimir Nabokov and James Joyce alike, competing with them on the newly revamped Russian literary market.

    Even before these dramatic shifts, however, Bitov diagnosed his generation’s precarious position, perhaps better than many of his contemporaries. They had been stripped of access to entire swaths of both western and Russian culture deemed dangerous by the regime. As such, any real understanding of history was severely limited.

    This theme — that of the fool who mistakes his incomplete perspective for objective knowledge — came to define much of Bitov’s work. His masterpiece Pushkin House takes up this dilemma head-on. It attempts to tell the story of Leva Odoevtsev, a young Soviet intellectual. After devoting the first third of the book to Leva’s early years and his relationships with family members, Bitov turns the narrative back on itself, revisiting early moments in Leva’s life but now focusing on his friends and girlfriends. The effect is dizzying — a kind of Cubist kaleidoscope that allows the reader to see Bitov’s hero from multiple perspectives. The ending is no less surprising, as Leva dies in a duel with his frenemy Mitishat’ev over the honor of Russia’s greatest poet, the eponymous Alexander Pushkin. Pages later, though, he is “resurrected” in an acknowledgement of the flexibility of fiction’s artifice.

    One of Leva’s early encounters with the unknown comes in the form of a visit to his recently rehabilitated grandfather, Modest Platonovich. In one of the greatest drinking binges of Russian literature, the latter explains to Leva the essence of his generation’s folly: “It seems to you that you’re spiritual and therefore free. But even your protest and your courage and your freedom are measured out to you, as if by ration cards. As a chorus, you all discuss the bones they fling to you from above. … The idea of your dependence is beyond you.” (All translations are my own.) Modest Platonovich, in other words, excoriates Leva for believing that any of his minor acts of rebellion have not already been considered and tacitly approved by the state system. Pushkin House in this way gave voice to the greatest challenge faced by Russian writers of the mid-century: how to make sense of the world when only a fraction of that world is available to you.

    Elsewhere, in the novella Birds, Bitov’s semi-autobiographical narrator visits a research station at which biologists study avian migration patterns. There, he considers a photograph of an ecologist depicted on a magazine cover:

    The priest of science is illuminated by fluorescent light; he looks profoundly at something he supposedly has some knowledge of, while we have no clue. … And really, why does he make such a knowing expression in the photo on the universal cover? A true scientist’s expression (according to my naïve conception) should be frightened, shocked, confused. For he knows everything in his field that was known until now, until this day, until this second—but he knows nothing further. … So why did he stand frozen in the photograph with that face, as if he has some clue about what’s there, beyond, in the next moment? … For he is in the dark, he should have the inspired face of a blind man, a Bruegelesque blind man falling into a hole…

    He rejects the clichéd pensive face of the scientist at work in favor of the unknown, the moments of panicked uncertainty that lead innovators to entirely new arenas.

    Something similar takes place in Bitov’s brilliant travelogues, Lessons of Armenia and A Georgian Album. The largely autobiographical narrator presents his account of his travels through the Caucasus, but at each turn, he stumbles. He recognizes that he cannot understand (“translate”) everything that he sees into flashy prose vignettes. On a further level, Bitov deconstructs the Soviet imperialist attitude typical of many travel accounts of the era. The hero bares his folly for the world to see. (Incidentally, upon Bitov’s death, both Armenia’s current president and acting prime minister sent letters of condolences and praised his travelogue.)

    And so, reading Bitov becomes a process of unlearning. If Pushkin’s poetry, as Nabokov puts it, expands his reader’s lungs, then Bitov’s prose causes the reader’s eyes to dilate, to peek into the corners of the world that they didn’t know existed. It is no coincidence that a number of his works feature an education theme, whether explicitly or implicitly: Pushkin House, Lessons of Armenia, his final novel, The Symmetry Teacher. He helps make clear just how little we know — as readers, as teachers, as individuals. He unmasks the pretensions we all hold. But rather than fear the abyss that opens up when we acknowledge our limitations, Bitov suggests we should embrace it. Instead of deluding oneself for the sake of convenience or self-preservation, Bitov advocates owning up to delusions of grandeur and unpleasant realities. If all this makes the writer sound pedantic, then it bears emphasizing that his art is subtler than that. Lest we forget, in a move that brings to mind his fellow Petersburger Dostoevsky, he places some of Pushkin House’s sharpest criticisms in the mouth of a vicious, if dazzling, drunk.

    As others have noted, it would be difficult to say that a Bitovian school of post-Soviet literature has developed, despite the major praise bestowed upon him by writers and critics alike. This curious situation might be explained by his peculiar writerly habits, which prevent a single stable image of Bitov as paterfamilias to emerge. Never content to settle into one form or method, he constantly recycled and repurposed his texts by incorporating heroes from one story into another or by recombining stories to formulate new collections. Much as Leva’s biography is reset at least twice in Pushkin House, he constantly reframed his art, giving it new life in the process.

    His passion for experimentation can likewise be felt in the sheer diversity of subject matter he took up. From the early works that explore the minds of young men grappling with burgeoning sexuality and the Soviet mentality to his later experimental works, Bitov evinced an eagerness to test new ground. “Pushkin’s Photograph,” in which a group of scholars sends a young colleague back in time to capture the father of Russian poetry on tape and film, plays with science fiction tropes. The Symmetry Teacher’s “View of the Trojan Sky,” which is part of a novel-within-a-novel purportedly half-translated and half-recalled by Bitov years after a chance reading, in turn playfully reverses the stakes of “Pushkin’s Photograph.” Here, a photograph from the future torments the protagonist, the writer Urbino Vanoski.

    This diversity also speaks to his desire to always reach into the abyss. Only by testing the limits of one’s prose, Bitov seems to suggest, can one understand what one hopes to say. The very process of writing generated meaning, as if he did not know where he was headed while composing. This tendency is partly what lends his many stories and books a sense that things are just slightly off.

    Although Bitov’s ultimate canonization is all but inevitable, he may have resisted such a prediction; he was, after all, an author whose writing aims to destabilize hierarchies and traditions. Nonetheless, it seems as if many of Bitov’s lessons have yet to be unraveled.