Bitov’s Pushkin House.

I can’t remember another author with whom I’ve had such a fraught relationship as Andrei Bitov. He was one of the Soviet writers I had never read but for whom I had an anticipatory respect because of what I’d read about them; others were Olesha, Trifonov, Rasputin, and Sokolov. All four of the latter have fully justified that respect (I’ve written posts on them at LH), but Bitov has been a mixed bag. I greatly enjoyed his early short story «Большой шар» [The big balloon], about a little girl who falls in love with a red balloon and against all odds brings it safely home, but his later, longer stories featured an evidently autobiographical protagonist and, as I wrote here, they began to irritate me:

I soon got fed up with his single-minded solipsism. It seemed like every story was about a boy or young man who had an obsessive love for an older woman who showed him amused tolerance, and had endless scenes of the hero walking around (preferably at night) meditating bitterly on his sufferings.

But, as I said there, I reread «Жизнь в ветреную погоду» [Life in Windy Weather] and appreciated it considerably more, and I approached his most famous work, the 1978 novel «Пушкинский дом» [Pushkin House], with great anticipation — it had, after all, been called a “sumptuous masterpiece” and compared to Nabokov. But I found it increasingly hard to get through, and I’m not sure how the fault is to be apportioned between me and the author.

On the very first page, Bitov describes a wind diving down over Leningrad in terms reminiscent of the passage about the wind I quoted here (“The wind forcefully swooped down on his study”), which might have served as a warning that there was going to be a lot of reworking of old themes. The first of the novel’s three sections, “Fathers and Sons” (there are many, many allusions to Russian literature), focuses on Lyova Odoevtsev’s relations with his father and grandfather (both academics, the latter having spent many years in the Gulag) and his Uncle Mitya, known as “Dickens” for his favorite author; there’s plenty of interesting material, but the narration is overlong and overstuffed with details, and there’s an ominous section in italics (called “The Italics are Mine”) that begins “We have always wondered, since our earliest, most spontaneous childhood, where the author was hiding when he spied on the scene that he describes. Where did he so inconspicuously put himself?” The second section, “A Hero of Our Time,” focuses on Lyova’s love life, and surprise, it’s about how he had an obsessive love for an older (married) woman, Faina, while another woman, Albina, has an obsessive love for him and will do anything for him. When he’s desperate for money to do nice things for Faina with, he borrows some from Albina and never repays it. As you can see, he’s not a likable character.

Not that I expect or want my literary protagonists to be likable, far from it! But I want the style to be likable; if I have to see the world through the eyes of Humbert Humbert or Marcel, by God I want the prose to enthrall me, to make me want to reread it and read it aloud. Susan Brownsberger, the translator of the (very nicely produced) Dalkey Archive edition, writes “both syntax and idiom have the exactness of inevitable choice, often determined by a subtle allusion, a play on words, an intricate sound pattern, or an overriding prose rhythm; the novel is as tightly structured as a lyric poem,” which certainly sounds promising. But that’s not what I experienced as I read. Instead, I felt I was listening to a smug, preening academic lecturer whose every sentence was meant to inspire the thought that he was a very clever fellow indeed.

I opened the translation at random and found “If you only knew how little I wished to bring Blank in just now! Too late: he will enter. And Gottich’s been here a long time. I should have thought before — but, from now on, everything happens in only one way, indifferent to any attempt of ours to improve a given situation…” (Blank is an elderly character who shows up for one scene towards the end.) From an earlier page: “Faina, Albina, Mitishatyev — already they’re beginning to flicker, divide, multiply, and disappear. Faina may already be another Faina, not in the sense that she has changed (we have no hope of that), but simply another — a second, a third…” (Mitishatyev is Lyova’s friend/enemy and rival with women.) One of the main features of the novel is postmodern playing with the concept of the author as a character, trying to decide how to write the book. But this was old hat by Bitov’s time; if you’re going to play Pirandello’s game, you’d better be in his league, and this is not — it’s more on the level of a too-smart-for-his-own-good college student regaling his classmates at excessive length with his meditations: “Dude, what if we’re all just characters in a novel?” And the language does not impress me; in fact, I’d tell anyone tempted to try the novel that they’re not missing anything important if they read the translation rather than the original Russian, which is something I very rarely say.

I felt somewhat abashed about all this, because the book’s reputation is very high, and most of the histories of Russian literature I own devote a good deal of space to it, talking about “the problem of late Soviet intelligentsia” and “hegemonic hierarchies” and the “topos of the ‘unfinishable novel,'” which is daunting but impressive. However, Deming Brown, one of the most penetrating and reliable critics and historians of Russian literature I know, even as he discusses Bitov at length and respectfully, keeps saying things like “he has preferred to concentrate on a figure whose mental landscape is close to his own” and “Bitov can be a show-off”; he writes:

In general the writer’s presence is often very prominent in Bitov, and frankly so. He is fond of little authorial asides and of longer digressions in which he complains of his trouble with his plot and characters, poses alternative strategies, and ponders about matters that are only loosely related to, and sometimes remote from, his main narrative.

I don’t mind that sort of thing in Dostoevsky, because the main narrative is so gripping and the prose style is so seductive, and I love it in Godard; here, the digressions and postmodernist thumb-sucking seem to be the main course, and the plot and characters are there just to provide something to digress from. I’m probably being too harsh, and it’s possible I’ll give it another try someday and like it better, but just to provide a sanity check, I asked a couple of Russian friends whose judgments of literature I have come to rely on what they thought of the book, and they didn’t like it either. So I don’t feel too bad about my lack of appreciation. And one of them, Sashura, provided this very enlightening explanation of the word сертификаты [‘certificates’] that appears in a long list of topics of (drunken) conversation:

That would be сертификаты для магазина “Березка”. In those days foreign currency wasn’t allowed inside the Soviet Union, so if you worked abroad you handed in your currency on coming home and got sertifikaty in exchange. (Bank cards and cheques didn’t exist.) Certificates could be used in valyuutny magazin Beriozka to buy some Western goods, and food in a limited number of Beriozkas. Later in the 70s they were called чеки.

Sertifikaty also had different grades, according to the power of the currency they were exchanged for, the ones from socialist and developing countries had stripes of different colours, and the ones exchanged for hard currency had no stripes and were called ‘бесполосый’ or ‘бесполосный сертификат’. Goods in Beriozka were marked, some were not available to buy for striped certificates. And often no change could be had. At the entrance there would be a guard demanding to see if the visitor had certificates.

Often people who had access to certificates sold them or swapped for goods or services. The system obviously was prone to corruption that became rampant towards the end of the 80s. And there were simply too many people with certificates, especially with the war in Afghanistan going, and not enough goods in Beriozkas. At some points there were queues as long as in ordinary shops.

So I got something out of the whole experience; thanks, Sashura!


  1. “One of the main features of the novel is postmodern playing with the concept of the author as a character,”

    We do think of this as non-traditional, but Trollope did it all the time, as did Thackeray, and also Hardy IIRC.

    And here is Beatrix Potter:

    The cat got up and stretched herself, and came and sniffed at the basket.
    Perhaps she liked the smell of onions!
    Anyway, she sat down upon the top of the basket.
    She sat there for FIVE HOURS.
    I cannot draw you a picture of Peter and Benjamin underneath the basket, because it was quite dark, and because the smell of onions was fearful; it made Peter Rabbit and little Benjamin cry.

    I would venture to say that the author as an implicit character is virtually universal in19th century literature, that often the author intrudes explicitly, and it’s only when get to the modern era that the author disappears.

  2. Dmitry Pruss says

    That’s how I earn how the moneyed classes of the USSR lived lol, from the pages of LH. The Beryozkas had glass storefronts covered ceiling to front with draperies, never a chance to peek inside. An apocryphal story described a person who walked in with a stack of 3 ruble bills, since those green banknotes had an inscription that they must be accepted anywhere in the USSR according to their nominal value…

  3. Ah, Sashura wrote me about that too!

    I remember my father telling me how Andrei Sakahrov came to a Beriozka shop without certificates. When guards and sales assistants challenged him, he showed them his rubles, each having a Treasury statement saying ‘обязательны к приему на всей территории СССР, для всех платежей во всех учреждениях…” They called the manager, and he, having recognised Sakharov, who was accompanied by members of foreign press, told them to leave him alone and let him have what he wanted. I don’t know how true the story is but it does look like Sakharov. That would be some time in the 70-s, before his exile to Gorky.

  4. Sakharov himself, apparently, described a very different episode (in this lengthy story about the Beryozkas)

    …. but a compendium of folk legends about Sakharov has it under #2

  5. Dmitry Pruss – the second link is to Denis Dragunsky. His stories, mostly miniatures, are wonderful, and he has a lively page on Facebook with a huge following.

    On Bitov, yes, it’s one of those awkward cases when you feel obliged to say something very clever and praising, if only for fear of being thought of as someone not cultured enough to grasp the greatness of the work.

    On digressions, they could be annoying, as in this case, but there is nothing wrong with them as such, and they can often be simply skipped over. Many people told they never read the second epilogue of War and Peace. My favourite digression is the chapter in The Razor’s Edge by Maugham, which he begins by telling the reader that they can easily go to the next chapter and then goes on to say that without what he has to say in the chapter he wouldn’t have written the novel.

  6. Oh, I love digressions — Sterne is nothing but digressions — but they have to be so interesting and well written that one doesn’t mind digressing. That is not the case here; Bitov is just taking the opportunity to share his thoughts on writing a novel (and various other topics), which I’m sure were fascinating to him, but not so much to most other people.

  7. for Bloix /when get to the modern era that the author disappears./
    How do you mean? I don’t understand

  8. John Cowan says

    would venture to say that the author as an implicit character is virtually universal in19th century literature, that often the author intrudes explicitly, and it’s only when get to the modern era that the author disappears.

    I think it’s important to distinguished between an involved narrator, who knows what’s in the minds of the characters as well as facts known to nobody in the novel, which indeed was common up to the beginning of the 20C, and the author as a character, which is much less common: Dante and Chaucer are both characters and authors.

  9. Yes, and the author as a character who is constantly commenting on how he is constructing the other characters and the plot is yet another entity. A little of that goes a long way.

  10. Here is Anthony Trollope, in his novel Dr Thorne, published 1858 and the third of the Barchester series, after it has been revealed that his heroine, Mary Thorne, whose parentage has been disguised, is the heiress of her wealthy uncle, Sir Roger Scatcherd:

    “It has been suggested that the modern English writers of fiction should among them keep a barrister, in order that they may be set right on such legal points as will arise in their little narratives, and thus avoid that exposure of their own ignorance of the laws, which, now, alas! they too often make. The idea is worthy of consideration, and I can only say, that if such an arrangement can be made, and if a counsellor adequately skilful can be found to accept the office, I shall be happy to subscribe my quota; it would be but a modest tribute towards the cost.
    “But as the suggestion has not yet been carried out, and as there is at present no learned gentleman whose duty would induce him to set me right, I can only plead for mercy if I be wrong allotting all Sir Roger’s vast possessions in perpetuity to Miss Thorne, alleging also, in excuse, that the course of my narrative absolutely demands that she shall be ultimately recognised as Sir Roger’s undoubted heiress.”

    I won’t claim that this sort of thing is common, but as you see it did happen, long before Pirandello.

  11. It si not that ancient literature is any different:/ I do not knwo iof “story within a story” counts, but al least The Tale of Igor’s Campaign does that. Cf., Nabokov’s translation:

    1. Might it not become us, brothers, to begin in the diction of yore the stern tale of the campaign of Igor, Igor son of Svyatoslav?
    2. Let us, however, begin this song in keeping with the happenings of these times and not with the contriving of Boyan.
    3. For he, vatic Boyan if he wished to make a laud for one, ranged in thought [like the nightingale] over the tree; like the gray wolf across land; like the smoky eagle up to the clouds.

    4. For as he recalled, said he, the feuds of initial times, “He set ten falcons upon a flock of swans, and the one first overtaken, sang a song first” – to Yaroslav of yore, and to brave Mstislav who slew Rededya before the Kasog troops, and to fair Roman son of Svyatoslav.
    5. To be sure, brothers, Boyan did not [really] set ten falcons upon a flock of swans: his own vatic fingers he laid on the live strings, which then twanged out by themselves a paean to princes.
    6. So let us begin, brothers, this tale – from Vladimir of yore to nowadays Igor, who girded his mind with fortitude, and sharpened his heart with manliness;
    7. [thus] imbued with the spirit of arms, he led his brave troops against the Kuman land in the name of the Russian land.
    8. Then Igor glanced up at the bright sun and saw that from it with darkness his warriors were covered.
    9. And Igor says to his Guards:

    10. “Brothers and Guards! It is better indeed to be slain than to be enslaved;
    11. so let us mount, brothers, upon our swift steeds, and take a look at the blue Don.”

    12. A longing consumed the prince’s mind, and the omen was screened from him by the urge to taste
    of the Great Don:

    13. “For I wish,” he said, “to break a lance on the limit of the Kuman field; with you, sons of Rus, I wish
    either to lay down my head or drink a helmetful of the Don.”

    14. O Boyan, nightingale of the times of old! If you were to trill [your praise of] these troops, while hopping, nightingale, over the tree of thought; [if you were] flying in mind up to the clouds; [if] weaving paeans around these times, [you were] roving the Troyan Trail, across fields onto hills;
    15. then the song to be sung of Igor, that grandson of Oleg [, would be]:

    16. “No storm has swept falcons across wide fields; flocks of daws flee toward the Great Don”;

    17. or you might intone thus, vatic Boyan, grandson of Veles:

    18. “Steeds neigh beyond the Sula; glory rings in Kiev; trumpets blare in Novgorod[-Seversk]; banners are raised in Putivl.”

    P.S. sorry for a lenghty quotation, but if one needs an old example of an author going meta, then I recommend to start looking for it in the Stone Age:)

  12. I won’t claim that this sort of thing is common, but as you see it did happen, long before Pirandello.

    I certainly wasn’t saying Pirandello was the first, but that he took it to pretty much the ultimate level, so there’s not much point in reinventing Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore.

  13. ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ…

  14. Russian classic example is

    И вот уже трещат морозы / И серебрятся средь полей… / (Читатель ждет уж рифмы розы; / На, вот возьми ее скорей!)

    But Pushkin also compares a samovar to a penis in граф Нулин (in a draft), which is how we often introduce jokes in conversations. This:

    В постеле лежа, Вальтер-Скотта / Глазами пробегает он. / Но граф душевно развлечен…/ Неугомонная забота / Его тревожит; мыслит он: / «Неужто вправду я влюблен? / Что, если можно?.. вот забавно! / Однако ж это было б славно; / Я, кажется, хозяйке мил», — / И Нулин свечку погасил.

    [Ему не спится — бес не дремлет / И графа неизвестный жар / Сильней час от часу объемлет. / Он весь кипит как самовар / Пока не отвернула крана / Хозяйка нежною рукой — / Иль как отверстие волкана / Или — сравнений под рукой / У нас довольно — но сравнений / Не любит мой степенный гений, / Живей без них рассказ простой — / В потемках пылкой наш герой ….]

  15. David Marjanović says

    I can only plead for mercy if I be wrong allotting all Sir Roger’s vast possessions in perpetuity to Miss Thorne, alleging also, in excuse, that the course of my narrative absolutely demands that she shall be ultimately recognised as Sir Roger’s undoubted heiress.

    El Súper “is very short-tempered and usually gets angry with Mort and Phil because they fail in their missions, making a mess of everything – occasionally at the expense of his own possessions.” The only successes they ever have are catastrophic, coming with enormous collateral damage. And yet, once he says: “Even though it’s actually no use, I will call Mort & Phil and tell them to” catch the supervillain of the day or whatever it was. He will, and he does, because the course of the narrative absolutely demands it, and because the great Ibáñez the Greatest loves to make fun of his own stupid ideas while using them straight.

  16. But I found it increasingly hard to get through, and I’m not sure how the fault is to be apportioned between me and the author.

    Ah, yes, this sums up, perfectly, my feelings about Пушкинский дом, too. I read a big chunk (176 pages!) some years ago and then, one fine day, just couldn’t go on. It wore me out in all the wrong ways (as opposed to, say, pretty much anything by Platonov, who wears me out in all the right ways, leaving me exhilarated), probably because, to quote Deming Brown, “Bitov can be a show-off” and I don’t like show-offs.

  17. I’m glad to have your company in my distress!

  18. David Marjanović says

    Commendable restraint in not writing “Bitov can be a bit of a showoff.”

  19. Heh.

  20. I’m purely speculating here: is it true that our time is more tolerant of literary iconoclasm than, say, 50 years ago? I get the feeling that it was harder to say in academia and such mainstream circles, “Joyce is tedious”, or “You’ll be fine if you never read a word of Hemingway”, based on your own judgment, without facing rejection as an ignoramus. Is it that Bitov belonged to that generation, and once he achieved his exalted position it was inconceivable to criticize him?

  21. Hell no, plenty of people criticized him — he was never an officially supported writer, just popular with a lot of Russians. He did, however, become catnip for scholars of Russian literature, being all complex and postmodern and self-referential and such.

  22. So was it like self-styled intellectuals in the 1950s name-dropping Joyce among themselves? (Mind you, I like Joyce somewhat, and I don’t think I’d like Bitov.)

  23. Yes, although more of the Soviet equivalents actually read Hemingway (who was available, being considered Soviet-friendly) than Joyce (who was more of a remote cultural signifier).

  24. Bitov himself admitted to Dostoevsky, Proust, and Nabokov as influences.

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