Rereading Bitov.

In my recent post on Sasha Sokolov’s great first novel A School for Fools (and I urge everyone intrigued by it to get the new translation by Alexander Boguslawski), I said that he was influenced by Andrei Bitov’s “Life in Windy Weather” and Vasily Aksyonov’s Surplussed Barrelware; as it happens, I had read both, and have been meaning to reread the Aksyonov for years (it made a strong impression on me), but the Bitov had irritated me, so it was with some reluctance that I decided to give it another try. You see, I had gone through something of a Bitov phase a while ago, reading all the early stories and travel memoirs I had access to, and while I could tell he was a good and innovative writer, 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. By the time I got to “Life in Windy Weather” I was zooming through it, noting “OK, dude is restless at the dacha with his wife and son, insists on going back to the city even though he’s got no rational reason for it but maybe he’ll meet an interesting woman, then he’s irritated by the arrival of his wife’s family, got it, can we move on?” It turns out this was entirely the wrong way to approach it (and it seems there is such a thing as reading too many things by a single author without a break). When I read it with Sokolov in mind, an entirely different story emerged.

It begins with Sergei, the protagonist, arriving at the dacha belonging to his in-laws in his father’s car (I quote the translation by Richard Luplow and Priscilla Meyer, except that I change their “Alexei” — reflecting another version of the story — to Sergei):

He was as usual struck by how overgrown the garden had become and how the lot itself seemed to have shrunk, and the dacha, hidden by undergrowth, seemed less bulky than it had last year. The trees, recently small, now reached to the windows of the second floor. The dacha, still unfinished, had already begun to get dilapidated, the frame, not yet trimmed, had gotten still blacker, and the entire dacha, which had stuck out so awkwardly and tastelessly before, now seemed to have made itself at home, to have taken root, and for the first time he liked it.

Его привычно поразило, как разросся сад и как сам участок будто уменьшился, и дача, заслоненная зеленью, не показалась ему такой громоздкой, как в прошлом году. Деревья, недавно небольшие, нынче достигали окон второго этажа. Дача, все еще не достроенная, уже начала ветшать, сруб, так и не обшитый, почернел еще больше, и вся она, так нелепо и безвкусно торчавшая раньше, как бы обжилась, вросла и впервые понравилась ему.

After a brief conversation with the father, it continues:

As he accompanied his father to the car, he thought that the dacha, which would probably never be finished, somehow corresponded perfectly to this “limousine,” which would never be a decent car. If his wife’s parents had a sort of country house, then his father had a sort of car. In this way there was established a sort of balance.

Провожая отца до машины, он подумал, что дача, которая, по-видимому, никогда не будет достроена, как-то очень соответствует этой «декавешке», которая никогда не станет приличной машиной. Если у родителей жены был как бы загородный дом, то у его отца была как бы машина. Таким образом, наступало как бы равновесие.

The themes of time, change, family relationships, and emotional attitude will be important throughout, as will the phrase как бы ‘sort of.’ (I should add that I’m not sure how well the translation “limousine” renders Bitov’s декавешка ‘DKW’; I’m not a car person.) The time theme continues on the next page:

The move to the dacha was for him a real resettlement: all the parameters of his existence had changed, and the most important of these was time. As he lounged about, he turned on the radio: the announcer was giving the program for the day, and the thoroughness with which he stated the time made Sergei smile ironically. He looked at his watch — it had stopped. “Moscow time is zero hours, zero hours, zero seconds,” Sergei said.

Переезд на дачу стал для него действительно переселением: изменились все параметры его существования, и время в первую очередь. Слоняясь, он включал приемник: диктор объявлял программу передач, и та тщательность, с которой он называл время, вызвала у Сергея усмешку. Он взглянул на часы — они стояли. «Московское время ноль часов, ноль минут, ноль секунд», — сказал Сергей.

The third page introduces the other major theme, reflected in the title:

So he sat, thinking hostilely about his work, when he suddenly discovered that the weather outside had turned bad. The wind forcefully swooped down on his study; everything began to creak, to squeak; it felt as if a sailing ship had just set out, plunging through the water. The first large drops hit the north window; a real squall swooped in with them; the leaves of the trees which had covered the windows turned inside out like an umbrella, turned silver, and seemed to be streaming. Sergei gladly yielded to the feeling that his study was actually taking off into the air, and then it was no longer the wind but the study which raced along with such speed that it cleaved the air and caused the wind to rush by, — trees, forests, mountains flashed past the windows, merging together into an indistinguishable strip. The study howled in the gusts, and merging with it, he felt its stress, the straining of all its rafters, columns, piles, which Sergei called to himself first masts, then musical strings, as he called the whole of it first a ship, then an organ. The bad weather filled his abode with a kind of special coziness, and he wouldn’t have wanted to change anything, to adjust anything in it. The jutting ribs of the house, the slag underfoot, the spiderwebs everywhere, and the clumps of dusty rubbish — everything seemed just as it ought to be.

Suddenly the wind fell, the foliage stopped flashing past the window, and a heavy shower clattered on the roof. Sergei raised his head and as if for the first time saw that there was no ceiling above him — just the roof. In places it rose in sharp angles, in places descended in obtuse arches (as he called them to himself), and then his entire dwelling took on the appearance of a cathedral, which merged in his mind with the image of the organ… But the study no longer howled, since the wind had stopped, and the roof simply jingled under the blows of the shower […]

Так он сидел, неприязненно думая о работе, и вдруг обнаружил, что за окнами испортилась погода. Ветер с силой налетел на его этаж, все затрещало, заскрипело, казалось, тронется сейчас, ныряя, парусный корабль. Первые крупные капли ударили в северное окно; с ними налетел совсем уж шквал; листва деревьев, закрывавшая окна, вывернулась наизнанку, как зонтик, засеребрилась и словно заструилась. Сергей с удовольствием отдавался представлению, как взлетает его этаж, и тогда уже не ветер, а этаж понесся с такой скоростью, что рассекал воздух и образовывал ветер, — замелькали, проносясь в окнах, деревья, леса и горы, сливаясь в неразличимую полосу. Этаж гудел под порывами, можно было, слившись с ним, ощущать его напряжение, натяжку всяких там стропил, столбов, свай, которые Сергей называл про себя то мачтами, то струнами, в то время как все в целом он называл то кораблем, то органом. Каким-то особым уютом наполнялось от непогоды его обиталище, и ему уже ничего не хотелось бы ни изменить, ни поправить в нем. И торчащие ребра дома, и шлак под ногами, и паутина повсюду, и кучки запыленного мусора — все это казалось единственным решением.

Ветер вдруг спал, исчезло мелькание листвы за окнами, и по крыше загремел ливень. Сергей поднял голову и словно бы впервые увидел, что потолка над ним не было — была сразу крыша. Она то уходила вверх острыми углами, то приближалась к нему тупыми — это он называл про себя— сводами, тогда все его помещение обозначилось как собор, что уже совсем соединилось с представлением органа… Но этаж уже не гудел, так как не стало ветра, а бренчала под ударами ливня крыша

This wind will blow through much of the story, and that apocalyptic description of its effects (“and then it was no longer the wind but the study which raced along with such speed that it cleaved the air and caused the wind to rush by, — trees, forests, mountains flashed past the windows […] he felt its stress, the straining of all its rafters, columns, piles […] there was no ceiling above him — just the roof”) foreshadows a sudden irruption of nuclear war that turns out to be Sergei’s imagination as he’s driving to the city with his father. Ellen Chances, in discussing the story, talks about “the fundamental issue of the relationship between life and literature, between reality and illusion, between truth and lies” and “Bitov’s point that a person should plunge into the windy weather (i.e., the breathing of nature) in order to free himself/herself from the heavy burdens of an automatic-pilot existence”; I missed pretty much all of that the first time around. Now, going back to Sokolov, I see what he got from Bitov, and I’m looking forward to rereading Aksyonov with Sokolov in mind.


  1. You left one Alexei, in the third quote.

  2. Fixed, thanks!

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