Defacing the Monuments of Russian Literature : PUSHKIN HOUSE <i> by Andrei Bitov; translated by Susan Brownsberger (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $22.50; 350 pp.) </i>
Though Andrei Bitov’s previous books were not only published but widely acclaimed in the Soviet Union, “Pushkin House,” his most ambitious work, has circulated only in samizdat --bootleg copies passed by hand from one reader to another. Structurally similar to those Russian dolls that open to reveal ever smaller dolls inside, this novel shelters several sub-themes within its capacious outer shell.
Rejected by the Soviet distributors ostensibly because its intense subjectivity apparently exceeded the rigid bounds of Socialist Realism, “Pushkin House” exposes and satirizes the shortcomings of the political system. While “excessive subjectivity” is now often overlooked, a harder line is taken with material as overtly critical of the regime as this. Bitov has not only ridiculed “the system"--fair game for virtually any Russian writer--but the entire literary tradition of his culture. Despite the improvements brought about since glasnost , there are obviously still restraints upon the writer’s autonomy and limits to the tolerance of the literary authorities.
By making his protagonist a philologist laboring in Pushkin House, the official shrine to the Russian literary tradition, Bitov is able to review and examine the celebrated monuments of his country’s literature. Heavily larded with tags from Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Lermontov, Chernyshevsky and Turgenev, in addition to the venerated Pushkin himself, the text also includes references to painters, film makers, critics and various academics who have influenced the Soviet aesthetic in one way or another. Some of these references are respectful, even admiring; many are not.
While a number of the allusions will be comfortingly familiar, others may elude all but specialists in Russian history and culture. Fortunately, the translator has supplied notes at the back of the book identifying both the obvious and the obscure. These help, but even the most dedicated readers may find the process of checking footnotes an unexpected obstacle to their enjoyment of a work presented as a novel.
The leading character, Lyova Odoevstev, is 50 years old, born in Leningrad on the holiday commemorating the founding of the city and graduating from high school in 1953, the year Stalin died. An excerpt from an interview with Bitov confirms the fact that the curriculum vitae of the hero also apply to the author, with other close analogies as well.
As the novel proceeds, we realize we’re reading a recapitulation of the last half-century of Russian history; the style shifts continually between the techniques of the more avant-garde contemporary Western writers and the traditional practitioners of the Russian novel with its distinctive mannerisms. Adding to the difficulties are the frequent glides from dream to actuality; the leaps in and out of Lyova’s subconscious mind, but most taxing of all, the various versions of events perceived from differing points of view. Burdened with the obligation to be a Russian version of Everyman, Lyova is too busy reflecting history and interpreting its effect upon him and his family to spend much time engaging our sympathies or attention. He’s a symbol, and his most intimate connections are with the state.
While Lyova has parents (including a father who betrays his own father in order to gain the old scientist’s university chair), an appealingly eccentric Uncle Dickens (so-called because of his admiration for the English writer) and an assortment of friends and lovers, all the experiences of Lyova’s life remain oddly impersonal. Archetypical of his generation, imprisoned in his role of the beleaguered Russian intellectual, the hero becomes merely the unwitting object of social forces beyond his control. Subsidiary characters seem to exist only to illustrate facets of contemporary life that cannot be contained within Lyova’s own broad but still particular frame of reference. Accustomed to--and perhaps spoiled by--our own direct way of dealing with conflicts between the individual and the state in nonfiction, American readers may grow impatient with the elaborate subterfuges employed here. Sensitive issues cannot be confronted head on; the regime must be analyzed within the framework of fantasy.
Fraught with political and social implications, lumbered with circumlocutious phraseology and cumbersome references, contemporary Soviet novels labor under multiple burdens.
Everything Lyova Odoevstev does--every encounter, affair, accident and insight--exists to this larger purpose. Lyova is a paradigm, and paradigms, no matter how skillfully drawn and fully realized, seldom engage our emotions.
Bitov provides frequent author’s asides to the reader; erudite, often humorous commentaries upon the narrative proper. From time to time, he seems to be warning us not to take all of this too seriously, but the asides often have precisely the opposite effect. “The title of this novel is stolen, too. Why, that’s an institute, not a title for a novel! With nameplates for the departments: The Bronze Horseman. A Hero of Our Time. Fathers and Sons. What Is to Be Done? And so on, through the school curriculum. A tour of a museum novel. The nameplates guide, the epigraphs remind. . . .”
And so they do, but the result is in fact exactly what Bitov deplores; “a museum novel.” “Pushkin House” is a scholarly, inventive, elaborate jeu d’esprit, but a game that will be fun only for those with Bitov’s home court advantage.