The Life and Work of Andrei Bitov : Author Regarded as ‘One of Best Writers of Soviet Period’
Andrei Bitov offers his guests shot glasses of brandy for breakfast. It seems this is a literary meal. “There is a proverb all Russians repeat,” Bitov says, “One drink in the morning and you are free for the whole day.”
Bitov, an extraordinary novelist and a world-class talker, lets his brandy sit. His guests, however, drink to the health of “Pushkin House,” Bitov’s psychological novel that has been published officially here 17 years after its completion.
“Pushkin House” circulated in various underground versions until it was finally printed this year in the journal Novy Mir. Considering its reputation in literary circles here and abroad, the novel should have gotten more attention here than it has.
But for all the excitement about the publication of long-neglected and/or murdered writers, the age of glasnost has been one more of journalism than high art, a period in which the printing presses are at long last churning out the facts of the abysmal Soviet past and the grim present. Even now, after more than three years of Mikhail Gorbachev, there is a gnawing sense among anyone with a memory that it all could shut down tomorrow, and the facts must out while they can.
Even Anatoly Rybakov’s celebrated novel of the Stalin era, “Children of the Arbat,” is a kind of newspaper, full of historical detail packaged in the lumpy style of James Michener. At the Lenin Library in Moscow, the waiting list for Rybakov’s novel is three years long.
“Pushkin House’s” sensations are of another, more lasting sort. With a central voice that sounds at times like a Slavic Marcel Proust, examining Soviet generations from this angle and then another, Bitov’s novel is difficult, rich, allusive, and will have to accumulate its audience over time.
Pouring some coffee for his now somewhat brandy-stunned guests, Bitov says that when real histories--books like Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago” and Roy Medvedev’s “Let History Judge"--are published here, the need for docu-novels, or what he calls “half-food,” will drift away.
“We need different foods,” Bitov says. “There are popular works, scientific works, all sorts of things that should be read. But literature is literature in the end. In the 19th Century, the Russian tradition in literature was part of our moral and spiritual life. Literature was not for everyday politics and how to make collective farms.
“Unfortunately, Russian literature stopped with Chekhov for most people. The problem is that our history is so overwhelming, and we have had no biographies, no histories. People usually look for scandal of some sort when they read Soviet literature, and so they find that I am not suitable.”
Only part of Bitov’s extensive and varied work is available in English. “Pushkin House,” published last year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is relatively easy to find, but a collection of early stories, “Life in Windy Weather,” is best obtained by ordering by mail through Ardis Publishers in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Much of his work remains untranslated. Besides many other short stories and novellas, Bitov turns out to be an idiosyncratic travel writer, turning trips to Armenia or attendance at the strange Siberian sport of motorcycle hockey into literary occasions. Even his purportedly “straight” literary essays are wild extensions of his fiction.
“People in the West may not know Andrei Bitov yet, but there’s no question he’s one of the very best writers of the Soviet period,” says Princeton University’s Ellen Chances, who has just finished a study on Bitov called “The Ecology of Inspiration.” “He captures at a very deep level the psychology of his generation--which was born during Stalin’s purges--and deals with questions of the inner life, what it means to live a life of conscience and integrity.”
Along with novelists Fazil Iskander and Valentin Rasputin, poets Alexander Kushner and Yevgeny Rein and a few others, Bitov is one of the few writers of unassailable quality who are still living here. For all the euphoria surrounding the new cultural thaw, glasnost has revealed not an embarrassment of riches, but rather a painful embarrassment: The country’s strongest poet, Joseph Brodsky, lives in New York, and most of its best prose writers--Solzhenitsyn, Yuz Aleshkovsky, Vassily Aksyonov, Sasha Sokolov--live in the West.
“We always thought we were a rich country: lots of forests, lots of lakes, lots of writers, lots of writers,” Bitov says, “but we are not many.”
Although he lives part of the year in Moscow in order to care for his elderly mother, Bitov is a Leningrader. That city--its literary tradition, its tragedies, “its very stones"--is at the center of his work. Bitov was born in 1937, at the height of Stalin’s purges, and his first memories are of the Nazi blockade of Leningrad in the early 1940s. The 900-day siege turned the city into a nightmare town of starving children, bodies bobbing in the Neva.
“I have no prewar memories at all, except, perhaps, a view of the sun through the window, but maybe I’ve invented that,” he says. “Concretely, I see in my mind the blockade, and because it was really the first thing I do remember, it didn’t seem awful. It was the usual thing to see corpses.”
All around were the “surprisingly peaceful” images of childhood: “half a meter of ice in the hall and that catastrophic little piece of bread the size of a postage stamp, our daily ration.
“Suffering did not mean being hungry, it meant starvation. But it seems to me the real suffering was for my mother, who couldn’t stand the starvation of her children.”
In 1942, the mother and the two Bitov sons--Oleg and Andrei --rode to the Ural Mountains where their father was working. The trip provided the sort of Proustian moment that appears so often in his work: “I remember being in a truck, and the truck was moving on the ice, but it was already spring, and there was a meter of water above the ice, and it felt like we were swimming and I loved it. One of the trucks broke through the ice, an awful thing, but only now can I make anything of this early experience.”
After waiting out the rest of the war in the Urals and in Tashkent, the family returned home. Back in Leningrad, the extended family of grandparents, parents and children --nearly 20 in all--lived in one apartment. Bitov began to learn languages--"though there was a rumor that if we learned English, we would certainly become spies"--and read. His uncle’s library was stocked with Russian and English classics, and Bitov read “unsystematically,” pulling down book after book from the case and spending weeks and months inside new worlds.
“From the very beginning,” he says, “I read books with the pleasure of rewriting them inside of me. When I was in middle school, I read for the first time Dickens’ ‘Pickwick Papers.’ I remember that as one of the great festivals of my life. It was a moment when, without realizing it, I was already writing. I actually felt the pleasure of writing ‘The Pickwick Papers.”’
Bitov had no idea what he wanted to do with his life and, as a kind of lark, entered the department of geological research at the Leningrad Mining Institute. “I thought I might get some travel out of that.” The institute, it turned out, was a kind of literary training ground where Bitov fell in with a group of apprentice poets, including Kushner.
At first, Bitov wrote furiously and badly. He stopped reading geology and was thrown out of the institute. For a while he took on one job after the next: stevedore, lathe operator, construction worker. Back at the institute, he began writing stories during lectures.
“And in 1963 my biography ends,” he says in a short essay.
It “ends” in the sense that Bitov is not a figure, not a “biography” in the way that Hemingway and Solzhenitsyn are. He has sided with the well-intentioned and supported the right causes, but he has not been at the center of any trials, he has never written a manifesto. His work is inward and his life--"when I can manage it"--is writing.
In Bitov’s early stories, there is a character, Alexei Monakhov, who has that intimate feel of autobiography. (In Russian, monakh means monk.) Those stories, “The Garden,” “The Soldier,” “The Taste,” “Life in Windy Weather,” all have a quality of immediacy, like a letter written to the reader, and even those who should know better are fooled into thinking that Monakhov is Bitov. Even Bitov’s mother at times substitutes the life of his heroes for the life of her son.
“But the truth is,” Bitov says, “I can’t write about myself at all. My literature is much more fiction than anyone can imagine--more method than memory.
“I like my way of writing as a way of life. When I have a chance to write about a period of my life, an experience, and I can rework it into the life of my hero, then everything changes and I can no longer remember what happened in reality. That is why when I am not writing, I am suffering, because I remember too much of concrete life. I have to destroy my past in order to win my own freedom.”
Beginning to write when Bitov did was at once a terrifying and, in an innocent way, an easy matter. Stalin had so thoroughly destroyed the culture, had forced so many writers into their graves or into silence, that, Bitov says, “We really had no culture. We’d lost our tradition. We didn’t know what a great tradition we were working in, and therefore it was very simple to start. We just had to know that we could write the truth about what we’d seen. It was as if literature was being born at the very beginning. Only later did some reading of a forgotten writer put you in your place.”
For Bitov, Leningrad was a concrete reminder of tradition and Russian culture. The city itself was a culture, “an unwritten text,” whose buildings and river “and even the air” spoke to him. “We were coming from a destroyed context of literature, just catching it from stones,” Bitov says.
The Khrushchev thaw ended in the mid-'60s and by 1968, when the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia obliterated any hopes for “socialism with a human face,” writer after writer came into inevitable conflict with the state. The state feared and loathed any writer with an independent and unmistakable voice. While “Pushkin House” does deal with matters of moral conscience and has one character who has returned from the camps, the book is no more a political billboard than Vladimir Nabokov’s “The Gift” or Andrei Belyi’s novel, “Petersburg.”
Bitov did help edit “Metropol,” an anthology that carried the uncensored work of Aksyonov, Aleshkovsky, Bella Akhmadulina, Yevgeny Rein and others who were determined to challenge the cultural commissars. That did little to help him get his work printed in the official journals.
Until now, Bitov was unable to find a publisher for “Pushkin House,” though he did manage to publish parts of it here under the cover of essays or sketches. He also watched as politics depleted his own generation of writers. Friend after friend was hounded out of the country, a “horrible time.”
“I was in a position to leave,” he says. “I can’t be sure, but some officials thought I was preparing to leave, beginning in 1978 to 1985. I kept thinking, ‘Why am I staying here?’ But I really couldn’t entertain this question. For me there was never really any question of leaving, maybe because of my connection with my family, which is strong and complicated. It surely was not some great patriotic idea. But such things as leaving were dreams, never thoughts.”
Suddenly, under glasnost, Bitov finds himself not only invited to publish his work, old and new, but to travel abroad to this conference and that lecture.
Last year he went to the United States for the first time, and at a conference in Washington he saw old friends, Brodsky and Aleshkovsky and Aksyonov, people who had become to him as distant as the dead.
“And now I felt as if I had died and someone was coming to meet me in Heaven after death,” he says. “I hadn’t seen these people in 8, 10, 15 years, and when I did, something cracked in my head. I became crazy, simply because it was so normal. I never thought that I would see these people again and they thought the same. It seemed only natural, as if I were in paradise and everyone gone from life was coming back to me. I felt as if I walked a little farther, I would soon see the shade of my grandfather.”
Bitov is delighted with the vastly improved cultural politics of Moscow. But in a way it has suddenly (and joyfully) cluttered his life, which had always been a delicate, and often unsuccessful, attempt to balance isolation with personal life.
“For me, writing is not a profession, it’s a state. It’s very hard to find the time and the place for this state. I organize escapes to places where there is no time, no information, and I prepare myself for these expeditions. But it’s very hard to organize such a life.”