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The Life and Work of Andrei Bitov : Author Regarded as 'One of Best Writers of Soviet Period'

October 09, 1988|DAVID REMNICK | the Washington Post

MOSCOW — 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.

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