An­drei Bi­tov

Rus­sian writer who never fled to West in Com­mu­nist era

The Scotsman - - Obituaries - NEIL GENZLINGER

An­drei Bi­tov, a Rus­sian writer whose work, whether elab­o­rate trav­el­ogue or in­tri­cate novel, was full of in­sights into his coun­try’s his­tory and lit­er­a­ture, died on 3 De­cem­ber in Moscow. He was 81.

The Rus­sian chap­ter of the writ­ers’ group PEN In­ter­na­tional, which he helped found, an­nounced his death on its web­site. Mikhail Ep­stein, Bi­tov’s friend and the Sa­muel Can­dler Dobbs pro­fes­sor of cul­tural the­ory and Rus­sian lit­er­a­ture at Emory Univer­sity, said the cause was heart dis­ease.

“Bi­tov is justly con­sid­ered a founder of Rus­sian post­mod­ernism, a vast and still in­flu­en­tial move­ment,” Ep­stein said, “es­pe­cially in his master­piece novel Pushkin House, which ex­plores the com­plex re­la­tion­ship be­tween the au­thor and his hero. bi­tov in­tro­duced into Rus­sian lit­er­a­ture the most sub­tle nu­ances of self-re­flec­tive ex­is­tence, and the mul­ti­plic­ity of nar­ra­tive frames and points of view. In this re­spect he can be com­pared only with Vladimir Nabokov.”

Bi­tov fin­ished Pushkin House in 1972 and, as a 1988 ar­ti­cle in the New York Times ex­plained, it was “pub­lished in Rus­sian, though not in Rus­sia, in 1978”.

The story in­volved a lit­er­ary in­sti­tute in Len­ingrad named Pushkin House and a philol­o­gist there, and through that char­ac­ter’s study of texts, Bi­tov in­voked great Rus­sian lit­er­a­ture of the past and fash­ioned a cri­tique of Soviet life and cul­ture. David Rem­nick, re­view­ing the book for the Wash­ing­ton Post in 1987, when it was pub­lished in English, noted that un­like many other Soviet writ­ers, Bi­tov had not fled to the West or been ex­iled.

“So great is the suc­cess of ex­ile lit­er­a­ture,” Rem­nick wrote, “that one is left won­der­ing: Are there any writ­ers of the first rank left in the Soviet Union?

“The pub­li­ca­tion in English of An­drei Bi­tov’s ex­traor­di­nary novel Pushkin House not only an­swers the ques­tion in the af­fir­ma­tive, it brings to Amer­i­can at­ten­tion a work of prose that stands with the best of modernist fic­tion.”

An­drei Ge­orgievich Bi­tov was born 27 May 1937 in Len­ingrad. His ear­li­est mem­ory, he said, was of be­ing in the midst of the siege of that city by the Ger­mans in the 1940s, dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.

“Suf­fer­ing did not mean be­ing hun­gry, it meant star­va­tion,” he said in 1988. “But it seems to me the real suf­fer­ing was for my mother, who couldn’t stand the star­va­tion of her chil­dren.”

In 1942, An­drei, his mother and his brother were evac­u­ated to the Ural Moun­tains re­gion, where his fa­ther, an ar­chi­tect, was work­ing. The fam­ily re­turned to Len­ingrad after the war, and An­drei be­gan to find plea­sure in an un­cle’s vast book col­lec­tion. Read­ing Charles Dick­ens’ The Pick­wick Papers was es­pe­cially rev­e­la­tory. “It was a mo­ment when, with­out re­al­is­ing it, I was al­ready writ­ing,” he said. “I ac­tu­ally felt the plea­sure of writ­ing The Pick­wick Papers.”

In the mid-1950s Bi­tov en­rolled in the Len­ingrad Min­ing In­sti­tute, fall­ing in with some other as­pir­ing writ­ers there. He was even­tu­ally ex­pelled for spend­ing too much time on po­etry and not enough on ge­ol­ogy.

After that he held an as­sort­ment of jobs, in­clud­ing builder, served in the Soviet army and later re­turned to the in­sti­tute, still some­what inat­ten­tive; he be­gan writ­ing prose dur­ing lec­tures. He grad­u­ated all the same, in 1962.

By 1960 Bi­tov was pub­lish­ing short sto­ries, a col­lec­tion of which ap­peared in 1963. Lessons of Ar­me­nia, a book about his trav­els to that re­gion, ap­peared in 1969. (It was one of two travel mem­oirs pub­lished in English in 1992 un­der the ti­tle A Cap­tive of the Cau­ca­sus.)

Bi­tov in­curred of­fi­cial wrath in 1979 by help­ing to edit and con­tribut­ing to the Metropol Lit­er­ary Al­manac, a col­lec­tion of un­cen­sored po­ems, sto­ries and other writ­ings, many by well-known au­thors.

It was of­fered for pub­li­ca­tion in the West at the same time that it was of­fered for pub­li­ca­tion in the Soviet Union, a move that was con­sid­ered a chal­lenge to au­thor­ity. (It went un­pub­lished in the Soviet Union.)but while other writ­ers in this pe­riod were be­ing told to leave the coun­try or were do­ing so on their own, Bi­tov stayed.

“For me, there was never re­ally any ques­tion of leav­ing, maybe be­cause of my con­nec­tion with my fam­ily, which is strong and com­pli­cated,” he said. “It surely was not some great pa­tri­otic idea. But such things as leav­ing were dreams, never thoughts.”

Bi­tov once spoke of the un­usual sen­sa­tion, after the Cold War had thawed, of reen­coun­ter­ing writer friends who had left the coun­try while he stayed.

“I never thought that I would see these peo­ple again, and they thought the same,” he said. “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.”

By the mid-1980s he was again be­ing pub­lished at home, and then the cul­tural thaw un­der Mikhail S Gor­bachev came.

Bi­tov helped found the Rus­sian chap­ter of PEN, a group that ad­vo­cates free­dom of ex­pres­sion, in 1989. In 2000, the group, with him as pres­i­dent, hosted the In­ter­na­tional PEN Congress, amid some con­tro­versy. Rus­sia was at war in Chech­nya, and even though the Rus­sian chap­ter had vig­or­ously protested the war, some PEN mem­bers felt that the con­fer­ence should not be held in a coun­try en­gaged in re­pres­sion.

“We in Rus­sian PEN have be­come hostages of East and West at the same mo­ment,” Bi­tov com­plained.

He said all Rus­sians were be­ing tainted by the ac­tions of the govern­ment.

“I, too, am out­raged by the war in Chech­nya, but now the word ‘Soviet’ is be­ing re­placed by the word ‘Rus­sian,’ and I also don’t like it,” he said. “What I don’t like is that as a pri­vate per­son I was made to feel re­spon­si­ble. There is a kind of snob­bism to some of the crit­i­cism.”

In­for­ma­tion on his sur­vivors was not im­me­di­ately avail­able.

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