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Andrei Bitov: Пушкинский дом (Pushkin House)

Bitov had finished this novel in 1971 but it was first published in Russian in the United States in 1978 and in Russia only in 1987. The book is divided into three sections and a prologue. The prologue is called What Is to Be Done?, obviously taken from the novel of the same name, as well as responses by Tolstoy and Lenin. What Is to Be Done? was itself a response to Fathers and Sons, the title of the first section of this novel. The second section is called Hero of Our Time, also a famous Russian novel, while the third section is called The Humble Horseman, in Russian a play on words with the famous poem, The Bronze Horseman, which was the inspiration for the brilliant Петербург (Petersburg).

While paying homage to and freely referring to these and other great Russian novels, Bitov’s novel is very much a complex post-modern work about Soviet Russia during the 1950s and 1960s. It follows the story of Lyova Odoevstev who, like Bitov, was born in Leningrad in 1937. The Prologue which, as Bitov tells us, was written after the rest of the book, describes a scene of devastation in the Pushkin House, a literary institute in what was then Leningrad. The devastation includes the body of a man around thirty years of age, who turns out to be Odoevstev. Bitov then goes on to give an account of Odoevstev’s life up to his death, with many authorial interjections in the story. The first section – Fathers and Sons – tells of Odoevstev’s attempt to reconstruct some of his hidden past. His grandfather was a linguist but was caught up in the Stalinist purges and sent to a camp and subsequently disowned by his family. However, it’s now the post-Stalinist thaw and his grandfather is released but he is not the hero that Odoevstev is expecting but, not surprisingly, a bitter old man. The second section is about Odoevstev’s childhood and, in particular, his awakening sex life. The third section is set in the Pushkin House. Odoevstev’s friend, Mitishatyev, whom we have briefly met at the end of the previous two sections, arrives with some friends. As it is the October Revolution holiday period, there is a lot of merriment and drinking going on in the city. Inside the Pushkin House there is also some merriment and lots of literary allusions. The section contains a chapter called The Duel which, to those versed in Russian literary history, will recall several famous literary duels, including those that led to the deaths of Pushkin and Lermontov and, in fact, specifically mentions seven famous literary duels. In this case, the duel involves Odoevstev and Mitishatyev and leads to Odoevstev’s death. Or perhaps not, for soon after, Bitov revives his hero, in true post-modernist fashion.

The novel is a brilliant novel along the lines of the Петербург (Petersburg) and Мастер и Маргарита (The Master and Margarita). As with those two novels, it does require some effort by the reader and a knowledge of Russian literature and Russian literary history, though the English translation does have copious notes for the less well-informed but the effort will be well worth it for those that appreciate the somewhat offbeat, highly imaginative novel that Russians can produce.

Publishing history

First published in 1978 by Ardis
First published in 1987 in English by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
tb Susan Brownsberger