Monday, 10 September 2012

Drunk on Cake with Andrei Bitov

Andrei Bitov is very proud of the discreet brothel in the courtyard of his St Petersburg flat ("там публичный дом - только скрытый"). It was one of the dostoprimechatel'nosti (local sights) he pointed out as soon as I arrived, still in shock from the telephone summons that had interrupted my post-library coffee. What sort of present does one bring a famous Russian writer when unexpectedly invited v gosti? I had a feeling that nothing short of alcohol would do, but I was in a cake shop. Life is compromise: I bought the most liquor-sodden cake in the place, a decadent chocolate creation called 'Drunken Cherry' (Пьяная вишня), had it wrapped in a white box with a pink ribbon, and beetled off down Nevsky Prospect towards the Moscow Station end.

As Bitov and his daughter Anna Andreevna plied me with rich Turkish coffee and praised the Drunken Cherry, I extemporized two respectable if stodgy questions to justify my visit. First, what advice would Bitov give to my students, exploring Russian literature for the first time? Looking pleased, he said they should consider themselves privileged that the classics of the Golden Age were, relatively speaking, short and compact. The best of Pushkin fits in a slim volume; the best of Lermontov is a novel and a few poems; Griboedov is remembered for one play. While I was still processing this reversal of the usual aphorism (ars brevis...), Bitov went off on a tangent: the best writing in any culture, he argued (referring generously to Irish literature), emerges from under an oppressive imperial shadow, self-challenged to catch up with the rest of the world. Pushkin and his peers were catching up with Western Europe; today, the best late- and post-Soviet writers are vanquishing the ethnic invisibility imposed by Russian hegemony. He listed the Ossetian Gaito Gazdanov, the Kirghiz novelist Chingiz Aitmatov, the Armenian Grant Matevosian, and the Kazakh poet (akyn) Dzhambul Dzhabaev as great writers interpreting a post-imperial legacy. "I like to promote other authors; I've managed to reach the world stage (мировое пространство)", said Andrei Georgievich modestly, "but not everyone who deserves to can do that." He rejoices in his own (distant) Circassian forebears.
Second question: what advice would Bitov give to a novice novelist (me)? This nonplussed him slightly. When he learned I was planning a historical novel (what else would a dinosaur write?), he offered one piece of advice: make the facts read like fiction, and the fiction like reality. "In Russia, and especially in Petersburg, we have a natural advantage with that," he smiled wryly, and was off again on his historical hobbyhorse: we should never forget the small moments, the unsignposted junctions, that change destinies. Apparently, the idea of importing a Dagestani boulder to Pirogov in order to simultaneously commemorate Tolstoy's inspiration for Hadji Murat and the life of the eponymous warrior had been Bitov's: nor was this his first off-beat memorial. If I made it to Pushkin's estate at Mikhailovskoe, he told me, I'd see a small statue of a hare beside the road, marking another sally into quixotic historicism. If a hare hadn't startled Pushkin's horse in 1825 and convinced the mercurial poet to turn back from the Moscow road, Pushkin might have been implicated in the Decembrist revolt - and, at the very least, exiled to Siberia for the rest of his natural life. 
I found Bitov to be a courteous and irrepressibly charming man. He kindly remembered me from our brief introduction in Yasnaya Polyana the previous month. Moreover, his invitation came at a sad time in his life: his first wife, who had owned the flat where we met, had died two weeks ago. He was newly returned from the funeral in her native Karelian village. Still more courteously, when he asked me the question I'd been dreading ("So have you read my Pushkin House?") he didn't condemn my laboured excuse - although I own it twice over in two languages, I lack time to read it in Russian. I added that while I might not have read his book, I had been working daily for the past two weeks in a third-floor office of the real Pushkin House, amidst conditions that could kindly be described as bardak (mess). Andrei Georgievich was delighted. "So you've seen the bardak!" he exulted. "You've seen what it's really like! Let me tell you, when I wrote my book, I'd never once been inside the place - and I first made it there ten years ago to present a copy to their archive". Suddenly I was an honourable fellow fraudster, and before I left, he presented me with a signed copy of the annotated edition (well worth acquiring for Stanislav Savitskii's deadpan essay on Pushkin House's pre-publication history, with reprints of the many rejection letters and reviewers' reports it garnered between 1971 and 1978, when Carl Proffer's Ardis Press brought out the first Russian edition - an English translation eventually followed ten years later. Mainstream Soviet publishing houses Sovetskii pisatel', Novyi mir and Druzhba narodov all rejected the manuscript with varying notes of polite regret; while in 1979 New York's Alfred A. Knopf turned it down on the basis that 'the novel is too long and relentlessly opaque, especially for a translation in the US, where most readers would not have the advantage of familiarity with all the Russian literary works Bitov is mentioning. Essentially, we think that Bitov is a talented writer, but THE PUSHKIN HOUSE is not an impressive book').
As I hurried out through that extraordinary courtyard with its tiny church and incognito brothel ("all modern Russian life is here", Bitov had said), I was half-alert for some symbolic encounter: Tolstoy's thistle, Pushkin's hare, drunken cherries. But I met no-one apart from a young man sawing a table in two and my landlady, who was convinced I'd been kidnapped and skinned by Singaporean handbag manufacturers. "That's right," I told her, "make your reality like fiction" - and went to bed to start reading Pushkin House.
*Image of Bitov courtesy of Russian Esquire []