Riding the Bronze Horse

Partings

by Leonid Borodin, translated by David Floyd
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 221 pp., $15.95

Pushkin House

by Andrei Bitov, translated by Susan Brownsberger
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 350 pp., $22.50

The vitality of the thoughtful novel in Russia, and its enormous popularity with all classes, has often depended on a caroming effect. X writes a novel in protest against Y’s novel, and then Z moves in and finishes the job. After Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons came Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done?, a ridiculous work in praise of—among other things—“young people,” whom the degraded and Europeanized Turgenev, as the radicals saw him, had slandered. Dostoevsky then produced Notes from Underground, and went on to finish the job on Turgenev in The Devils. Genius battened on the work of inferior dogmatists, and itself became all the more dogmatic in the process—Tolstoy in War and Peace was taking up the cudgels on behalf of the Russian gentry class, routinely slandered by the intellectuals of the 1860s.

The process is a healthy one—the most life-giving that literature can have in a state employing repression and censorship—and it continues today. Dissidents of all types—the most august being Solzhenitsyn himself—have for long had things all their own way, at least in the Russian fiction preferred in the West and duly smuggled out to it. But at the same time a much more subtle, if less heroic, type of fictional approach and character has been explored within the boundaries of Soviet orthodoxy by novelists whose works it tolerated without extolling them as models of socialist fiction. The most interesting of these was Yury Trifonov (died 1981), whose novel The House on the Embankment explored the relations between father and son in a Soviet setting, Turgenev’s novel being very much a model. Father has lost his faith but still recalls with relish the intrigues and infighting of the great early days. The filial figure, in fact more of a protégé, feels sympathy for his father and a kind of understanding of him as he pursues his own more devious and diplomatic way of getting what he wants in the Soviet jungle. This ignoble but nonetheless dignified kind of mutual affection would have fascinated Turgenev, as would the way in which Trifonov reverses the traditional pattern, making the father some sort of idealist and the son a not especially astute fellow traveler of the regime.

Leonid Borodin, unlike Trifonov, has very much a martyr’s status, having twice been imprisoned for his political views and his writings, and for his part in the illegal “Social-Christian Alliance.” Happily he has now been released and has left Russia. In spite of having suffered personally as a dissident and a Christian he seems to take pleasure as a writer in a detached view, a mode of novel writing almost as “polyphonic” as Bakhtin’s account of Dostoevsky’s style. Indeed it is hard to see why Partings, any more than The House on the Embankment, should be objected to by the Soviet literary establishment, particularly in these days of glasnost, because the role and personality of the dissidents are treated …

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