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 in it with a certain sardonic amusement, a friendly lack of respect. For Borodin much of the dissident movement in Moscow, presumably since the authorities ceased to crack down severely on it, is rapidly becoming a cult or fashion, a harmless manifestation of radical chic.
So another wheel has come full circle. But any irony in this good-natured and curiously dispassionate novel is kept well hidden. The hero, Gennadi, is the kind of figure common in Western fiction a generation or so ago—a kind of blend of Lucky Jim and Holden Caulfield—but unusual in a Russian novel. Yet there is nothing imitated about him: he is a perfectly genuine creation and a sympathetic one. His creator clearly neither identifies with him nor satirizes him, and has lodged no personal sentiment in his significance. This itself is a rare achievement, not dissimilar from Dostoevsky’s creation of his Underground Man, a figure fully and recognizably human to us all; Gennadi is neither a prop for polemic nor an extension of the author’s own personality. Harry Willetts says in his introduction that Borodin himself “is a Siberian (and so the most Russian of Russians) and above all a fighter, martyred for his beliefs.” But none of this appears in his novel, which is notable for a tolerant understanding of weaker, sillier, and more accommodating people.
Clever, well-educated, well-connected, in the Soviet sense of knowing the right people for getting on in life, Gennadi works in the official press and in public relations. In the course of his activities he finds himself in a remote Siberian village, befriended by an entirely selfless and benevolent priest, Father Vassili, and in love with his beautiful and innocent daughter, Tosya. Gennadi’s idealism, such as it is, has become wholly displaced from the march of Soviet reality and fixated on this nineteenth-century backwater of the old “wooden Russia,” where the priest really is a saintly figure, and daughter, although she goes to bed with Gennadi, a pure, loving, and unworldly girl.
The novel opens with Gennadi about to abandon this idyll, as he has to return to Moscow. He vows to return and marry Tosya and take her back to Moscow with him, and he has a rather uncomfortable colloquy with her other admirer, the young deacon who worships her from afar and only wants her happiness; and who is humbly convinced that Gennadi has every right to her love, being gifted with intelligence and the glamour of the metropolis. All this is completely convincing, and in some way Borodin makes his simple Siberians realistic as well as good, as if Gennadi had entered an alternative world, a world that is by nature what socialist idealism strives, or rather used to strive, to become.
Back in Moscow Gennadi is at once involved in the wheeling and dealing of ordinary Soviet existence, among old friends and relations as lifelike as the new ones he has left behind in Siberia. He lives with his father—“I get on well with him, so he is a good man as far as I am concerned”—who remains imperturbable in his canny Soviet orthodoxy while his wife, now divorced from him, and his daughter rush around with the new movement at the time of the thaw. Gennadi’s comments on this are characteristic:
In the period of the “Thaw” my mother and Lyuska got desperately involved…. Their one-room flat hummed with voices and was cluttered up with underground publications. Say what you like, it really was a happy time! You could smell the ozone, and how people loved it. The machines rattled away, producing copy after copy from the depths of silence. My father read everything I brought in, and would comment “Curious” or “Interesting,” or sometimes simply “Rubbish.” There was nothing to disturb his peace of mind.
Gennadi obtains a new assignment from his friend Poluëktov, an opulently cosmopolitan figure who is nonetheless vigorously naive about sophisticated girls and fashionable possessions. The assignment is to ghost the memoirs of a one-armed war hero, living on a small pension, and Gennadi is enough of an artist to find it surprisingly difficult to do. In any case he has no time because his exgirlfriend is in trouble, pregnant by another man, and everyone expects him to look after and marry her; and meanwhile his own sister, a silly girl, has got herself arrested through the jealousy of a former boyfriend. As Willetts observes, for most of the characters dissidence “is a risqué rather than a risky experience,” but it can still produce drama and misery, even if almost by accident. A hint of bitterness felt by the author appears through Gennadi’s comments on the “refuseniks,” and on the fact that “now the people who had started and inspired the movement had been granted the privilege of emigrating, the freedom-loving West had rather cooled off.” Emigrés and Jews are not seen with wholehearted sympathy; neither are the hangers-on of the Church and the new-style priests. For Gennadi, as he settles back into the neither-black-nor-white world of the Moscow intelligentsia, Siberia and Tosya remain only a dream, destined never to be realized.
Andrei Bitov’s novel is a very different affair. Originally trained as a geologist he became a dropout in the Sixties, wrote a lot of poems turned to prose, and had some success in Russia with his story collections, Days of Man and Seven Journeys. A selection of them called Life in Windy Weather was published in America by Ardis last year. Well translated as is Borodin’s novel, Pushkin House nonetheless runs into difficulties in English that Partings does not, for its fantasy and humor, both of which are a little too determined, depend on an idiom and a linguistic vitality that have no ready Western equivalent. Its modishness is more than recognizable; it can be placed among the current kinds of clever novels concerned with the nonexistence of the hero and the convertibility of the text. But its individual spirit is harder for a Western reader to get hold of, enclosed as it is in a game of perpetual allusiveness to scenes, lines, and contexts in the Russian classics. There are excellent individual scenes, like the vodka binge of the “hero” Lyova and his friends; and they are punctuated by the appearance of the author to explain why things have turned out this way, in view of the convention he is using and its relation to a story by Pushkin or Krylov, or a film acted and directed by Bondarchuk.
Bitov has been called a Soviet Nabokov, but his novel is actually more like the kind of exercise in evasion and replication fashionable for some time now in the West, and represented by Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot and Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor. The metaphysical premise of such novels is that both history and literature are an overlapping sequence of interpretations, an accumulation of imitative metaphor that in former days passed itself off as reality. The author and the “hero” comment on each other’s lack of existence: Bitov’s “Prologue, or A Chapter Written After the Rest” is entitled “What Is to Be Done?,” the title of Chernyshevsky’s novel of 1863; “a flat wind the colour of an aeroplane” is flying over the city, revealing a body, perhaps that of Pushkin lying in the snow after the duel, a pistol close to his hand; the statue of Peter on his horse; the legendary cruiser of the revolution, the Aurora, lying at anchor in the Neva. The northern capital has always seemed to Russian writers a city of dreams and visions, most graphically exploited in Andrei Bely’s novel of 1913, Petersburg. There is thus a traditional familiarity in Bitov’s phantasmagoric method, with the modern theory of fictional discourse added on.
Bitov’s politics seem to follow logically from his aesthetics. By exploiting the present-day cliché that a novel can only be constructed from other novels he also implies that revolution is impossible, because radicals and innovators are tied to the past as helplessly as poets and artists. The Marxist ambition to change history rather than to understand it is technically impossible, for the same reason that no novelist can write a new novel. Bitov’s “hero,” Lyova, works in Pushkin House, the museum of the poet in Leningrad, and he reincarnates a couple of the archetypes the poet created—the “superfluous man,” like Yevgeny Onegin, and the downtrodden “little man,” like Pushkin’s other Yevgeny, the hero of The Bronze Horseman, who, following the flood that drowns his fiancée, goes mad after presuming to threaten the great Czar on his bronze horse, and imagines the statue is galloping after him. Lermontov took up the idea of the “superfluous man” in A Hero of Our Time, as did Turgenev in Fathers and Sons; while Gogol and Dostoevsky developed in their novels and stories the type of the persecuted “little man.” Each of the sections of Bitov’s book is called after the title of one of these Russian classics, and one of them invokes no less than five famous fictional duels.
In an afterword the translator remarks that after a peek inside the book the staff of a college bookstore shelved Pushkin House under criticism instead of fiction. And yet it is not, she says, just “an academic tour of literary history,”
or even a sentimental odyssey through the living literature in quest of meaning in present-day Soviet life. It is a double of life itself, in a country where the national literature has always been a focus of the struggle between state and individual. To read this book is to experience the wild paradoxes lived by a contemporary Soviet intellectual.
She feels that all readers who have responded to Joyce and Nabokov will understand the method and feel the same. That is probably true, and Bitov’s novel is certainly entertaining and instructive as an image of contemporary literary consciousness, presented in a Russian setting. But as so often happens when a good writer gets the bit between his teeth, episodes and characters career away from the method, as Peter’s bronze steed gallops its granite plinth in Pushkin’s poem, creating a life and fantasy of their own.
October 22, 1987