In Andrei Bitov’s new novel, The Symmetry Teacher, the infamous and inscrutable writer Urbino Vanoski declares that “Everyone thinks that choosing what to write about is the hardest thing. No, the hardest thing is to think up the one who’s writing. All the writers we read and revere were able to summon up within themselves someone who writes for them. And who are they, then, besides the ones who write?”
Before publication, we ask for biographical notes from each of our authors. From Bitov, we received the ANTI-CV. It’s fitting, as a list of publications and accolades for this uncanny stylist simply falls short describing the one who writes. “You’d like to know how it really was?” Vanoski asks. “It’s hard for me to remember what I have written and what I have lived. I think it all really happened, because this time I recounted everything from memory. I didn’t invent anything. Perhaps you’re right, I’m—a writer.”
For Bitov fans and neophytes alike, the ANTI-CV is a humorous yet defiant proclamation that reaches beyond the biographical and into the immutable psyche of the Artist.
ANTI-CV (opposed to political correctness since 1956)
When I was just becoming a serious writer, official censure was the highest form of praise.
We breathe air in and out without thinking about it (until we start to choke), and Anti-Sovietism was the very air we breathed when Stalin was alive. For this reason I don’t believe either in the innocence of the victims or of those who survived. After all it was not just the people’s fear of the authorities, but the authorities’ fear of the people that led to mass repression and persecutions. Fear is something you are unable to love.
After the birth of my great-grandson I do not feel compelled to recount any of my accomplishments. Suffice it to say I’ve always been fortunate.
I managed to see the light of day under Stalin’s resolution outlawing abortion in 1936. I was fortunate not to perish during the Siege of Leningrad from 1941 to 1942.
I was lucky to be able to engage in all manner of things, from numismatics to photography, to bodybuilding, to mountain-climbing. I managed to be a reader of good books.
Right off the bat I began writing as a professional—by plagiarizing. I wandered into a decent literary circle in 1956 (the Poets’ Literary Organization of the Mining Institute, where I studied). So as not to get kicked out, I began reciting the work of other poets, and later laboring over my own.
I was fortunate enough to fall in love, get kicked out of the institute, get drafted, and yet again remain unscathed.
The first professional reader of my early stories was David Dar. That was in 1959. He was married to a great Leningrad writer, and I got my manuscript back from him over the threshold of her grand apartment. Although he praised my efforts, he didn’t go as far as to invite me in and introduce me to his wife. Apparently feeling somewhat awkward about the situation, he followed up his praise with a question: “Andrei, has it been a long time since you reread the Great Works?” Suspecting him of an inclination toward mentoring, I asked him which ones he had in mind. He enumerated them. I answered him frankly, telling him that I had read only Robinson Crusoe and Jack London. I had never read The Divine Comedy or Hamlet, and I had read only abridged versions of Don Quixote and Gulliver’s Travels, in my childhood.
“Well, I’ve reread them,” Dar said with a sigh. “You can’t imagine how poorly they’re written!” This was, of course, quite an original opinion. He counterbalanced it by asking:
“Have you at least read Tristram Shandy?” “I’ve never heard of it,” I said honestly. “How I envy you, getting to read it for the first time!” There was no mistaking his earnest intonation. Here again I was in luck. It was an inoculation against delusions of grandeur. I became intoxicated with Laurence Sterne.
Prose was altered forever for me. The prose of life became a life of prose. (I read Hamlet at about forty, when I had written it all myself; The Divine Comedy I will read myself, too, posthumously.)
In the 1960s I managed to get accepted into the Literary Union of Soviet Writer, a Leningrad publisher, as a writer (not a poet). Mikhail Slonimsky, the last of the Serapion Brothers, had taken me under his wing. The best of the up-and-coming young writers (as yet unpublished) gathered there.
We wanted to publish in the unofficial (illegal) almanac Petropol; I began publishing, however, in the official journal, Young Leningrad.
My first book, The Big Balloon, appeared on the shelves of the Leningrad bookstores on March 8, 1963 (International Women’s Day)—the very day that the Ideological Plenary Session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party opened. This was the meeting at which Nikita Khrushchev froze his own Thaw. (On the 9th of March the book would no longer have been allowed to appear in print.) The Leningrad Local Committee of the Communist Party criticized the book, in particular the liner notes (which was apparently all they read). How dare they praise a rookie author as though he were a young Chekhov! I was vilified in the Leningrad press, along with Solzhenitsyn. One year later, however, the Moscow press lauded my book, as well as the first book of Vasiliy Shukshin, as the fruits of that very Plenary Session. V. Ermilov, the Stalin-era hatchet man, lavished praise on us, for which many progressive writers (among them Chukovsky and Paustovsky, who had been favorably inclined toward my first book) turned their backs on me. I took a strong dislike to both the “liberal” reign of terror, and the official one. Budging neither right nor left, I remained standing where I stood.
Chekhov, Solzhenitsyn, Shukshin . . . they said it themselves! They assigned me my stature.
I never appealed to the general reader, but my reader has never abandoned me. The standard compliment always went like this: “You wrote that about me.” It seems I wrote for and about loners; but it turns out there are lots of them. That reader is enough for me, and deserves my loyalty. After all, the reader and the author always meet face to face. It’s like a meeting with oneself.
If there is no place for you in your own domain, you are bound to search for a place in wider spaces. Leningrad was hemming me in, so I made my way to Moscow for two years. I swapped my Petersburg milieu not only for a Moscow milieu, but for that of the entire Soviet Union. I enrolled in the Higher Courses for Playwriting and Directing. The shrewd director of the program, threatened with closure of the Courses as “a hotbed of bourgeois ideology,” devised a cunning rescue operation on the occasion of another great event: the 50th anniversary of the founding of the USSR. He proposed to accept one representative of each of the Soviet Socialist Republics (but bypassing Moscow and Leningrad). In my person, Leningrad was able to slip through in the guise of a “republic.” All the representatives proved to be exceptionally talented people, and they are now all “classic” authors of the respective national literatures of the former republics of the Soviet Union. I inadvertently acquired the fruits of “people’s friendship,” the most outstanding representatives of the national cultures of our Empire, in the form of close friends. As someone banned from traveling abroad, I had to be content with it—the Empire.
My first book in Moscow, Dacha District, came out in 1967, on the day of the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, for which it was roundly attacked. On the upside, the Leningrad Municipal Party Committee started to fear me less, since I had a book that had been published in Moscow. They took the risk of publishing my next book, Apothecary Island, though one story, “The Icon,” alarmed the editor in chief (who had been demoted from his former positions as a party secretary of the Municipal Committee). However hard my editor tried to salvage it, she was taken to task for it, and the story was banned from publication. “What is the meaning of this, a pair of lovers searching the whole day for a place to sleep together and not finding it!” he fumed. “But that’s one way you could paraphrase Anna Karenina!” the editor replied, trying to defend herself.
“Don’t you dare compare this internal émigré with Tolstoy!”
This is how my status—or title—came to be defined.
And Fortune was with me again. Apothecary Island, despite all the delays and obstacles, and shorn of “The Icon,” came out on precisely the day that our army invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. And again the critics attacked me, for “lack of ideology.”
In 1969, I managed to write and even publish Armenia Lessons, in which for the first time in the Soviet Union, I made public the subject of the Armenian genocide. In 1972, the first chapter of what would become The Georgian Album was published.
With the book in hand, I visited Slonimsky, who was dying. Pushkin House had already appeared in full in samizdat, and the old man was worried about me, knowing very well what a Soviet literary existence meant. Stroking the cover of the journal I had given him, he sighed in relief and said:
“Clever boy! Armenia in one pocket, Georgia in the other,” implying that the “people’s friendship” would always come to my aid.
He was right. It saved me right up until 1986.
The critics attacked me, but the literary scholars praised me. Mikhail Bakhtin and Lidia Ginsburg, Irina Rodnyanskaya and Wolf Schmidt, Sergei Bocharov. Vladimir Toporov, originator of the term and the theory of the “Petersburg Text,” designated me as the first modern embodiment of this phenomenon in Russian literature.
In 1975—exactly half a lifetime ago—I became immersed in ecology. Having written three works in different genres on this subject, I again thought I had written everything there was to write. And, indeed, 1976 rolled by very smoothly. The Forest appeared in print. Mosfilm Studios contracted to film Nature Reserve. I signed a contract for Days of Man, the best selection of writing over my entire career (with the stipulation that everything in the book must have already been published). Only Birds, or New Information about Man, not having fallen under suspicion thus far, was not received with enthusiasm. Ecology was still a “harmful bourgeois trend.”
Making the round of journals for the second time, everything was back to square one, and the Birds landed where they had first flown the nest: furnished with a foreword by a biologist and an afterword by a philosopher, they were given the green light by the Leningrad Local Committee. The last obstacle fell, and they started flying toward a publication date at the end of the year. What luck again!
But luck runs out eventually. At the last moment the Local Committee put a hold on Birds and banned its publication. The editor in chief of the journal lost his position and didn’t survive to tell the tale. I was in no hurry to inform the publisher about this turn of events, and the book managed to slip through.
I was doubly lucky. The editor in chief was indignant: “Why didn’t you tell me?” “But I didn’t know,” I replied guilelessly. When I was finally holding the advance copy in my hands, the editor in chief, in a fit of temper, said to my long-suffering, devoted editor:
“I don’t get it. It looks innocent enough, but every word makes me shudder!”
I have to commend her for her keen intuition. “How is it possible for an epigraph from the Gospels to appear in a publication of the Young Guard publishing house!” And, truly, I did write in our Russian language, bequeathed to me by our classical literature, not by Soviet literature. The only time I broke down and resorted to the label “Soviet,” in 1961, I wrote: “I was born when not even a hundred years had passed since serfdom was abolished, and the Soviet regime was not yet twenty.” My compromise did not pass the censor: how can it be that such a short period of time stood between us and the experience of slavery, if Soviet power had existed forever? It turned out that I didn’t have the right to use the word “Soviet” (though I can use it freely now. I didn’t even know myself that Birds would become the first part of The Catechumens; and that The Catechumens would be the fourth part of my entire Empire.)
These examples suffice to show that every one of my books that came out during the Soviet regime (of which I wrote 8½, as in Fellini), came out on the last possible day, and that the next day it would have been too late.
After The Days of Man I was banned from publishing for all intents and purposes. After Pushkin House appeared in the US in 1978, and I contributed to the censored almanac Metropol in 1979, I was shut down altogether.
The father of Victor Erofeev suffered most keenly from Metropol. He was dismissed as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of UNESCO. (Twenty years later his son would sell his father again in his latest megahit, I Killed My Father.) When he returned to Moscow, his father tried to reestablish his former connections in order to help his son. Soon, the son proudly revealed the KGB’s “secret guidelines” on the main figures involved in the publication. If anything, it was the style that astonished me. The proprietary injured tone aside, it sounded like a translation from the English, in its brevity and precision.
Aksyonov—“We just allowed him travel to Paris with his mother. Isn’t that enough for him?”
Akhmadulina—Besides now and then drinking one too many, there was nothing to impute to wise Bella.
Voznesensky—“This guy’s either constantly abroad or on TV.”
Vysotsky—“Every Tom, Dick, and Harry already knows his songs by heart.”
Iskander—“He’s already nuts.” This constituted a threat: any Soviet citizen who even once consulted a psychologist could be thrown into the loony bin with as much as a nod from the authorities.
Bitov . . . For the first time, in the possession of only a two-year residence permit in the capital, I was included in this Moscow roll of honor, albeit not alphabetically, but at the very end. I had not appeared in print since 1977; I had neither been abroad nor on TV; and I did not enjoy the official benefits of anyone’s generosity. It was impossible to reproach me for ingratitude. “And this one did whatever he wanted his whole life!” This was my diagnosis. I consider it to be the highest estimation, a medal of honor from the KGB.
A mode of existence out of phase to the opposite camp (I understand this only now) either was already, or eventually became, my very nature.
They continued to press me down, and Georgia and Armenia came to my aid. The editor in chief of the journal Literary Georgia took the risk of publishing the story “Taste” and paid for it with his position. From Moscow came a threatening directive: “Henceforth, do not publish material by Russian authors not connected directly with Georgia.”
The year 1982 arrived. In the émigré journal Grani a good article appeared about this story entitled “Train Running Late” (though it seemed that instead of “running late” I was actually on time). Perhaps from Paris it looked as though I was always too late for the distribution of “prizes”: success, fame, even emigration . . . Suddenly, my brother “went missing” in Italy. My mother was in despair, I was blamed for my brother having gone after “my millions” (the bloodthirstiness of the CheKa is equal only to its simple-mindedness).
The agendas of the KGB and the West reflected each other in a curious way in my fate.
No sooner had I signed with Ardis Publishers (by Vasily Aksyonov’s hand) for the publication of Pushkin House in 1977 (with the stipulation that they would publish the Russian version simultaneously with the English version) than they immediately stopped publishing me in my homeland. Not only did I not receive millions, I never saw a penny. Not only did it not come out in English, but they requisitioned the global rights to the work in order to bargain with them right and left. The “inoculation against execution” (in Osip Mandelstam’s words) didn’t work. I had imagined that the West would find out about me as soon as I was arrested. Paying a translator cost more to the publisher than the freedom of some Soviet author, moreover one with no permission to leave the country.
No sooner did our army invade Afghanistan than my French publisher chucked all Russian books from their publication plan. Mine they decided to keep, considering it to be more dissident in spirit, but significantly abridged. My situation was so hopeless I would have given up the project, had it not been for my wonderful translator. He threatened to withdraw his name from the title page if any of the text was cut out. Fearing a scandal, the publisher laid the book aside until better times.
Brezhnev tumbled into a grave by the Kremlin Wall, but “better times” were again postponed while things were being embezzled and redistributed, right up to the time of Perestroika. Gorbachev and Yeltsin were waiting in the shadows.
The French still vacillated. The editor approached the ambassador with a bold question: when will the USSR forgive Bitov? His reply was noteworthy: “We can forgive one infraction in a talented individual, and even two, if he is extremely talented; but three . . .”
When Perestroika and Glasnost were in full swing, Pushkin House (which had long before been published in the US in Russian) came out in German, French, and English, as well as other languages—though not yet in Russian in Russia.
Suddenly, they allowed me to travel to West Berlin. My first collection was published in the US. On the cover I was again called a “young Chekhov.” This time they added “who has read Freud”—though to this day I haven’t. The Germans named me the first laureate of the Pushkin Prize, and the French finally found their tongues and named Pushkin House the “best foreign book of the year.”
How fortunate I was that my “train was late” and I hadn’t emigrated! After turning fifty I was able to come and go as I pleased, and I was able to examine the long-awaited West, reverse side of the “Evil Empire.” I realized how symmetrical, and even similar, they were. The West lacked an Iron Curtain; it was burdened with a certain nostalgia for the enemy, in particular intellectuals, aging and doddering old leftists. At one symposium I grew irate and said as much: Stop mending the iron curtain from the back side! Enough of trying to rename Soviets “Russians.” Antonin Lim, a Czech refugee of 1968 vintage with whom I easily found a common language (not too difficult, since he spoke fourteen of them), had this to say about my outburst: “Andrei, you still don’t play team sports!”
I considered this to be a recognition of my achievement.
Western criticism could not come to terms with me. For too long, only two colors existed for it—Soviet and anti-Soviet. To be simply a good Russian writer was not acceptable to anyone. For this reason I have been likened not only to “a Chekhov who has read Freud,” but also to a “Russian Joyce” and a “Soviet Proust.” I am especially tired of being compared to Borges and Nabokov. Everyone tried confidently to account for my genesis. How could such a one emerge, who was never meant to be? Neither red nor white, neither Communist nor émigré . . . They couldn’t accept that I was simply who I am.
I have read two monographs about myself written in English. One of them was too descriptive, the other was too difficult. And only the old professor Clarence Brown announced decisively that he knew where Pushkin House came from: from Tristram Shandy and Eugene Onegin. I was happy. Now I couldn’t hide behind the fact that I hadn’t read them.
And yet another American pronouncement:
“Surely it is at least partly because of this willed blindness of the West that the work of Russian writers as dissimilar as Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Bitov has the ring of a helpless cry against the world.” (John Banville, The New York Times Book Review)
Thank you to my translators Priscilla Meyer and Susan Brownsberger for the praiseworthy English of my books.
Thank you to the old Roger (Straus), who, despite my modest sales, continued to publish my books. What could he understand about what was described in them? However, thanks to his keen publisher’s sensibility . . . When I place the four volumes on my shelf in the order in which they appeared in English, I understand that together they constitute a unity: the first, second, third, fourth . . . An Empire in Four Dimensions, over which I labored 37 years, truly like Proust.
At some point, not only did people begin to publish me, they conferred awards on me, too: the Germans, French, and then Russians.
But the greatest reward—life—I received not only from my parents, but from fate, which saved me: in 1994, from brain cancer; in 2003, from throat cancer. How grateful I am to my physicians!
Speaking of professionals, in this part of the world, they announced their presence. First the killers, then politicians, then female detective writers. Doctors, as well as teachers, they forget to mention.
I am not a professional, but neither am I a scribbler, in one sense at least: I can’t stand writing. “I do what I don’t want to do.” Someone once said this about me amidst drunken revelry. I think it might even have been me.
What’s the upshot of all of this? Only the authenticity of the negative. And suddenly the print appears—the positive! I had just eaten my dinner in the kitchen, when in came my granddaughter and three-week old great-grandson. His mom needs to eat, too, so she’ll have enough milk for him. I went out onto the landing to drink my coffee and have a cigarette. From the roof, where someone had just repaired the skylight, came a steady clatter, and I realized it had started raining after an unnaturally hot, dry spell. Back in the apartment, where I had left my daughter and granddaughter with the newborn (his great-grandmother died last year, not living to enjoy her new status as matriarch), rose the lusty cry of my grandson, and I cried along with him, an old man’s silent tears. I was engulfed by happiness, and I remembered the phrase with which I ended Dacha District, on that precise day, half a century ago, when I held the year-old grandmother of my great-grandson in my arms:
“And he thought, this is what we call happiness, because we never know what turn life might take.”
God, thank you and forgive me!
June 2013, St. Petersburg
After a frank talk with Jonathan Galassi, I started this Anti-CV in my own brand of English.
The question of independence from the Soviet power in circumstances of so-called democracy and freedom became a question of independence itself, not only from any power, but from any kind of profit, success, PR or publicity, political-correctness—all that kind of nonsense. No Production!—as if it were still the Golden Age of Pushkin. Only the “text as the next/nexus/nest.” I am trying to keep this sort of tradition. I am about truth, not about rules, and it is not an opposition to anything, but a question of not belonging to any ideology . . .
And here I went over into Russian.
June 13, 2013
Andrei Bitov is the author of Pushkin House, A Captive of the Caucasus, and The Monkey Link, among other works. He is the cofounder and current president of the Russian PEN Centre and a vice president of PEN International. He is the recipient of numerous awards and has been named a Chevalier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. He lives in Moscow and St. Petersburg.