Andrei Bitov


A ndrei Bitov, a Russian writer whose work, whether elaborate travelogue or intricate novel, was full of insights into his country's history and literature, died on 3 December in Moscow. He was 81.

The Russian chapter of the writers' group PEN International, which he helped found, announced his death on its website. Mikhail Epstein, Bitov's friend and the Samuel Candler Dobbs professor of cultural theory and Russian literature at Emory University, said the cause was heart disease.

"Bitov is justly considered a founder of Russian postmodernism, a vast and still influential movement," Epstein said, "especially in his masterpiece novel Pushkin House, which explores the complex relationship between the author and his hero. Bitov introduced into Russian literature the most subtle nuances of self-reflective existence, and the multiplicity of narrative frames and points of view. In this respect he can be compared only with Vladimir Nabokov."

Bitov finished Pushkin House in 1972 and, as a 1988 article in the New York Times explained, it was "published in Russian, though not in Russia, in 1978".

The story involved a literary institute in Leningrad named Pushkin House and a philologist there, and through that character's study of texts, Bitov invoked great Russian literature of the past and fashioned a critique of Soviet life and culture. David Remnick, reviewing the book for the Washington Post in 1987, when it was published in English, noted that unlike many other Soviet writers, Bitov had not fled to the West or been exiled.

"So great is the success of exile literature," Remnick wrote, "that one is left wondering: Are there any writers of the first rank left in the Soviet Union? "The publication in English of Andrei Bitov's extraordinary novel Pushkin House not only answers the question in the affirmative, it brings to American attention a work of prose that stands with the best of modernist fiction."

Andrei Georgievich Bitov was born 27 May 1937 in Leningrad. His earliest memory, he said, was of being in the midst of the siege of that city by the Germans in the 1940s, during the Second World War.

"Suffering did not mean being hungry, it meant starvation," he said in 1988. "But it seems to me the real suffering was for my mother, who couldn't stand the starvation of her children."

In 1942, Andrei, his mother and his brother were evacuated to the Ural Mountains region, where his father, an architect, was working. The family returned to Leningrad after the war, and Andrei began to find pleasure in an uncle's vast book collection. Reading Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers was especially revelatory. "It was a moment when, without realising it, I was already writing," he said. "I actually felt the pleasure of writing The Pickwick Papers."

In the mid-1950s Bitov enrolled in the Leningrad Mining Institute, falling in with some other aspiring writers there. He was eventually expelled for spending too much time on poetry and not enough on geology. …

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