Andrei Bitov, Russian writer who chose not to flee, 81
NEW YORK — Andrei Bitov, a Russian writer whose work, whether elaborate travelogue or intricate novel, was full of insights into his country’s history and literature, died Monday in Moscow. He was 81.
The Russian chapter of the writers’ group PEN International, which he helped found, announced his death. Mikhail Epstein, Mr. Bitov’s friend and a 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 by e-mail, “especially in his masterpiece novel ‘Pushkin House,’ which explores the complex relationship between the author and his hero.
“Bitov,” he added, “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.”
Mr. 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, Mr. 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, Mr. 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 May 27, 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 World War II.
“Suffering did not mean being hungry, it meant starvation,” he told The Post in 1988. “But it seems to me the real suffering was for my mother, who couldn’t stand the starvation of her children.”
After the war, Andrei began to find pleasure in an uncle’s vast book collection. Reading Charles Dickens’s “The Pickwick Papers” was especially revelatory. “It was a moment when, without realizing it, I was already writing,” he said. “I actually felt the pleasure of writing ‘The Pickwick Papers.’”
By 1960 Mr. Bitov was publishing short stories, a collection of which appeared in 1963.
Mr. Bitov incurred official wrath in 1979 by helping to edit and contributing to the Metropol Literary Almanac, a collection of uncensored poems, stories and other writings, many by well-known authors. It was offered for publication in the West at the same time that it was offered for publication in the Soviet Union, a move that was considered a challenge to authority. (It went unpublished in the Soviet Union.)
But while other writers in this period were being told to leave the country or were doing so on their own, he stayed.
“For me, there was never really any question of leaving, maybe because of my connection with my family, which is strong and complicated,” he said. “It surely was not some great patriotic idea. But such things as leaving were dreams, never thoughts.”