THOUGH ANDREI BITOV looms large in Russia, the past 15 years have seen the translation of only two of his novels into English: The Symmetry Teacher, which appeared in the summer of 2014 (rereleased in paperback by FSG this past July), and a new edition of Pushkin House (first published in 1987) in 1998. Characterized by erudition and formal playfulness, the works that comprise Bitov’s long career (he turns 78 this year) have earned him his reputation as one of Russia’s greatest living writers. Born in Leningrad in 1937, Bitov studied geology after the war, until he was thrown out of school for publishing in a radical journal. After working a series of odd jobs and giving up on his geology career, he devoted his life to the written word. He has since become a curious fixture within the Russian literary establishment, known for his sharp wit and idiosyncratic prose.
As a storyteller, confusion is the aesthetic norm for Bitov, who has a deep interest in the tenuous relationship between reality and its various copies. His ongoing work on The Symmetry Teacher has spanned 40 years, during which Russia underwent tumultuous ideological and political mutations. It is a text that Bitov appears to have never quite finished: many of the book’s chapters were published separately, some in the early 1970s and several others in the late ’80s. In 2008, a compiled version was released under the title The Symmetry Teacher, but Bitov later revised, expanded, and republished it in 2014. The book’s extended shelf life may explain why its persistent cleverness can feel dated; still crystallized within this novel is the influence of older, classic works of postmodernism like Borges’s “Tlün, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, as well as overt Nabokovian puzzling.
Russian postmodernism, a retroactive umbrella term that often shades Bitov’s works (The Symmetry Teacher will undoubtedly join them) first took hold in the late 1960s. Under that umbrella, writers like Sasha Sokolov and Venedikt Erofeev each strung together now classic works that chaotically fractured Soviet iconography. Sokolov’s A School for Fools, Erofeev’s Moscow to the End of the Line, and output from the poet-performers Dmitri Prigov and Lev Rubinstein challenged the limits of medium and ideological language in Soviet art. While never calling their works “postmodern” at the time, many of them travestied the aesthetic mandate of Socialist Realism, or chose simply not to engage with it. Of course, the USSR published virtually none of their work, but they found an audience in the thriving circles of unofficial distribution, samizdat (“self-published”) and tamizdat (“there-published,” referring to those works published abroad). In 1978, when an American press was the first to officially print Bitov’s Pushkin House in Russian, officials reacted by blocking its publication in the Soviet Union until perestroika.
Yet like many of these writers, Bitov’s singular style often lands him in a class of his own, defying the trappings of a literary movement. The Symmetry Teacher could be called a cycle, a translation project, a novel, or, as Bitov dubs it, a novel-echo. The book is an exercise in alchemical thinking — an attempt to transform absence into presence. One of its more puzzling pronouncements comes from the character of an ambitious young writer loquaciously defending his decision not to write:
So what is a finished work of art? was the question that gripped the collective consciousness of our Club so tenaciously. The work of art is not that which already was — but that which is (both written, and unwritten). […] We are free, finally, not to write.
The Symmetry Teacher’s premise is ostensibly simple, though what the author spins out grows exceedingly intricate. Bitov himself introduces the following work as an ongoing attempt to translate into Russian a favorite novel, The Teacher of Symmetry, by an obscure English author named A. Tired-Boffin. Unfortunately, that book has been missing for years, so the only source here is Bitov’s memory. As it turns out, Bitov admits that he actually couldn’t read English when he last saw his copy. There is no further recourse; he’ll just have to make it up, and so we’re left with pure invention that masquerades as translation.
The book gets trickier when the reader learns that Tired-Boffin’s novel is not quite a novel. Instead, it is divided into a series of separately titled, seemingly unrelated stories, many of which are found manuscripts by one Urbino Vanoski. More games ensue: while A. Tired-Boffin is clearly an anagram of “Andrei Bitoff,” Vanoski’s name (and occasional nom de plume, “Ris Vokonabi”) is almost an anagram of “Sirin Nabokov,” a combination of Vladimir’s last name and pseudonym, V. Sirin. Vanoski, a disturbed science fiction author, writes tales that may or may not be based on real-life experiences. Consider a few plots: a demonic visitor shows Vanoski a photograph from his future that drives him mad; an alien falls from the moon and teaches the slipperiness of the spoken word to Freud’s family doctor; a lonely king selectively edits the Encyclopedia Britannica, sneaking all of the redacted words into the realm’s crossword puzzles. Each chapter revels in an incongruous embrace of chaos.
In recent years, Bitov has not been afraid to voice his disapproval of Russia’s political direction, but like The Symmetry Teacher, he often sends mixed messages. He was overcome by emotion during the 2012 anti-Putin protests in St. Petersburg, and struggled to give a painfully moving speech commending young activists for their bravery. He strongly condemns Putin’s one-party system, and he recalls a childhood marked by the Leningrad blockade and a difficult career spent under the eye of the censor. A clear political message, however, is not echoed in “ANTI-CV” (2013), a pamphlet that FSG sent along with The Symmetry Teacher. Bitov writes: “I am about truth, not about rules, and it is not an opposition to anything, but a question of not belonging to any ideology …” In interviews, he has similarly declined to call himself an opposition member, opting instead to carry a no-party card — he insists that he is simply himself. Indeed, in “ANTI-CV,” Bitov is perfectly content to admit that he offers no answers, does not want to fight, and is weary of diagnostic readers. Nevertheless, his reader becomes hyper aware of Bitov’s costume change from oratorical persona to literary isolationist:
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.
In the pamphlet, Bitov compares himself to Aleksei, the protagonist from one of his greatest stories, “Life in Windy Weather” (1967). Aleksei is an alienated writer who struggles to find inspiration among his spiritually bankrupt surroundings. These social and existential struggles, which Bitov portrays through a psychologically probing quasi-realism, are a clear tribute to Dostoevsky, who thought that Russia’s cacophony of warring ideologues could drive a man to commit murder. Yet Bitov’s characters rarely resort to violence. Instead, life’s contradictions render them impotent, or worse, chase them into madness.
In The Symmetry Teacher, the struggle for inspiration has festered into all-out psychosis. Bitov’s characters are obsessed with images, particularly photographs: his heroes routinely fail to distinguish between reality and artifice. In the first chapter, “View of the Sky Above Troy,” Vanoski sees a photograph of his future and destructively scrutinizes the present through this monochrome image of what lies ahead. Davin, a doctor in the novel’s second chapter, carries on an extensive intimate relationship with a poorly developed photograph of his absent wife:
The photograph had been taken on Joy’s last visit and had turned out well — though it was rather a failure, technically speaking. It was Davin’s first experiment with photography[…]The moment was not stayed, but what remained was beautiful. […] She herself was happiness. That which exists only now, but not at the very next moment; what exists somewhere, but not for you, and is not within your reach.
A sense of rupture between a static image and one’s fleeting place in time echoes throughout The Symmetry Teacher. Bitov tells us that Tired-Boffin/Vanoski/Vokonabi wrote each chapter in one of English’s 16 verb tenses, but he knows better than anyone that Russian’s tense system cannot ape these literary acrobatics. Bitov’s mother tongue expresses time differently and with far fewer tenses than English, so his novel places actions in time haphazardly. Several narratives of time travel complement this theme. One character gives the working title “Fathers and Sons” to the following story: a young man travels back to the 18th century in search of Bach but fails to recognize the legendary composer at first, because Johann Sebastian doesn’t wear his iconic wig during their meeting. (Bach’s only line in the story is “Ich bin Bach!” — never in Turgenev’s wildest dreams …) He is all but mortified by his gaffe. For Bitov, history is terrifying, because forms of recorded memory, like the photographic image, have concealed the truth from us.
Rather than critiquing history, Bitov’s imaginary world rewrites it, a Russian tradition passed down to Putin by the likes of Peter the Great and Stalin (both figures haunt sections of The Symmetry Teacher). Bitov described the political landscape of Russia in his 2012 speech much like the way he structures this book — a mirage of false copies that can only result in destructive and disorienting chaos. He painted life in Russia as “being in a room that’s dark because there is either no electricity or the lamp is burnt out. Until you try to turn on some other electrical device, you can’t figure out exactly what happened.”
Bitov’s writing itself often feels like a historical hodgepodge that draws inspiration from various eras. He has publicly claimed that the age of Aleksandr Pushkin is dearer to him than his own time. The Symmetry Teacher recycles two of the poet’s central themes — the dovetailing of life and literature, and the difficult role of the artist in society. Bitov’s infatuation with Pushkin is well known, but the author often downplays his academic interest in Russian literature. When asked in a 2005 interview about how he has creatively incorporated into his own works such a large amount of research on historical and literary material from Pushkin’s life, Bitov swore that he stayed away from critical literature on Pushkin. In the “ANTI-CV,” he also claimed not to have read either Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy or Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin before reading Edward Brown’s 1988 review of Pushkin House, which cited both texts as clear influences for Bitov. Despite his public nonchalance, Bitov is far from undisciplined in his work: when comparing sections of the most recent Russian edition of The Symmetry Teacher with their older incarnations, I found another Pushkin quote smuggled into the chapter “The Absentminded Word” since the novel’s 2008 version. It’s likely that there are more.
Readers may become suspicious of the author’s seemingly performed, Nabokov-like claims of toting only a modest reading list. (Nabokov famously swore he had never read Kafka before writing Invitation to a Beheading.) That feeling is hard to avoid, especially when considering how often The Symmetry Teacher overwhelms with its formidable knowledge of Russian literature. Even though this novel is set in a wholly unrelated universe, it effortlessly weaves together the themes and language of major Russian works — an incredible and challenging idiomatic achievement. While much of Vanoski’s persona seems like a cross between the improviser in Pushkin’s Egyptian Nights and The Master and Margarita’s institutionalized poet, readers will also find plenty of the Underground Man’s paranoia, Tolstoyan inner monologue, and Gogol’s dark forces.
To properly parse Bitov’s unorthodox marriage of chaos and canon, we might follow the lead of Ellen Chances, who suggests that Bitov’s self-referential prose is “ecological.” Chances draws upon Bitov’s formal training in geology (of which he reminds us in the preface to The Symmetry Teacher) to show that the science of time and chthonic layers has left a tangible mark on all of his work. This novel incorporates the Russian canon (including Bitov’s own contributions) like layers of sediment, but it also represents a tectonic clash with the English tradition: Sterne’s irreverent humor and Joyce’s stream of consciousness echo just as loudly as those voices from the banks of the Neva. If Bitov ever wrote a textbook on literary geology, it would teach students to unearth the author’s name from Tired-Boffin’s, and would demonstrate how his publications under different names and pseudonyms could belong to two different layers of authorship at the same time.
Of course, we’re reading Tired-Boffin twice removed — Polly Gannon provides this English translation of what Bitov has called the Russian translation of an English novel. The tightrope walk of restoring Tired-Boffin’s text per Bitov’s interpretation would be daunting for any translator, and Gannon has taken on the extremely difficult task of rendering Bitov’s masterfully complex Russian into English. For the most part, she succeeds in providing an accurate and readable account of Bitov’s language, which can sometimes jump from the highest of literary registers to the most passé slang over the course of a single sentence. (He includes a footnoted apology to readers for characters’ usage of words like “prikol’noe,” lower-register slang for “cool.”) Gannon’s translation maintains the awkwardness of Bitov’s quick shifts and sustains the delicate beauty of the work’s troubled interiorities. It is inevitable, however, that the linguistic stamps of Bitov’s Russian influences suffer in translation, and much of the graceful weightlessness that demonstrates his mastery of literary Russian is lost. Mostly, English can’t always keep up, which is no fault of Gannon’s.
To call the book esoteric alongside its native contemporaries would be unfair — recent translations from Russia are no less inventive, and often just as intellectually intimidating as Bitov’s novel. Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik (trans. 2012), Mikhail Shishkin’s The Light and the Dark (trans. 2013), and Tatiana Tolstaya’s The Slynx (trans. 2007) all require the reader to do some deciphering in terms of both language and form. What sets these works apart from The Symmetry Teacher is their overt concern with the escalation of violence in Russian society. Bitov’s reflections on Russia are more subdued: many writers of his generation learned to rely on allegory and Aesopian language to deliver social critique. Kirill Medvedev’s It’s No Good, a brusque poetry-polemic published by Ugly Duckling Presse and featured online by N+1 in late 2012, shows that for some, the debate over a writer’s role in Russia should scrutinize how an artist communicates her political platform more than it should trace the pedigree of her literary language. In comparison, The Symmetry Teacher’s stylistic layering often veils Bitov’s political leanings. Those portions of the novel that do reach toward the reader’s world playfully explore a romantic and literary idea of timeless Russian specificity, far removed from the complex reality of Putin’s state.
The Symmetry Teacher offers a mix of aesthetically revelatory experiments that entertain as much as they mystify, and here Bitov shows that he is a true outlier amongst contemporary Russian writers. Readers wishing to acquaint themselves with an author as original as Bitov would do well to begin by reading his earlier works, or perhaps to revisit the Russian classics that inspire him. It seems unlikely that this novel will give readers a glimpse into modern Russia, though Bitov’s aim is not that simple. The Symmetry Teacher offers a lesson in literature’s power to forge realities that are ultimately tricks, and yet, they pose as frighteningly enticing escape routes.
Perhaps The Symmetry Teacher isn’t so far removed. An experience during a recent extended stay in Russia could easily have served as a chapter in this novel. While looking for a home in St. Petersburg, I stayed with a friend in a gorgeous apartment that had been in a state of slow decay for some time, perched not far from the eastern banks of the Neva where the river twists southward. It was rumored with some certainty to have been the residence of Joseph Brodsky’s aunt and uncle — a place where the poet described having spent a good portion of his childhood. The owners stayed mum on the subject: no one wanted the apartment to be raided by curious scholars. Unexpectedly dropped into a literary treasure trove, my mind flooded with images of the young poet measuring this space with his own eyes. What had Brodksy touched? Had he seen what I was seeing? Was this the bed his parents slept in, just as it’s described in “Less Than One”? When do I get to stop wondering?
Tucked away in a corner of the dusty guest bedroom was an awkward self-portrait that never ceased to grab my attention. The canvas was split in two, the upper half depicting a depressed inhabitant of Leningrad who stared out emptily at the equally empty streets of the city. In the lower half, the man painted himself amongst the environs of his imagination: a colorful jungle filled with flying splotches of paradise, blossoming smears, and a lion with crooked eyes. I was looking at a rendering of the jungle painted by an unknown artist who never actually saw it, rather like reading the translation of a book that never existed.
Matt Kendall is a PhD student in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Berkeley University.