A Conversation with Andrei Bitov By Dmitry Bavilsky

DMITRY BAVILSKY: What are you currently working on?

ANDREI BITOV: Once, during a phone conversation, I came up with a good answer for this question—on myself. Actually I have been trying to combine my own projects with those assigned to me, and so I have been focusing more on short non-fiction, mostly essays. What I usually do when I have good material to work with—is delay the writing until the very last minute of the “deadline,” and then when I’m out of time, I set myself in front of my old computer. I pace my writing from one sitting to another.

I am not ready for big, serious projects—it’s become harder and harder to realize such ambitions. I have many unfinished works, among which is Prepodavatel’ simetrii [The Instructor of Symmetry]; I keep returning to it time after time, hoping it will turn into a good book in which I try to reveal the inner association of plots that appear at first glance as odd and incomplete. By the way, this is the only book from which I have decided not to publish any parts separately—I’m hoping to complete it. I don’t want to have yet another unfinished novel and this is why I am holding off.

Like Chekhov, I suffer from graphophobia, but when I’m inspired—I can write very quickly.

DB: Why do you delay the writing process?

AB: For me, the writing of the initial word is the most elusive part in the process. It can be any word. For instance, in a piece titled “Bitva” [The Battle] I talk about word formation: the first word can be anything, but once there, it becomes idiosyncratic—then, irreplaceable.

This is how it works for me—the narrative is the thread that ties all the words together. You can’t have the connection among the words if you are in a conflicted state of mind in regard to the narrative. In my work I depend on the ancient concept of “inspiration,” I have to be entranced, a state where I no longer reason and write without stopping. Without getting up from the chair . . .

DB: How long can such a state last?

AB: The longest was forty days, when I was writing Pushkin House. I had two breakdowns though. Nevertheless, I am quite content with the result. I write fast, whereas it takes me much longer conceptualizing the text—it’s torturous. There is always some sort of work going on every day.

DB: Do you take notes? Or do all those observations and aphorisms just come to you?

AB: Everything happens during the writing process. If you try to insert things—it won’t work. You can do that in an interview—remember something post factum and add a thought or a phrase in the middle of a conversation. But in the written text it will stand out like a red flag.

In 1971, when I was new at the [M. Gorky] Institute of Literature, I taught an experimental class. We were analyzing “anonymous” texts. The auditorium was filled with a mix of cerebral and non-academic kinds—just perfect for the purpose. I alternately read them excerpts from Nabokov and Sasha Sokolov. Then one day I decided to read from Chekhov.

I ought to tell you that our audience turned out to have a sharp aesthetic impulse, but otherwise, well—it was a bit more complicated. I read to them from “The Student,” a brilliant story and Chekhov’s own favorite piece.

At first they had to figure out who wrote the story. Then they had to guess what it was about, why the author chose the title, and at what point in the text the plot was conceived. The next step was asking them which phrase the author would edit out if he had had a chance to go over it one more time. And finally—how the author ever came up with such a line.

DB: That is the most interesting part.

AB: Yes. The Russian students’ response regarding the unwanted phrase was: “somebody droned pitifully with a sound like blowing into an empty bottle.” They all had the sense to realize that this line was inserted from a notebook. Nothing else seemed as dubious.

I did a similar experiment with American students, and it turned out into a rather interesting study, of course, having in mind that they perceived the story in translation. Here, that very same bottle had been drowned without a trace, thus losing its capacity of being discovered. The Americans just reacted to the “over-exaggerated pathos in the end.”

Interpreting fiction is an entirely subjective matter, but in any case, that “bottle” in the text looks like a pop-art object—it’s inserted, appended, and therefore is separate and hanging out of the text. For me all of this is connected with “exhalation”: all the genres in which I have written were calculated according to the length of my “breath.” A story, a chapter, an essay—all can be written in one sitting. It is completely irrelevant how long you have been conceptualizing them; what’s important is the non-stop writing process—lump-writing, if you like. It’s when you sit down and don’t get up. A longer story, on the other hand, is the time and ability of maintaining yourself in a certain single state. Say, within the limits of a week.

DB: What about the novel?

AB: You can’t have a novel written in one state, because the novel is the aging of the author with the text. There always exists a breaking point in novel writing. And somehow, it’s those breaking points, the gaps, that bear the novel. Nobody has really reflected upon the fact how the course of your own life affects the text, eventually evolving into one. Dostoevsky wrote The Gambler in one sitting . . .

While we’re on the subject, Dostoevsky is a good example for delving into this hypothesis because evidently, and according to his own contemporaries, he wrote in a sloppy manner, and for some reason it was ingenious. Because he wrote in one breath!

Or let’s take Pushkin for example; my weakness ever since my beginnings. I am completely puzzled by his cycles of creativity. He would mold his texts from various genres, and then it would all come to a rapid end—whenever he’d get up from his chair. Pushkin has a profuse collection of draft books, which now I happen to like even more than some of his finished works. Here you can find his origins of conception. The poems need trimming, the prose needs a gulp of breath—a sprinter’s long, deep exhalation.

But this is strictly my own approach to the matter and doesn’t apply universally. I recall the period when writing Penelope. For some reason the critics today like it the best. I wrote it at a time when nothing was being published. Finished it overnight. A young man’s energy, perhaps! Even though it was practically impossible to write back then—we just had the baby, I was working as a mining technician . . . Then I used to write at nighttime, in the kitchen, one printed sheet per sitting.

DB: Did you handwrite?

AB: I used a typewriter. I started typing a long time ago—if you write by hand you will start re-writing everything while transferring the text onto the typewriter. It’s agonizing. There are painters who apply the paint on canvas by layers, never finishing any single painting. One can paint such a painting all of his life, and never finish it. But you shouldn’t turn literature into a continuous process—some day it has to be finished and handed over.

DB: You mean you are not a perfectionist?

AB: I have the most careless manner of writing as can be. When the critics describe me as “an outstanding stylist,” they are grossly mistaken—it’s hard to find a sloppier writer than me. I have proofs (if they haven’t been tossed out while I was moving)—manuscripts full of flaws; I’ve always used a carbon copy while typing the text (in case I lose the original), which shows that everything I have written so far was unedited.

And that’s what I believe in—the condition, where nothing else matters or exists. But for that, one needs to create an artificial environment, which is inexistent in real life.

DB: What do you mean by that?

AB: Retreat to a quiet place, drive yourself to a complete desperation or desolation, and quickly make use of those circumstances. In the village, the backwoods . . .

DB: What about bringing the text to an “intermediate” end? Isn’t it like a release, and allows you to move on?

AB: The book should contain those various endings in itself. I repeat—this is my own method, which perhaps originates from my own inadequacies, the consequence of writing during a time when no other social engagements existed. I wrote without inhibitions because the publisher wasn’t interested in any of it. I was in charge of setting a problem in front of me and resolving it myself.

DB: Like inventing a bicycle?

AB: Sometimes I did and sometimes—not. One must stay true to the self, because in literature originality is very rare. But the energy that brings forth something new and its right to exist belongs to the people. The reaction to reality, which is expressed synchronously and spontaneously, is a rare valor. Not in the narrative, but in reality, whatever is happening right at this moment. Those authors, who manage to write in such a way, are without a doubt the true writers of the contemporary. There are not too many of this kind. The “belletrists” prevail.

However, we really didn’t have any professional “belletrists” in Russia—our literature was either ingenious, or simply didn’t exist. There have been recent attempts in bestseller genre writing—they write detective stories and dabble in other “professional styles.” Western literature has evolved a bit differently—they too had brilliant writers, but alongside their works they also created so-called products.

DB: Is it good or bad?

AB: I really don’t know. We have always had a uniquely “native” literature, which is capable of reaching unimaginable heights and set models that never existed before. The Golden Age—Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol—each experimented in different genres, but it took them only one try. Literally. They would go out “into the field” and determine for themselves—which genre. Then, it was quickly exhausted.

That’s how I came to the concept of “inborn text”—not in the sense that the texts have been initially inscribed in the author’s mind, but the bulk of energy, its completeness—it must exist in the psyche from the very start. The existentially ephemeral quality of Russian writers cannot be ascribed solely to the phenomenon of autocracy or Cheka [the Soviet Secret Police], but also to the fact that making textual decisions has always been connected to taking great risks. Combined with expurgation, the process of production is always associated with a dramatic experience—when they tell you from somewhere out there that for some reason you cannot create this certain piece. The next step simply becomes impossible—in relation to yourself, toward your own development. And that seems to be closer to what’s called a poetic way of experiencing reality.

DB: There are many versions of reality, how can one be sure? Perhaps there really is nothing beyond the margins of language?

AB: We process reality through language, otherwise it slips away from us. People live in a defined world—they live in the present. Most of the literature is being written to replicate past lives or realities, if you will. And then there is another kind of literature, which is created because of a lack of reality—it thrives only through the act of writing. This kind of literature is retained in the memory and becomes part of literary history, creating the potential for imitation.

I like Russian literature because it does not create imitable “products.” It has always produced unique works. The Russian novel of the Golden Age . . . It has nothing in common with the conventional novel: Dead Souls is an epic, Eugeny Onegin is a novel in verse, A Hero of Our Time is a collection of novellas within a novel. Their authors were free, and therefore the text was born with the subject—it was not composed, or narrated. Those were exemplary times! Everything was done during the eighty years between Pushkin and Blok. The Soviet era was the era of adolescent literature—after which everything went absolutely berserk and that’s why writers keep emerging in literature as if from the void. Our literature still remains untamed and wild. There are a plethora of “bicycle inventions,” but they can never replace the energy. You can’t replace youth, desire and love with anything else. The written text must be exhaled—no mastery can ever replace inspiration. You need to “hoard” the feelings within yourself in order to exhale them on paper. You must write reality so that no one will believe it, and then juxtapose it with fantasy that’s perfectly believable—that’s what I call literature.

DB: Can one write fiction with a concrete plot, by using pure poetic devices? Not lyrical prose, or prose-poetry, but say—a novel?

AB: Well, there is the epic. Although Pushkin exhausted all of its possibilities. The Bronze Horseman is an ideally condensed narrative described by its author as “a novel.” The Queen of Spades and The Bronze Horseman project two kinds of madness, whereas the main psychological battle takes place in the transition from verse to prose. Poetry, especially modern poetry, is completely indebted to psychological prose.

Recently someone wrote an essay about why Akhmatova didn’t like Chekhov. I’ll tell you why—because she emerged from Chekhov and is completely indebted to him! This is a topic that needs to be researched further.

And then, there is a human born every second who hasn’t read anything, right? That, right there, is a prospective reader.

Text is always associated with an event.

DB: The written text on its own, or the process?

AB: A writer who gets pleasure out of writing is naturally a graphomaniac. A lot of times this process becomes an experience only for yourself—the writer. But sometimes another person is also entranced by this experience . . . and when that other person is completely transformed by it—the process becomes an event.

There are no other criteria for this.

DB: So what happens next?

AB: I have been reading a lot lately, since I was elected as member of jury for the Russian Decameron. Ideally these works should fall under the category of erotic literature. I am very interested in this. It’s really hard to overcome something that generates interest—it’s either good literature or a narrative about something very interesting.

But the most intriguing part is that there is hardly any erotica in any of these works. They keep circling around it. None of these writers tackle obscenity directly—they all try to embellish it—and some are good at it, some are bad. But I did get pleasure out of one thing. We have a brand-new energy for the word—it lives and palpitates in the flow. It will be exhausted very soon—it won’t last too long, but I began reading it because so far it has been captivating.

Any person can sit down and write a book. Only it needs to be done in a rather simple way. But nowadays everyone is writing “literature.” They thrive in it, and then everything is lost. People obsess about being writers and that’s why there is no literature.


The original interview in the Russian language appeared in Topos

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