The Inevitability of the Unwritten

Context N°16

Andrei Bitov


 

I sat down to write the story “Tir” [Shooting Parlor, the original title for Pushkin House. Trans.]. It was the forty-seventh anniversary since the Soviet Union’s creation.

The story was based on an anecdote—a true incident that I had heard from Professor B. Buchshtab. The anecdote was indeed appalling. It was about two colleagues from the Pushkin House Museum, who . . .

It could’ve turned into a really good story—as good as my “Penelope” [1972] . . . a bit longer . . . not too long . . . something like a long short story . . . maybe even a novel . . . but not really a novel . . . I kept working on the story and couldn’t bring it to an end. And so, totally determined, I created a challenge for myself—I jotted “a novel” underneath the title.

I shouldn’t have done that! It was a dead end. Although I did type most of the novel in a month. I just had to finish the last scene. Its climax. And it would bring me to the end. One more week and . . . But I had to leave for Moscow—for the two-year program for scriptwriters and producers that I had applied to some time ago.

I don’t know whether Moscow believes in tears or not, but it certainly doesn’t believe in work [a reference to Vladimir Menshov’s hit film of 1980, Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears, where three young women move to Moscow from the provinces to attend the university and get married. Trans.]. I sobered up after a two-year hangover, with a diploma under my arm and an unfinished novel in front of me.

Nevertheless I finished Obraz zhizni [Way of Life, a collection of novellas. Trans.], started “Les” [The Forest] and even conceived “Vkus” [Taste] (initially I had titled them “Rol’” [The Role] and “Teni” [Shadows] under the influence of Antonioni’s films).

I was almost through with my roman-punktir [“dotted-line novel”—a term coined by Bitov, who often expurgates his own opening and closing remarks by substituting symbolic rows of dots, as poets from Pushkin to Akhmatova have sometimes done when lines were cut by official censors. Trans.], “Tir,” that was to become Pushkin House. Perhaps I was going through a period of disappointments.

Indeed I was . . .

I decided to go back to the unfinished novel Provintsia [The Province, which later became A Captive of the Caucasus. Trans.]: anyway it was going to be purely subjective . . . what does Graham Greene know about our villages? I would write the Russian version of The Heart of the Matter!

I got very excited, and then I came across A Burnt-Out Case.

Then I had another disappointment . . . They wouldn’t let me visit Japan. I already had the airplane ticket in my pocket to Yokohama, and some yen, but they pulled me aside into a room in the airport and kindly explained that I would have financial difficulties. But each disappointment comes with something good. A great idea! Japan As It Is [his unfinished novel, which appeared in Zvezda in 1998. Trans.]. I almost had it—my “Moscovite” novel!

The archipelago of my Imperiia v chetyrekh izmereniiakh [Empire in 4-D: Life in Windy Weather; Pushkin House; A Captive of the Caucasus; The Monkey Link] floated up again. Well, I practically had Petrograd, the first in the series. And after changing the title for the second novel from “Tir” to Pushkin House, I flew out to Armenia, instead of Japan.

Armenia was preparing for its fiftieth anniversary celebrations. In Yerevan, without any context, the number “50” draped in funereal palm branches was hanging in various windows. It was easy to figure out which ones were private stores and which ones were state-owned: the privately owned branches were much more original.

The cognac in Armenia back then was sealed with authentic corks . . .

I decided not to write at all—they started slowly publishing some of the works.

One aspect of alcoholism that is never given any consideration is that the drunk are socially closer to everyone. Well, at least to the cops—not to the KGB. And even if he’s not a true Soviet, at least he’s part of the crowd.

I began meeting deadlines.

Then I turned completely insolent and decided to get an advance from Sovetskii pisatel’ [the leading Soviet literary publisher in Moscow. Trans.] for Pushkin House. Do you want to know how a publisher works? He will try anything not to publish your work, but, if he has agreed and signed a contract, he will respect you for that very reason. Thinking, if I have decided to publish you, then it’s got to be good. Here is your little niche.

I was trying to widen that niche as much as possible, priding myself not on what I had written, but what I had managed to publish. The best way to get an advance was to write in the genre of a “query letter”—one page in this style was equivalent to a quarter of any book. The application had to be composed in the following way: not too misleading in relation to the future content of the book, and yet not giving away too many details. Something like . . . First of all, the word “Pushkin” needs to be edited out because of its obvious allusion to the eminent museum. And so, a query letter for the novel now just called House:

It’s the story of a contemporary young man, Lyova Odoevtsev—the typical representative of his generation, born into a difficult era immediately after the . . . etc. The place of action in the novel is set in our native city. We encounter our hero prior to the most important event of his life and career—the presentation of his dissertation for a doctorate. Right before his presentation, certain circumstances throw him into a complicated creative-ethical, morally-bound situation, the resolution of which will shape the hero’s further development and the construction of his subjectivity and self-awareness. It is about the relationship between the individual and the collective. About the slow and tortuous development of the self-consciousness. Through friendship, love, and work our hero uncovers moral issues impeding him from . . .

And so on. It’s a pity I can’t find you the originator of this amazing writing style, the product of collaboration between the author and his editor who attempted to somehow support his eternally youthful gift. Dear Kira Mikhailovna! Dearest Igor Sergeevich! Dear . . . I bow to you with deep gratitude.

After receiving 1,125 rubles, and worrying over the tanks in Prague, my mind at ease about the family budget for the next half of the year and most of it already gone on alcohol, I was trapped in a contract and deadlines: not later than October first (thank God I had another year).

***

Alas, the date was approaching and I had to have an extension. But that deadline arrived soon, too . . .

I had asked for more, but not more than two. I had a few kopecks left from the 1968 advance. The bridges had to be burnt. Literally: the past and the future ones . . . On April 22, 1970, on the centennial of Lenin’s birthday I sold my car to a wonderful man from Yerevan—Budenny. Budenny was his first name—Budenny Artashesovich Mkrtchian [named after Semion Budenny, an inept Red Army marshal during WWII, whose tactics destroyed nearly all of his forces. Trans.].

Financially secure once again, six years after I started it, I sat down to complete Pushkin House. Forty days of uninterrupted work and it acquired its present-day structure. But! I had come upon another writer’s block.

The four hundred pages would impress the publisher. And rushing to meet the final deadline, September 1, 1970, after a sleepless night’s rewriting of this unfinished relic, I took it to the publisher, or, as they call it, to SovPis. Kira Mikhailovna escorted me through different offices, demonstrating how the manuscripts get stamped for approval. I will now reinvent the scene after Faina’s break-up with Lyova [Pushkin House, p. 177], only here you will find the opposite of those emotions described in my novel:

He was walking along the Nevsky Prospect and it felt nice. The sun was shining. And the air was unusually crisp. It was his favorite season, autumn on Nevsky, although there weren’t any trees in the section where he was walking—but it was autumn on Nevsky. He walked in this state for quite some time and even thought about how he survived, and now was re-experiencing those feelings he had in the corridor, on the stairwell and alleys, but the weather wasn’t appropriate for too much thinking. He even recalled how strange to have a mechanism of such emotions, that you don’t even think about them, they just happen as in a dream, unpleasant and lewd, and then as if they had never occurred. He thought about all of this as in passing, so that none of it really touched his essence: you won’t remember any of this, he told himself, it’s like a dream, like it all happened a long-long time ago . . .
To be sure, he felt terrific as he walked along the Prospect—his favorite season, autumn on Nevsky, and looked around—the air so crisp! He felt liberated and spacious. He almost thought: how strange, indeed—why was he experiencing such an invigorating feeling, it seemed like there weren’t any real reasons behind it all—he still had to go back in three hours . . .

Homeward . . . I was walking to my own words, although going in the opposite direction (I used to live on Nevsky)—I still had time before the store would open at eleven and . . .

I bumped into Joseph Brodsky, the first one who heard these words by the way. Just as I bumped into him after finishing Penelope, on a similar autumn day recounted in that same book, before the store’s closing and before his arrest . . .

“What are you doing out so early?”—“I just handed in my novel to the publisher.”—“What’s the title?”—“Pushkin House.”—“Not bad. I just got a postcard from Nabokov today.”—“What’s he writing?”—“That my Gorbunov and Gorchakov is written in a rare form for Russian verse.”—“That’s all?”

I hadn’t read a single line by Nabokov back then.

And Joseph groaned, the way only he does . . .

What manners he had—always bumping into me on the street! I remember when my daughter was born . . .

But, that’s enough. Let’s return to the novel.

The editor’s main responsibility was not to let anybody from the head department see any parts from House. According to the director’s verdict the novel had to be returned for editing, and I stealthily carried it out of the agency. I received an extension for one more year—and the advance was rescued.

***

I “retired to the dacha [summerhouse] to nurse my grief” [Pushkin House, p. 175]. My favorite October, beloved Toksovo—it knew better days of my inspiration . . . nothing helped! I’d start up the wood stove, make some coffee, empty out the ashtray . . . The sheet of paper in the typewriter retained its characteristic curve—even the paper was exhausted—on the same old line: “ ‘Whew!’ he said, and wiped his brow with the back of his hand, as in the movies. ‘I guess it’s over’ ” [Pushkin House, p. 288].

That phrase horrified me! “The back of his hand . . .” How can one butcher the Russian language in such a way?

Not knowing what to do . . . No, the other way around! What will one do in order to—not “do”! I retyped my poem “The Last Case with Letters” and pinned the sheets on the wall for the ink to dry. I walked around the cabin in my darkcolored valenki [felt boots] and re-read it over and over. “I’ll shoot myself,” I declared defiantly, like the hero from Zoshchenko’s book who couldn’t stop hiccupping.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a pistol lying around anywhere . . .

And I finally had nothing else to do . . .

I pressed a random key on the typewriter—still on my feet—the letter O . . .

“Is it over?”—I echoed in a sardonic tone . . .

When I woke up, I thought it was morning. It turned out to be twilight of the next day. Scattered on the floor, like autumn foliage behind the window, was my manuscript.

I was lying on the blanket, with all my clothes on. I still had my valenki on my feet. “How did I manage to get so drunk last night?”—this would have been my first thought, had I not known that there was not even one drop of alcohol in the house.

My hand slipped to the floor and from under the bed I extracted a sheet of paper . . .

I had never read anything like this . . . Moreover—I had never written anything like these lines!

Forty-nine pages of unfamiliar text, typed in single-space—almost twice the amount of editorial standard . . .

I had gone over the ending—“The Duel” was almost finished.

There was nothing that could stop me from bringing the novel to its end . . . I gathered the loose sheets into a pile and returned to St. Petersburg.

They were already waiting for me at the bottom of the stairwell. Budenny Artashesovich and his friends. With two suitcases full of cognac and grapes. The hotels were too expensive and there were no rooms available. I was reminded of our newly established fraternal bonds through the car I’d sold. I looked out the window: his/my car was parked in the yard. They had driven in it. Without even a single stop on the way. It had taken them days.

And so while I had been typing frantically without a break, they had been flying on the highway at the same speed.

The fraternal bonds and traditions of Caucasian hospitality . . . And here they were, setting up a table in my own house!

I didn’t yield to this turn of fate.

I didn’t taste the cognac—I went into the bedroom, set my typewriter on the bed and held on to whatever was left from the inspiration.

On the other side of the wall they were singing beautiful Armenian songs—

We’ll take this page to the typist now, and that will be all.
We’ll sit quietly while she types: her machine-gun crackle is our last quietude. We will rouse ourselves, glance out the window . . .
. . . We will see Lyova for the last time coming out of the entrance across the way. Aha, so that’s where he spent the night! He doesn’t look as if he slept much. He stops and shivers, somehow bewildered, as if he doesn’t recognize where he is or which way to go. He looks at the sky. In the sky he sees a little blue hole . . . What are you smiling at, you sentimental fool? . . . I don’t know. He claps his pockets, hunches in a chilly way. What else might happen? Well, he lights a cigarette. Lets out a puff of smoke. Shifts from foot to foot a moment longer. And off he goes!
Bye! So long! We can still lean out and hail him:
“Hey! Hey, wait! Drop in . . . Drop in yourself!”
As he himself, in his time, had wanted to hail Faina . . . We won’t hail him, either. We can’t, we don’t have the . . . We have wronged him.
Where is he off to, striding ever farther away?
We coincide with him in time—and what more do we know of him?

NOTHING
[Pushkin House, p. 351]

_____________________

Excerpted from Bitov’s collection of autobiographical essays, Neizbezhnost’ nenapisannogo [Moscow: Vagrius, 1998].

Translated from the Russian by Shushan Avagyan

Selected Works by Andrei Bitov in Translation:

A Captive of the Caucasus. Trans. Susan Brownsberger. Out of Print.
Life in Windy Weather. Trans. Priscilla Meyer. Out of Print.
The Monkey Link. Trans. Susan Brownsberger. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30.00.
Pushkin House. Trans. Susan Brownsberger. Dalkey Archive Press, $13.95.

Selected Untranslated Works:

Aptekarskii ostrov [Aptekarsky Island]. Out of Print.
Chelovek v peizazhe [Man in the Landscape]. Out of Print.
Dachnaia mestnost’ [Country Side]. Out of Print.
Imperiia v chetyrekh izmereniiakh [Empire in 4-D: Life in Windy Weather; Pushkin House; A Captive of the Caucasus; The Monkey Link]. Out of Print.
Neizbezhnost’ nenapisannogo: Godovye kol’tsa 1956–1998 [The Inevitability of the Unwritten: The Years of 1956–1998]. Out of Print.
Obraz zhizni [Way of Life]. Out of Print.
Penelope. Out of Print.
Sem’ puteshestvii [Seven Journeys]. Out of Print.
Uletaiuschii Monakhov [Flying–Away Monakhov]. Out of Print.
V chetverg i bol’she nikogda [On Thursday and Never Again]. Out of Print.

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