Unreality as Condition of Life: A Postmodern View on Andrej Bitov's Pushkin House

Julie Kay Nachtigal, University of Chicago

Postmodernism is often thought to be a product of the of Western, capitalist, consumer culture. Yet somehow in the Soviet Union of Xrushchev and Brezhnev, a very postmodern novel was written by a Russian author. It could not be published on Russian soil until after Gorbachev, but it is marked with the Russian soul and deeply rooted in the Russian literary tradition. That work is Andrej Bitov's Pushkin House .

Postmodern works cannot be judged by old rules, standards and categories, they require and even demand new ones. Frederic Jameson, in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism calls the postmodern "a cultural dominant: a conception which allows for the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate features." Jean Francois Lyotard says the postmodern is "a sort of 'bricolage': the multiple quotation of elements taken from earlier styles or periods, classical and modern." Postmodernism arose differently in the Soviet/Russian context. However, it is found in that context with many of the same features as in its Western counterpart. This paper explores the ways in which Soviet/Russian postmodernism compares and contrasts with the Western, capitalist version through a close analysis of Andrej Bitov's postmodern novel, Pushkin House .

Bitov's work follows a young man named Ljova Odoevcev as he tries to come to terms with his life, culture and society. The story opens with his apparent death in a duel. But, through a series of "Version and Variant" sections, the death is commuted to a mere concussion and hangover by the end. This is the story of Ljova's life and presents various avenues by which he could reach the point at which he is today and be the exact same person. However, it is possible that the real subject is not Ljova at all but an extremely self conscious, postmodern exploration of the writing of a novel. We also find the story of the Russian literary tradition and the way it was stifled by state prescribed Socialist Realism. These aspects are presented through Ljova and his dealings with his work, his father and grandfather, a neighbor named Uncle Dickens, a friend/rival Mitishat'ev and two women Faina and Albina. These various characters are killed off and brought back from the dead as needed to keep the narrative action flowing along.

This paper explores both the implications of an appearance of a postmodern novel in a communist country (in light of the line of thought that postmodernism is a Western, capitalist phenomenon) and the ways in which the work clearly fits the tenets of the oft theorized,Western, capitalist postmodernism. In effect, this paper serves to expand the notion of postmodernism beyond East West boundaries and illustrates how postmodernism is also a logical descendent of the rich Russian literary tradition.