Andrej Bitov's Prose as an Intersection of the Russian Metafictional Tradition and the Contemporary Western Tradition of Metafiction

Marina von Hirsch, Florida State University

This paper will explore the controversial issues pertaining to the metafictional mode of writing in Russia and its position with regard to the Western tradition of metafiction. The problem is that the very existence of this kind of prose writing in Russia has long been unacknowledged and ignored both in the Soviet Union and in the West, albeit for different reasons. Whereas in the former such neglect can be attributed to the general disregard and ideological rejection of modernist literary devices, in the latter the exclusion of "the significant metafictional experiment" in Russia, to use the words of David Shepherd (1992), is due to linguistic obstacles, as well as common but erroneous assumption, in Shepherd's opinion, that "Russian, and particularly Soviet literature are so markedly different in their fundamental orientation from those of Western Europe and America."

The fact that this problem is given consideration in Shepherd's book is a very good sign pointing to the arising interest of literary scholars and critics. However, Shepherd concentrates in his study on some specific instances of metafictional practice in Soviet literature, and in analyzing works of the four mainstream Soviet writers--Leonov, Shaginjan, Vaginov and Kaverin--focuses on the features that set Soviet metafiction apart from the metafiction of the rest of the world rather than on an affinity that makes it a legitimate part of this major twentieth-century trend in literature. This affinity, however, exists, and it manifests itself most vividly, in my opinion, in the writings of Andrej Bitov.

This paper will explore these questions from two perspectives: diachronic and synchronic. The first approach is instrumental for demonstrating that the Russian metafictional tradition, which finds its culmination in Bitov's prose, was inaugurated by Aleksandr Pushkin, and was shared with Pushkin by Gogol', Lermontov and Dostoevskij, whose writings frequently displayed the self-conscious and self-referential style so characteristic of metafiction.

The second, synchronic approach to this matter helps to see Bitov's work as part of the contemporary Western metafictional tradition, wherein the name of Bitov should occupy a deserved place alonside with the well-known names of the authors of fairly recent metafictional writings such as Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, John Barth, Samuel Beckett, and others.

Thus, the purpose of my paper is to demonstrate that Bitov's prose, on the one hand, is part of St. Petersburg classical literary tradition and, at the same time, constitutes a link between the Russian tradition of metafiction and that of the contemporary Western literature. The paper concludes that metafiction, albeit the term itself is relatively new, has long been a mode of writing commonly found in Russian as well as European and American literatures, and that no contemporary Russian author is better fit to represent this tradition than Andrej Bitov. The paper will rely on the numerous sources which I used for my comparative study of Bitov's and Nabokov's works that was part of the research conducted for my Ph.D dissertation defended in 1997.