From Hero to Person: Narrative and the Development of Self in Andrej Bitov’s Pushkin House

Matthew McGarry, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Critics generally consider Andrej Bitov’s Pushkin House to be amongst the seminal texts of 20th century Russian literature. Despite its “new classic” status, Pushkin House is a novel that only a few scholars (e.g. Ellen Chances, Sven Spieker, Mark Lipovetskii, and Slobodanka Vladiv-Glover) have addressed. This is not surprising, for besides continuing to be an active participant in contemporary Russian literature, Bitov’s work, as Pushkin House demonstrates, is both formally and contextually complex. A text about texts, Pushkin House is a tour de force about self and consciousness as manifested in the narrative relationship between author, hero, and narrator.

The importance of the textual relationship between Bitov, his narrator, and hero, Leva Odoevtsev, comes to the fore near the end of the first epilogue when A. B. remarks, Лева-человек очнулся. Лева-литературный герой погиб (Bitov, Пушкинский дом, Ardis Press, 371). Upon first glance the narrator’s comments are striking. After all, how can one perish as a hero, but come into being as person? Usually, readers expect the opposite, that is to say, the death of a person and his immortalization as a hero. Neither an authorial mistake, nor editorial oversight, these lines are the key to understanding not only Leva’s development as a conscious self, but also its narrative rendering in the text. The purpose of this paper is twofold. First, it is to demonstrate how the narrative of Pushkin House reflects Leva’s evolution from hero to person. Second, with the aid of Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of ответственность (answerability/responsibility) it is to show the manner in which Bitov empowers his hero with the ability to break free from the narrative shackles of his textual (author/narrator) and cultural primogenitors (post-Stalin Soviet Russia) and become a conscious self who is capable of living and writing his own story.