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Pushkin House

Andrei Bitov

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Title: Pushkin House
Author: Andrei Bitov
Genre: Novel
Written: 1978 (Eng.: 1987)
Length: 371 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Pushkin House - US
Pushkin House - UK
Pushkin House - Canada
Pushkin House - India
La Maison Pouchkine - France
Das Puschkinhaus - Deutschland
  • Russian title: Пушкинский дом
  • Translated by Susan Brownsberger

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a complex and very literary (and very Russian) novel which will not appeal to everyone

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 29/5/2008 Sabine Berking
London Rev. of Books . 15/9/1988 T.J. Binyon
The LA Times . 24/1/1988 Elaine Kendall
NZZ . 16/1/2008 Jörg Plath
The NY Rev. of Books . 22/10/1987 John Bayley
The NY Times Book Rev. B+ 3/1/1988 Frank Kermode
Sunday Times . 22/5/1988 David Profumo
The Times . 5/5/1988 Elaine Feinstein
TLS . 22/7/1988 Sally Laird
Die Zeit . 26/6/2008 Olga Martynova

  From the Reviews:
  • "Das Buch ist eine Hommage an die russische Literatur und die Russen, die stets gegen Eiszeiten anschrieben und lasen und die wie Bitow selbst vor allem auf die Zeit vertrauten, die das Wort wie ein eisernes Hemd schützt, "damit alle Geschosse falscher Bedeutungen neben dem behexten wahren Sinn einschlagen!" Und es ist eine Hommage an die Sprache, nicht nur die russische, an die Imperien der Worte, die es als einzige zu bewahren gilt, weil sie uns überstehen." - Sabine Berking, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Pushkin House is a scholarly, inventive, elaborate jeu d'esprit, but a game that will be fun only for those with Bitov's home court advantage." - Elaine Kendall, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Bitows verheerende Charakterisierung der sowjetischen Gesellschaft kommt karnevalistisch daher. (...) Bitows Travestie der sozialistischen Gleichheit im Massen-Wodkarausch und die des fortschrittlichen Bewusstseins im antisemitisch-fremdenfeindlichen Ressentiment lassen an Putins Einiges Russland denken -- nur fehlen dort Erzähler und Autor. Man wünschte, das fast vierzig Jahre alte Puschkinhaus wäre weniger aktuell." - Jörg Plath, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Pushkin House nonetheless runs into difficulties in English (...), for its fantasy and humor, both of which are a little too determined, depend on an idiom and a linguistic vitality that have no ready Western equivalent. Its modishness is more than recognizable; it can be placed among the current kinds of clever novels concerned with the nonexistence of the hero and the convertibility of the text. But its individual spirit is harder for a Western reader to get hold of, enclosed as it is in a game of perpetual allusiveness to scenes, lines, and contexts in the Russian classics." - John Bayley, The New York Review of Books

  • "Pushkin House, a novel full of fiery intelligence, is, it must be said, a work of formidable complexity, and readers should be warned that first time round they are in for a rough ride." - Frank Kermode, The NY Times Book Review

  • "Pushkin House offers a complex and highly intellectual critique of of the individual citizen's place in history. Difficult as its texture is for a Western reader, it offers a clear challenge to literary and political tradition." - David Profumo, Sunday Times

  • "Changes in political behaviour are recorded in habits of conversation, attitudes, and dress with a satirical lightness that I found wholly admirable." - Elaine Feinstein, The Times

  • "Behind his irony and agnosticism there's a residue of romantic -- almost religious -- faith: faith in the self, the expression of which, in literature, is style. (...) With Proustian exactness, Bitov tells the history of his generation through his hero's inner story (.....) Happily, too, it has been served by a translation which, apart from a few hiccups at the beginning, captures much of the vigour and style of the original." - Sally Laird, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Bitow hat diese russische Ambivalenz mit bewundernswerter Sensibilität und feinem Zeitgespür erforscht." - Olga Martynova, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Andrei Bitov's complex literary novel is very much a work about writing. An homage to Russian literature (pre-Revolutionary literature), Bitov twists the classical tradition in his very modern creation, using it to portray and comment on the role of the individual in Soviet society (showing a fascinating set of contrasts and parallels). Allusive, firmly grounding itself in the great Russian authors and texts of the nineteenth century (quoting amply, even titling each of the three main sections of the book after a classic work), Bitov also manages to paint a portrait of life in the Soviet society of the 1950's and 60's. The author himself intrudes into the text (at least as an authorial voice), commenting on the happenings, and even berating the reader.
       The novel is as much commentary as narrative, Bitov's bitter and darkly humorous view of this world he inhabits and creates an engaging part of the novel. The novel as a whole is, however, very literary and those not familiar with Russian literary history may feel completely at sea for large stretches (despite Susan Brownsberger's useful notes). Bitov's writing is expansive and inclusive, but it falls back on itself too readily. The excursions into the world remain visits and are not the center of the novel.
       The book opens with a death, that of the central character, Lyova Odoevtsev, found the day after the anniversary of the Russian Revolution in the famous Pushkin House, a literary institute cum museum in Leningrad. Immediately, Bitov as author intrudes in the text, explaining his method, trying to pull the reader into a more active role in the appreciation of the novel. Lyova's life is then more conventionally recounted, from his youth to his fateful death, with Bitov lingering at length on certain episodes and characters and passing over much else.
       It is a meandering work, though Bitov's diverse forays are often very enjoyable indeed. Several characters are especially well fleshed out, including Lyova's Uncle Dickens, the strong figure of his grandfather, and his three loves (one of whom is not at all fleshed out, but that works equally well). Lyova's love, Faina, becomes an important presence as well.
       Lyova is a somewhat lost soul. He studies literature, he writes a paper that is not published but earns him a reputation, he winds up, fatefully, at Pushkin House. The Russian masters -- Pushkin, especially -- are inescapable and lead much of the text. Bitov finally kills Lyova off -- and then resurrects him, in a manner of speaking. Several times Bitov threatens: "The novel is finished", but he refuses to allow such a predictable end.
       Each section comes with a chapter entitled "Version and Variant", allowing for different paths taken. Three chapters are subtitled Epilogue, and an Appendix is also added, as Bitov twists the literary games dry. It is a fun book, playful and dark. It is also heavy and very Russian.
       We do recommend it, quite highly, but with the warning that readers should know what they are getting themselves into.

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Pushkin House: Reviews: Andrei Bitov: Other books by Andrei Bitov under review: Other books under review of interest:

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About the Author:

       Russian author Andrei Bitov (Андрей Георгиевич Битов) was born in Leningrad in 1937.

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