In an autobiographical note accompanying his new novel, the Russian writer Andrei Bitov says his first memory is of the Siege of Leningrad in 1941. Bitov was then 4 years old. In the ’50s, Bitov goes on to say, he took up bodybuilding and mountainteering, and after getting kicked out of college some years later, ended up in the military, where he became part of a construction crew working near a former Gulag labor camp. His first story collection, “The Big Balloon,” came out in 1963. Bitov “was vilified by the Leningrad press,” he writes. Later works — such as “Pushkin House” — were banned in the Soviet Union. “When I was just becoming a serious writer,” he notes, “official censure was the highest form of praise.”
Bitov’s reception by the West has been more welcoming. David Remnick called the writer “an extraordinary novelist.” John Updike described “Pushkin House,” published in the United States in 1987, as “brilliant.” Bitov has received numerous honors, including being named a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government and is a vice president of PEN International.His new book, “The Symmetry Teacher” — a postmodern tale that toys with our notions of memory, time and the language of dreams — is the first book by Bitov to be published in the United States in more than a decade.
Like many postmodernist writers, Bitov eschews plot, character development and other conventional tools. “The Symmetry Teacher” resembles scattered fragments of language rather than a narrative that follows any logical order or chronology. As one of Bitov’s characters puts it, time “wages war on time before our very eyes.”
Attempting to summarize the novel’s plot is a bit like asking someone for a minute-by-minute update of their unconscious thought process. In other words, it’s highly chaotic and unpredictable. But let’s start with some basic details: In the opening chapter, we are told about the mysterious death of a part-time elevator operator and prize-winning author from the 1930s: Urbino Vanoski. (We are simultaneously warned that he may not be dead at all.)
The narrator explaining this is a journalist working for the aptly titled Yesterday’s News. He is conducting an interview with the famous author to help form a more substantial biography for his fans. And so Vanoski begins to recall details both from his own life and from the various unfinished masterpieces that he has left lying around his apartment.
The narrative moves along like an express train with no known destination in sight. The novel we are reading, other novels that the author has written within this novel, and various classics from the literary canon, all become the canvas that Bitov works from to build his magisterial story.
Despite this chaotic format, the rhythm of Bitov’s prose is so consistently brilliant that readers will have no trouble moving through the narrative, even if they have no idea where the author is taking them. In one of Vanoski’s novels, for example, we are introduced to a man who finds himself walking down a quiet street on a Sunday morning. Bitov then proceeds from this simple scene with a sense that anything is possible: “Here, the laughter straggled behind, then died away altogether. Invisible insects began their chirring, and identical butterflies hovered and dipped in haphazard motion. A dirigible — a phenomenon whose novelty would disappear almost overnight — floated in the sky,” the narrator explains.
One piece of advice for anyone who wants to read this highly entertaining, beautifully crafted and philosophically enriching novel: Don’t become too preoccupied with how each chapter connects with the next one. Nor should you waste time worrying about how numerous characters fit into the greater scheme of the plot.
And if you are already approaching this novel with caution, don’t let the translation element put you off. Polly Gannon has done a superb job of making sure that the tone, texture, and most important, the humor in Bitov’s writing, all make a seamless transition from the original Russian text into English.
“The Symmetry Teacher” immerses itself in the language of science, history, psychology, absurdist existential philosophy, religion, madness and just about any other mode of thinking about thinking. It’s a slithering snake of a book that you’ll never quite catch ahold of no matter how firmly you feel it in your hands. Andrei Bitov is a master of deconstructing language only to bring it back to a form that moves in a perfect rhythm. And this novel is another reminder that he is still the most important living author writing in the Russian language today.
O’Malley is a writer based in London.
THE SYMMETRY TEACHER
By Andrei Bitov
Translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon
Farrar Straus Giroux
282 pp. $26