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.
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