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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

The Literary Hero as Hero. A Discourse in the Genre of the Intellectual Primitive

Andrei Bitov
Traduction de Susan Brownsberger

Texte intégral

Я җе из Петерурга, самого европейского города
России, самого немытого “окна в Европу”. Так и не
понял: это, чтобы заглдывать в него с Запада или
выглдываться в него с Запала или выглядываться в него с Bостка?

1This genre, as I define it, is governed by the ambitions of the visual arts, not the intellect: the idea comes to the mind, not from it. We don’t set it forth, we send it forth. With a benevolent gaze.

2The starting position is this: European civilization was built with the participation of the literary hero. First of all, the knight.

3Tristan (who is nothing without Isolde). Hamlet (let’s not forget that he’s a fat, clumsy D student). Don Quixote (keep in mind that he’s a parody, and that the future — Sancho Panza—is already relentlessly present). D’Artagnan (credited with inventing the Hollywood hero). Sherlock Holmes (a post-knight, as in post-literature).

Gargantua, Robinson, Gulliver
— for scale in space and time.
Ariel. Homunculus, Frankenstein, Dracula, Golem —
antecedents of the Transformers.
Let us think about people!
We will find nothing human but Winnie the Pooh.
Read only children’s books,
Keep only children’s thoughts,
Cast grown-up cares away,
From sorrow’s depths arise.
But ...
(Mandelstam, 1908)


4I am sixty-five, and I suffer from graphophobia. For the last two years I have been dreaming unwritten texts. Rather ghastly ones. Not even worth writing. I wouldn’t think of writing them. They are exactly the ones I didn’t used to write.

5Nowadays I write when I’m up against a commission, a deadline. I picture this line, literally, as the line of death. It was displayed to me on the operating table in 1994, and since then I wait for my deadline to take me by force, make me “relax and enjoy it.” The same with this text. I saw at once what I could write, and how, and again this was enough to render me quite unable to sit down at my desk.

6Yesterday, at last, I somehow sat myself down and somehow forced it. There was no special enjoyment in it. And I keep having a dream. I wake up deeply ashamed and realize that I have just received a commentary on yesterday’s text ...

7I am in Denmark, settling in at some sort of hotel with my wife. All this is soporific enough — shabby, but of course clean. The desk clerk, or someone, is talking like a didactic tour-guide: “And Denmark isn’t a small country, by any means! We have capital and profits ... It’s all that damned prince! And why must you Russians call us Dutchies? We’re not Dutch! Seven hundred years we’ve been conquering and being conquered! We are Danes!” He’s obviously making this speech for my wife, it’s her first time in Denmark, her eyes are round. Weighing heavily on the dream is my Soviet past — the dorm. But clean. Two soldierly cots: one of them made up for us, the other with linens on the pillow. The one, however, will be too narrow for two people. We look out the window: it’s the real Denmark out there. My wife is enchanted. I’m exploring, opening doors, that’s the bath, that’s the closet ... I open one more — and shouldn’t have: it’s a different life in there, altogether Danish, their own. They’re sitting around a table drinking tea, staring at me in bewilderment. I’m violating their privacy. “Sorry,” I mumble, in English, “sorry.” I withdraw. Now another novelty: a roommate for us. Enter the well-known Petersburg writer and historian G. Slightly self-important, with the independent air of the Russian traveler who has already been abroad, though not necessarily to Denmark.

8Can more or less express himself in English or German. Very businesslike, organized, which immediately betrays his inferiority complex as a non-European. He immediately sets about making the bed. Here I realize that something’s wrong. However shabby the hotel, it cannot be a Soviet dorm. They cannot install a couple in the same room with a neighbor, and the guest is not supposed to make the bed himself. “Stop, wait a minute,” I say to G., unconsciously demonstrating to him, or to my wife, that I know a bit more about Europe than he does. “There’s been some mistake. We should at least call the chambermaid.” The chambermaid appears instantly, takes the sheet from G.’s hands, and with many apologies leads him to the next room. “There, you see!” I tell my wife smugly, and at this point two smart-looking nutcrackers march out of the closet wearing old-time uniforms. “Whereas you say ... And now you’re so touched you’re going to cry!”

9I wake up and realize that somehow I treated Europe boorishly in yesterday’s text. But, owing to my Russian mentality, I don’t understand how. How could I hurt them, when they’re so civilized? When I’m so insulted and injured? It’s December 13, black Friday ... Who do I think I am, Dostoevsky? But I am from Petersburg, Russia’s most European city, that unwashed “window on Europe.” I have never understood: was this so that they could look in from the West, or we could look out from the East? I decided to read over what I had written yesterday, to have caused such a dream ...

Chapter One. ANACHARSIS (Yesterday’s text)

10It’s not right to think of the New Testament as an artistic work, but where could we find one earlier or more postmodern ... the way it tells and retells, four times in a row, the same story of a man’s betrayal? Despite all, European civilization is primarily Christian.

11Then Christ, despite all, is primary. The Superstar.

12Geography is even more primary. The Mediterranean. Its indented coastline. Peninsulas and islands. Mountains, seas, and rivers. Europe has more of all these per unit of geographic area than any place else. Toward the East, Europe bulges and erodes, transitioning to my homeland, which transitions to Asia.

13At one time I couldn’t be bothered to press the button of a camera. I traveled halfway round the world and hardly took one roll of film. When I developed it, I discovered it was all the same scene: hills. Low, smooth, green hills — man’s favorite landscape, as ethnology has made clear. The shepherd’s ideal. These were the hills of three countries: Italy, Israel, and Russia. So the sheep-herding civilization was quietly encamped at the foundation of the pre-Christian. Shepherds were the first to consider the stars, the first to see the Star (of Bethlehem).

14Then the history of European civilization is easily described: the shepherd climbed a hill from which he had a good view of his flock, grazing on slopes covered with good grass. The shepherd grew strong and became a feudal lord; on top of the hill he built a castle, from whose tower he scanned frontiers that he could defend against his neighbors. The higher the hill, the wider the boundaries—thus were the first principalities formed. The principalities coalesced and formed states. When rivers, mountains, and bays outlined the frontiers of languages and dialects, Europe had been mapped. The feudal lord came down from his hill: the castle was replaced by a monastery. When it grew rich through indulgences, the monastery yielded up its body to the university. Castle– monastery–university: Europe had come into being.

15There you have the West, as seen from Scythia.

16“And the province started writing!” — as we Russians say when everything has been set in motion.

17I wish I knew where that saying came from (before Gogol used it). History has forgotten, but the language has held on to it.

18“Writing Europe” sounds derisive in Russian, because it ex-changes winks with Soviet slang: “the office is writing.” Everyone knows what kind of office. Europe has nothing to do with it.

19Yes, we are Scythians! Yes, we’re Asiatics,

20With slanted, greedy eyes! wrote Alexander Blok in 1918, ostensibly welcoming the revolution.

21Russian literature is a very greedy literature. To the point of devouring its own children. Also, however, a generous literature ... it will never satisfy its ambitions, for it gives everything away free, right and left, trying to persuade the West who we are and failing to communicate this to us ourselves.

22That same Blok, before the revolution, on returning from Italy, wrote: “Whatever a man does in Russia, he is above all pathetic. It’s pathetic when a man eats with gusto. Pathetic when a customs clerk who has never been abroad asks you what the weather’s like over there ...” So wrote Blok, only to perish at forty in 1921, the same year as another poet (Nikolai Gumilyov, Anna Akhmatova’s husband), without living to see the day he received his foreign passport.

23Who were the Scythians? It’s a killer question. Tribes of some sort, who lived at some time. But Scythian gold has lasted better than Bolshevik gold.

24One Scythian, at least, existed as long ago as the sixth century B.C.E. His name was Anacharsis. He was of noble birth, but fled to Greece. Dusty and ragged, he presented himself at Solon’s palace. “Why have you come?” “To find friends.” “One looks for friends at home.” “But you are at home!” Humbled by this boorish logic, the king let him in. To the question whether the Scythians had flutes Anacharsis replied: “We don’t even have grapes.” Though accustomed to his boundless native steppes, he was afraid of the sea and invented the anchor. Having thus become one of the “seven wise men,” he returned to his homeland, to be murdered by his own brother, who feared for the fate of the throne.

25So, if we are indeed from the vanished Scythians, to what extent are we Asiatics? That, as they say, is an interesting question. Another killer. Our historians take pride in the fact that we halted the Tatar-Mongol invasion, thereby saving Europe, though we lagged behind her by three hundred years. (We would save her again, more than once—first from Napoleon, then from Hitler, each time reducing that lag by a hundred years.)

26To perceive ourselves as a kind of pillow for Europe to rest on may be an honor, but it is also distasteful. Whatever the case, in liberating herself from the Tatars, Russia moved Eastward at a speed suggesting that we meant to eliminate Asia as a geographical concept and annex it to Europe. We came to our senses only in California: it turned out we had fled Europe.

27Russia all but drowned in her space in the East, and she has sought friends in Europe ever since. She does this in a peculiar way, albeit no less sincerely than Anacharsis the Scythian. Europe is small, and Peter is Great. He stands, like Gulliver, with one tall boot planted in Hamburg, the other in Amsterdam, and tries to solve the problem of how to magnify all this — so small!—to Russian proportions. If claustrophobia is the fear of a closed space, what is the fear of boundless space? People claim that Peter was the one who called Russia not a kingdom but “a sixth of the world.” Curiously, the too-high ceilings of European palaces weighed heavily upon Peter the Great, and the hospitable Europeans hung special canopies for him in his bedchamber: this relaxed him, reminded him of his childhood, the Kremlin apartments, and he could hit the ceiling when he spat.

28When we think about whether Russia is Europe or Asia, Russian literature stands out as a special case. It is certainly NOT Asiatic. But is it European?

29Because Russian literature took less than a century to gallop the path from Pushkin and Gogol to Chekhov and Blok and show the world Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, it kept its innocence, confusing genius with ambition, license with liberty, talent with profession, and valuing the nature of the word over genre, emotion over char-acter, idea over plot, the pattern rather than the product. At the end of that hundred years the revolution took place and plunged our literature back into the position of being young.

30Hence the nature of our avant-garde, which became almost our only twentieth-century achievement to win worldwide recognition.

31But the same thing had also happened in my past century — the nineteenth. After all, it followed the eighteenth!

32Every post-epoch tries to give rise to a new style. Therefore it begins with parody, or in other words, an avant-garde. Very little time need pass before the avant-garde assumes an air of tradition. Russian literature took shape suddenly — in the twenties of the nineteenth century, our “golden,” Pushkinian age—as a post-European literature. Because of its neophytism and dilettantism, it harbors practically all the features of the postmodern that contemporary theoreticians try so hard to distinguish. A parody is even easier to parody than the original. Thus in 1995, experiencing the problem of “if I can only live to see the year 2000” and finding myself a quasi-professor in New York, I had no trouble giving lectures like “Russia: Homeland of Postmodernism,” and “Pushkin: The First Postmodernist.” The audience heard me without a smile. The only smile was the professor’s. That was when I developed this view of Europe as seen from America — which proved to be merely a view of myself, or more precisely, of Russia.

33And Gulliver proved to be a leading character.

34Thank goodness that’s a children’s book. As is Robinson Crusoe.

35For Russia, Robinson is one of the family. But of course! He survived under inhuman conditions. This we understand, this we’re familiar with. The image of incarceration ...

36In 1985, when the ban on me was lifted, I wrote my first commissioned article, a foreword to The House of the Dead, for Germans (who at that time were still “with us”): “When an artist like Dostoevsky thinks about Dante (the scene in the bath) or about Cervantes (Prince Myshkin), he is thinking about scale, not form. Dostoevsky chose the scale. But hardly anyone, not even he himself, realized that his book was taking its form not from The Divine Comedy, but from a novel by Defoe.”

37An island is a jail. Both, in the human sense, are uninhabited. Dostoevsky, along with Defoe, was the first to describe that kind of isolation. Exactly another hundred years would pass and Solzhenitsyn would discover the archipelago. Imagine an archipelago of uninhabited islands, with a Robinson on each ... Where will we find that many Fridays?

38No Russian has read Robinson to the end — that’s boring. Robinson returns to the island, claims it and develops it. After plundering it well and getting rich he comes back, builds a fireplace, and around it a house, sprawls by the fire, and only then begins to tell his children about his marvelous adventures.

39The more space, the less freedom. This is why people invented prison.

40Gulliver is a different matter. True, he’s another one who isn’t especially read to his prophetic chapters, the Laputans, Houynhnms, and Japan; people limit themselves to the story.

41And really, it’s far more important that he visited Brobdingnag and Lilliput.

42By measuring himself against them, he finally found his own size, his human size. Which is to say, he became a European.

43I know that Robinson is an Englishman, but I get it wrong every time, thinking he’s a Dutchman, from the biggest small country and the smallest big one.

44We can’t invent anything different. Our own dimensions are our mentality.

45Look at the huge countries ...

46They don’t know their own size. Some have never once been to Brobdingnag, others never to Lilliput. Nor have their literatures had heroes commensurate with European ones. The Russians, though, were the first to invent the characterless modernistic man (Onegin, Pechorin, Oblomov, and so on), and on the other hand the “little man” as hero (in Pushkin and Gogol, up to Dostoevsky), whereas the Americans hatched Hollywood mutants of Robin Hood and d’Artagnan.

47Nowadays, without leaving the prison camp of Socialist Realism, Russians are using American methods (lagging behind as always) to breed mutants of bandits and KGBeasties. Russian literature is finally becoming professional, or rather, ceasing to be the literature that we are accustomed — and have accustomed the world — to admire.

48But, as before, it has no hero. Except for the writer himself, who tries to remain a human being so that he can mirror the experience of being human. All he can preserve is proportion and scale. To keep from losing a human face. In this respect the experience of European civilization is very relevant. Although Europe has indeed lost its coins, to my childish numismatic disappointment. Oh well, all the more of them will stay in collections.

49Like children, we rejoice in the New Year, hoping to receive the gift of liberation from the old year. Nevertheless, strangely enough, the historically established division into centuries, which is quite arbitrary from the standpoint of logic, has turned out to be history. The young century comes after the old. You and I are in a newborn century. Nothing has changed — we have more problems than ever. Yet there has been an epochal change in the way we write about them. I assert this as a Russian writer of the second half of the last century. The new epoch will become visible only to our descendants, after this century passes (God grant that it may!). And so, no one yet knows what we are writing today. A good reason to gather at symposia.


Further Reading:
Life in Windy Weather: Short Stories. Edited by Priscilla
Meyer. Ardis Publishers, 1986.
Ten Short Stories. Moscow: Raduga Publishers, 1991.
The Monkey Link: A Pilgrimage Novel. Translated by
Susan Brownsberger. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1995.
Pushkin House. Translated Susan Brownsberger. Dalkey
Archive Pr, 1998.
A Captive of the Caucasus. HarperCollins, 1999.

Table des illustrations

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Born in Leningrad in 1937, Andrei Bitov studied geology and lives as a writer in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Since 1959 he has published short stories, essays, novels, and travelogues. In 1990 he was awarded the Pushkin Prize by the FVS Foundation of Hamburg. He is president of the Russian Pen Club.

Susan Brownsberger (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

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