Vyacheslav Pyetsukh's The New Moscow Philosophy
A glasnost-era mystery freighted with philosophical inquiry
Posted: June 29, 2011
Vyacheslav Pyetsukh's The New Moscow Philosophy, first published in Russian in 1989, is an interior novel in two ways: It takes place exclusively within the walls of a collective flat in Moscow during glasnost, and rather than creating a cast of distinct characters who act out a gripping story, it is primarily concerned with investigating and enacting ideas about the relation between life and literature.
The narrative unfolds among 14 variously aged inhabitants of a collective flat in Moscow over the course of a single weekend. It is divided into four sections: Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. The heart of the story is the disappearance of Pumpianskaya, an old woman who has been living in the flat longest, which occurs between Friday night and Saturday morning. The other residents, many of whom are scheming to take over Pumpianskaya's unexpectedly vacated room, gather to solve the mystery of her disappearance, which becomes stranger as more facts are revealed.
But this plot takes a backseat to the novel's key concerns: the state of Russian society and the nature of literature as opposed to life. Several characters discuss the former, and one, Belosvetov, eventually defines "the New Moscow Philosophy" as "the mission to further moral construction." Literature, meanwhile, is investigated primarily through narrative asides ("Though it may seem speculative at first, if not futile, investigating the relationship between life and what we call literature would be useful at this point," the narrator declares at the beginning of "Saturday"), and through ubiquitous allusion.
The New Moscow Philosophy is something of a mirror to Dostoevsky's classic Crime and Punishment. The two novels share the disappearance (or murder) of an old woman, and several characters in The New Moscow Philosophy, as well as the novel's narrator, reference Crime and Punishment outright, referring to characters by name, or "the St. Petersburg variant" of this mystery, and contrasting the layout of the apartment in Dostoevsky's novel with this one in Moscow.
By Vyacheslav Pyetsukh
Translated by Krystyna Anna Steiger
Twisted Spoon Press
" 'Oh, for crying out loud!' said Belotsvetov. 'You mean you've never read Crime and Punishment?'
'Well, no, I haven't ... What am I supposed to do about it now - hang myself?!'
'You don't have to hang yourself, but you ought to read Crime and Punishment.' "
This particular exchange, from late in the novel, allows Pyetsukh's characters to transcend the limits set by the narrator, as one character falls outside the sphere of assumed literary knowledge. At the same time, it exemplifies the importance of Dostoevsky's novel, at least to the characters as well as the narrator. In highlighting the continued relevance of the 19th-century novel and in creating what is essentially - but not merely - a glasnost version of Crime and Punishment, Pyetsukh investigates the relationship between literature and life while reflecting it. In the narrator's words:
"...That scenes from everyday life separated by a century and a half are so similar invites us to reflect yet again ... What if Ecclesiastes was right and there really is nothing new under the sun ... What does this hypothesis imply? First, it's possible that in its origin, that is, intrinsically, literature is implicated in the very idea of life ... Second, it's possible that rather than merely being a crafty reflection of life, literature is the imprinted idea of life itself ..."
In this hypothesis, which is elaborated more lyrically in the novel's final paragraphs, the narrator argues that rather than simply reflecting life, literature is life. So this meta-textual novel of glasnost is aware of its place, entwined in literary and social history. Finally, the novel is a vessel for literary and philosophical ideas, which ultimately seem more important than the story itself.
The New Moscow Philosophy's weakness is its lack of vivid characters. It is not a good sign that a list of dramatis personae included at the beginning of the novel is necessary, especially at points in the narrative where there is a clear attempt to increase the suspense among characters.
With the exception of a few idiosyncrasies - Borisovich's preserved fruit collection, for example - Pyetsukh's characters are simply names and foils for ideas, although the novel seems an attempt to balance the elements of a mystery and a philosophical treatise.
But no matter; the last 10 lines of The New Moscow Philosophy - in which the literary inquiry crescendos - are worth the price of admission. Pyetsukh's ideas about literature and life are profound, and this entertaining novel enacts, rather than simply imparts them. Readers seeking fascinating characters will be disappointed. Those seeking fascinating ideas will not.
Stephan Delbos can be reached at