Andrei Bely, Petersburg, Trans. by David McDuff, Penguin Classics; Reprint ed., 2012) / Trans. by John Elsworth, pushkin press, 2009. / Trans. by Robert A. Maguire and John E. Malmstad, Indiana University Press, 1979.
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"The most important [...] Russian novel of the 20th century."
-The New York Times Book ReviewConsidered Andrei Bely's masterpiece, Petersburg, is a pioneering modernist novel, ranked in importance alongside Ulysses, The Metamorphosis, and In Search of Lost Time, that captures Russia's capital during the short, turbulent period of the first socialist revolution in 1905. Exploring themes of history, identity, and family, it sees the young Russian Nikolai Ableukhov chased through the misty Petersburg streets, tasked with planting a bomb intended to kill a government official-his own father. Bely draws on news, fashion, psychology, and ordinary people to create a distinctive and timeless literary triumph.
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In a chapter of his memoir, Speak, Memory, Nabokov tells of his nocturnal wanderings through St Petersburg. Real darkness and artificial light conspire to make foreign his surroundings. “Solitary street lamps were metamorphosed into sea creatures with prismatic spines”; “various architectural phantoms arose with silent suddenness”; “great, monolithic pillars of polished granite (polished by slaves, repolished by the moon, and rotating smoothly in the polished vacuum of the night) zoomed above us.” The whole scale is recalibrated, all perspective redrawn, but the young Nabokov laps it up, feeling “a cold thrill” and “Lilliputian awe” as he stops to contemplate “new colossal visions” rising up before him. He is thrown by these hall-of-mirrors distortions but not entirely surprised to be so—after all, he is in “the world’s most gaunt and enigmatic city.”
This was 1915 and Nabokov was not the only writer to consider the city enigmatic. One year later, Andrei Bely’s Petersburg was published, a novel which possesses stranger, more fantastic distortions. The characters in Bely’s book are too flummoxed by the city and intoxicated by its swirling yellow mists to share Nabokov’s thrill. Their dazedness hardens into fear, and the reader is thrilled (and admittedly flummoxed, too) by the fecundity of surrealness on show and the sheer exceptionality of such a book coming from such a country at such a time. Nabokov himself approved, declaring Petersburg one of the greatest novels of the 20th-century.
Andrei Bely was born in Moscow in 1880 as Boris Nikolayevich Bugayev. He studied mathematics at Moscow University but realized his real interest lay in writing essays and poems. His work began to appear in print in 1902, poetry collections and prose “symphonies” that belonged to the burgeoning Symbolist tradition. Russian Symbolism, modeled on its French equivalent, sought to amalgamate literary genres, and its practitioners successfully fused poetry and prose into poetic prose. Despite their radical innovations, or precisely because of them, the Symbolists were considered scandalous by purists still grounded in 19th-century realism, forcing Boris Bugayev to become Andrei Bely to spare his distinguished father’s blushes. He left Russia in 1906 as the political situation worsened, settling in Munich. When he returned to his homeland he was reinvigorated and ready to utilise his pent-up reserves of literary energy. He started tentatively, his first novel, The Silver Dove (1909), being a conventional tale about a town’s religious sect and an outsider’s reaction to it. Believing the novel to be unfinished he set about writing a sequel, but during its composition it acquired new characters, a more complex plot, and grew into a thoroughly original work of art. The result was Petersburg. Bely remained prolific until his early death in 1934, producing poems, essays on culture, literature and philosophy and, in the 1920s and 1930s, a series of novels under the collective title Moscow that were never completed.
But it is Petersburg for which he is best remembered. It appeared in English in 1959 and has stayed in print ever since. This Penguin reissue features David McDuff’s masterful 1995 translation and a new introduction by Adam Thirlwell. Both offer loving praise for their subject, praise which has been slow in coming in Bely’s native land. Considered decadent by the Soviets, the novel first appeared with major cuts and was later banned for being incommensurate to the idealised standards of Socialist Realism. Bely suffered at the hands of the critics, too; the Russian Formalists, though grudgingly commending his inventiveness, essentially deemed the Symbolists en masse irrelevant to the study and advancement of literature. Bely was only properly rehabilitated in the ‘80s and is now rightly lauded as one of the last century’s great literary talents.
But Bely makes the reader work. Petersburg has frequently been compared to Ulysses, which both helps and muddies the water. It takes place in 1905, a time of war, social unrest and the constant threat of revolution. The main strand concerns Apollon Apollonovich and his son, Nikolai (two possible antecedents of Bloom and Stephen; in addition Apollonovich has been cuckolded and jilted by a wife, Anna Petrovna, who, like Molly, reappears at the end). Nikolai, a student who has got caught up in a terrorist organization bent on political change, is coerced into taking a time bomb and assassinating a senior government senator. Through Sofya Petrovna, the source of his infatuation, and furtive dealings with shadowy conspirators, both he and the reader learn that the bomb’s target is to be his father.
Bely tracks Nikolai’s anguish and ambivalence over the course of a few days and almost six hundred pages. But Nikolai is only one cog in Bely’s huge wheel. Petersburg itself is the book’s main character, and Bely fleshes out what plot there is with history, geography, topography, and a multitude of voices. Apollonovich is borne along in his carriage and catches the stubby, interweaving chatter from the pedestrians below. “The gossip of the Nevsky began to plait itself,” Bely informs us as he brings the city’s main thoroughfare alive. Like Joyce, Bely has a love of language, subordinating the telling of a tale to the texture of that telling. Thus he plays with language, and on practically every page he coins neologisms, plies us with puns, coaxes words, bends them, fashions them to sing and dance for the reader.
And this is vital for Bely intended his novel to be musical, a compendium of voices and sounds. In this way he is again like Joyce, giving us the whole picture of his depicted city, including its commotion. Background noise is pressed to the foreground: songs and laughter, transliterated coughs and yawns, barroom hubbub and protesters’ chants (“Revolution . . . Evolution . . . Proletariat . . . Strike . . .”). We are informed that pavements “whispered” and “rural distances will be muttering” and gladly accept it. As we would expect from an early modernist work, dissonance alternates regularly with consonance, and the novel is all the more exciting for it. Winnowing insidiously throughout the book is a peculiar “ooo-ooo-ooo” noise that is dismissed as neither a factory siren nor the wind. It is explained as simply “this October song of the year nineteen hundred and five” and is either menacing or jubilant, depending on which events it is brought in to underscore. The acoustics in Bely’s world are so good that even silence is audible: “In the vestibule the doorbell began to tinkle: it tinkled sporadically; silence spoke between the two jolts of tinkling; like a memory—a memory of something forgotten, familiar.” (And we can make another connection between Bely and Nabokov here: “memory,” like silence, “spoke.”)
Bely influenced many writers of the next decade with his novel stylistics and blurring of boundaries: however, he eschewed the stream of consciousness that would later be developed by Joyce and Woolf, instead preferring the description of his characters’ thought patterns as they crystallise and take shape. He leads us most often into Nikolai’s head, his feelings, mostly towards his father, in constant flux. Nikolai’s thoughts are like “flocks of frenzied crows, frightened by a shock,” chaotically circling this way and that “until the next shot”; his worries make him forgetful, prompting him to lose his thread mid-conversation and then try “to catch one of his own thoughts that had run away.” Then there is this section regarding Nikolai’s handler, one of the revolutionaries:
Aleksandr Ivanovich continued to drink cognac. The alcohol worked with systematic gradualness; after vodka (wine was beyond his means) there followed a uniform effect: an undular line of thoughts became a zigzag one; its zigzags intersected; if he went on drinking, the line of thoughts would disintegrate into a series of fragmentary arabesques, brilliant for those who thought it; he had only to sober up a little for the salt of brilliance to vanish off somewhere; and the brilliant thoughts seemed simply a muddle, for at those moments thought indubitably ran ahead of both tongue and brain, beginning to revolve with frantic speed.
Vodka seems to engender thought. In an earlier passage we are told of the beneficent quick-fix effect produced by this “astringent, colourlessly shining poison”: “the oesophagus and the stomach lick its vengeful fires with a dry tongue, while the consciousness, detaching itself from the body, like the handle on the lever of a machine, starts to revolve around the whole organism, making everything incredibly clear . . . for one instant only.” Aleksandr Ivanovich Dudkin doesn’t need alcohol to think, or even an alert and cooperative consciousness—“he did not think—the thoughts thought themselves”—and can skulk and scheme with the city’s other raznochintsy (non-gentry intellectuals) while on autopilot.
Also, as is true to life, Bely’s characters occasionally think alike—we see similar thoughts in their heads at different moments in the novel. Apollonovich calls the scuttling people on Nevsky Prospect “the human myriapod,” and emphasises both their quantity and multifariousness by enumerating their many different hats. Later, Dudkin comes to the same conclusion for himself, unprompted, when he sinks into “the blackly flowing mass like a grain of roe” and becomes one of them: “The same thing happened to his stubborn thought; it instantly stuck to an alien thought, inaccessible to the mind, the thought of an enormous, many-legged creature that was running along.” First we get the allusion, then Bely allows their thoughts to coalesce: “There were no people on Nevsky Prospect; but a creeping, wailing myriapod was there.”
Bely describes Dudkin’s ordeal as “bathing in the mental collective.” As with many of Bely’s ornate terms, the meaning here is two-pronged. True, Dudkin has to share mental airwaves with the jabbering masses and their “flowing stream of nonsense,” who are jostling for room to move and room to think. But as with the second-hand usage of “myriapod,” such mental-sharing becomes even more intimate when the same thoughts overlap and become replicated realizations. We could scoff at Bely here for resorting to coincidence to convey his trickery, until we remember that Petersburg, though vividly brought to life, is still swaddled in unreality. Bely’s safeguard is his Symbolist stance, which affords him carte blanche to befuddle the reader with his meandering plot and distorted reality while prioritizing the novel’s style and tone. Once Dudkin wrests himself from “the moving tide of abundance” in order to think straight, he is out of the frying-pan and into the fire, for this is a big, brash Bely novel and characters can only hope to swap one kind of abundance for another.
“Abundance,” key to Petersburg, crops up in an entry in Bely’s memoirs. On the topic of gathering material for the novel, he admits to having “invented nothing, made no contribution of my own; I simply listened, looked and read; while the material was given to me quite independently of me, in an abundance that exceeded my ability to contain it.” It is exactly this abundance that makes Petersburg hard to summarize. Bely showers us with an abundance of the real—seemingly cramming in every geographical detail of the city—but he earns greater plaudits for using these strikingly real settings as stages on which to enact an abundance of absurd drama. Gogol used the city for many of his grotesquely comic tales and Bely continues the tradition by sprinkling the text with references to one of his literary heroes and updating and increasing the absurdity—doubly disorienting for being juxtaposed with real tension and real events from a particularly fraught time.
Bely even manages to be absurd when he is attempting verisimilitude. Apollonovich travels the streets in his carriage and finds the immaculate layout comforting, all rectilinear regularity and flawless symmetry. (Here is a customary Bely trope: the words in the above quotation that denote lines that help formulate Dudkin’s thoughts—undular, zigzag, arabesque—are re-deployed as symbols and recycled to delineate the city’s contours.) In contrast, Apollonovich hates the hodgepodge islands and its inhabitants, whom he believes are “neither human beings nor shadows.” (Unsurprisingly, the man who wants Apollonovich dead, Dudkin, lives on one such island and is therefore “a denizen of chaos.”) He sits ensconced in his carriage, bound by its perpendicular walls, and notes with satisfaction the cube-like houses, perfectly numerated, and the arrow-straight prospects and their parallel intersections. There are shapes before his eyes and behind them, for “he was in the habit of giving himself up for long periods of time to the insouciant contemplation of: pyramids, triangles, parallelepipeds, cubes, trapezoids.” But then Bely breaks off to go all out and dazzle us with a full-scale geometrical and metaphysical assault:
And now, as he looked pensively into that boundlessness of mists, the man of state suddenly expanded out of the black cube in all directions and soared above it; and he desired that the carriage should fly forward, that the prospects should fly towards him—prospect after prospect, that the whole spherical surface of the planet should be gripped by the blackish-grey cubes of the houses as by serpentine coils; that the whole of the earth squeezed by prospects should intersect the immensity in linear cosmic flight with rectilinear law; that the mesh of parallel prospects, intersected by a mesh of prospects, should expand into the abysses of outer space with the planes of squares and cubes: one square per man-in-the-street, that, that . . . After the line of all the symmetries it was the figure of the square that brought him the most calm.
For some this may be too hysterical—hyperbole strangling any imminent chuckles—but I would prefer to term it “exuberance,” which of course takes us back to Bely’s love of abundance. His streets are crammed with life but not as much as his sentences are stuffed with ideas. He may very well have “simply listened, looked and read” in terms of research but in doing so he has gorged on detail so as to force-feed every paragraph.
This early quotation works as a microcosm of the linguistic tricks displayed throughout the whole novel. It is lyrical and it is unreal (dare we say it is poetic nonsense?), leaving us marveling and scratching our head in equal measure. The repetition of words is crucial, as motifs are regularly churned and aggrandised into leitmotifs. Images change hands and serve new masters: the cube goes from describing the house to the carriage and then back to the house, this time clad in the original black of the carriage. For all its mock-seriousness it ends bathetically with a bump and in the form of one-liner. (Bely goes on to lampoon the senator further, informing us that despite the solace to be got from shapes, “he was seized by anxiety only when he contemplated the truncated cone.”) Finally, that “boundlessness of mists” serves as the springboard to Apollonovich’s dizzying head-trip, with apposite mind-expanding prose matching his out-of-body sensations. Suddenly we realize that Bely refuses to be hemmed in by Petersburg’s walls. He is keen to reconstruct the city but also to jettison it and take us far outside: first expanding out to cover Russia, from the encroaching waves of liberalism and progress from the West, to distant Manchuria (the arena of the war with Japan) and the threat of marauding Mongols from the East; and secondly, transcending all peripheries and leading both characters and reader beyond into bizarre new otherworldly dimensions. Only by centring on vastness can he fill it with his chosen abundance; and only by expanding can he succeed in dwarfing his characters, miniaturizing and floundering them by marooning them in “howling limitlessness.”
But we shouldn’t forget that his unending scope is still to be found within the borders of the city and the country. Apollonovich hurtles into “the infinity of the prospects,” and Nevsky Prospect, we are told, “had neither an end nor a beginning”—a playful reimagining of Gogol’s description of it as “the be-all and end-all.” However, not every inhabitant is happy with this wealth of living space. Perversely, for all the roominess on offer in the city, Bely’s main characters are a timid, claustrophobic bunch who are afraid to explore. The senator “feared spatial expanses” and feels the distance between his carriage door and the nearest wall can be calculated “in many millions of versts.” “Immeasurabilities” are anathema to this man who thrives on mutable, containable shapes and simple planes. Similarly, Dudkin fears the barrenness of the Yakutsk region (“the physical plain of a not so remote province has turned into a metaphysical plain of the soul”), and then speaks of how outer space “desperately plagues me,” even the “space” that is “my abode on Vasily Island: four perpendicular walls covered with wallpaper of a darkish yellow hue.” (These perpendicular walls imprison Dudkin while the perpendicular walls of Apollonovich’s carriage cocoon him.) When Dudkin views the city from the window of his garret he suffers from the same warped perspective as his adversary, the window being “a slit on to immensity.” In both characters’ defense, they have traversed the country and witnessed for themselves how “measurelessness flew: the Russian Empire.” But neither is at ease with this surrounding “immensity”—not like Conrad’s Razumov in Under Western Eyes, another book dealing with early 20th-century Russia, a character who is not unsettled by the “endless space and countless millions” in the night sky seeing as he is “a Russian who is born to an inheritance of space and numbers.”
Bely was the greatest writer of Russian Symbolist prose and Petersburg remains the best example of how he could take an idea, turn it into a symbol, and insert it into his narrative. For any idea to become a symbol, repetition is key, but therein lies the rub: how to repeat and not grate? Bely’s trick is concealment. He buries his symbols in his texts like depth charges and, unlike Nikolai’s time bomb, which ticks incessantly until the close of the novel, has them explode when we encounter them, thrillingly, entertainingly. Thus “thunder” is spun through a variety of combinations: “a roulade of Chopin thundered,” the Nevsky strollers are “thunderous surf,” inflammatory headlines appear in “thunder-bearing newspapers” and “a carriage thundered . . . like blows of metal shattering life.” Several pages later “roulade” is recycled to describe a car’s engine, just like the house/carriage cubes we came across earlier. Other symbols are employed even more subtly, not exploding one after the other to prompt our recognition but gently rippling the text like skimmed stones.
Most plentiful, however, are colors; Petersburg is a canvas spattered with them, from the vibrant tones of local color that throw the city into stand-out relief to the allusive and metaphorical pigments that dot the narrative. One is prominent for being political: “the color red was, of course, an emblem of the chaos that was leading Russia to ruin”; red is revolutionary, and we learn that the senator “rushed like a bull at anything red.” Red also coats lights (“lamps that looked like bloodshot eyes”), a satirical journal that mocks Apollonovich, and “the bloodstained fields of Manchuria.” There is the red domino worn by a mysterious figure, Petersburg’s very own Scarlet Pimpernel, who turns up at masked balls and races around the city at night, and Bely ensures his pages are streaked in color with this phantom’s presence. Finally there are many crimson sunsets which at conclusive moments appear like a dropped curtain, bathing the whole city and seeping into its brickwork: “All the usual weights—both indentations and projections—were slipping away into a burning ardor,” to the extent that soon the “rust-red” Winter Palace “began to run violently with blood.”
Bely has as much fun with yellow—Dudkin’s nicotine-stained wallpaper, the murky Neva, the top-to-toe clothes of the agent provocateur, Lippanchenko—and as yellow is the predominant color of central Petersburg, from its grand residences to government buildings, there is often no avoiding it. There are uncomfortable undertones when we read of the color spreading and engulfing the country as a whole, not yellow architecture but that of the aforementioned “yellow hordes of Asiatics [who], having moved from their long-occupied places, will turn the fields of Europe crimson with oceans of blood.” Yellow and red work separately, Bely seems to be telling us, but a fusion of the two could have catastrophic consequences.
At its best, such a technique is effective. Each symbol or allegory, appearing and reappearing, essentially signposts the reader to something, be it a thought or a theme; or it is there as a descriptive device, a sprig of adjectival color decorating the fabric of the narrative, and one that can be relied on for the same purpose again and again. At its worst, it is style over substance, and one that can cloy. When Bely goes for word-for-word repetition at all-too regular intervals he unwittingly changes his modus operandi; instead of gently massaging out his meaning he opts for relentless, heavy-handed tapotement. We experience much the same as Dudkin when he is being harangued by Nikolai who
had long been beating his ear with words; but the passing words, flying into his ears like splinters, shattered the sense of the phrases; that was why Aleksandr Ivanovich found it hard to understand what was being repeated over and over again into his eardrum; into his eardrum idly, long-windedly, tormentingly, the drumsticks beat out a fine tattoo.
We are privy to the pestering violence but on the other hand don’t find it hard to understand what Bely is repeating.
Bely has the same kind of mixed success with puns. There is no denying that he is adept with such wordplay, but at times he seems unable to rein himself in. The result is impressive but excessive. Also, many puns fall flat, particularly those regularly spouted by Apollonovich who sees himself as a great punster. To be fair, this could be an intentional ploy of Bely’s: his bumbling old out-of-touch statesman firing off involuntary quips to overcompensate for his deathly dull senatorial duties. Or it could be a translation problem, with the humor unable to cross the cultural divide. One example concerns Apollonovich’s confusion between the term “apperception” and “pepper”—two words which, as David McDuff explains in his notes, sound remarkably similar in Russian. The pun evaporates in translation and must sound opaque and wearying to those fluent enough to tackle it in its original language. We could of course argue that no pun makes it in translation; Martin Amis, a huge enemy of them, claims they are the upshot of “an anti-facility: they offer disrespect to language, and all they manage to do is make words look stupid.” Bely justifies his actions in his 1909 essay, “The Magic of Words,” in which he describes how “it is better to fire rockets made of words aimlessly into the void than to fill the void with dust.” Bely wants to wow us with words, and he instils the same urge into Apollonivich (playing a name-game into the bargain: Apollonian meaning orderly, rational, self-disciplined). But ultimately it is irrelevant how they fail if the end product is not a rocket fizzing into the void but a downed and smouldering damp-squib.
But thankfully Bely’s artistic missteps are few. Petersburg brims with passages of awe-inspiring prose which don’t depend on linguistic frippery. “You ought to observe the verbal niceties” one lackey tells another with regard to the contents of a letter, but it might as well be a command from Bely to the reader to admire the contents of his novel as he unpacks them. He is marvelous on cityscape detail, ornate buildings, and statuary, but also the attendant minutiae. We learn that “A row of riverside street lamps dropped fiery tears into the Neva; its surface was burned through by simmering gleams.” He surprises us by minutely modulating stock phrases: when Dudkin bewails that “life was going up in price” we appreciate the switch from the more expected and thus more prosaic “cost of living.” The closest we come to romance in the novel is when he sketches Nikolai’s infatuation with Sofya Petrovna, but he tackles it on his own terms: Nikolai whispers his “unearthly confessions,” his “wheezing passions” to her, and “that was why incoherent whistlings sounded in her ears, while the crimson of the leaves chased beneath her feet the rustling alluvial deposits of words.” Then in a bravura display, Bely paints “a universe of strange manifestations” which drifts across Apollonovich’s consciousness every night before he falls asleep. We are even shown congeries of images that are shards of events which took place that day for the senator: “all the earlier inarticulacies, rustlings, crystallographic figures, the golden, chrysanthemum-like stars racing through the darkness on rays that resembled myriapods” (those infernal myriapods again).
This last example is where Bely truly shines. He can map the city, birth its people, layer its societal schisms, and portray its virtues and vices, from the defiant revolutionary spirit of the dispossessed workers to the all-pervading poshlost (crassness) of the bourgeoisie; but his genius lies in his ability to stay grounded in Petersburg while careering away from it. He calls Apollonovich’s pre-sleep hinterland “the senator’s second space,” one of many alternate realities in the novel. Bely’s forays into fantasia are intoxicating, a series of freewheeling ideas that feel effortlessly imagined and transcribed. Here he is markedly different from Joyce the perfectionist who labored to achieve his wonders (reputedly spending a whole day trying to craft one sentence).
There is always the risk of generalising when attributing writers to literary groups, not to mention a great deal of brush-tarring, which damages greater writers and unfairly increases the stock of lesser ones. More peculiar, though, is the tendency to throw countrymen together under the atavistic assumption that similar roots and heritage automatically translate into similar artists. Out of all nationalities, it is Russian writers that we feel inclined to lump together most. Perhaps it is convenient to have these tortured, soulful people link arms and seek comradely solace together. Maybe there is something in the (little) water that unites them artistically in their plangent grief and wacky humor.
That said, with Bely there is a direct lineage that can be traced and which would be imprudent to ignore. Gogol begets Bely, who in turn sires Bulgakov, who gives rise to Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Each writer implodes fictive conventions with their absurdities. (Isaac Babel remains only a distant relative because for all his far-out flourishes (his short story “The Journey” tells how “Nevsky Prospect flowed into the distance like the Milky Way”), his fiction leans more towards the fanciful than the absurd.) Bely makes constant reference to Pushkin, and a quotation from a poem serves as an epitaph to every chapter, but it is Gogol’s ghost that haunts Petersburg’s pages. Bely distends Gogol’s absurdities into wilder, bolder visions. In turn, Bulgakov’s giant black cat is prefigured in the marauding Bronze Horseman that terrorises St Petersburg in the apocalyptic finale and Petrushevskaya’s bleak and macabre little parables are at times a palimpsest on which we can trace remnants of Bely’s exemplary magic. All of these writers create baffled characters who have to pinch themselves to check they are not dreaming. Everywhere we find a mingling of dreams and daydreams. “Was this the influence of some nightmare, or a demon?” Gogol’s hero asks himself in his Petersburg tale “The Portrait,” before adding: “Was it the delirium of a fever or real life?” Bely responds by declaring “Petersburg is a dream.” Dudkin listens to Nikolai’s description of the dream that plagues him (“everything is what it is, and yet different”) and answers that “the more usual term is: pseudo-hallucination.” Nikolai responds like this: “?,” one of many such single question marks that litter the novel as mystified retorts. Shorn of words preceding them they look odd at first glance, but the more we read on the more we absorb and accept them as fitting rejoinders to even odder statements. We also end up siding with the characters in their perpetual incomprehension. How are we to separate the real from the unreal in a city whose streets “turn passers-by into shadows” but also “turn shadows into people”?
The natural offshoot of all this agonised grappling with absurdity is madness. We read as early as page ten that “in this [Apollonovich’s] house everyone became disconcerted.” This is Bely at his most ironic, for walls cannot confine the madness at work in the book. Conrad wrote in his essay, “Autocracy and War” (written in 1905, the year in which Petersburg is set) that “ill-omened” Russia is “the fantasy of a madman’s brain.” If madness played a role in St Petersburg’s conception then it is likely to have infused it, rendering it as “ill-omened” as the rest of the country. J.M. Coetzee fights for the other side in his novel The Master of Petersburg by having his fictional Dostoyevsky ruminate on his surroundings and the possible madness within him: “This is not a lodging-house of madness in which he is living, nor is Petersburg a city of madness.” In the middle stands Bely, countervailing normalcy with madness and then going off on dastardly riffs and blending the two. We revel in the resultant mayhem and conclude that his giddy synthesis has no geographic frontiers and can afflict one and all.
“Petersburg, Petersburg!” he proclaims at one juncture, breaking off the narrative to launch into one of these riffs. “Falling like fog, you have pursued me, too, with idle cerebral play: you are a cruel-hearted tormentor; you are an unquiet ghost.” It was always Bely’s intention to make his novel “cerebral,” a game that would divert and perplex his readers (and once again we are put in mind of Joyce, who stuffed Ulysses with enigmas so as to “keep the professors busy for centuries”). Petersburg is undeniably cerebral but Bely also appeals to our feelings, and we relish the atmosphere of Nietzschean nihilism together with the queasy uncertainty that accompanies drama unfolding while a time-bomb counts down. It was also Bely’s aim to make Petersburg part two of a trilogy, the third novel, never realized, called Nevidmyi Grad, “The Invisible City.” The title implies it was to be the antithesis of Petersburg, its subject bathed in ethereal swirls but also vividly, accurately visible. Bely’s seminal novel is a hymn to the city and an anthem for its country. However, in one curt line and a rare show of unambiguity, Bely tells us which place is more deserving of our worship: “beyond Petersburg there is—nothing.” - http://quarterlyconversation.com/the-moving-tide-of-abundance-petersburg-by-andrei-bely
Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, first published in 1916, is one of those world masterpiece’s of literature that for whatever reason – general disinterest, lack of popular promotion, minimal amount of time for tackling large dense novels – is largely unknown in the United States. I consider myself to be an avid reader and I didn’t know about it – as I didn’t know about Machado de Assis or Lu Xun – until I came across it through the PopMatters books-available-for-review list.Bely is studied in Russian literature classes, but his relative unknown might have something to with being a modernist writer dwarfed by 19th century titans like Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy. Petersburg has been compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses. Though it takes place in a single city-as-character over roughly 24 hours, the comparison is a little slight.
But this novel does belong to the extraordinary flowering of ambitious modernist constructs that was happening in the arts at the beginning of the 20th century of which Ulysses was a part – books like Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americanand Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time -- and employs many of the same innovations in writing from structure to dialogue.
This year Pushkin Press has released a new translation by John Elsworth, first in the United Kingdom and now in the United States. I have no complaints about the actual translation, but it would be nice if an annotated edition of the text could be issued.
Though essentially universal in its themes, Bely’s writing is dense with references and unless you are overly familiar with the 1905 Russian Revolution, the Saint Petersburg Soviet, “The Queen of Spades” (the Pushkin short story and the Tchaikovsky opera), Zemvsto, the founding and general layout of the Saint Petersburg and its popular image in Russian writing, Russian politicians of the era, and the rise of bomb throwing terrorism you may find yourself reading it next to a web browser opened to Wikipedia, like I did. I don’t doubt that I missed much more and it would help to have a guide reveal the book’s many layers.
Within Bely’s maximalist writing lies a story that is at first brutally minimalistic. Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, the lead senator in the Duma, wakes up and goes to his office. His pampered son Nikolai is given a mysterious parcel by a revolutionary confidant Alexandr Ivanovich Dudkin.
Meanwhile a woman that Nikolai has a passive-aggressive non-relationship with, Sofia Petrovna Likhutina, is given a letter to pass on to him from a grotesque revolutionary leader name Lippanchenko. She does, to spite him. It tells Nikolai that he needs to kill his father with a time bomb that is contained within the parcel he was given by Dudkin. The ticking of the clock sets the final movements of the characters interactions, disastrous and combustive, towards the finale.
It seems to take forever for this plot and the characters to reveal themselves. Through the use of familiar melodramatic devices like mistaken identities and unlikely coincidences, Bely gives narrative tugs that pull the reader from one section to the next. The bomb inherently creates tension, first in the reader discovering how it intends to be used and then in the reader wondering who will end up being damaged or killed by it.
But the patience of the reader really pays off through the use of repetition in color, character, interior thought and place. Repetition can be very annoying, but here sets up musical themes that gradually start to play off each other in surprising thematic twists.
The colors red, white, green, yellow, and purple/blue are used in descriptions to simultaneously convey information (red=revolutionary), emotion (a green mist invokes a suffocating menace), and raise thematic flags (white corresponds with a Christian mysticism that is occasionally overdone). The characters are defined and evoked by key traits – for example Nikolai’s pale skin, “flaxen hair”, and “frog-like lips” – used like a code so that we know a character is hiding on the periphery when these words are used. (Especially helpful since many of the characters have multiple aliases.)
These patterns typically play off of each other in pairs. The make-up of Petersburg is presented as both one of straight lines laid on top of “cosmic infinity”, echoing the city’s founding as a pre-planned creation set down by Peter the Great over a swamp (and the novel’s themes of bubbling darkness and chaos). The uncertainty of identity in a newly created cosmopolitan city is evoked through the use of varying place names: the Ableukhov’s “Mongol” heritage, the “Mongoloids” also evoking the Russo-Japanese war on the empire’s eastern boundaries, and Finland to the west is placed as a mysterious habitant of the green mists.
As the characters are kept to a few defining descriptions, their interior thoughts are marked by specific themes that gradually coalesce into the book’s larger themes. Historical figures haunt them: a bronze statue of Peter the Great seems to punish them and the Flying Dutchman threatens them with the curse of one who can never go home. Dudkin is constantly remembering a dark yellow stain on his wallpaper, “on which something fateful – is about to appear,” while Nikolai enters reveries where he sees the bomb’s explosion as revealing a dark emptiness and enacting the myth of Saturn, where the father devours his children and in turn is devoured by them.
By piling everything on top of each other, through constant juxtaposition and repetition of ideas and imagery, Bely interweaves his exploration of father/son relationships, revolution, history and how we belong to it, destruction and transcendence, and an indifferent universe or compassionate god that might lie behind all of it.In promoting Petersburg, it is often pointed out that Vladimir Nabokov reportedly said the book is one of the four greatest of the 20th century. This points to a whole other set of recommendable qualities of Bely’s writing. Everything I’ve written above sounds hopeless heady, almost geeky in its mythological grandeur.
But like Nabokov, his writing can also be incredibly playful (he’s fond of word play) and is capable of satirical swipes at St. Petersburg society, and large humorous set pieces, as when Nikolai travels around in a red-domino suit to frighten Sofia after she calls him a “red clown”. The writing can veer from abstractly cosmic to tangible minutia, as in this description of Lippanchenko: “Suddenly between the back and the nape of the neck a fatty fold in the neck squeezed itself into a faceless smile: as though a monster had settled in that armchair.”
Yet ultimately this is a very pessimistic portrait of personal and societal evisceration. Petersburg is about one event as a perpetual moment in history, a constancy of new orders usurping old orders and children destroying and then becoming parents, the battle between liberty and repression, and how this can leave people feeling permanently uprooted and haunted by the past. This is not a story about whether or not the Russian revolution was a worthwhile endeavor, but it is eerily prescient in predicting how the initial euphoria, the bomb explosion of Communism, would scorch the earth as badly as any tsar did. - Michael Buening https://www.popmatters.com/107347-petersburg-by-andrei-bely-2496046427.html
Petersburg, Andrei Bely’s best-known novel, is difficult to pigeon-hole. Except for a brief flash-forward epilogue, its events unfold over a ten-day period in the early autumn of 1905, not long before that year’s ineffectual revolution culminated in the Manifesto of 30 October (17 October in the Russian calendar). Its characters are men and women “of uncertain status,” shadowy revolutionaries and anarchists, and the aristocratic government functionaries whose wayward offspring are drawn into their web. Unsurprisingly therefore, it puts one in mind of novels like Turgenev’s Virgin Soil and, especially, Dostoyevsky’s Devils. Indeed, the highest ranking government official we meet, Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov (henceforth AAA), in his obsessive-compulsive behavior, domestic disarray and ultimate inability to handle stress, recalls Lembke, his provincial counterpart in Devils. But Petersburg’s debt to Dostoyevsky is superficial —else, one presumes, Nabokov would not have ranked it as “one of the four most important works of twentieth-century literature.” Instead of Dostoyevsky’s standard ploy of a naïve chronicler within the frame of the novel, Petersburg is told throughout from the perspective of an omniscient third-person narrator of prodigious poetic gifts.
And poetry is at the very heart of Petersburg, from the level of individual lines to its broader structure. Its eight massive chapters are subdivided into numerous short vignettes and dramatic scenes, each with its own title. These sub-chapters often unfold like lyric poems. Each has its own refrain, usually quoted in the title, which may be anywhere from a line fragment to a short paragraph in length. Commonly, the refrain returns to close a section. Some sections have multiple refrains and some treat them as subjects for variation. Now, one might expect this fusion of poetic and narrative structure to be problematic; My initial reactions to some of the longer repetitions included wondering if my eye had strayed back to an earlier passage and thinking I had discovered a gross misprint. But after adjusting to the rhythm of the book, I began to embrace the technique and to increasingly admire the ingenuity with which poetry and narrative were fused—to see that what might have become a distracting fetish was, in fact, a flexible and ingenious technique with multifarious narrative functions. Some refrains, for example, are merely atmospheric, capturing a state of nature—gloom or mist, the play of light on rooftops, or so on—that infuses the experience of a character throughout a scene. The repetition in these cases reflects the characters’ continual perceptual awareness of these phenomena as well as the rhythms with which they reoccur to consciousness as attention shifts focus or wanders. Other refrains function variously as Idees fixes, expressions of obsessive fears (like AAA’s recurring quasi-hallucination of a mustachioed bomber outside his carriage), or incantations. In most cases, however, I came to find deep psychological truth in the repetitions and to realize that my initial bemused reactions were just the residue of ingrained habits and narrative conventions.
Examples of Bely’s descriptive genius and singular vision are ubiquitous; I’ll cite just two. Like Dostoyevsky’s Devils, the revolutionaries in Petersburg become more absorbed in infighting and personal enmity than in any sort of principled action. One such scene ends in violence, at night in a small room by murky candlelight. Most of the violent imagery in the scene is performed by a “huge, fat shadow-man, emerging from under ______’s feet” who begins “to dance around with fretful movements,” or springs from his head and hangs from the ceiling, while the act of violence itself is disorienting in its calm and in the victim’s startled and frozen contemplation of its new sensations; Thus the play of shadows overshadows the fatal stroke. Elsewhere Bely develops with hallucinatory power the extended metaphor of a paper war conducted at “the certain establishment” where AAA is the obsessive-compulsive field-marshal.
The narrative dimension of the novel is equally well developed, though those expecting a novel of political intrigue are apt to find the pacing slow. Two of the main characters who figure prominently in the beginning, AAA and his son, the student Nikolai, are drawn with cold detachment—more like inanimate objects than persons. They believe each other to be scoundrels. AAA is a husk of his former self because two years earlier his wife had abandoned him for an Italian singer. Nikolai is tormented with unrequited love for Sofia Petrovna, who is married to an army officer named Likhutin. Sofia holds a sort of salon frequented by riff raff and revolutionaries, entertaining in a kimono and decorating with paintings of Mount Fuji, which is significant given that Russia is at that time enmired in a disastrous war with Japan. In his despair, Nikolai acts out and pledges his service to a revolutionary cabal represented at first by his contact, Alexander Ivanovich Dubkin. A bomb enters the scene. It is left ominously ticking for nearly two hundred pages. One character, in a hybrid allusion to Pushkin’s "Bronze Horseman" and the short play Stone Guest, is visited in his garret by a “bronze guest,” the dismounted figure of Peter the Great. There is attempted suicide, patricidal conspiracy, madness, murder, betrayal, riots in the street suppressed by Cossacks—but in the end the strongest through-line proves, unexpectedly, to be that of an understated and deeply insightful domestic drama.
There are flaws perhaps. The trappings of theosophy, which too obviously originate in the mind of the narrator, seem dated and quaint—like the credulous flirtation with Freudian psychology one finds in some Hitchcock films. And in the beginning the narrator threatens nudgery. After describing the workings of Petersburg’s electric trams on one page and then pointing out two pages later that they did not exist in 1905, the narrator tells us not to blame him; The mistake was not his but his pen’s. This had me worried but was, thankfully, an isolated tic. And there is a strange and likewise isolated spoiler concerning the later affairs of a major character from his first novel, The Silver Dove. The flaws are trivial to me; I have always thought perfection is overrated and a cheap aspiration.
It took me several weeks to read Petersburg. In the early stages it is easy to get lost in a lyrical-poetic trance, savoring individual scenes. The last third of the book I devoured in a single day. I am not in a position to judge the quality of the translation. But whoever is responsible for the final product and in whatever measure, the Elsworth translation of Petersburg is some of the most beautiful and imaginative English prose I have read in recent memory. - WyattGwyon http://www.online-literature.com/forums/showthread.php?70407-Andrei-Bely-%97-Petersburg
What an amazing, strange, wonderful, funny, frustrating, magical book. Needless to say, I highly recommend it. So what have you heard about Petersburg? Vladimir Nabokov declared it one of the most important works of the twentieth century, but he also stated no good English translation was available. I have no idea whether or not the 2009 Pushkin Press edition that I read, with translation by John Elsworth, corrects that deficiency. Even if the language only hints at what the original Russian achieves, it is a wonderful read on the surface as well as for deeper import. One example I can point to “on the surface” is the repetition of words, phrases and sentences providing a rhythm to the work that begs for it to be read out loud. This rhythm mimics the corkscrew-like plotline, circling back on itself while at the same time moving forward.
Petersburg is often likened to Joyce’s Ulysses and I find myself puzzled at that comparison. Many techniques in the style and wordplay are the same, to be sure. In addition, both books focus on a short time period with a city as a major character, but the main thing in common is that one or a dozen posts can’t sum up what it feels like to read the work. I’ll take a brief stab at a few of things I found interesting.
With a non-linear plot, jerky character development, and recurring motifs I found myself constantly asking “what is this novel all about?” The setting provides one clue, taking place in October 1905 Petersburg at the beginning of an unsuccessful revolution. There are many “revolutions” in addition to the obvious political friction taking place during the course of the novel. There is a strong generational conflict that reminded me of Turgenev’s Fathers and Children at times. Marital strife surfaces often as we see the possible dissolution of at least two families. Even with all the strife, the similarities and ties between characters stand out more than the differences. Actions and thoughts recur and migrate across characters, providing literal and symbolic patterns to help understand the individuals as well as the society. Bely looks at how everyone fits together in the “human myriapod” as well as what happens when they don’t engage harmoniously. The collective provides a life...a sound, a consciousness...of its own.
I’ve posted several excerpts that provide examples of the dual nature of characters and events, things described literally and symbolically for surreal effect. One recurring motif throughout Petersburg is that of expansion, whether of body parts (literally and figuratively), sensory diffusion, childhood nightmares, or the looming explosion (or at least the threat of it). This motif and the question of what is the novel all about fit together in looking at the Prologue, where the narrator asks “What is this Russian empire of ours?” He starts by pointing at a map and specifically at Petersburg, a two-dimensional dot. Throughout the book the meaning of Petersburg and of the Russian empire are expanded into greater meaning. The surreal and otherworldly descriptions of Petersburg append themselves to its very existence, a city whose existence mirrors the opening question. The statue of Peter comes to life (to some extent) worming its way into the consciousness of the city’s inhabitants and becomes an apocalyptic figure guarding the city from attack. The setting also plays into this question of what is the Russian empire, occurring after the disastrous loss of the war with Japan and as workers’ strikes begin. Petersburg itself stands as a symbol of Peter the Great’s imposed modernization while the appearance of Mongols in the city and bureaucracy (described by their dress) highlights the East vs. West struggle to define the empire. Possibly to signal which side Bely thinks will triumph, the young Nikolai discards Kant (Europe) in favor of Skovoroda ("Russia", in particular the East).
Here are my previous posts on Petersburg:
Petersburg online resources (including links to the prologue and first chapter as well as other works by Bely)
Discussion: Prologue and Chapter 1
Excerpt: The senator’s second space
Excerpt: A laughable figure
Excerpt: Beyond the wall, beyond the mirror
Discussion: Chapters 2, 3, 4
Excerpt: The terrible import of his soul
Excerpt: Why am I—I?
Excerpt: The horror in the eyes of his consort
Excerpt: And she was sad - bookcents.blogspot.hr/2010/11/petersburg-summary.html
Of Dreams, Phantoms, and Places: Andrey Bely's Petersburg (pdf)
Andrei Bely’s Petersburg
Andrei Bely, The Silver Dove, Translated by John Elsworth. Northwestern University Press, 2001.
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The Silver Dove, published four years before Bely's masterpiece Petersburg, is considered the first modern Russian novel. Breaking with Russian realism, and a pioneering Symbolist work, its vividly drawn characters, elemental landscapes, and rich style make it accessible to the Western reader, and this new translation makes the complete work available in English for the first time.Dissatisfied with the life of the intelligentsia, the poet Daryalsky joins a rural mystic sect, the Silver Doves. The locals, in particular the peasant woman Matryona, are fascinated by the dashing stranger. Daryalsky is in turn taken in by the Doves' intimacy with the mystical and spiritual--and by Matryona. Under the influence of Kudeyarov, the ruthless cult leader, Daryalsky is used in a bid to produce a sacred child. But in time the poet disappoints the Doves and must face their suspicions and jealousies--and his own inevitable dire fate.
You would have thought Andrey Bely’s 1910 novel The Silver Dove would be a book to
produce books, to be interpreted and exegized endlessly. While I’m not prepared to call it one of the greatest books ever written—it lacks a certain unity, and isn’t quite grand enough in scope to compensate for that deficit—an abundance of astonishing material is contained in its pages. At least two subchapters of the novel are the stuff of immortality, and taken as a whole the book could be considered the highest expression in prose form of that by-word for the esoteric, Symbolism (as opposed to Modernism, to which its author turned next.) And yet little has been written about The Silver Dove, within Russia and without. When Bely’s books are discussed—which is not as commonly as you might think; his memory in Russia having been much effaced during the 1920s and written out of official literary history by the 1930s; and like Platonov, Bunin, Grossman, and others considered disagreeable by the Soviet powers-that-be, ordinary Russians rarely name him among their greatest writers—he is usually lauded for his novel Petersburg, which Vladimir Nabokov counted among the four greatest books of the 20th century, along with Joyce’s Ulysses, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and the first two books of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. The Silver Dove demonstrates Bely clearly belongs in that company, but his greatness is in delightfully unexpected ways distinct from that of Joyce, with whom he is often compared. Like the other three members of the group, he has exceptional qualities that are entirely of his own stamp.
Bely, together with fellow poets Vyacheslav Ivanov and Aleksandr Blok, was a member of the second generation of Russian Symbolists, which turns out to be both more and less of an overwhelming phenomenon for casual readers to enter into than it sounds. On the textual level, Symbolist writers used naturalistic imagery to mean both literally what is said as well as what allegorically is implied, either by nature images directly symbolizing something or by their conjuring up an overall mood or impression, as in a painting by Cézanne or Monet, and Bely uses such descriptive techniques almost constantly throughout The Silver Dove (though he does more with them than just describe and represent, as we shall see.)
Beyond merely changing the way ideas were represented textually, the Russian Symbolists also expressed through their writing a sort of reactionary religious and philosophical viewpoint. (Reactionary, that is, to the Orthodox church, to Czarist rule, and to the cosmopolitan intelligentsia and the landed aristocracy.) This was not so much an atheistical viewpoint so much as a stew of new age belief systems based on various native sectarian and international religious movements, such as theosophy with its claim to reconcile paganism and Christianity, or the rural sects’ claims to draw mystic power from the simple life of the rural peasantry, or the ideas of sobernost and Sophia (which, frankly, I still can’t make heads or tails of) advanced by the 19th century philosopher and mystic Vladimir Solovyov. It is debatable how committed Bely and his associates ever were to all this—though we are furnished with examples in the book and in the explanatory notes of real life members of the Russian intelligentsia who went to soil, basically, and adopted a life as wanderers or farmers tied to the land; in any case, it is too easy as a reader to get caught up in the tangles of mystic-philosophic esoterica that follow this book like a Maenad’s hair train; the ideas are somewhat peripheral to the art, which is why you have Nikolay Berdyaev, a Russian religious writer and literary critic, quoted on the front of my edition of The Silver Dove, praising the book to the skies in his review of 1910, only to find him a decade later castigating Bely and fellow Symbolist Aleksandr Blok for their acquiescence to the Russian revolution and lack of commitment to the ideals of Solovyov in another essay.
What will first stand out to readers of Bely is not his ideas, but rather his style. Long before Bely had ever been available in English translation, D.S. Mirsky in his History of Russian Literature offered the following surprising assessment of his achievement in The Silver Dove:
It is closely modelled on the great example of Gogol. It cannot be called an imitative work, for it requires a powerful originality to learn from Gogol without failing piteously. Bely is probably the only Russian writer who succeeded in doing so. The novel is written in splendid, sustainedly beautiful prose, and his prose is the first thing that strikes the reader in it. It is not so much Bely, however, as Gogol reflected in Bely, but it is always on Gogol’s highest level, which is seldom the case with Gogol himself.
The stylistic connection to Gogol is fairly obvious and it’s one Bely himself wasn’t shy about playing up. As translator John Elsworth explains, the year 1909 when Bely was writing the novel was a time of widespread centennial celebrations of Gogol’s birth, and Gogol’s style was considered by many including Bely to contain in it something more homespun, more essentially Russian than other 19th century writers. In an essay on Gogol, Bely describes him and Nietzsche as “the greatest stylists in the whole of European art, if by style we understand not merely verbal style, but the reflection in the form of the living rhythm of the soul.” I think an examination of the first two paragraphs of The Silver Dove will show how Bely has surpassed Gogol in a couple respects. Here is the first paragraph:
Again and again, into the blue abyss of the day, hot and cruel in its brilliance, the Tselebeyevo bell-tower cast its plangent cries. In the air above it the martins fretted about. And heavy-scented Whitsuntide sprinkled the bushes with frail pink dogroses. The heat was stifling; dragonfly wings hung glassy in the heat above the pond, or soared into the heat of the day’s blue abyss, up into the blue serenity of the void. A perspiring villager assiduously smeared dust over his face with his sweat-soaked sleeve, as he dragged himself along to the bell-tower to swing the bell’s bronze clapper and sweat and toil to the glory of God. And again and again the Tselebeyevo bell-tower pealed out into the blue abyss of the day; and above it the martins darted with shrill cries, tracing figures of eight.
As with Gogol, Bely is a hypotactic writer who makes use of elaborate clause structures to convey a magisterial, Ciceronian sweepingness to his writing. He loves bright colors and lively images—those shrill cries!—and loves painting a whole scene before introducing his characters. Yet notice the recursive quality of the paragraph, how it circles back upon its initial images; the subsequent paragraphs do it too. What you can’t tell from just this paragraph (what I, beginning the novel, could not have foretold) is how all the images in this paragraph would continually recur and even become schematics for larger scenes; how some, like the sky and the dust, almost become characters unto themselves. But that’s still not the most impressive quality of these paragraphs . . .
In the next paragraph, Bely abruptly shifts to another of Gogol’s voices, the comical one of Rudy Panko the beekeeper, the country-bumpkin narrator of Gogol’s early short story collection Evenings on a Farm Near Dykanka:
A fine village! You ask the priest’s wife. When the priest used to get back from Voronyo (his father-in-law has been a dean there these last ten years), this is how it would be: back he comes from Voronyo, takes off his over-cassock, greets his buxom wife with a kiss, adjusts his cassock and straightaway it’s: ‘See to the samovar, my love.’ And then he gets up a sweat, sitting by the samovar and, sure as eggs is eggs, gives voice to his emotion. ‘Ours is a fine village!’ And he ought to know, the priest; besides, he’s not the sort to tell lies.
The foregoing might suggest we are in for some whimsical tale of village life, and the humor seems harmless while the ducks are quacking in the pond and the priest and sexton drunkenly reenact Napoleonic battles in the bushes while haranguing the priest’s wife to keep strumming the guitar. But as soon as everyone wakes up in their own filth and covered in flies, it becomes apparent: this is no idyllic rural village. This is Gogol’s Dykanka by way of Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff, with a plot that ultimately turns as lurid as anything in that author’s The Devil All The Time.
Because this is not just any old time in Russia: brigands and famine stalk the countryside, anarchists and “Slocialists” are urging peasants to rise up against their manorial lords. New religious sects are forming in opposition to the rule of the Orthodox church. Messianic, apocalyptic ideas are in the air. There are rumblings of growing class consciousness and independent-mindedness in the untapped spirit of the peasantry. Some cataclysmic explosion lies just over the horizon, and every naturalistic detail from the burnt bush that seems to hover like a demon at sight distance from village, to the poignant sunsets and the peals of the village bell of Tselebeyevo, represent harbingers of the revolution in human affairs that is to come.
Within this context Daralsky, a young poet and “misfit” (by his own admission), has come to Gugolevo, the country manor of the Baroness Todrabe-Graaben, to seek the hand of the Baroness’s lovely daughter Katya, a match the Baroness begrudgingly consents to in spite of Daralsky’s low status occupation and rumors that he is an eccentric who writes indecent verses, and associates with such characters as his friend Schmidt who “was just like an Orthodox Christian, only his name was Schmidt and he didn’t believe in God . . .” These are not times when an aristocrat like the Baroness can be too choosy, what with her estates failing, the peasants marching to her door with pitchforks demanding payment, and greedy upstarts like the businessman Yeropegin from the nearby town of Likhov continually scheming to gain of possession of her estate. Meanwhile, there are rumors in the area of the activity of a secret cult called the Silver Dove, with particular suspicion being attached to the local carpenter Kudeyarov and his enigmatic red-haired, browless, poxy-faced wife Matryona. Daralsky sees this strange, mystical vision of a woman everywhere as he loiters around Tselebeyevo; in spite of the conventionally ugly terms with which she is describe—flabby, with a pocked-marked face—something about her eyes he finds unable to shake an attachment to. He feels far in the depths of his soul a crisis; how can he marry Katya with this strange peasant woman haunting his dreams? In fact, Kudeyarov and Matryona have big plans for Daralsky; they believe that (like Joseph and Mary) Daralsky and Matryona are destined to have a child together who will bring peace and order to the collapsing world.
If I can characterize the plot of the novel without spoiling it, I would say that the outcome is largely telegraphed, but the vagaries by which that outcome comes about will constantly surprise you. Bely is that perverse sort of writer who likes to do quite otherwise from what we would normally expect him to do; by the time “General Chizhikov” (from Dead Souls) makes an extended cameo appearance it’s pretty clear that all the rules have been thrown out the window and pretty much everything goes in this novel. There are hilarious bits in here about the struggle between “the mud party” and “the dust party” in the town of Likhov, the sheer squalor that the peasants live in, the “eccentricities” of the aristocratic class and in particular the family of the Baroness Todraben-Graben, as well as a very macabre scene involving a poisoning. The book is frequently amusing when Bely’s rhetorical hijinks are not amusing in themselves. We also see in the never-less-than-witty dialogue that Bely’s art incorporates the heteroglossia that Mikhail Bakhtin celebrates in the works of Dostoyevsky.
But there is one specific thing that Bely does that I have not seen done to this degree in any other writer, and which to my mind makes The Silver Dove one of the most beautifully written books of all time, if not necessarily the greatest—neither ancient writers, nor those from the Renaissance, nor writers in the 18th or the 19th century do this; James Joyce doesn’t do it (and he supposedly knows all the tricks); your supposed modern masters of the sentence (looking at you Morrison, McCarthy, Krauss, Pynchon, Gass, Krasnahorkai) don’t even contemplate doing it; I am talking about Bely’s symphonic prose.
A symphony, as music enthusiasts know, is made of series of interlocking motifs, point and counterpoint, strophe and antistrophe and strophes arpeggiating in-and-out and in-and-out of antistrophes; Bely’s prose works much the same way, across phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, sections, chapters—the dance of parallelisms is enacted across every level of the composition. I wonder if there has ever been a more musical prose writer than Bely. What he composes is not so much prose poetry as prose jazz; he will lay down a dozen leitmotifs and play them like jazz parts, which have wonderful suspended effects (like the sly repetitions of Milton in Paradise Lost) when drawn out between his winding Gogolian banter and the ornamental Ciceronian prose sculptures that constitute many of his paragraphs.
The miracle of Bely’s prose is how he makes a paragraph like the following, so precisely rhythmic, so active and yet serene, seem commonplace:
The rain had stopped: again the sun gleamed for a moment; Gugolevo appeared before him, opened itself out, enclosed him in its blossoming embrace—and now it was looking at him, Gugolevo; looking at him with the lucent waters of its lake, Gugolevo; and the lake was rocking him with its dove-blue waters which sang with silver, and all the while the rippling lake was reaching out to the bank with its waters—but it could not reach: and whispered with the reeds—and there, in the lake, was Gugolevo: it rose behind the trees in its entirety, then gazed with a smile of longing at the water—and escaped into the water: there it was now, in the water—over there, over there.
Isolated here, this paragraph is a masterclass in rhythm and imagery that most writers would have been proud to produce. In the overwhelming lavishness of Bely’s prose, however, it seems almost like filler material. As a reader, you find yourself swimming atop such an ocean of golden lyricism, unable (unless you pause and take a breath) to count the gemstones on one measley crown.
The passages that stand out from all this bounty of musical prose are those that convey Bely’s central theme of the opposition between “Russia” and the “West,” with Katya and the intelligentsia representing the West, and the mysterious Kudeyarov and Matryona representing the enigmatic East. There is a section of chapter five titled, “Matryona,” in which Daralsky agonizes over Matryona’s peculiar beauty; it is in its way as stunning (albeit a bit creepy) a statement on the subject of beauty as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. I won’t quote the whole thing, but offer some excerpts here:
If you fall for a dark-eyed beauty, pretty as a picture, with lips as sweet as a luscious rasberry, and a gentle face, unrumpled by kisses, like an apple-blossom petal in May, and she becomes your love—then do not say that love is yours: even though you cannot tire of her rounded breasts, of her slender frame that melts in your embrace like wax before a flame. . . . The day will come, that cruel hour will come, the fatal moment will come, when he face will fade, rumpled by kisses, her breasts will no longer quiver at your touch: all this will come to pass; and you will be alone with your own shadow amidst the sunscorched deserts and the dried up springs, where flowers do not bloom and the sunlight plays on the dry skin of a lizard; and you might even see the hairy black tarantula’s lair, all enmeshed in the threads of its web . . . And then your thirsting voice will be raised from the sands, calling longingly to your homeland.
But if your love is otherwise, if her browless face has once been touched by the black blemish of the pox, if her hair is red, her breasts sagging, her bare feet dirty, and to any extent at all her stomach protrudes, and still she is your love—then that which you have sought and found in her is the sacred homeland of your soul.
What’s wonderful about these passages are their captivating, back-and-forth rhetorical movements, but they also call back to a central theme in the novel, the “sacred homeland,” the East as an entirely different and inescapable state of mind. There is a surprising strain of Russian essentialism that appears not only in the progression of the plot (Daralsky’s rejection of the cosmopolitan and therefore “Western” Katya in favor of the homely, indefinably “Russian” inner beauty of Matryona), but also in how the book descends further into the mystical murk as it goes further in further, falling into the mystical clutches of the Rasputin-like Kureyevo.
Bely’s narrator becomes an unexpected poet-defender of a type of Russian essentialism Vladimir Putin might rhetorically embrace, one that extols the fields and the peasants and the unspoken and unseen as opposed to the modern and proven; Bely the modernist turns anti-modernist, at least towards the end of The Silver Dove. A revolution against the false Westernism will soon come, yet for Bely it’s a spiritual revolution and not necessarily a communistic one. In a indubitably important set of passages in chapter six of the novel (widely admired at the time of the novel’s release by Bely’s contemporaries), the narrator extols at length the “Russian fields,” and describes in passionate prose the difference between Western “words” and the “unspoken words” of the Russian peasant. Whereas in the West (and the Western-infected classes of Russian life) “they dissipate their words, into books, into all manner of scholarship and science; and therefore theirs are effable words, their manner of life is a spoken one,” in Russia by contrast, “the Russian fields know secrets, as the Russian forests do . . . Russian souls are like sunsets; Russian words are strong and resinous: if you are Russian, you will have a bonny secret in your soul, and your spirit-strewing word will be like sticky resin.” There is also an apocalyptic prophecy that should chill us even today:
Oh, to live in the fields, to die in the fields, repeating to yourself the one spirit-strewing word, which no one knows but he who receives that word; and it is received in silence. Here amongst themselves they all drink the wine of life, the wine of new joy — thought Piotr; the sunset here cannot be compressed into a book, and here the sunset is a mystery; in the West there are many books; in Russia there are many unspoken words. Russia is that on which the book is smashed, knowledge dissipated, and life itself burns up; on the day when the West is grafted onto Russia, a world-wide conflagration will engulf it: everything will burn that can burn, for only from the ashes of death will rise the soul of paradise, the Fire-bird.
Whether or not this reads a touch too much like mystical gobbledygook (and as someone a Nikolay Berdyaev might condemn as a “Western Positivist” myself, I am inclined to regard it as such), it certainly seems to capture part of what separates Russia culturally from the West, why we are liberalizing and secularizing while they retreat back into a Czarist, pre-scientific past.
As a complete work, I don’t regard The Silver Dove as among the greatest books ever written (as stated at the top). The telling of the story is too diffuse, too haphazard to earn a +9 score. The many pages of naturalistic/symbolistic description are beautiful, but I’m not entirely convinced they are necessary, even if the prose effects Bely achieves with them are unique; one of the criterion for judging a work of art is how efficiently it makes use of its materials, and who is to say that a more tightly written book couldn’t come along that does something similar? Likewise, Bely’s sentences are certainly beautiful when taken schematically, as part of their larger paragraphs; but while Bely is a great prose writer, his friend Blok was the better poet, and so on a word-by-word basis there are in fact more stupefying writers of individual sentences out there. The Silver Dove is nonetheless clearly the work of a writer with the potential to produce a masterpiece, and I am curious to find out if that is what Bely accomplished when I get around to reading his Petersburg. - https://www.oldbookappreciator.com/2017/12/29/review-the-silver-dove-by-andrey-bely/
A few years ago in a televised interview, portions of which were reprinted in The New York Times, Vladimir Nabokov called Andrei Bely's novel “Petersburg” one of the four greatest masterpieces of 20th‐century prose, the others being Joyce's “Ulysses,” Kafka's “Metamorphosis” and, as he put it, “the first half of Proust's fairy tale ‘In Search of Lost Time.’ “Those unfamiliar with Bely's name and achievement must have dismissed such a selection as either a legpull or a deliberate paradox. But Nabokov was simply stating the facts: the novel he named is indeed the most important, most influential and most perfectly realized Russian novel written in the 20th century, and its author is the man who affected the development of modern Russian prose more than any other 20th‐century figure.
During the pre‐Revolutionary period and in the first decade of Soviet rule, Bely loomed on the horizon of Russian letters as an incandescent, almost blinding presence. A leading Symbolist poet, he combined in his verse mystical insight, social awareness and a concern for and mastery of verbal texture that led the critic Vladimir Markov to Postulate the derivation of the great triad of lexically‐innovative post‐Symbolist poets—Mayakovsky, Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva—from Bely's example. As essayist, critic and literary scholar, Bely was one of the most articulate spokesmen for Symbolist esthetics and the originator of a new approach to the study of Russian metrics and versification, a method that gave rise to a whole new scholarly discipline which is still extant and thriving in the Soviet Union.
But it is Bely's novels that can now be seen as his greatest and most durable contribution. The three magnificent works he wrote in that form between 1909 and 1916—“The Silver Dove,” “Petersburg” (called “St. Petersburg” in the English translation) and “Kotik Letaev”—hit the world of Russian fiction with a momentum comparable to that with which Stravinsky's first three ballets hit Russian music at about the same time. Bely's emancipation of syntax, his utilization of a bewildering variety of diction (ecclesiastic, scientific, colloquial, peasant, substandard), of puns and neologisms, of literary allusions and parodies, his surprising twists of plot and, above all, his unique blend of poetic lyricism and broadly satirical comedy affected every important Russian writer who began writing just before or just after the Revolution.
Bely did not accomplish his reformation of Russian prose single‐handedly: other major Symbolist novelists, especially Fyodor Sologub and Alexei Re
That a figure of such magnitude is now forgotten in the Soviet Union and all but unknown in the West is a lasting tribute to the power to make and break artists' reputations that the Soviet Government still enjoys at home and until recently has enjoyed abroad as well, With the proclamation of Socialist Realism as the only acceptable literary method, all modernist trends of the early 20th century were declared mere bourgeois aberrations. The canonization in the 1930's of the stylistically conservative Maxim Gorky as the “father of Social Realism and progenitor of Soviet literature” required that all Soviet literature be traced to his influence and example. To make sure that this falsification of literary history stuck, Bely and other innovators of 20th‐century Russian literature had to be swept under the carpet.
After the late 1930's Bely's novels were no longer reprinted and there was a total ban on all critical and biographical writing about him. His voluntary return from emigration and his desperate efforts to conform to the party line in the three volumes of memoirs and the groundbreaking study of Gogol, which he wrote shortly before his death in 1934, made no impression on those who decide the fate of Soviet literature and who have no qualms about “rehabilitating” a violently anti‐Soviet émigré such as Ivan Bunin because he wrote in the traditionalist 19‐century manner, but who are made acutely uncomfortable by an innovative genius such as Bely, even when he is a self‐proclaimed Communist and a loyal Soviet citizen.
Born as Boris Bugaev in 1880, the writer took the pen name of Andrei Bely (meaning “Andrew White” and also transcribed as “Biely” and “Belyi”) to avoid embarrassing his father, a noted mathematician who saw in his son's interest in mysticism, Oriental religions and the philosophy of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche a shameful betrayal of the materialist and positivist traditions of the Russian liberal intelligentsia. Bely's earliest attempts at prose fiction, all subtitled “Symphony,” were deliberate experiments in applying the principles of musical composition (the sonata‐allegro structure and the four‐movement symphonic cycle) to fictional narrative—some seven decades before “Napoleon Symphony,” the recent similar experiment by Anthony Burgess.
Bely brought it off successfully only in the third of his four prose “Symphonies,” “The Return,'; a science fictionlike fantasy about a graduate student in chemistry who is actually an exile from another universe. He considered his “Symphonies” artistic failures, but it was while writing them that he devised the system of verbal leitmotifs and recapitulations that is so important in his novels. Much later, in 1921, Bely employed an authentically symphonic structure with stunning success in his four‐part autobiographical poem “The First Rendezvous.”
Bely's first big novel, “The Silver Dove,” is set in the Russian countryside during the abortive revolution of 1905. The novel's intellectual, universi ty‐educated hero, Pyotr Daryalsky, a man very much involved in the revolutionary and mystical trends of his time, is visiting his fiancée Katya at the estate of her grandmother, Baroness Todrabe‐Graaben. The funereal Germanic name of the baroness suggests that the Russian aristocracy is estranged from the people and doomed, just as Daryalsky's own name (derived from the gorge in the Caucasus made famous by Russian poets of the Romantic Age) points to the transitory significance of the literary movements and philosophical ideas that agitated the intellectuals but were unknown to and ignored by the illiterate and semi‐literate masses—peasants, merchants and the provincial clergy—who live in the surrounding villages.
Impelled by dark forces he himself does not quite understand, Daryalsky leaves the lovely and loyal Katya and takes up with the pockmarked, bigbreasted and inarticulate peasant wench Matryona who converts him to the eschatological and Dionysian sect of religious dissenters called the Doves. Hoping for a spiritual union with the people and thinking he is furthering their liberation, Daryalsky instead finds squalor, terror and eventually death.
Despite longueurs and occasional lack of focus, “The Silver Dove” is a powerful and important book. (Harrison E. Salisbury's introduction to the new translation does not make clear its literary quality and significance.) Its stylistic richness is derived from Bely's virtuosity in switching from one narrative manner to another in accord with the social and educational level of the characters on whom the particular chapter is centered. Thus, the descriptions of village life are couched in a recognizable approximation of the voice of Gogol's fictitious narrator in his early stories. The evocation of Gogol's manner (and the similar later evocations of Pushkin and Dostoevsky in “Petersburg”) is not a case of simple imitation, but rather a response to the urge common to writers of Bely's generation, to demonstrate that their great 19th‐century predecessors were imaginative literary artists and brilliant stylists rather than merely topical social critics, as the earlier tradition,
The book's central theme, the lovehate relationship between an ultraconservative cabinet minister and his son, who is involved in the revolutionary movement, may well be the most convincing treatment of the Oedipal situation since Sophocles first launched it. Bely's devastating demonstration of the erotic and sado‐masochistic nature of the impulses that underlie both reactionary repression and revolutionary terror—and of the ease with which the one can become the other—is as profound a revelation for the 20th century as Dostoevsky's corresponding insights in “The Possessed” were for the 19th.
“Kotik Letaev” moves away from the social and revolutionary preoccupations of the first two novels into a region previously explored by Chekhov in his stories dealing with the psychology of very young children (e.g., “Grisha” and “The Cook's Wedding”). A lyrical poem and a verbal symphony, the book is an astoundingly detailed and imaginative record of a child's incipient consciousness, of his gradually emerging awareness of the outside world. The reader is plunged together with the 2‐year‐old protagonist into the undifferentiated chaos out of which our familiar reality slowly materializes.
A serpent that pursues the little Kotik in his feverish dreams during bout of measles is eventually divided into two halves: one half becomes the boy's uncle, while the other half lands on the cover of a book called “Extinct Monsters” and is now called a dinosaur. Vaguely comforting or menacing presences evolve into parents and other real people. The child's expanding perceptions recapitulate not only the evolution of the vertebrates, but also that of the cosmos and of Western philosophy. Metaphoric or figurative language presents a constant stumbling block to the boy's correct assessment of surrounding reality. A man is said to be “burning up with alcoholism.” Since this man comes back for recurrent visits, the child assumes that he exists in several copies and is replaceable the way logs in the fireplace are replaced after burning up.
Most of the novel's content and action is presented from this incomprehending child's perspective; what little action the book contains revolves around the conflict between the boy's father and mother (modeled after Bely's own parents) over the best way of bringing him up. The tragic climax comes when the boy reaches the age of 4 and is brutally separated from his beloved governess, the sole person with whom he feels at ease.
Bely's first three novels (his later novels, such as “The Moscow Eccentric” and “Masks,” add little of substance to the achievement of his earlier ones) and his oeuvre as a whole constitute a literary legacy of such importance that not even the Soviet Government could keep it under cover indefinitely. Numerous signs point to his impending rediscovery and reevaluation. A volume of Bely's selected poetry came out in a small printing in the Soviet Union in 1965. A new variorum edition of “Petersburg” has now been announced by a leading Soviet publishing house. The Fink Verlag in Western Germany has been steadily reproducing all of Bely's work in Russian by the photo‐offset method.
Memorable chapters about him are to be found in Nina Berberova's recent memoir “The Italics Are Mine” and in Nadezhda Mandelstam's “Hope Against Hope” (Chapter 34, “Two Voices”). J. D. Elsworth's brief but highly informative critical study “Andrey Bely” was published by Bradda Books Ltd. in England in 1972, supplementing Oleg A. Maslenikov's earlier “The Frenzied Poets” (Greenwood Press Reprints, 1968) and K. Mochulsky's detailed biography in Russian (Y.M.C.A. Press, Paris, 1955). The International Slavic Conference held in Banff, Canada, in September, 1974, had a section devoted to Bely's prose at which papers on his novels were read by British and American scholars. In March, 1975 the University of Kentucky will be hosting an international symposium on Bely.
A major obstacle to giving Bely's novels their due in this country has been the lack of good English translations. “Petersburg” has been available since 1959 in a seriously flawed translation by John Cournos (Grove Press, hardback and paperback), which is insensitive to tone and style, omits Bely's imaginative chapter titles and resorts to arbitrary deletion of sentences that the translator must have found too hard. George Reavey's new translation of “The Silver Dove” is, unfortunately, even less reliable than the work of Cournos.
Gerald Janecek's translation of “Kotik Letaev,” on the other hand, is clearly a labor of love, a remarkable accomplishment by someone who understands and values this beautiful and complex book. With great resourcefulness, the translator renders impossibly difficult metaphysical passages and finds adequate English equivalents for Bely's puns and neologisms, only to stumble now and then on that Nemesis of translators, colloquial Russian usage. Bely's infant‐hero spends much time on people's laps (including that of Leo Tolstoy), sleeping on them and hiding his face in them. But Janecek does not understand the term for laps, so the poor child has to sleep in kneeling position, hide his face between his own knees and is merely embraced by the great writer, Elsewhere, birthmarks come out as “parents,” cod liver oil as “fish lard” and extremities as “finiteness.” Excessive fidelity to the letter of the original makes some obscure.
But unlike Redvey's, Janecek's errors are not frequent and they do not dis tort the book's style or meaning. An editor armed with a fat red pencil and a command of idiomatic Russian could easily turn this version of “Kotik Letaev” into the first really adequate rendition of a Bely novel into English. Still in the offing is the authoritative new translation of “Petersburg” now being prepared by a team of professors of Russian literature at Columbia University. When it appears and when the publishers of “Kotik Letaev” correct Janecek's misreadings and perhaps annotate the book's numerous literary references, the American reader will at last gain access to the work of Russia's most important 20th century novel. -