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.
Portrait of Andrei Bely by Leon Bakst
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.