My love of Russian authors has led me to discover some remarkable books; but this one may well be the most unusual and outstanding of them! Andrei Bely’s “Petersburg” is known as the ‘Russian Ulysses’ – an intimidating description at the best of times! It’s the only one of his novels readily available, and it’s been hailed by Nabokov as one of the greatest masterpieces of the 20th century, and by Anthony Burgess to be the one novel that sums up the whole of Russia. So, not much for it to live up to there…
Committing to a big chunkster is always something of a leap of faith, but I’ve had “Petersburg” – actually, four different copies of it! – sitting on Mount TBR for ages, and so this was the time!
Of Bely, Wikipedia says: Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev, better known by the pen name Andrei Bely (26 October [O.S. 14 October] 1880 – 8 January 1934), was a Russian novelist, poet, theorist, and literary critic. His novel Petersburg was regarded by Vladimir Nabokov as one of the four greatest novels of the 20th century.
So to the book. Superficially, this is the story of a family, the Ableukhovs, who are most definitely deeply dysfunctional. Apollon Apollonovich is a high ranking Senator in the Russian civil service – cold, emotionally buttoned down and very respectable. This being 1905, however, his son Nikolai Apollonovich, is a very different kettle of fish – a student, mixing with a range of revolutionary types, over-emotional and confused. Then there is Anna Petrovna, wife and mother – she has had enough of her cold husband and ran off to Spain with a lover. However, as the book unfolds she returns to Petersburg to witness the events about to overtake the family.
Then there is the supporting cast – revolutionaries Dudkin and Lippanchenko; NA’s friend Likhutin and his captivating wife, Sofya Petrovna, with whom NA is in love; and a variety of servants and lackeys and employees and revolutionaries and fellow travellers. Behind them is the seething mass – Petersburg’s large and volatile population, caught up in the fight for reform, constantly portrayed as a single entity, a myriapod moving backwards and forwards along the Nevsky Prospect.
Plot? Yes, there is one – the revolutionaries have set NA the task of setting off a bomb to assassinate his father, after he rashly proclaimed his hatred of AA at a meeting. Faced with the reality of the bomb (a ticking mechanism hidden in a very prosaic sardine can), NA wavers – unsure of his motivations and feelings, afraid for the consequences of any actions. Will the bomb explode? Will AA be killed? What will happen to NA?
The majority of the story takes place over an intense period of 24 hours, although there is the odd dip back into the past to see events leading up to this point. And NA’s behaviour and motivations are not straightforward – things are complicated by his passion for Sonya Petrovna, which lead him to dressing bizarrely in a red domino masquerade costume and running round the streets of Petersburg. The motives of the revolutionaries are never entirely clear, either, and they are driven in part by their past, their beliefs but also their current state of mind and physical circumstances – Dudkin in particular being prey to all sorts of mental and emotional strains which will have a catastrophic effect on at least one character.
The structure and writing of the book is of course quite remarkable. Physically, it’s easy to read as the eight long chapters are divided up into sections, each of which has a phrase or couple of words as a title, words which feature in the section itself. The writing is compelling, and words; phrases; sentences; even paragraphs seem to be repeated in a way that’s poetic and hypnotic at the same time. Bely was part of the Symbolist movement, and certainly symbols and images are important here. There are recurring motifs throughout the book – sardines for example – and the dense and intense poetic repetitions have a slightly disorienting effect. At first you think you’re mistaken and what you read just sounds like something earlier. Then you realise that Bely is using repetition to emphasise his points, to reiterate the feeling and emotions of the book. It’s an effective technique which draws you into the narrative a bit like a spider’s web.
“Some kind of phosphorescent stain was racing both mistily and furiously across the sky; the distances of the Neva were misted over by a phosphorescent sheen, and this made the soundlessly flying surfaces begin to gleam green, giving off now there, now here a spark of gold; here and there on the water a tiny red light would flare up and, having blinked, retreat into the phosphorescently extended murk. Beyond the Neva, showing dark, the massive buildings of the islands rose, casting into the mists their palely shining eyes – infinitely, soundlessly, tormentingly; and they seemed to be weeping. Higher up, ragged arms furiously extended some kind of vague outlines; swarm upon swarm they rose above the Neva’s waves; while from the sky the phosphorescent stain hurled itself upon them. Only in one place that had not been touched by chaos – there, where by day the Troitsky Bridge was thrown across – enormous clusters of diamonds showed misty above the glittering swam of annulated, luminous serpents; both twining and untwining, the serpents sped from there in a sparkling file; and then, diving down, rose to the surface like strings of stars.”
Of course, there is one ‘character’ which is a constant throughout the book – Petersburg itself ; fluid, ever-changing, ever-present, an illusion, a dream, a thing to be loved and hated. Certainly, Bely’s relationship with the city seems to be complex and many-layered, oscillating between love and hate. His descriptions bring the city alive, in all its beauty and filth, and over it (and all things in it) hangs the image of Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman, immortalised in the statue of Peter the Great which graces Senate Square in Petersburg. The horseman is one of many symbols throughout the book, and its weight seems to be crushing the characters down. Then there is the Red Domino, representing the revolutionary forces to come; and AA, all in white, representing the forces of stasis, unchanging and locked into the rituals of the civil service. Actually, a whole book could be written just about the symbolism in “Petersburg”!
Instead of the normal clarity of fiction, “Petersburg” reflects the uncertainty and ambiguity of life: why did that person say such a thing? what do they really mean? why are events slipping out of my control? The ever-shifting perspectives and the fluid imagery have an unsettling, hallucinatory effect, so that you come out of the book disoriented and breathless.
“Meanwhile, a cold, whistling pandemonium had broken out along the Nevsky, swooping, rattling and whispering with small, staccato, steady drops against the umbrellas, the sternly bent backs, drenching the hair, drenching the frozen, stringy hands of artisans, students and workers; meanwhile a cold, whistling pandemonium had broken out along the Nevsky, pouring a poisonous, mocking, metallic highlight on to the street signs, twisting billions of wet grains of dust into funnels, forming tornadoes, driving and driving them through the streets, shattering them against stones; and further, driving the bat’s wing of the clouds out of Petersburg through the vacant lots; and already a cold, whistling pandemonium had broken out above the vacant lots; with a mettlesome, buccaneer whistling it caroused through the expanses – of Samara, Tambov, Saratov – in gullies, sands, thistles, wormwood, tearing the straw from the roofs, tearing down the high-topped haystacks and spreading its sticky rot across the threshing floors; a heavy, granular sheaf is born from it; the native, spring-water well is blocked up by it; woodlice will appear; and through a series of wet villages typhus goes raging.”
But none of this stops the book being a compelling read, and I found it unputdownable. It’s a remarkably involving and emotional experience, particularly the brief and poignant reconciliation of the Ableukhovs, and illusion of a regained family life – a harmony which is shattered by the bomb. It’s clear why Nabokov rated it as one of the masterpieces of Russian literature, and yes, it could well be said to sum up the whole of Russia. I’ve read a lot of Russian literature, but I’m not sure I’ve come across a single volume that deals with so many different elements: the civil service and revolutionaries; lovers and rivals; the temperament of the Russians and their character; landscape, nature and weather; the legacy of Pushkin and his Bronze Horseman. There are many nods to Gogol (lots of noses!) and Dostoevsky (the state of mind of certain characters recalling Raskolnikov) – which is inevitable with Petersburg itself being such a strong force in the book.
A short review like this can’t really encompass the hugeness of “Petersburg” but hopefully I’ve given a flavour of it. I chose to read the longer (1916) version of Bely’s book, in the excellent David McDuff translation, and I’m *so* glad I did. The language is poetic and so beautiful that I feel I couldn’t bear to see any of it removed. I compared the shorter version at various points in my read and it seemed sadly lacking. “Petersburg” is a deep, wonderful, involving read – one of those books which is a living experience – and although it takes work, it’s definitely worth it. I’m with Nabokov and Burgess on this one!