DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY:
Petersburg by Andrei Bely (trans. David McDuff). Penguin Classics, 624 pp. $17.00.
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.”
Malcolm Forbes is a teacher and freelance essayist and reviewer. He was born in Edinburgh and currently lives in Berlin.
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