As a result in part of it's history, going many years without publication outside of the U.S.S.R., Andrei Bely's Petersburg
(first written in 1913, and not translated to English until 1959) is woefully under-read. It is, perhaps, most often read nowadays for the praise it received of Vladimir Nabokov, who ranked it among Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu
, Joyce's Ulysses
, and Kafka's Metamorphosis
as the twentieth century's greatest novels. It is deserving of significant praise, though it's ranking of top-four for the century bears it tough competition from Woolf, James, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby
, and Nabokov's own Lolita
. Despite this considerable competition, it belongs on far more "Top 100" lists than I have seen it on (none), and for that reason, I feel compelled to review it on here, to perhaps win over some unbeknownst-to-themselves Bely fans. Perambulatory fiction, a tradition which symmetrically begins with Homer's Odyssey
and comes to fruition in Joyce's Ulysses
) and Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway
, has become almost a characteristic of "modernist" literature, though of course it is quite timeless. Through literary walks, cities unfold: Joyce's Dublin, Dickins's London, Balzac's Paris and Proust's Combray (though partially fictional), but among these literary vistas ranks the superb portrayal of Bely's Petersburg
Sediment of mist, you have pursued me too with idle cerebral play: you are a cruel-hearted tormenter; you are a restless ghost; for years you used to assail me; I would run along your terrible Prospects and my impetus would carry me up on to that cast-iron bridge which starts from the edge of the world and leads to the limitless distance; beyond the Neva, in the green distance of the other world—the ghosts of islands and houses rose, seducing me with the vain hope that that land was real and not—a howling endlessness that drives the pale smoke of clouds out on to the Petersburg streets.
Hearkening back to epic poets, Bely often invokes his muse, the very Petersburg of which he writes - but she is a shadowy muse, the penumbral underside of Enlightenment, the sinister apparition of revolution and dischord. Also like The Odyssey
, and other Greek and Roman epics, Petersburg
utilizes repetitions and distinguishing personal epithets to both set the recursive staging of daily routine in the city, and also to establish the unconcern of the city, Petersburg, with the goings-on of its characters and drama. Through even the greatest of human follies, the city remains immutably remote while also disturbingly human, chillingly reactive. In addition to the literal characterization of Petersburg, there is another remote actor upon the proscenium of Petersburg
, which is Bely himself, or an authorial fiction unto himself. Often the story is interjected with an almost post-modern self-awareness as a novel, one which follows the tradition of Thackeray's Vanity Fair
, which both assures us of the veracity of the story, but also draws our attention to its existence as an artifice or work of art.
What might surprise many a reader of modernist fiction is that the story is quite plotted, the pace is quite quick. We follow the guilt-tormented revolutionary Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukov, a senator's son, in his mad walks along the Neva, in his masquerading as a red domino to terrorize his abandoned love, Sofya, in his sub rosa dealings with shadowy spectors, Dudkin and Lippanchenko. The tick-tock-tick
of the sardine can bomb, which he has agreed to set in his father's room, a patricide-promise which he is loath to keep, but feels he cannot escape. But throughout this political intrigue and near-parody of Crime and Punishment
, we are gifted with the little cerebral plays of, particularly, the father and son Ableukovs: the father ever musing on the limits of his mental geometry, and the son ever thinking about his hero, Kant. The novel reads as a intermingling of the creative consciousnesses of father, son, and authorial ghost:This shadow arose by chance in Senator Ableukhov’s consciousness, receiving there its ephemeral existence; but Apollon Apollonovisch’s consciousness is a shadow consciousness, because he too is possessed of ephemeral existence, being the product of the author’s imagination: needless, idle cerebral play.
is no too-serious text, the parallels between Bely and Dostoyevsky's respective novels are done so to parodic effect. While Raskolnikov is a thinker, his crime is only vaguely planned, and the the murder of Lizaveta surprises even himself; Nikolai's crime is yet to be committed
, he has killed no one, but is burdened with an almost absurd guilt, a guilt for uncommitted crime which remains avoidable by simple inaction. Further parody is drawn from the too-obvious parody on Freud's Oedipus Complex. Frued, a contemporary of Bely, published his Three Essays on Sexuality, wherein he laid down much of the foundation for his Oedipal theory, in 1905 - curiously the same year which begins Petersburg
. The geographically-distant mother whom Nikolai seems to worship, the emotionally-distant father whom Nikolai seems to hate, and Nikolai's apparent love-aversion and coy-distancing tactics in his relationship with Sofya are laughable, and make our guilt-racked protagonist the very red domino (clown) as which he disguises himself.
The language in Petersburg
is painted with a Joycean ardor, a mélange of the unrestrained logophilia and wordplay of Ulysses
and the aesthetic precision and accessibility of Dubliners
. There is a rhythmic cadence to Bely's novel which is pleasant to the ear and has a distinctly auricular pleasure to it, of which I draw no comparison but to poetry - a sound distinctly of it's own. The novel strikes the perfect tempo, both fast paced but also solemn in its comedy and insightful in its absurdity. Despite the wordplay, and the punning-jokes of Senator Apollon Apollonovich, we are warned early on that "cerebral play is only a mask; beneath this mask proceeds the invasion of the brain by forces unknown to us
" - what on the surface may appear to be farce, is a mask for something deeper, something serious, something worth read: truth
, which is a "force unknown" which covertly invades our brains when we participate in literature.
It was easy to get lost in Petersburg
- not confused, but lost in the very prospects and alley ways, diffused into the very city, into the very text. Bely's is a powerful text, which utilizes the over-said or obvious as a medium of almost extreme subtlety. What does it mean to be included? Included in a group, in a family, in one's own thoughts or in the thoughts of another? Nikolai is torn between the desperate need for inclusion, but his methods, his feverish acceptance of a revolutionary patricide, could only achieve him one tenuous inclusion while exiling him from the possibility of many others. His relationship with his father is distant, and though it manifests itself in apparent disdain there is an element of suppressed tenderness, of a desire for love which Nikolai and Apollon cannot verbalize, and instead retreat into their "idle cerebral play." That love which reconciles them is the mutual love for Nikolai's absent mother, Anna Petrovna, who returns and with her return an unnatural staging of familial happiness. Though this contentment remains only a semblance, it serves as a final straw for Nikolai, who feverishly relents his acceptance of the bomb, but no matter the extent of his rummaging search for it, he cannot find it. Does "love conquer all"? That is neither here nor there in the novel, as love is noted mostly by its absence. What can be said is that the lack thereof disrupts all, denatures the mind, and brings reality tumbling through the chaotic abyss of the absurd.