Saturday, October 09, 2010

Petersburg discussion: Prologue and Chapter 1

"During late 1905 and several times in 1906, Andrei Bely stayed in one of the furnished rooms at the “Bel-vu” in the corner building on 64 Nevsky and Karavannaia Street. It was during these stays in Petersburg, prompted by his frenzied and tormented love for Blok’s wife Liubov Dmitrievna, that the vision of Petersburg began to crystallize in the novelist’s mind. All three members of this famous erotic triangle met in Bely’s room in the spring of 1906 to discuss their troubled relationship."
Picture source: Mapping Petersburg

In this chapter we have seen Senator Ableukhov; we have also seen the senator’s idle thoughts in the form of the senator’s house, and in the form of the senator’s son, who carries in his head idle thoughts of his own; and lastly, we have seen another idle shadow—that of the stranger.

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.

The author, having once displayed these pictures of illusions, ought quickly to remove them and break off the thread of the narration with this very sentence; but…the author will not behave like this: he has sufficient right not to do so.

Cerebral play is only a mask; beneath this mask proceeds the invasion of the brain by forces unknown to us: and what if Apollon Apollonovich is woven from our brain—he will still be able to terrify with another startling existence that attacks at night. Apollon Apollonovich is endowed with the attributes of this existence; and with the attributes of this existence all his cerebral play is endowed too.

Once his brain has erupted in the mysterious stranger, that stranger exists—exists in fact: he will not vanish from the Petersburg Prospects, as long as the senator exists with thoughts of this kind, because thought, too, exists.

Page 73-74 (all quotes and spellings are from the Pushkin Press edition, 2009, translation by John Elsworth)

The prologue and first chapter can be found here, translated by Robert A. Maguire and John E. Malmstad

I wasn’t sure how often I would post on Petersburg, but after finishing the first chapter I wanted to get started. There is so much going on in Bely’s book and I know I won’t be able to capture it all, but hopefully with several smaller posts on it I can at least provide some of the flavor. I know these posts will come across more of a first impression since I know almost nothing of this novel going in, but some of that is by choice. So let’s see how it goes…

“What is this Russian Empire of ours?” the narrator asks at the beginning of the prologue and we start right in with questions about existence and inclusion. Bely starts with surveying the Russian Empire and then zooms in, step by step, on Petersburg and then further down to more detail, such as the Nevskii Prospect. We are told Petersburg exists because it manifests itself on a map with two concentric circles and a black dot in the middle. Questions of existence flow throughout the first chapter as well, culminating with the quote at the beginning of the post which is near the end of the chapter. This “needless, idle cerebral play” imbues characters with existence, and those characters in turn bring additional characters into existence.

Chapter One takes place on September 30, 1905. The reader sees Apollon Apollonovich, a high ranking government official, and his son during moments of their day. From his carriage on the streets of Petersburg Apollon sees a “stranger”, later identifying him as an acquaintance of his son Nikolai. The street scenes paint a grey picture of Petersburg and the people. Nikolai seems a pampered dandy, sleeping late and focusing on his costume for a party. Later in the chapter we find out his mother (Apollon’s wife) left the family 2 ½ years earlier. Nikolai has recently broken up with someone and contemplated suicide. He tries to intercept his former love on her doorstep but she escapes inside her house.

Since this brief summary doesn’t do the chapter justice, I’ll arrange the notes I took into general topics. I’m not sure how many of these subjects will be relevant throughout the book, but this organizes what I initially found worthy to note. For this post and the rest of the book I’ll continue to go with my unadorned notes, loosely grouped, to see how relevant my impressions are with this first reading of the book.

I have already mentioned some instances of the “cerebral play” involving existence which Bely plays with but there are a few additional examples I’d like to note. At one point, it’s as though thoughts escape Apollon’s and the stranger’s heads and only then become real, such as when the stranger follows Apollon:

They [thoughts] escaped and acquired solidity. And one such escaping thought of the stranger’s was the thought that he, the stranger, existed in fact; this thought ran back from the Nevskii into the senator’s brain and there established the idea that the very existence of the stranger in that head was an illusory existence. And so the circle was closed.

So what is the reader’s role in this play of existence? I’m hoping that will be addressed, as hinted at in several places in this chapter like the comment that items passed by “could not possess any spatial form: it was all just an irritation of the cerebral membrane…”. Such is the case with the book in my hands, too.

Intrusion by the narrator
The narrator makes several intrusions, some benign (such as when he directly addresses the reader) while others cast doubt on his accuracy. “In advance I must correct an inaccuracy that has crept in; it is not the fault of the author, but of the author’s pen…”. So we get to add another level of possible distortion in the guise of an unreliable narrator…or rather his pen. Even with that disclaimer, he claims ownership of his creations often enough in such terms as “my stranger”. In addition, he raises the question of what readers find believable: “[I]f we, the author, record in pedantic detail the path of the first person we meet, then the reader will believe us: this action of ours will be vindicated in the future.” Is it any less real if he doesn't "record in pedantic detail"? Even if the detail is believable, can the reader forget that it is a work of fiction? Does that matter?

One of the most intrusive points is when the narrator recounts his contemplation of suicide, just like Nikolai had earlier. It makes for a good disarming technique, making Nikolai’s actions more believable: “I, too, one September night leaned over your parapet: another moment—and my body would have tumbled into the mists. O, green water, teeming with bacilli! Another moment and you would have turned me too into one of your shadows.”

Shadowy figures dominate Petersburg in this section, which to plays into the questions of existence, but there seems to be more going on with their use. “The streets of Petersburg possess a most indubitable quality: they turn passers-by into shadows; shadows, however, the streets of Petersburg turn into people.” In describing the people on the islands in the Neva, they blur the possibility of existence: “The dark shadows receded. But the hellish drinking dens were left. Long years the Christian people caroused here with the ghost: a bastard race arose from the islands—neither men nor shadows—settling on the border between two alien worlds.”

There are many more examples of shadows throughout the chapter, making the existence of the people in Petersburg, especially the working class, seem like pale imitations of life. Another intrusion by the narrator occurs when he implores the “Russian people” not to “let the crowds of slippery shadows come over from the islands!” A shadow seems to be a nice way of saying they are less than human.

Geometric shapes/parts vs. whole
There definitely seems to be a mathematical bent in many parts of Chapter One, many of which tie in with other themes. Some tie in symbolically, such as the point that Petersburg was originally designed with straight lines but now has many zig-zags. In describing the crowds along the Nevskii Prospect, the narrator describes it as a stream that can be broken into segments that have loose ties to the whole. This fits into the “myriapod” concept mentioned in the ‘inclusion’ section below. While the parts make up the whole, fragments can also defy the whole such as when Apollon’s heart defying his mind when noticing that things were not exactly the same around him. We also see consciousness separating from the body in many ways, whether through immersion in vodka or as part of the masses in the street.

Another geometric theme revolves around the concept that forces emanate from a center, radiating out to intersect with other radiating forces. This concept works in both directions, with individuals or things growing into such a center.

Bely often brings the question of inclusion into play, beginning with the first sentence of the prologue. “What is this Russian Empire of ours?” The narrator also uses “we” many times, such as “We are coming to meet the Senator”, bringing the reader into close confidence. Another example of inclusion, or at least I see it that way, occurs when the people along Nevskii Prospect lose individual definition and blend into a formless being. Bely describes the crowd on the Petersburg streets as a Myriapod, each individual melding into one many-legged (and many-voiced) creature.

Examples of exclusion occur at the same time as those of inclusion. The people that live on the islands are described by Bely as astounding, but not for good reasons. Performing “thievish tricks” in a grimy setting, the island inhabitants stand apart even when immersed in the Nevskii Prospect. From the descriptions given, the stranger’s hatred for Petersburg may represent the feeling of other islanders. And the feeling may be mutual toward them.

When reading what’s called a major symbolist novel, is it OK to say I’m not much into symbolism? So I’m not planning on spending much time on the symbols.
Even so, some of the symbolism I can identify so far adds to the mood and tone of the novel. There seems to be something hovering over Petersburg, more than just the clouds, throwing a pall on the atmosphere in the city. Bat imagery is used often, adding to the surreal and dark mood. And so far, Peter’s statue (The Bronze Horseman) has made only one appearance so far, but I’m sure that will increase as we get further into the novel.

Miscellaneous topics
This may mean nothing but I found it interesting that four characters introduced in this chapter had the same first name and patronymic. Is this meant to symbolize anything? Will it be used as a technique to highlight people stuck in the past or lacking an imagination? Or am I trying to give meaning to nothing?

The final note I want to make regards Nikolai’s apparent worship of Kant. Books line his room and a bust of Kant sits in the room…let’s see how that plays out.

One more quote:

Petersburg, 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.

Restless shadows trudge from the islands; thus a swarm of visions repeats itself, reflected in the Prospects, chasing along the Prospects that are reflected in each other like a mirror in another mirror, where a moment of time itself expands into immeasurable aeons: and as you wander from one doorway to another you live through the ages.
(pages 72-73)

1 comment:

Richard said...

Bely's narrator was one of my favorite aspects of the whole novel both for the elbows he was constantly throwing the reader's way and for the character-like tricks he indulged in such as addressing Petersburg directly and the strange little formulation he came up with of "we the author." Immensely amusing! I know next to nothing about Bely's personal life, so that Nikolai/Angel Peri/Likhutin-like love triangle you mention at the outset of your post lends a certain biographical raciness to that subplot in Petersburg as well. What a fun novel.