Thursday, November 11, 2010

Petersburg: The horror in the eyes of his consort

Work is taking all my time...and then some. But I wanted to share a passage I read last night that captured much of what I’m enjoying about Petersburg. There have been many plot twists and revelations. What should I do when I want to comment on what I’ve read before more is revealed and before I fully understand what's happening? As I done so far with this book, I'll continue to err on the side of premature comments.

The passage below is from pages 486-487 of Petersburg by Andrei Bely, Pushkin Press, 2009, with translation by John Elsworth. I guess I should add there are a couple of revelations in this excerpt, of which I’ve tried to keep to a minimum in my posting on this book so far (at least beyond the ordinary comments and summaries of the book).
Apollon Apollonovich clasped his head firmly in his fingers, as his gaze drifted off into the crackling hearth, exhaling warmth: idle cerebral play!

The narrator had intruded time and time again, letting us know that the story we are reading is only a figment of his “idle cerebral play”, but we find out that his characters engage in “idle cerebral play”, too, as creations engage in the same pastimes as creators. While few of the character-specific things would have transpired, the reader still feels like he is experiencing the environment of October 1905 from Bely’s idle cerebral play.

It, too, drifted away—drifted off beyond the bounds of consciousness: there it went on swirling up into the swarms of chaotic clouds; and Nikolai Apollonovich came to mind—quite short of stature with a penetrating blue gaze and a cluster (one must be fair) of the most varied intellectual interests hopelessly confused.

And a young girl came to mind (that was—thirty years ago); a host of suitors; among them a still relatively young man, Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, already a state councillor and—a desperate admirer.

And—the first night: the horror in the eyes of his consort, when she was left alone with him—the expression of disgust, contempt, disguised by a submissive smile; that night Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, already a state councillor, performed a hideous act, sanctioned by custom; he raped a girl; this rape went on for years; and on one such night Nikolai Apollonovich was conceived—between two smiles of different kinds: between smiles of lust and of submission; was it surprising that Nikolai Apollonovich became thereafter a combination of revulsion, fear and lust? They should have embarked forthwith upon the joint upbringing of the horror they had begotten: the humanising of that monster.

Instead they just inflated it…

Like many other revelations in the last half of the book this provides much needed context for previous acts and attitudes. In addition, Apollon has gone through a humiliating reduction in status during the past few days and this passage reduces him in the reader's eyes.

And once they had inflated the horror to the limit, they ran away from it in different directions; Apollon Apollonovich—to direct the fate of Russia; and Anna Petrovna—to gratify her sexual proclivities with Mantalini (an Italian singer); Nikolai Apollonovich—into philosophy; and from there—into gatherings of undergraduates from non-existent institutions (all those moustaches!). Their domestic hearth had now become a desolate abomination.

Apollon Apollonovich has just spent the morning dusting his library and no longer has the power to direct the fate of Russia. Does he even have the power to direct his life or those around him anymore? (Is now a good time to mention that pesky ticking sardine can full of explosives in the house?)

And now he must return to that abominable desolation; instead of Anna Petrovna he would encounter nothing but a locked door, leading to her apartment (unless Anna Petrovna conceived a desire to return to this abominable desolation); he had the key to these apartments (he had been into this part of the cold house no more than twice: to sit there; each time there he had caught a cold).

I felt I might catch a cold from that sentence's coldness.

Instead of his son he would see there an elusive, blinking eye—huge, cold and empty: of cornflower blue; or maybe—shifty; or maybe—frightened out of its wits; horror would be hiding there—that same horror that had flared up in the bride the night that Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, state councillor, for the first time…

And so on, and so on…

I get the feeling that "so on" will turn uglier in a few pages. Something about an abominable desolation...


Mel u said...

I think based on your regard for this book and that of Nabokov I will be adding this to my 2011 TBR list-Did you see that the BBC is doing a production of Parade's End?

Dwight said...

Everyone quotes Nabokov's praise, but rarely do I hear quotes of his criticism on English translations. Which is why I went with the most recent translation--I don't know if it is an improvement or not, but I definitely enjoyed it.

And no, I didn't know about the BBC's production until now. I definitely want to check it out! (I think I mentioned in my PE posts that I wish someone would have saved the Theater 625 production (TV series in the mid-60s) of most of Parade's End, with a young Judi Dench as Valentine Wannop.