What an amazing, strange, wonderful, funny, frustrating, magical book. Needless to say, I highly recommend it. So what have you heard about Petersburg? Vladimir Nabokov declared it one of the most important works of the twentieth century, but he also stated no good English translation was available. I have no idea whether or not the 2009 Pushkin Press edition that I read, with translation by John Elsworth, corrects that deficiency. Even if the language only hints at what the original Russian achieves, it is a wonderful read on the surface as well as for deeper import. One example I can point to “on the surface” is the repetition of words, phrases and sentences providing a rhythm to the work that begs for it to be read out loud. This rhythm mimics the corkscrew-like plotline, circling back on itself while at the same time moving forward.
Petersburg is often likened to Joyce’s Ulysses and I find myself puzzled at that comparison. Many techniques in the style and wordplay are the same, to be sure. In addition, both books focus on a short time period with a city as a major character, but the main thing in common is that one or a dozen posts can’t sum up what it feels like to read the work. I’ll take a brief stab at a few of things I found interesting.
With a non-linear plot, jerky character development, and recurring motifs I found myself constantly asking “what is this novel all about?” The setting provides one clue, taking place in October 1905 Petersburg at the beginning of an unsuccessful revolution. There are many “revolutions” in addition to the obvious political friction taking place during the course of the novel. There is a strong generational conflict that reminded me of Turgenev’s Fathers and Children at times. Marital strife surfaces often as we see the possible dissolution of at least two families. Even with all the strife, the similarities and ties between characters stand out more than the differences. Actions and thoughts recur and migrate across characters, providing literal and symbolic patterns to help understand the individuals as well as the society. Bely looks at how everyone fits together in the “human myriapod” as well as what happens when they don’t engage harmoniously. The collective provides a life...a sound, a consciousness...of its own.
I’ve posted several excerpts that provide examples of the dual nature of characters and events, things described literally and symbolically for surreal effect. One recurring motif throughout Petersburg is that of expansion, whether of body parts (literally and figuratively), sensory diffusion, childhood nightmares, or the looming explosion (or at least the threat of it). This motif and the question of what is the novel all about fit together in looking at the Prologue, where the narrator asks “What is this Russian empire of ours?” He starts by pointing at a map and specifically at Petersburg, a two-dimensional dot. Throughout the book the meaning of Petersburg and of the Russian empire are expanded into greater meaning. The surreal and otherworldly descriptions of Petersburg append themselves to its very existence, a city whose existence mirrors the opening question. The statue of Peter comes to life (to some extent) worming its way into the consciousness of the city’s inhabitants and becomes an apocalyptic figure guarding the city from attack. The setting also plays into this question of what is the Russian empire, occurring after the disastrous loss of the war with Japan and as workers’ strikes begin. Petersburg itself stands as a symbol of Peter the Great’s imposed modernization while the appearance of Mongols in the city and bureaucracy (described by their dress) highlights the East vs. West struggle to define the empire. Possibly to signal which side Bely thinks will triumph, the young Nikolai discards Kant (Europe) in favor of Skovoroda ("Russia", in particular the East).
Here are my previous posts on Petersburg:
Petersburg online resources (including links to the prologue and first chapter as well as other works by Bely)
Discussion: Prologue and Chapter 1
Excerpt: The senator’s second space
Excerpt: A laughable figure
Excerpt: Beyond the wall, beyond the mirror
Discussion: Chapters 2, 3, 4
Excerpt: The terrible import of his soul
Excerpt: Why am I—I?
Excerpt: The horror in the eyes of his consort
Excerpt: And she was sad