Thursday, 31 March 2011

Andrei Bely: Petersburg

Your Excellencies, Your Worships, Your Honors, and Citizens!

. . . . . . . .

What is this Russian Empire of ours?
This Russian Empire of ours is a geographical entity, which means: part of a certain planet. And this Russian Empire includes: in the first place—Great, Little, White, and Red Rus; in the second place—the Kingdoms of Georgia, Poland, Kazan, and Astrakhan; in the third place, it includes. . . . But—et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
This Russian Empire of ours consists of a multitude of cities: capital, provincial, district, downgraded; and further—of the original capital city and of the mother of Russian cities.
The original capital city is Moscow, and the mother of Russian cities is Kiev.
Petersburg, or Saint Petersburg, or Pieter (which are the same) actually does belong to the Russian Empire. And Tsargrad, Konstantinograd (or, as they say, Constantinople), belongs to it by right of inheritance. And we shall not expatiate on it.
Let us expatiate at greater length on Petersburg: there is a Peters­burg, or Saint Petersburg, or Pieter (which are the same). On the basis of these same judgments, Nevsky Prospect is a Petersburg prospect.

Nevsky Prospect possesses a striking attribute: it consists of a space for the circulation of the public. It is delimited by numbered houses. The numeration proceeds house by house, which considerably facilitates the finding of the house one needs. Nevsky Prospect, like any prospect, is a public prospect, that is: a prospect for the circulation of the public (not of air, for instance). The houses that form its lateral limits are-hmmm . . . yes: . . . for the public. Nevsky Prospect in the evening is illuminated by electricity. But during the day Nevsky Prospect requires no illumination.
Nevsky Prospect is rectilineal (just between us), because it is a European prospect; and any European prospect is not merely a prospect, but (as I have already said) a prospect that is European, because . . . yes. . . .
For this very reason, Nevsky Prospect is a rectilineal prospect.
Nevsky Prospect is a prospect of no small importance in this un-Russian-but nonetheless-capital city. Other Russian cities are a wooden heap of hovels.
And strikingly different from them all is Petersburg.
But if you continue to insist on the utterly preposterous legend
about the existence of a Moscow population of a million-and-a-half, then you will have to admit that the capital is Moscow, for only capitals have a population of a million-and-a-half; but as for provincial cities, they do not, never have had, and never will have a population of a million-and-a-half. And in conformance with this preposterous legend, it will be apparent that the capital is not Petersburg.
But if Petersburg is not the capital, then there is no Petersburg. It only appears to exist.
However that may be, Petersburg not only appears to us, but actually does appear—on maps: in the form of two small circles, one set inside the other, with a black dot in the center; and from precisely this mathematical point, which has no dimension, it proclaims forcefully that it exists: from here, from this very point surges and swarms the printed book; from this invisible point speeds the official circular.

Chapter the First

in which an account is given of a certain worthy

person, his mental games, and the

ephemerality of being


It was a dreadful time, in truth,
Of it still fresh the recollection . . .
Of it, my friends, I now for you
Begin my comfortless narration.
Lugubrious will be my tale . . .
Pushkin

Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov

Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov was of venerable stock: he had Adam as his ancestor. But that is not the main thing: it is more important that one member of this venerable stock was Shem, progenitor of the Semitic, Hessitic, and red-skinned peoples.
Here let us make a transition to ancestors of an age not so remote.
Their place of residence was the Kirghiz-Kaisak Horde, whence, in the reign of the Empress Anna loannovna, Mirza Ab-Lai, the great-great-grandfather of the senator, valiantly entered the Russian service, having received, upon Christian baptism, the name Andrei and the sobriquet Ukhov. For brevity's sake, Ab-Lai-Ukhov was later changed
to Ableukhov, plain and simple.
This was the great-great-grandfather who was the source of the stock.

. . . . . . . .

A lackey in gray with gold braid was flicking the dust off the writing table with a feather duster. A cook's cap peeped through the open door.
"Looks like himself's already up. . . ."
"He's rubbing himself down with eau de cologne, he'll be taking his coffee pretty soon. . . ."
"This morning the fellow who brings the mail was saying there was a letter for the master all the way from Spain, with a Spanish stamp on it."
"I'm going to tell you something: you shouldn't stick your nose in other people's letters. . . ."

The cook's head suddenly vanished. Apollon Apollonovich Ab- leukhov proceeded into the study.

. . . . . . . .

A pencil lying on the table struck the attention of Apollon Apol- lonovich. Apollon Apollonovich formed the intention: of imparting a sharpness of form to the pencil point. He quickly walked up to the writing table and snatched ... a paperweight, which he long turned this way and that, deep in thought.
His abstraction stemmed from the fact that at this instant a pro- found thought dawned on him, and straightaway, at this inopportune time, it unfolded into a fleeting thought train.
Apollon Apollonovich quickly began jotting down this unfolded thought train. Having jotted down the train, he thought: "Now it's time for the office." And he passed into the dining room to partake of his coffee. ...

Robert A. Maguire and John E. Malmstad translators

No comments: