In a chapter of his memoir, Speak, Memory, Nabokov tells of his nocturnal wanderings through St Petersburg. Real darkness and artificial light conspire to make foreign his surroundings. “Solitary street lamps were metamorphosed into sea creatures with prismatic spines”; “various architectural phantoms arose with silent suddenness”; “great, monolithic pillars of polished granite (polished by slaves, repolished by the moon, and rotating smoothly in the polished vacuum of the night) zoomed above us.” The whole scale is recalibrated, all perspective redrawn, but the young Nabokov laps it up, feeling “a cold thrill” and “Lilliputian awe” as he stops to contemplate “new colossal visions” rising up before him. He is thrown by these hall-of-mirrors distortions but not entirely surprised to be so—after all, he is in “the world’s most gaunt and enigmatic city.”
This was 1915 and Nabokov was not the only writer to consider the city enigmatic. One year later, Andrei Bely’s Petersburg was published, a novel which possesses stranger, more fantastic distortions. The characters in Bely’s book are too flummoxed by the city and intoxicated by its swirling yellow mists to share Nabokov’s thrill. Their dazedness hardens into fear, and the reader is thrilled (and admittedly flummoxed, too) by the fecundity of surrealness on show and the sheer exceptionality of such a book coming from such a country at such a time. Nabokov himself approved, declaring Petersburg one of the greatest novels of the 20th-century.
Andrei Bely was born in Moscow in 1880 as Boris Nikolayevich Bugayev. He studied mathematics at Moscow University but realized his real interest lay in writing essays and poems. His work began to appear in print in 1902, poetry collections and prose “symphonies” that belonged to the burgeoning Symbolist tradition. Russian Symbolism, modeled on its French equivalent, sought to amalgamate literary genres, and its practitioners successfully fused poetry and prose into poetic prose. Despite their radical innovations, or precisely because of them, the Symbolists were considered scandalous by purists still grounded in 19th-century realism, forcing Boris Bugayev to become Andrei Bely to spare his distinguished father’s blushes. He left Russia in 1906 as the political situation worsened, settling in Munich. When he returned to his homeland he was reinvigorated and ready to utilise his pent-up reserves of literary energy. He started tentatively, his first novel, The Silver Dove (1909), being a conventional tale about a town’s religious sect and an outsider’s reaction to it. Believing the novel to be unfinished he set about writing a sequel, but during its composition it acquired new characters, a more complex plot, and grew into a thoroughly original work of art. The result was Petersburg. Bely remained prolific until his early death in 1934, producing poems, essays on culture, literature and philosophy and, in the 1920s and 1930s, a series of novels under the collective title Moscow that were never completed.
But it is Petersburg for which he is best remembered. It appeared in English in 1959 and has stayed in print ever since. This Penguin reissue features David McDuff’s masterful 1995 translation and a new introduction by Adam Thirlwell. Both offer loving praise for their subject, praise which has been slow in coming in Bely’s native land. Considered decadent by the Soviets, the novel first appeared with major cuts and was later banned for being incommensurate to the idealised standards of Socialist Realism. Bely suffered at the hands of the critics, too; the Russian Formalists, though grudgingly commending his inventiveness, essentially deemed the Symbolists en masse irrelevant to the study and advancement of literature. Bely was only properly rehabilitated in the ‘80s and is now rightly lauded as one of the last century’s great literary talents.
But Bely makes the reader work. Petersburg has frequently been compared to Ulysses, which both helps and muddies the water. It takes place in 1905, a time of war, social unrest and the constant threat of revolution. The main strand concerns Apollon Apollonovich and his son, Nikolai (two possible antecedents of Bloom and Stephen; in addition Apollonovich has been cuckolded and jilted by a wife, Anna Petrovna, who, like Molly, reappears at the end). Nikolai, a student who has got caught up in a terrorist organization bent on political change, is coerced into taking a time bomb and assassinating a senior government senator. Through Sofya Petrovna, the source of his infatuation, and furtive dealings with shadowy conspirators, both he and the reader learn that the bomb’s target is to be his father. ...