And what am I going to write about, in this blog of mine?
I’m going to write about literature. (Praxis!, what about Praxis?!) (We’ll get to praxis.)
Start with an advert. Andrei Bely’s criminally neglected novel Petersburg deserves to be given a more prominent place in the modern canon. We’ve all read (more or less) The Brothers Karamazov. Sometimes it feels like you can’t move for The Gulag Archipelago. But where is Petersburg in those top-one-hundred-classic-Russian-novels lists that clutter up weekend TV schedules? It doesn’t seem to be very famous or admired.
I came across the book through Vladimir Nabokov’s Strong Opinions – a collection of interviews in which Nabokov showcases his near-superhuman disdain for the rest of the literary world. There are some notable exceptions: Joyce (“genius”), Raymond Queneau (“Exercises de style is a thrilling masterpiece”), Alain Robbe-Grillet (“magnificently poetical and original”), and Franz Hellens, a Belgian novelist (“very important”) even I haven’t got round to tracking down. Nabokov also loves Andrei Bely. (Or Biely, as he transliterates it here.)
“My greatest masterpieces of twentieth century prose are, in this order: Joyce’s Ulysses; Kafka’s Transformation; Biely’s Petersburg; and the first half of Proust’s fairy tale In Search of Lost Time.”
Now I’m a big Nabokov fan. (If this blog goes anywhere it will pretty quickly involve a surfeit of Nabokov). So I ran out and bought Petersburg. It’s great. Listen.
“A pencil lying on the table struck the attention of Apollon Apollonovich. 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 profound 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.
By way of preliminaries, he undertook an insistent questioning of the old valet.”
Before we go any further, I must make a confession: I am, shamefully, monolingual. In reading Petersburg I’m entirely dependent on the artistry and erudition of Robert A. Maguire and John E. Malmstad, the translators. (Most of the facts about Bely here, and a good portion of the insights, are drawn from their excellent introduction and commentary). Of course I can’t judge their achievement when I can only read the English text. But their English Petersburg is so brilliant – and the notes and introduction are so phenomenal – that I can only assume they’ve done marvellously.
This is more than usually important with Andre Bely. Petersburg is a novel about violent revolutionaries intent on the assassination, by time-bomb, of a government official. It was published on the eve of the Russian Revolution. One would think, then, that it would be filled with pressing political anxiety; and it is. But much of the time the politics – and the plot – seem a slender thread on which Bely can hang his linguistic experimentation. It’s the style of the novel – even in translation – that most compels.
Bely started out as a poet. He was one of Russia’s leading literary theoreticians – though good luck trying to track down any of his criticism in translation. He had, it seems, all sorts of eccentric theories about poetry, and even more eccentric ideas about philosophy. Kant is all over Petersburg, but Bely’s Kantianism is mixed in with a heavy dose of anthroposophy. Bely was a student and friend of Rudolph Steiner – unbelievably, he worked on the construction of the original Goetheanum, as a wood-carver. And throughout Petersburg characters fall into or skirt the edges of strange mystical experiences. His characters’ reality is often on the verge of collapse; the translucent city half-reveals and half-conceals another world behind it. Apollon Apollonovich’s name evokes Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy; and behind the Apollonian there lies the Dionysian: that dissolution of the self that provides the only true contact with the real. (Apollon Apollonovich’s son Nikolai will later have “a truly Dionysian experience.”)
These visions of a reality beyond the empirical are, in true symbolist fashion, occasioned by a pushing at the bounds of linguistic sense. The ellipses of everyday speech, the eccentricities of Bely’s narrator’s diction, his warping of syntax, all hint at a hidden reality beyond the smooth surface of regular existence; an irrational world beyond that of ordinary language. This presumably poses nightmarish difficulties for the translators. Here they are, putting on a brave face. “Shifted grammatical categories, assaults on conventional syntax, quirky (some would say ‘impossible’) combinations of words, sudden compressions and ellipses, manipulations of sounds and semantics – in these and many other ways Bely creates a highly idiosyncratic verbal texture, which offers constant surprises to Russian readers, delighting the adventuresome and horrifying the conservative.” Bely even went so far as to claim that the novel’s plot and structure were based entirely on the association of sounds: “I have the impression that ‘ll’ is the smoothness of form: Apo-lll-on; ‘pp’ is the pressure created by covering surfaces (walls, the bomb); ‘kk’ is the height of insincerity: Ni-kkk-olai… kkk-lanyalsya na, kk-a-kk la-kk, par-kk¬-eta-khkh (‘Nikolai… bowed on the varnish-like parquet floor’); ‘sss’ are reflections; ‘rr’ is the energy of the explosion (beneath the covering surfaces): prr-o-rr-yvv v brr-ed (‘a breakthrough into delirium’).” (Apologies for my typeface’s inability to properly accommodate even transliterated Russian words.)
The book is dense with this kind of “verbal instrumentation”. It is packed with dialogue – often free floating, as if overheard, or part of one grand literary babble. (In 1925 Bely adapted the novel for the stage). Because the narrator’s style is so conversational, the boundary between narrative description and reported speech is permeable. In one passage, overheard snatches of conversation punningly form themselves, in the paranoid mind of one of the plotters, into a description of the bomb plot. Or, from another perspective, the cacophony of the city comes to resemble a single fragmented consciousness. It is as if the Circe chapter of Ulysses had expanded to envelop the entire book.
Bely’s conversational style taps into deep resources of Russian literature. Bely is Gogol’s heir, in that he takes over and develops that strange bumbling self-interrupting, deliberately inept style that surfaces everywhere – from Bulgakov to Dostoyevsky. Bely takes this style further than anyone. And, of course, like Gogol, he uses it to evoke a phantasmagorical St. Petersburg. Here’s a quote from the Preface:
“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. [Here’s the translators’ note: The narrator realizes that his ‘logic’ has brought him perilously close to the Russian expression for a brothel, ‘public house’ (publichnyi dom), and so says “houses 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…”
But unlike Gogol – or at any rate, to a far greater extent than Gogol – Bely is using this bumbling style to advance a philosophical agenda; he is marrying it to all the resources of Symbolist poetry. The result is prose of extraordinary range and diversity; we never know what it’s going to do next. Thus, just a few lines down from the passage quoted, we find this:
“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 centre; 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.”
As Maguire and Malmstad say, Bely is here introducing a symbol that will surge and swarm through the book. Circles and spheres will recur in every distant corner of Petersburg’s imagery. Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov will dream of “a spherical fat fellow. This fat fellow, having become a harassing sphere, kept on expanding, expanding and expanding.” Apollon Apollonovich will hallucinate a dot, which “broke loose from its orbit and hurtled at him with dizzying speed, taking the form of an immense crimson sphere.” The exploding bomb is itself an expanding sphere, radiating circles of destruction and influence. And apparently the imagery also recurs, untranslatably, at the level of phonetics. M & M give the example of “sharik”. “Its primary dictionary meaning is ‘corpuscle’; and it is a ‘neutral’ word in the sense that in ordinary contexts, no Russian stops for a moment to think of its literal meaning, ‘little sphere’. But in the context of this particular novel, the reader is bombarded with other words made up of the same or very similar sounds: shar (sphere), shirit’sya (expand), rasshirenie (expansion, dilatation) … The ear pulls sharik into this same phonic pattern; and then we are likely to remember that the primary component is shar. But of course the dictionary meaning of ‘corpuscle’ still remains.”
Since I’m reading the book in translation, and you perhaps will too, such resonances might seem irrelevant to my appreciation of Petersburg. But no. In the first place, it’s simply of interest to see the operational procedures of a novelist of genius. And secondly: even if we can’t follow the profundities of Bely’s poetic gift in the Russian original, this analysis at least lets us know something of what’s going on, as through a glass darkly. So this is what Bely is pursuing! (we think). So this is his daemon; so these sounds possess him; his heart is tugged at by echoes; his heart is an echo; its beat is the repetition of a certain sound. At any rate: sound and sense interact here in a way that bad writers can’t manage. Therefore: I have faith in Andrei Bely.
Now, harping on about Bely’s philosophical and meta-aesthetic agendas can place undue emphasis on the somewhat more obscure aspects of his style. Which can crowd out its most obvious and important virtues. The best thing about Petersburg is just that it’s so funny. And there are countless stylistic felicities that are unrelated, or at least are only obscurely related, to Bely’s theoretical program. (Such programs being, after all, more a way of liberating talent than of actually writing).
For example: one of Bely’s favourite tricks is to focus his attention, not on the actual object of his scrutiny, but on some portion or segment or property of that object. Bely doesn’t, generally, describe people, so much as describe their various body parts or clothes. More or less at random:
“All the shoulders formed a viscous and slowly flowing sediment. The shoulder of Alexander Ivanovich stuck to the sediment, and was, so to speak, sucked in. In keeping with the laws of the organic wholeness of the body, he followed the shoulder and thus was cast out onto the Nevsky.”
Which leads to the converse procedure (the treatment of the human as a portion or segment of something larger):
“There were no people on the Nevsky, but there was a crawling, howling myriapod there… It has been moving along the Nevsky for centuries. Higher, above the Nevsky, the seasons run their course. The cycle there is mutable, but here it is immutable. The times of year have their limit. The human myriapod has no limit; all the links are interchangeable; it is always the same; beyond the railway terminal it turns its head; its tail thrusts into the Morskaya; along the Nevsky shuffle the individual arthropodic links.
Exactly like a scolopendra!”
Basically what I’m doing here is just trying to quote enough Bely that you’ll feel compelled to go and buy the book. I’m looking through it now and I want to quote every page.
“From the intersection to that restaurant of Millionnaya Street we have obligingly described the route of the stranger as far as that notorious word ‘suddenly,’ which interrupted everything. Let us investigate his soul. But first, let us investigate that restaurant…”; “An instinctive sigh broke from Sergei Sergeyevich, as instinctive as the movements of drowning people before they go under… The sigh of relief had nothing to do with him as an individual personality but rather with his fleshy integument. It, this integument, was sitting on its haunches and taking everything in.”; “My senator had just turned sixty-eight. And his pallid face recalled a gray paperweight (in a moment of triumph), and papier mache (in an hour of leisure).”; “In the lacquered house the storms of life flowed noiselessly on; here, nonetheless, the storms of life did flow destructively on.” And on and on and on.
Or, again, at greater length, and more or less at random:
“He had a fear of space.
The landscape of the country actually frightened him. Beyond the snows, beyond the ice, and beyond the jagged line of the forest the blizzard would come up. Out there, by a stupid accident, he had nearly frozen to death.
That had happened some fifty years ago.
While he had been freezing to death, someone’s cold fingers, forcing their way into his breast, had harshly stroked his heart, and an icy hand had led him along. He had climbed the rungs of his career with that same incredible expanse always before his eyes. There, from there an icy hand beckoned. Measureless immensity flew on: the Empire of Russia.
Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov ensconced himself behind city walls for many years, hating the orphaned distances of the provinces, the wisps of smoke from tiny villages, and the jackdaw. Only once had he risked transecting these distances by express train: on an official mission from Petersburg to Tokyo.
Apollon Apollonovich did not discuss his stay in Japan with anyone. He used to say to the Minister:
‘Russia is an icy plain. It is roamed by wolves!’
And the Minister would look at him, stroking his well-groomed gray mustache with a white hand. And he said nothing, and sighed. On the completion of his official duties he had been intending to…
But he died.
And Apollon Apollonovich was utterly alone. Behind him the ages stretched into immeasurable expanses. Ahead of him an icy hand revealed immeasurable expanses.
Immeasurable expanses flew to meet him.
Oh Rus, Rus!
Is it you who have set the winds, storms, and snows howling across the steppe? It seemed to the senator that from a mound a voice was calling him. Only hungry wolves gather in packs out there.
Undoubtedly the senator had been developing a fear of space.”
Why has Petersburg not been given the attention and respect it deserves in the English speaking literary world? A large part of the reason is surely historical. Petersburg was one of the victims of the Soviet devastation of Russian culture; in the land of Leningrad, Bely’s words died: “there is no Petersburg. It only appears to exist.” But neither did Bely’s book benefit from the aura of dissidence that made Solzenitsyn or Pasternak such celebrities. As Maguire and Malmstad say: “Those writers of real talent whom the Soviets have simply neglected tend to suffer the same fate here.”
But this isn’t the whole story. I’m pretty sure that at least part of the reason for Petersburg’s comparative neglect is more literary: Petersburg is not easily assimilable to the ‘great tradition’ of English literature. Bely’s book does different things, in different ways, from the novels we are used to reading and studying. In some ways, perhaps, Petersburg is just too strange for the Anglo-Saxon literary imagination to get much of a bearing on it.
The comparison may be invidious, but I’m going to run with it anyway. Compare Petersburg and Ulysses. The comparison is often made. Both novels give a starring role to their cities – which serve as prisms through which to view the spirit of a nation; both follow the peregrinations of two men – older and younger, practical and intellectual. Though Petersburg doesn’t have Ulysses’ restricted time-scale, it very nearly does: once the assassins’ bomb starts ticking, we know that the story will reach its climax within twenty four hours. (Has anyone thought of pitching Ulysses to the makers of 24?). Both books are packed with the minutiae of everyday life; both use old newspapers to provide the detail of their characters’ habitats; and both are, of course, extraordinary masterpieces.
But the differences are fundamental. Joyce’s creative impulse is towards expansion. Joyce wrote the book’s core – its plot, its bones – and then he added and added and added. No detail of environment or of consciousness was too minute to escape his agglomerative drive. This is Ulysses’ project – to incorporate everything – and the project is in principle endless. Joyce had to end it arbitrarily – by decreeing that the book would be published on his fortieth birthday. He could have kept on writing forever.
Bely’s revisions of Petersburg, on the other hand, were all about excision. Bely wrote the novel’s original draft between July 1911 and January 1912. He then couldn’t find a publisher. While he was searching, he completely reworked the novel. In 1913, after various troubles (at one point much of the book was actually set up in type before being abandoned), it started being published in instalments; then as a book proper in 1916. But Bely was still dissatisfied, and he set to work revising again. M&M: “Working more by massive cutting than by actual rewriting, he subjected the text to such changes that the result was virtually a new novel”. In 1922 this new novel was published by a firm in Berlin. And it’s this version that M&M translate.
Ulysses and Petersburg. Expansion and excision. These differences in approach speak of the different novels’ different spirits. If Ulysses wants to grasp the world in words, Petersburg’s keynote is the eloquent ellipsis. Despite Circe’s hallucinatory power, Ulysses’ guiding spirit is realist. It wants to describe. It wants to fully, adequately, maximally describe. Recall Joyce’s boast that, were Dublin raised to the ground, it could be rebuilt from scratch with Ulysses as the blueprint. Petersburg, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about the actual city. Petersburg’s Petersburg is a dream city, a nightmare city, a city of the mind and of the dead. Petersburg isn’t interested in the empirical world; it is after something that descriptive prose can’t give it. It is after something beyond thought, and beyond experience. It puts more faith than English literature likes to in madness. It puts faith in the senseless. You have to look to Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear to find in English literature the kind of cheerful ludicrous babbling that provides so much of Petersburg’s weight and heft. And it is only in English literature’s very greatest moments – in, say, Shakespeare – that we see something of the surrendering to the madness of language that is the bread and butter of Bely’s style. Ulysses may be notoriously difficult – but in one sense it is maximally lucid. Almost every line admits of careful explication. Joyce said the book’s obscurities would keep the scholars busy for fifty years. This is not the kind of obscurity that Bely is after. His raids on the inarticulate pursue a shimmering absence, a nonsense, a frightening, tearful, heartening, ghastly…
It is impossible to say just what I mean! And perhaps Eliot is a better figure to compare to Bely anyway.
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.”
“oh, Russian people, oh, Russian people! Don’t let the crowd of strangers in from the islands! Black and damp bridges are already thrown across the waters of Lethe. If only they could be dismantled…
And the shadows thronged across the bridge.”
But even here the differences are deep, and in those depths move monsters. Eliot’s mandarin intellectualism; his refusal of human emotion; his punctiliousness; his coldness; above all, his baffling decision to provide footnotes to The Waste Land: these indicate a different sense of literature from Bely’s. No one would ever accuse Eliot of boisterousness. No one would accuse him of high spirits. And though Eliot is moving towards the inexpressible, there is little sense in Eliot of an abandonment to language or the heart’s power. Not without caution. Not without suspicion. Eliot’s madness is kept under lock and key. In death’s dream kingdom.
What I’m saying is that Eliot and Joyce, those exemplary modernists, represent, as much as anyone, the trends in English literature that gave rise, in Russia, to Bely. The twentieth century saw an unprecedented assault on the idea that literature’s function was lucid fidelity to life. And yet surrealism never really took root in English; nor did Symbolism. Acknowledged, discussed, examined, even admired, these literary trends are kept at something of a distance by the arbiters of English literary taste. In the English literary spectrum, Dylan Thomas or Blake sometimes seem to represent the extremes of visionary madness. There really isn’t room for a figure as rigorously strange as Bely. If there’s nothing like Petersburg in English literature, part of the reason is English literature’s refusal of the terms in which Bely’s endeavour is framed.
Perhaps some hint for this can be found in the recent Penguin classics translation of Petersburg, by David McDuff. Its notes are curt and unenlightening; its introduction unsympathetic to Bely’s project: If I’d bought this edition, I wouldn’t be proselytising for Bely now. But also: McDuff translates the longer 1916 version of the book. I may not have stressed enough that I’m not in a position to judge translations. What the fuck do I know? But I can have my suspicions. My suspicion is that the longer version of the book – less difficult, less obscure, less threatening, fitting better our picture of what a capacious Russian novel ought to be – has been chosen for the Penguin edition not because it is the superior version, but because it is closer to the sort of thing we’re meant to like. Listen to this passage from McDuff’s introduction: “There can be no doubt that the 1922 edition has a much more compressed, ‘modernistic’ feel to it – it is a product of a more recent time and socio-political climate – but this is achieved at the price of textual consistency and coherence.” Those fastidious speech marks around ‘modernistic’ tell us all we need to know: McDuff doesn’t like the ‘modernistic’. He likes consistency, coherence, verbosity, easy reading, complacency, boredom. In translating Bely, he is translating with tedium as his lodestar. (Lobster).
What do I know? Do I have any right to say any of this? Of course I don’t. But it’s a blog! I’m allowed to rage my ignorant mind! And I’m sure of this: Petersburg is a great novel. It’s probably like nothing else you’ve read. I advise you to get a copy right away. You know; if you like that kind of thing.
An addendum. I’ve just been looking through Nina Berberova’s autobiography, The Italics are Mine, which contains a wealth of reminiscences of Bely. His drunkenness, his rages, his romantic failures, his humour, his unworldliness. A couple of short quotes.
“Andrey Bely, his smile strained, looks with piercing eyes into his plate – someone forgot to give him a spoon and he waits silently till one of the household notices it.”
“Andrey Bely’s room is next to them. He pulled out a drawer of the night-table and cannot put it back: the knob is preventing it – he holds it lengthways, not across its width. He struggles with it for a long time, but cannot put the drawer back. Putting it on the floor, he looks at it, then makes some strange movements over it, whispers something as though exorcising it. Then he again grasps it, but this time the right way, and the drawer goes in easily as it should. Bely’s face radiates happiness.”