I really enjoyed reading Petersburg by Andrei Bely. It’s quite long, but it never loses momentum because of the central element in its plot: a young man who’s become mixed up with radical elements at university has been entrusted with a bomb – to kill his own father, who’s a powerful bureaucrat in 1905 Petersburg. And Petersburg – like the rest of Russia – is in political turmoil…
First published in Russia in 1913, Petersburg was (according to Wikipedia) said by Vladimir Nabokov to be one of the ‘four greatest masterpieces of twentieth century prose’. I’ve read the other three too: James Joyce’s Ulysses, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time a.k.a. Remembrance of Things Past. Petersburg is one of these four because it’s an early modernist novel (pre-dating Joyce), but apparently it’s also a ‘Symbolist’ work.
Wikipedia came once more to my rescue to explain that:
Symbolism was largely a reaction against naturalism and realism, anti-idealistic styles which were attempts to represent reality in its gritty particularity, and to elevate the humble and the ordinary over the ideal. Symbolism was a reaction in favour of spirituality, the imagination, and dreams.
What this means is that Symbolist authors were keen to write ‘in a very metaphorical and suggestive manner, endowing particular images or objects with symbolic meaning and were hostile to ‘plain meanings, declamations, false sentimentality and matter-of-fact description’.
Bely was one of the ‘Second Generation’ of Russian Symbolists (influenced by Dostoyevsky’s novels – thanks to Judith Armstrong’s correction here, see her comment below) and reading Petersburg is a strange, disorientating – but also curiously enchanting – experience. It’s vaguely reminiscent of reading Gerald Murnane’s Inland in the way that the narrative swirls back and forth in time and place, and the intrusive narrator plays with the reader, forever reminding us that this is fiction. The narrator also launches into philosophical and spiritual asides, not to mention prophetic commentaries on the state of the nation. There are fleeting allusions, scraps of dialogue overheard or interrupted, and rhythmic patterns and repetitions as well. All these techniques were unorthodox for their time.
All this aside, it’s a gripping read. Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov is the student with the shady associations, and his father Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov is his pedantic, fussy, agoraphobic father. They live alone in a vast lacquered mansion because Nikolai’s mother Anna Petrovna has run off with an Italian singer, and father and son see very little of each other. Apollon sticks to his strict routine and departs to preside over the vast machinery of government at The Establishment each day, while Nikolai gets up to the chaos of his rooms late every day. Apollon is reduced to quizzing the servants to find out what his son is up to.
The reader gradually pieces the plot together to discover that Nikolai has joined a revolutionary terrorist organisation at university, and somehow (not revealed till much later in the book) agents of that organisation have come to the conclusion that he would be willing to assassinate the most significant government figure there is. Apollon is caricatured as a bat, because his all-powerful wings spread all over Russia. When the ‘package’ is delivered to Nikolai for safe keeping he doesn’t know what it is, and it is not until the delivery of his instructions that he realises (a) that it’s a bomb, and (b) that he’s supposed to kill his father. The tension created by this bomb being in the house sustains the novel to its conclusion.
Now this all sounds very serious, (and of course it is) but Bely manages to make a kind of comedy out of it all the same. Nikolai, you see, has become an object of admiration to Sofia, foolish wife of his childhood friend Sergei. On the day of her marriage she becomes infatuated with Nikolai, and then when he takes a liberty and tries to kiss her – because she is angry with herself and confused by her own feelings – she becomes angry with him. Very angry indeed. Feelings of revenge become mutual and there are some quite bizarre episodes between them which culminate in Sofia (completely out of her depth) becoming an emissary for the revolutionaries.
At the same time, there are shadowy figures all over the place, watching Nikolai and his associates. Petersburg the city (which was built by Peter the Great from a swamp) swirls with mists and vapours and miasmas, and these shady characters emerge and disappear into the fog so that the hapless reader has a fine time trying to work out who’s a double-agent, an agent provocateur or a mastermind. And all along the streets are packed with people converging on the city in strikes and demonstrations because this is the time when ferment on the streets presaged the 1905 revolution which briefly gave Russia a constitutional democracy until Nicholas I reneged on the reforms within twelve months. (What might have happened had he not done so, eh?)
Symbols (as you’d expect them to) abound. The most striking ones for those of us who’ve never visited St Petersburg are the recurring images of The Bronze Horseman (a monument to Peter the Great who founded the city) in Senate Square; and the monument to Nicholas 1 which is still in its original place at St Isaac’s Square. Against expectations, this statue of Nicholas 1 is the only one to have survived the Soviet penchant for demolishing or relocating statues of the 19th century Tsars in Saint Petersburg. But Bely also characterises people as ‘bowler hats’ and ‘noses’ (recalling Gogol’s satirical short story, The Nose (in which a nose leaves a man’s face and has a life of its own). Bely’s descriptions of mental confusion and hallucinations put me in mind of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, even though it’s been years since I read that. The novel is rich with allusion and metaphor and is a very satisfying book to read indeed.
Is there redemption for Nikolai? Ah, you have to read it yourself to find out!
BTW In a stunning example of sychronicity, Tony at Tony’s Reading List has just finished reading and reviewing this too.
Author: Andrei Bely
Translated into English from the Russian by John Elsworth
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 2009, first published 1913
Source: Personal library