It is a cliché that all drunk people think that they are wonderful company, that, in the moment, they see in their rambling, slurred, and often nonsensical conversation the brilliant holding forth of a world class orator. Unfortunately for me I have never suffered from this delusion. Whenever I get drunk I am fully aware of myself, fully conscious of the torrents of bullshit pouring from my mouth, I just don’t seem to be able to stop the flow. Something happens when I drink, some kind of mechanism in my brain gives way; and so the writhing mass of thoughts that harangue me when sober, the near unbearable, seemingly limitless, and constantly overlapping, multitude of thoughts, that I liken to a big tub of live eels, are given expression. I share…in the most baffling manner possible. Can you imagine what it is like to be on the receiving end of that? Well, you don’t have to. You can read Andrei Bely’s Petersburg instead.
“Petersburg does not exist. It merely seems to exist.”
It is often noted that Bely’s novel has not achieved the status that it deserves, that it is, to use a vulgar popular phrase, criminally underrated. There are, of course, numerous reasons for that. First of all, it is said that until very recently the book suffered, in English, from less than stellar translations, although that doesn’t appear to have done Dostoevsky’s reputation any harm. It is also the case, and I think this is far more pertinent, that it lacks a kind of universality; it is, at least in part, a paean to the city of Petersburg itself, and if you have never been, or have no real interest in the place, then a good part of the book’s charm will be lost on you. Likewise, there are references to historical events that are particular to Russia, and references and allusions are made, sometimes without any explanation, to famous Russian writers [Pushkin, for example] and works of literature. However, more than any of these things, the most alienating aspect of the work is the authorial voice.
Much like me when I’ve had too many cocktails, the narrator appears to be trying to talk about six subjects all at once; he is mentally unsettled, starting sentences and not finishing them, randomly throwing out jokes and puns [which are never very funny], repeating himself, and lapsing into poetic quotations and often complex but largely unintelligible philosophy and spiritualism. While many make comparisons to Gogol’s epically silly characters, I would say that if the authorial voice has a literary forebear it would be Rogozhin from The Idiot, a man suffering from a nervous ailment; indeed, it is as though he has seized control of Crime & Punishment and tried to rewrite it as a comedy. Of course, this voice, and by extension Petersburg itself, is occasionally tiresome. Sometimes the story just will not proceed; and I don’t, I must admit, exhibit a lot of tolerance where puns and wordplay are concerned. Yet, these minor quibbles aside, it’s a strangely beautiful and engrossing book, and certainly rewarding for a patient reader.
I don’t want to give the impression that Petersburg is a mess, not even a beautiful and engrossing mess, because there was obviously a precise method to Bely’s apparent madness [indeed, after the book’s first publication in 1913, he continued to revise it – so it is clear that he took it very seriously]. Take the repetition: it is not the recourse of an inarticulate writer, but, rather, it is frequently used for poetic effect. Bely was, I believe, a poet, and his circular prose, and the emphasis placed upon certain phrases, reminded me very much of Homer.
“O Russian people, Russian people! Do not let the the crowds of slippery shadows come over from the islands!” [p.30]
“O Russian people, Russian people!
Do not let the crowds of fitful shadows come over from the island.” [p.36]
Sometimes these phrases have a comic purpose, like when it is repeatedly said of Sergei Likhutin that “he was in charge of provisions somewhere out there.” Here Bely emphasises Sergei’s unimportance to his wife with the vague somewhere, as though it is Sofia, rather than the author, who doesn’t know, nor care, where he goes; at other times these phrases stress certain personal characteristics or states of mind. I mentioned Homer previously, but I was also strongly reminded, despite Bely writing much earlier than both, of Thomas Bernhard and Imre Kertesz, who I had previously thought of as being primarily influenced by Dostoevsky and Kafka and various philosophers, including Wittgenstein. Bernhard and Kertesz were/are quite open about their favourite writers and books, and I don’t recall either ever mentioning Bely, but the similarities are clear, especially in relation to Kertesz’s Fiasco and Kaddish for an Unborn Child and Bernhard’s Correction. In all of these novels there is a process of refining, or correcting of thought and idea taking place, whereby an idea, or phrase, is altered slightly with each subsequent appearance in the text [as the O Russian people quote above shows], and an obsessive attention to seemingly banal detail.
Furthermore, the chaotic, unstable authorial voice is, I’m sure, meant to reflect, to mirror, both the mind-set of his characters, and the nature of the times. The plot of the novel, at the most basic level, is that a young philosophy student, Nikolai Abluekhov, has been given a ticking bomb, and is tasked with assassinating a senior government official, who turns out to be his father. So there is, on a local level so to speak, obviously much emotional turmoil. Moreover, the novel is set in the year 1905, a time following the defeat in the Russo-Japanese war, and just before the Russian revolution. It was, historians tell me, a time of social and political unrest; for example, on the 9th of January 1905 a peaceful workers demonstration was fired upon by Cossack units and the police. The spooked and unhinged narrator is, then, in perfect harmony with his subject, the times and his characters; in fact, he acts almost as another character himself. Make no mistake, Petersburg is an almost unfathomably layered, complex piece of work – seemingly a mess, but actually perfectly ordered.
[Petersburg in the early 1900’s]
Most reviewers of Bely’s novel tend to refer to its reputation as a symbolist masterpiece, often throwing out this term symbolist and quickly moving on. Ah, I know your game, people! Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sneering at anyone; I get you, I feel your pain. Symbolism is hard enough to decipher at the best of times, but when one is concerned with a Russian novel written 100 years ago, the task will be particularly difficult. As great as I undoubtedly am, even I cannot possibly pick up on, or explain, everything. There are, however, certain symbols that are more prominent than others and some that suggest more obvious interpretations. For example, I’ve already written about how chaos and order are important themes, and the text is strewn with references to zigzags and spheres; to my mind, the zigzags are disorder, and the spheres, it doesn’t seem a stretch to suppose, are order [amongst other things, I might add]. There are also repeated mentions of certain colours, particularly yellow, red, and grey. I’m not too sure about yellow and grey [although they may represent illness, perhaps] but red seems fairly clear, it being a colour that is popularly associated with Russia itself [the Russian word for red, красный, means beautiful, by the way], and is, of course, also the colour of blood.
It ought to be clear by now that there isn’t a great deal to get your teeth into on a human level. Certainly the characters aren’t alive in the way that Dostoevsky’s and Tolstoy’s are; I just cannot envisage anyone coming away from the book feeling as though they have made some kind of personal connection with, say, Nikolai or his father Apollon. It would, quite frankly, be absurd. However, there is some human interest. The father-son dynamic, the intellectual and emotional clashes between different generations, is one that the great Russians appeared to be particularly fond of, it having been explored, for example, in more than one of Dostoevsky’s novels and Turgenev’s Father & Sons. I don’t think Bely brings much to the table in this regard, certainly nothing that hadn’t been dealt with more successfully elsewhere, but it’s nice to have it, and, in any case, one gets the feeling that he was deliberately winking at those other novels, anyway; it was, I think, all part of his extraordinary game.