Petersburg, by Andrey Bely

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How do you break into the fabric of a text that was written in such distant times and geographies about a city you’ve never been to, and that for all practical considerations doesn’t really exist anymore? I guess you have to have a sensibility for cities, a love for all things Russian, blind faith in all things Nabokovian, an unexplainable attraction to books over 400 pages long and simply hope for the best.

The text itself gave me the clue when it presented the thought of the city as an abstract proposition: 

Whatever the truth of the matter Petersburg not only seems to us but also does exist – on maps: as two little circles that sit one inside the other with a black point in the centre; and from this mathematical point, which has no dimension, it energetically declares that it exists; from there, from this point, there rushes in a torrent a swarm of the freshly printed book; impetuously from this invisible point rushes the government circular

(Translated by David  McDuff)

The mere idea of Saint Petersburg must be one of the most literary notions in itself. A true literary topos on its own. So let us not be deceived, we are not really “breaking into the fabric of the text” as much as we are being led into it by our received notions of Dostoevskian bridges in the impending storm and out-of-this-world imperial balls á la Tolstoy. But this is not what Bely has in mind. Everything is disfigured. There is  no complacency, no place for aesthetic repose. At least not in a way that is expected.

I have seen Petersburg often described as a kaleidoscope of images. I would say it’s more like looking through the lens of a broken kaleidoscope while exiting a moving vehicle. Objects, faces, cars and buildings often dissolve into color and geometrical shapes as they would in a modernist painting. Nothing is what is seems. 

Even when the text is being bluntly allusive to monuments and historical landmarks, my carefully annotated Spanish edition (Akal, 2018) points out some potential inaccuracies as to whether this building should have been here or there, leaving us pretty much in the dark as to whether this is a Borgean joke, utter contempt for a reality beyond that of the text or an honest mistake.

What is happening in Petersburg? On a certain level it’s a father-son relationship that puts a magnifying glass over the psychological trauma that is inherently involved in becoming one’s own person. To what lengths will the protagonist, son of a Russian dignitary go, in his flirtations with the revolutionaries as he wanders through a spectral Petersburg haunted by the image of a red domino that hovers over masquerades  like an omen? On a broader sense, it’s the account of a time where society was being split into two by increasing social and political unrest leading to the Revolution of 1905 and later the overthrow of the monarchy around 1917.

On a language level, If I’m allowed to venture out here having read the book only in translation, there are many instances of the text evidencing its own textuality. There are open allusions to reader, plot and characters as such, in broad daylight. As an out-of-the-closet Russian formalist I could not be more in love with this fact. However, Bely is primarily recognized as a symbolist writer, which puts Petersburg in an interesting if not awkward situation in terms of the interplay of tension between the Russian Formalist program and the Russian Symbolists, where a certain fluidity seems to exist instead of a text-book divide. 

If this is beginning to sound like basic Russian let’s do a quick recap. The Russian formalists were a group of intellectuals who produced a body of critical theory in the early 1920s and are cited by many to be the precursors of modern literary criticism although their work was unknown to the Western world until relatively recently. One of the main notions underlying their work is that language is the ultimate reality of art and that art (and literature) is of itself a mechanism, “a device” that produces meaning by virtue of its manipulation. As you can probably imagine, the symbolists adhered to a more transcendent view of art which postulated the existence of a spiritual reality beyond language, where art acted as a mystical means to gain access to a higher level of knowledge or experience. 

It’s hard to say which program wins and I would count that as one of the novel’s merits. At times, it feels like we’re watching the text shed its symbolist skin to its own dismay and enter into formalist terrain against its own wishes. Whatever label one may choose to tag upon it, one thing Petersburg can never be described as is a political propaganda, and this does not mean there is a lack of political point of view. For this alone we can be grateful. This, and the seemingly universal quality of Russian novels to speak with unprecedented force to the core of human existence even when revisiting plots as old as the sun.


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