viernes, 20 de febrero de 2015

"Petersburg": Antipoetry and Panic

Petersburg (Penguin Classics, 2011)
by Andrei Bely [translated from the Russian by David McDuff]
Russia, 1916

Petersburg was such a fun book to read and write about that I changed my mind after Monday's usual overview/taxonomy post and decided to spend a little more time with the great novel after all before calling it revolutionary quits.  And although I probably couldn't have gone wrong taking a look at either some of the narrator's Lautréamont-like elbows to the reader's rib cage ("And even if Apollon Apollonovich is woven from our brains, he will none the less be able to frighten with another, stupendous existence that attacks by night...the aged senator will pursue you, he will pursue you, too, reader, in his black carriage: and from this day forth you will never forget him!" [67-68, ellipses added]) or to the three exclamation point ejaculatory narrative coitus interruptus of the direct address to "we the author"'s unrest-riddled homeland ("Rus, Rus!  He saw - you, you!  It was you who raised a howl with winds, with blizzards, with snow, with rain, with black ice - you raised a howl with millions of living, conjuring voices!" [99]) or, maybe best of all, to the oddball observations of the Nevsky Prospect crowds enlivened by the unexpected experimentation with comic strip POV ("The swarms of bowler hats grew dark; vengefully the top hats began to gleam; from all sides the nose of the ordinary man in the street began once more to hop: noses flowed by in great numbers: acquiline, cockerel-like, hen-like, greenish, grey; and - a nose with a wart on it: absurd, hurried, enormous" [442]), what I'd like to do today instead is just to share two of the more, cough, lyrical examples of the cracked antipoetry and panic strains present in Bely's prose.  Here, let's start here, shall we?

The days were foggy, strange: over the north of Russia poisonous October walked with frozen tread; and in the south he spread muggy mists.  Poisonous October blew a golden sylvine whisper, and humbly that whisper lay down on the earth, - and humbly a rustling aspen crimson lay down on the earth, in order to twine and chase at the feet of the passing pedestrian, and to whisper, weaving from the leaves the yellow-red alluvial deposits of words.  That sweet peeping of the blue tit, which in September bathes in a leafy wave, had not bathed in a leafy wave for a long time: and the blue tit itself now hopped lonely in a black mesh of branches, which like the mumbling of a toothless old man all autumn sends its whistle out of woodlands, leafless groves, front gardens and parks.

When I first read this passage from page 94, I remember being pretty amused by the "poetic" personification of "poisonous October" walking with a frozen tread and by the explosion of colors--golden, crimson, yellow-red, etc.--pressed into service galley slave style for what appears to be a prose send-up of pastoral poetry.  Bely, you're so urban doom!  The simile having to do with "the mumbling of a toothless old man all autumn" also amused me for its novelty value and semi-meanness.  However, I really began to get geeked up over this Russian antipoetry when I realized that what I'd taken to be an archaic or variant spelling of "sylvan" was in fact the correct spelling of the previously unknown to me mineral sylvine or sylvite, the salt of which is said to be used in lethal injections and fertilizers.  Suddenly, the idea of "a golden sylvine whisper" or fertilizer air kiss sounded a little too bucolic for this city boy!  Before moving on, I should probably point out that the next paragraph begins "the days were foggy, strange" and yet another paragraph three pages later begins "The days were foggy, strange: poisonous October walked with frozen tread"--repetition being a hallmark of Bely's poetic and/or antipoetic style--and that a more sinister reading of the color symbolism cloaked in the "aspen crimson" and "yellow-red alluivial deposits of words" descriptions is suggested by the title of the segment: "Arguments in the Street Became More Frequent."

Having antipoetically foregrounded the idea that those ill-omened October 1905 days were foggy, strange and poisonous all over the land, the enthusiastically Pushkin-spouting narrator later takes to us a working class tavern in Petersburg where, in a segment titled "I Annihilate Irrevocably," self-proclaimed party member and "official of the secret police" Pavel Yakovlevich Morkovin drunkenly tries to bully Nikolai Apollonovich into honoring his terrorist commitment to murder his own father over seven glasses of vodka (285).  Although the panic-stricken Nikolai's resistance is mostly of the passive sort during the build-up to the scene, there's nothing passive about Bely's phantasmagoric writing as you'll see when you read about the strange transformation that follows (286):

Then from behind the edge of the table Pavel Yakovlevich, bending over the notebook, thrust forward his head, which looked as though it were attached not to his neck, but to his two hands; for a single moment he became quite simply a monster: at that moment Nikolai Apollonovich saw: a foul head, blinking little eyes, with hair that looked like doghair groomed with a comb, snapping in a repulsive laugh, with yellow folds of skin, ran above the table on ten twitching fingers, looking like an enormous insect: a ten-legged spider, rustling over the paper with its feet.
But it was all a comedy...

For me, the most charming part of the comedy in what the narrator will assure us was "a charming little joke!" isn't the monstrosity of it all per se but rather the Mad magazine-like gleefulness of the allusion to "hair that looked like doghair groomed with a comb."  A nice touch, no?  In any event, even though the reader is told that Pavel Yakovlevich merely "wanted to frighten Ableukhov with the pretence of this investigation," it's perhaps worth noting that a mere twenty pages later, even the sun, "the golden, thousand-armed Titan of old," also appears to Nikolai as an insectoid harbinger of doom or what is more precisely characterized as "a most enormous thousand-legged tarantula, attacking the earth with insane passion..." (307).  Other than the fact that senator Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov now appears in household mirrors looking like "death in a frock-coat" (305), is it any wonder that his conflicted wannabe terrorist son is such a troubled lad?  I thought not--fun stuff!

8 comentarios:

  1. Great analysis and commentary on these passages Richard.

    I really like the style of the writing in these passages. I think that "Mad Magazine" is a perfect description for some of it.

    I love these literary depiction of sons who have these strange issues with their fathers. Though a more conventional narrative, I am currently reading Anthony Trollope's The Last Chronicle of Barset where the issue is raising its head.

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    1. Thanks, Brian. Petersburg is such a wild book that I'm glad people who haven't read it yet have been so receptive to the excerpts from it I've shared. I'm already looking forward to an eventual reread of the novel in fact! As far as the father/son relationship in the novel, which I mostly ignored in favor of Bely's stylistic tics, I have to say that Bely was both amusing and insightful overall. Glad you mentioned Trollope; I hope to finally try one of his other novels later in the year if things work out, but these crazier authors keep calling my name!

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  2. I miss the days when I read books like this...! Sounds wonderful. I'll stick it on the TBR pile at the very least and look forward to a time where I can make it through a book that's longer than 40 pages...

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    1. Hey, Sarah, nice to hear from you! Petersburg is wonderful--on a par with Augusto Roa Bastos' I the Supreme in terms of being a big book that's totally entertaining and totally strange at the same time (to compare it to one of the wilder books I know you once read). I can't imagine you not liking it if you give it a try someday, but on the other hand it is quite a bit longer than 40 pages so timing may be everything. Cheers!

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  3. I really began to get geeked up over this Russian antipoetry when I realized that what I'd taken to be an archaic or variant spelling of "sylvan" was in fact the correct spelling of the previously unknown to me mineral sylvine or sylvite, the salt of which is said to be used in lethal injections and fertilizers.

    I love your analysis of the novel, but I fear this is purely an artifact of translation -- Bely's adjective is лесной [lesnoi], the normal adjective of лес [les] 'woods, forest,' and not remarkable in any way (except that, of course, it sounds great in context; Bely was a wonderful poet as well as a supreme novelist). I presume McDuff was rendering it "sylvine" to provide some sort of equivalent for poeticisms elsewhere in Bely's text where they didn't work in English.

    Also, I must thank you for calling my attention to yet another misprint in my wretched paperback edition of the Russian text; I had thought Bely was varying the repeated "Дни стояли туманные, странные" [Dni stoyali tumannye, strannye -- note the rhyme!] "The days were foggy, strange" on the second occurrence by making it "Дни стояли туманные, страшные" "The days were foggy, terrible" (which would be very Bely-esque)... but when I checked a better text online I discovered it was just a typo, and Bely had странные as in the other instances.

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    1. Although the sylvan/sylvine translation thing is almost a letdown, Steve, I appreciate your explanation and the kind words about the post. In any event, that Bely passage has plenty of things to recommend it even without that one "artifact of translation" gag! By the way, thanks for pointing out the Russian rhyme in the second paragraph of your comment; I envy your ability to enjoy Russian literature in the original, but I fear the grammar might be too difficult for me to pick up on my own this late in the game. Will probably stick to trying to improve my Romance languages skills/reading speed rather than picking up a difficult new language like Russian or Arabic anytime soon. Cheers!

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  4. Amazing, amazing, I can see why Nabokov loved it!

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    1. Miguel, yes, an incredibly fun book to read! One of these days I'll have to actually look into what Nabokov had to say about Petersburg (i.e. other than just how highly he ranked it among the 20th century's best) and then read Nabokov's book on Gogol and then read Bely's book on Gogol. My work/play is cut out for me far in advance, you see!

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