lunes, 16 de febrero de 2015

Petersburg

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

A spiritual ancestor of Musil's The Man Without Qualities in terms of its coupling of a disarmingly playful narrative voice with an idiosyncratic but irresistible storytelling style all wrapped up in the guise of a lurid thriller, Petersburg--hailed by everybody from Nabokov to Obooki and now little old me--is, if anything, somehow even better and more unhinged than I'd been told it was.  Fucking fantastic stuff.  In the Russian Literature of Doom year of 1905, a jittery stranger hands sleepyheaded St. Petersburg student, ladies man, and would be revolutionary Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov "a most inoffensive little bundle" ("It's literature, I expect?..."  "Well, no...") in order to blow up--as it turns out--a well known enemy of the people (100-101).  But as fate would have it, the ticking time bomb of a terror target is none other than Nikolai's elderly father, the distinguished senator Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, last seen depicted on the cover "of a humorous little street journal" with "completely green ears, enlarged to massive dimensions, against the blood-red background of a burning Russia" (8).  As that last little descriptive bit might indicate, one of the things I loved about this novel was Bely's elaborate exploitation of colors--both in the way that the senator's green ears, a running gag the length of the story, seem to parallel Petersburg's poisonous "green waters, seething with bacilli" (66) and in the way that the establishment politician Apollon Apollonovich himself feels the color red to be "an emblem of the chaos that was leading Russia to ruin" (217).  Similarly, in addition to the tome's prole art threat-style appeal to the visual senses, there's also a corresponding lush audio element to Bely's prose as in the apostrophe to "Petersburg, Petersburg!" in which the narrator addresses the Romanov city as a "a cruel-hearted tormentor" and "an unquiet ghost" pursuing and even attacking his thoughts over the years (66) and in the Homeric epithet-like descriptions scattered throughout the novel such as this one reverse-poeticizing a suburb of Petersburg as the "many-chimneyed, many smoke-columned Kolpino!" (130).  One of the great novels and a surprisingly mischievous one at that--not least because a good chunk of the way into Petersburg and beginning to wonder whether the once loving but now dysfunctional father-son relationship between the two Ableukhovs would ultimately deter young Nikolai from his revolutionary resolve to turn his autocratic senator father into "blood-red slush" (315), I looked at one of translator David McDuff's many helpful footnotes and learned that the snippet of mad, utopian "political" dialogue that had just made me laugh whilst hearing it come out of one of the more crackpot characters' mouths--"The bourgeoisie, sensing its end, has seized upon mysticism: we shall leave the sky to the sparrows and from the kingdom of necessity create the kingdom of freedom" (146)--was actually lifted from that dry Teutonic theoretician Engels.  Too funny!

Andrei Bely (1880-1934)

Dwight of A Common Reader, one of the trio of bloggers along with Obooki and Tom whose pro-Petersburg comments were almost 100% responsible for my purchase of the novel over a year ago (thanks, I should have listened to you all a lot sooner!), has written eleven posts on the work.  You can check out Dwight's summary here.  Also, Kaggsy of Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings has a Petersburg review here; [P] of books, yo has a Petersburg piece here; Steve of languagehat has three posts on Petersburg here, here and here; and Tony of Tony's Reading List has his own Petersburg post here.

30 comentarios:

  1. I'm very interested in this as well. Sounds really great. I like what you write about the use of color. I love elements like that.

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    1. Caroline, Bely's use of colors really impresses. I'll have to pay more attention to the symbolic aspects of his palette when I reread Petersburg someday, but in the meantime you can get an idea of the extravagance of that one element of the novel by imagining Rimbaud's "Voyelles" poem extended to 580 entertaining pages. Really loved this book.

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  2. An editorial in today's NYT actually mentions that book (The Wisconsin Idea) and I saved it so I would remember to check it out, so to speak. Certainly all the snow is good atmospheric background to get back to Russian novels!

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    1. Jill, the snow is indeed "good atmospheric background" to get you in the mood for some Russian reading; however, I've had all the atmospheric background I need for the rest of the year in the last two weeks alone! Thanks for mentioning that NYT editorial, by the way--will look for it tomorrow to see what could have prompted a mention of this great novel.

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  3. Prole art threat; The Fall of an empire. Sounds irresistible. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8yJnIF4nb4

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    1. Irresistible book, yes!

      I have to tell you that I thought about linking to that Fall clip last night, Séamus, and then decided not to in a rare moment of subtlety or something on my part. However, I threw in that "prole art threat" bit for you--well, for me but also for you to see if you and/or another Fall fan might find it. Thanks for tuning in to the secret channel!

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  4. Yes, one of the greatest. I need to reread it. Why it's not better known is beyond me. It has a ticking time bomb plot!

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    1. Tom, thanks so much for recommending Petersburg to me. I only wish I had first read it when I was younger so I could have had a greater chance of having reread it by now (note: I suspect I may be saying the same thing about Villon's Testament in a month or two). Why it's not better known is beyond me, too, but I guess the telling thing is that almost everybody I know who's read it has really enjoyed it. OK, so maybe that's not so telling, but you get the idea.

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  5. Ah, you really emphasize the funny! These snipets of sentences are delicious!

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    1. Miguel, I'm glad to hear that comes across. The irony is that I had some even more "delicious"/delirious descriptions of Bely's lined up to share, but I had to leave them out because I couldn't work them into the post without making it too long or causing me extra headaches (Petersburg is def. the sort of book that vindicates Tom's multi-post reviewing methodology, but as you probably know I'm too lazy for that almost all of the time for better or usually worse).

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  6. Add me to the list - my book of the year for 2012, with an effusive review to boot :)

    https://tonysreadinglist.wordpress.com/2012/07/16/the-colours-of-chaos/

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    1. Book of the year? I can see that! I'm not sure I was reading your blog at the time, Tony, so thanks for the link.

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  7. I'm glad to see you made it! It is wonderful. I'm going to have to try the David McDuff translation soon.

    Thanks so much for the mention. I forgot I had that many posts, but I couldn't stop once I got started.

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    1. McDuff's Penguin Classics translation is the only one I know firsthand, Dwight, but I loved it and found his explanatory notes at the end particularly helpful. Of course, the Penguin cover is really cool, too! I can understand you not being able to stop once you started writing about Petersburg; I had wanted to do a rare-for-me three post sequence on the book over the course of a week, but an emergency at my house and a couple of weeks of awful weather waylaid my plans. Will be over to check out more of your posts on the novel soon--had been saving most of them for once I'd finished the book. Cheers!

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    2. Thanks Richard. You post inspired me to post on books I've covered and wish more bloggers would read, too (because I know they'd enjoy them). It's almost as if I feel like I've somehow failed those books by not getting more people excited about them. Almost.

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    3. My pleasure, Dwight, and thank you--I enjoyed that post and will be by soon to leave a suggestion or two. Cool idea as others have already let on. By the way, you in turn have helped inspire me to do at least one more Petersburg post; too much good Bely stuff got left on my cutting room floor, so one more post it is whether anybody else wants to read more about the novel or not!

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  8. I too am fascinated by your description of the use and color here. I seem to remember somewhat similar imagery in We by Yevgeny Zamyatin.

    I like your allusion to Homer.

    "many-chimneyed, many smoke-columned Kolpino!"

    Really could be a line right out of the Odyssey.

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    1. I'll have to keep that possible Zamyatin color connection in mind, Brian, esp. since Bely and Zamyatin were contemporaries. Still, I really enjoyed what Bely did with colors here whatever his motivations. And there are enough twists on the Homeric epithet in Petersburg that I kept halfway expecting to see a reference to rosy-fingered dawn pop up during the proceedings. A fun book!

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  9. This sounds tremendous, Richard - a treat for the senses. Like Caroline and Brian, I'm interested in your comments on Bely's deployment of colour within the novel. The descriptions of the city are great, very vivid and evocative. On the wishlist it goes...

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    1. Jacqui, "a treat for the senses" is exactly what it is and it's so funny in between all the serious moments and odd social commentary about Petersburg on the brink of ruin. Interest-wise, I could easily begin rereading it today in fact!

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  10. Among the unread books on my shelves, my copy of Petersburg may have been there the longest. I do not know why I still haven't gotten to it, but I'm definitely inclined to remedy that after your recommendation. Those lines you quote are too funny.

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    1. Scott, Petersburg is both funny and laughably weird at times. There were a couple of descriptions I wanted to share so badly because they were just so odd, but I couldn't figure out how to work them into the post without too much trouble. It's a great, great book, though, no doubt about it. Cheers!

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  11. When I was reading Ulysses, I was really struck by how much Joyce had clearly lifted from Petersburg, even though I doubt he'd ever read it; - and also found myself thinking it would be much improved by a timebomb and being a little less po-faced.

    I have three other books by Bely (if Petersburg's overlooked, his other novels are even more so), and two of them at least - just on the basis of how the text is laid out on the page - are even weirder.

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    1. Thanks for the push to read the great Petersburg, Obooki, and please do write about one of those three other Bely books when you get a chance: I think The Silver Dove is the only other Bely title I've seen reviewed in my traipses through the blogosphere. I've been meaning, by the way, to ask you how Ulysses joined Petersburg on your 53 favorite novels list even though you didn't seem to care for Joyce in your recent post on his novel. Which Obooki am I to believe?!?

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  12. I'm reading The Dramatic Symphony at the moment and will review in time. It's quite weird / experimental.

    I need to do some housekeeping on that novels list, the main part of which will be to remove to Ulysses.

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    1. Thanks for the Ulysses clarification and that preview of The Dramatic Symphony. I knew next to nothing about it before looking it up right now, but it sounds like everything you say it is.

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  13. I'm late getting to this, but I have an excuse (emergency appendectomy!). I'm glad you have fallen in love with one of my own favorite novels; here's the last of my posts on it (the others are linked in the first line), if you want another take. Looking forward to your further posts!

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    1. I had my appendix taken out as a kid. Steve, and it was none too pretty a thing (metaphorically and physically) aside from the wear and tear on my folks as a result of the emergency. Excuse accepted! Thanks for sharing your link on the fab Petersburg; I look forward to reading what you have to say about Bely and will add your link to the post later today. Until then, hope you feel better soon!

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  14. Excellent piece. This is such a marvellous book - I loved it to bits and read the same translation to you. My thoughts are here if you are at all interested. :)

    https://kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com/2014/03/11/recent-reads-petersburg-by-andrei-bely/

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    1. Kaggsy, thanks for the kind words and the visit. A marvelous book indeed! Thanks as well for the reminder about your post--will be over to read it soon and will link to it here unless you have any objections (I had actually meant to read it earlier after seeing a comment from you over at books, yo but then promptly forgot). Cheers!

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