Tuesday, October 2, 2018

How to read Petersburg - The color red was emblematic of...

Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1913/1916/1922/etc.), a great novel.  In the old days I would have chipped at it for a week or more.  It is complex, is it ever.  Long ago, I read the old Grove Press edition, but this time I wanted to dig in more, so I read the Robert A. Maguire and John E. Malmstad translation (Indiana University Press, 1978), where a text shorter than three hundred pages has eighty pages of introduction and notes.

Good notes.  Fascinating notes.  But is this the way to read a novel?  Well, sometimes yes, sometimes no.

The Grove Press book is incomplete, notoriously error-ridden, and should be retired.  But there have been two subsequent translations, subsequent to Maguire and Malmstad, both less annotated. The reader in the “sometimes no” mood should read one of those, I guess.

But I will not lie, as I usually do – this novel is pretty hard, even aside from the unfamiliarity of the history or society or geography.  Maybe they are familiar to you!  They are interesting.  Still, a map, at least, will help.  Maguire and Malmstad include a fine map.

Petersburg is a father and son fight.  The father is about to rise to the highest rank of the ministry, while the son, a law student, is tangled in revolutionary politics.  He has even agreed to carry a time bomb to kill someone.  “Someone” turns out to be his father! The last third of the novel has a ticking time bomb plot.  It is tense.

Yet in practice the novel is non-melodramatic, more of a dream or even a move towards abstraction.  Bely constructs a complex pattern of colors, motifs, and references that create an object of great beauty for anyone who finds this sort of thing beautiful.  It is not so much that this sunrise is itself beautiful – maybe it is:

The lace [the silhouetted cityscape] metamorphosed into morning Petersburg.  There stood the five-storied houses, the color of sand.  The rust red palace was bedawned. (140, end of “Chapter the Fourth”)

It is the color scheme, recurring in many shades, Bely turning his city into art.  Greens, yellows, reds.  Mirrors, so many mirrors.  An uncanny statue motif, from the caryatids holding up every important building to the prominent sculpted Russians who occasionally come to life, populates the city even when it seems empty:

The Summer Garden lay somber.

The statues each stood hidden beneath boards.  The boards looked like coffins standing on end.  The coffins lined the paths.  Both nymphs and satyrs had taken shelter in them, so that the tooth of time might not gnaw them away with frost.  Time sharpens its teeth for everything – it devours body and soul and stone.  (97, beginning of “Chapter the Fourth, in which the line of the narrative is broken”)

That last sentence shows the narrator is his moralizing mode.  Hard to tell how much of that is parody.

Today’s bout [of heart trouble] had been brought on by the appearance of the red domino.  The color red was emblematic of the chaos that was leading Russia to its doom. (112)

A previous reader of my copy has penciled “Come on” in the margin.  He thinks that is too blunt, I guess.  I fear it is a trap.  Maybe I will figure it out the next time I read Petersburg.

For more on the translations, please see Michael Katz’s short, exasperated review of them in The Slavic and Eastern European Journal (2010).  He thinks the book’s readers need notes, and lots of them.


  1. Well, at one point I owned four versions of Petersburg but I pared it down to two - the one you read and the David McDuff which I read. Yes, it's the longer of the two but I loved it and found I would have hated to read a truncated version. Each to their own of course, and I think it's a unique and very wonderful book.


  2. Katz likes the McDuff pretty well. It translates the 1916 text, while the Maguire and Malmstad is the 1922. So many complications!

  3. Petersburg has been on my TBR list for ages. This post will come in handy when I finally get to it (later this year, hopefully; I think I've actually got a copy of the novel at long last), as will an illustrated map I found online. A map is always good. I have a vague plan for a novel that will require a map of the town. Maybe I'll throw in a bomb, too.

  4. The Bely novel has picked up some comparisons to Ulysses that are mostly not so useful, but boy are maps handy for both books.

    The ticking time bomb is an irresistible device.

  5. A wonderful novel; I posted several times about it:

    ("the prescient theme of red revolution")

    ("Scary numbers are a recurring theme in the novel; one of the villains is a quintillion")

    ("It moves slowly, concentrating on building up musical and incantatory effects by means of the repetitions he (unwisely) pruned heavily for the later revision, and as it reaches its end all the themes come together satisfyingly")

  6. I could imagine a Russian reader picking up the Maguire and Malmstad book just for the notes. They are good. Written with humor, too.

    The translators keep some - some - of those musical effects, too, which is a feet. They work, especially, to keep the "ooo" motif.