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Andrei Bely: Петербург (Petersburg)

Bely’s novel has often been compared to Ulysses and there is a certain amount of justification for this. Firstly, of course, they are both city novels, i.e. novels where the city is one of, if not the, main characters. Secondly, both play with language. Thirdly, both are long novels yet take place in a limited time-span. Joyce’s novel takes place on 16 June 1904 while Bely’s starts on 30 September 1905 and ends around ten days later. (Note that some commentators state that the action takes place in Petersburg within a span of 24 or 48 hours but in the 1913 version (though not the later versions) near the end, Apollon Apollonovich clearly states that it is ten days since he first saw Dudkin.) Both use humour. The fact that Bely’s novel was not translated into English till 1959 meant that he never received the reputation he deserved as Joyce was, of course, already fully established when the translation appeared.

Ulysses has not always had an easy ride. There are still many commentators who find the work unreadable and are surprised at its generally positive reputation. They find the plot and language difficult to grasp and do not see the point. Bely’s work is, perhaps, even more difficult, at least for someone who does not speak Russian. It requires a good knowledge of the geography of St. Petersburg. Bely plays language games, nearly all of which are in Russian. Apollon Apollonovich, for example, is forever cracking jokes, most of which are based on terrible puns that barely work in Russian and obviously do not work in English. Bely himself plays with language at times. A knowledge of Russian literature, particularly the works of Pushkin and Gogol, is highly advisable. Moreover, the plot is particularly complex, as it is not always clear who is who, what side they are on and why they are doing what they are doing. Finally, Bely was in his Rudolph Steiner phase when he wrote this book and often rambles off in vague philosophical musings.

So what is it that makes this book? Like Ulysses and perhaps more so, the key character is the city – St. Petersburg, in this case. Never has a city been so personified as in this novel. It takes on the character of a somewhat malevolent, mysterious person but one that can be, at times, playful, stupid, witty, too serious, mystic and politically committed. As anyone who has visited the city knows, it is a gloomy city. When I was there, a resident told me that they get a maximum of twenty days of sunshine a year. Not only does Bely show its gloom, he sets much of the action at night which makes for a dark, foreboding atmosphere hanging over the entire novel. As with the city itself, you are never really sure what exactly is going on. Moreover, Peter the Great built the city to be a gateway to the West from the East and Bely makes this point, that the city is a junction between East and West, quite forcibly. In short, it may be the best novel with a city as the leading character and a character who is deeply complex but also deeply unsure of itself and its role.

The plot centres around Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov. He is a senator and head of the Institution, though it is never clear what exactly is the role of the Institution. He is sixty-eight years old. His wife, Anna Petrovna, left two and a half years ago, for an Italian artiste, and the pair went off to Spain. However, during the course of the novel she does return. They have one son, Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov (known as Kolenka). Apollon Apollonovich sets off early to the Institution so does not see his son till the evening, as Nikolai gets up late. Nikolai leads an apparently mundane life, apparently spending much time reading and going to parties.

The other side of the coin is terrorism. At this time, Russia is in something of a turmoil, having been beaten in the Russo-Japanese War. Terrorist attacks against senior officials have increased and it seems that there is a possibility of an attack against Apollon Apollonovich. Political strikes are also on the rise. On his way to the office, he sees a very suspicious looking character, whom we later learn is Alexander Ivanovich Dudkin, one of the terrorists. Apollon Apollonovich thinks that he has seen the man before at his house and, indeed, he has, for Dudkin has visited Nikolai who, unbeknownst to his father, is also part of the terrorist group. Much of the plot centres around a mysterious package delivered to Nikolai by Dudkin which we soon guess contains a bomb and later learn contains a sardine can, containing a bomb, which Nikolai is to use to kill his father. There is an incredibly convoluted series of messages sent via Dudkin, Sofia Petrovna, wife of Sergei Sergeyevich Liputkin, and Sofia Petrovna’s friend, Mavrushka, to Nikolai. Nikolai is clearly in love with Sofia Petrovna, as are others, which incites Sergei Sergeyevich’s jealousy. Matters are complicated by a strange character dressed as a domino who frightens Sofia Petrovna and others and by Lippachenko, who seems to be both head of the terrorist organisation and a police spy and who assumes various disguises to fool both the characters and the reader.

Bely has a wonderful time with this plot but it also serves to show the mysterious side of the city as we are never quite sure who is doing what to whom. Bely’s political and humorous commentary only add to the story. Apollon Apollonovich’s and Sergei Sergeyevich’s difficult marital lives, Apollon Apollonovich’s Institution and its workings (with references to real characters), the internal machinations of the terrorist group and Nikolai’s increasing concern about his role in the terrorist attack are all grist to Bely’s mill and help make this novel so enjoyable. It isn’t an easy read, though few great works are, but it is very rewarding.

Note on the text

The original Russian language version was published by Sirin in 1913 in a Miscellany and in 1916 in book form. In 1922, while in Berlin, Bely substantially revised the text and had it republished. It was this version, with further revisions by Bely and, probably, by the Soviet censor, that was published in the Soviet Union in 1928 and was the only one available in the Soviet Union till 1981, when the 1913 version was republished. The differences between the 1913 and 1922 (and later) versions are substantial. The 1913 version is much longer. For the 1922 version, Bely cut large chunks. While this certainly made the action move faster, it has the disadvantage of cutting out key scenes, which show St. Petersburg as it was in 1905. Moreover, Bely’s cutting was not always too careful. For example, he would cut scenes but leave reference to these cut scenes later in the book. The continuity definitely suffers in places.

There are four English versions. The first version was a translation of the 1928 Soviet version by John Cournos and published by the Grove Press. The second version was a translation of the 1922 version by John E. Malmstad and Robert A. Maguire and published by the Indiana University Press. Malmstad and Maguire claim to have corrected some of the continuity errors in the Russian 1922 version and claim, correctly, that this version is faster-paced. The third version was by David McDuff and was published by Penguin. This is a translation of the 1913 version and therefore it is longer than the previous two. McDuff claims its completeness makes it the better version. In 2009 the Pushkin Press published a translation by John Elsworth. The Times Literary Supplement review said that the translation was academic in the best sense… less satisfactory than McDuff’s when it comes to the lyric or haunted passages. I have read both the Malmstad/Maguire and the McDuff versions and prefer the McDuff version, as it is more detailed. Others may prefer a faster moving novel. The Malmstad/Maguire is the easiest to find (in the US and UK) and the McDuff the most difficult to find. Is there any other twentieth century novel with four different translations?

Publishing history

First published 1913 by Sirin
First published 1959 in English by Grove Press