Home » Russia » Andrei Bely » Симфонии (Symphonies)

Andrei Bely: Симфонии (Symphonies)

There is no doubt in my mind that Andrei Bely’s Петербург (Petersburg) is one of the great twentieth century novels. He did write other works, including three novels, available (one partially) in English with two of them reviewed on this site. However, Bely started out as a poet and his early work consisted of four works he called Symphonies which we might describe as prose poems. They have finally, well over a hundred years after their first publication, been published in English.

He called them symphonies and I have called them prose poems but they are somewhat difficult to describe, not least because all four do have differences. They were juvenile works, the first being started when he was nineteen and finished when he was only just twenty. All were written before 1910, i.e. well before the Russian Revolution. I will review them in the order in which they appear in this book, i.e. chronological order of when they were written.

Translator Jonathan Stone gives an excellent and not too academic introduction to the work, which is well worth reading, in particular recounting something of Bely’s life and about Bely’s involvement in Symbolism, an important poetic movement of the late nineteenth, early twentieth century in Russia, particualy under the influence of Valery Bryusov. (For those of us who read prose more than poetry, Bryusov might be better known for his novel Огненный ангел (The Fiery Angel), about a sixteenth century love triangle, based on Bryusov’s and Bely’s own love triangle with the nineteen-year-old Nina Petrovskaya. I have a copy and plan to read and review it sometime.) Stone also provides useful but not too many end-notes.

I will just quote a couple of sentences from the introduction to give you an idea of where we are going: At the crux of Bely s writing is a clear expression of the modernist preference for highly subjective revaluations of the surrounding world. He coupled poetry and prose with voluminous theoretical works exploring the philosophical and epistemological roots of the new century’s “new art.”.

Северная симфония (The Northern Symphony)

This, more than the other three, is clearly influenced by the fairy story. We have kings, queens, warriors, knights (who are often bandits), a princess in the tower, giants, satyrs, unicorns, centaurs, goat-legged woodsmen, a sphinx, a living skeleton, a hunchback, a drowned man from the abyss of timelessness and Abba the holy fool.

The King lives in a castle by a mysterious forest, peopled by some of the characters mentioned above. The young king and queen run away, leaving their distressed father behind. There is a lot of gloom as the princess is left alone in the tower and the king wanders through the forest on his own. We have satanic rites and a dance of death. Above all, Bely is giving us his symbolist images. Everything was full of a mystical terror. Foreboding, doom and loss are the key to this work.

Драматическая симфония (The Dramatic Symphony)

Bely himself tells us the purpose of this work. The work has three types of meaning: musical, satirical, and, additionally, conceptual-symbolic. For one thing, this is a symphony, the purpose of which is to express a series of moods that are linked to one another by a primary mood (atmosphere, frame of mind).

In some respects we are on more familiar ground. The work is set in Moscow. We have a host of characters, who are often recognisable but have their Symbolist quirks. A doctor has sent a consumptive to the madhouse but then we learn that the consumptive had unexpectedly opened an abyss in front of everyone in the hospital. But we revert to the busy street and the busy department store.

One interesting character is the philosopher, clearly,like Bely, a Kant lover as he wanders around with a copy of Critique of Pure Reason in his hand. He has busts of Plato and Kant which talk to one another. He plans on unifying the teachings of Kant and Plato. He had found mistakes in Kant and built an entire original system from them. He also has an alter ego. He ends up in the asylum but is later released – a seeker of truth who spent time in a mental asylum but didn’t find it there…

Then there is Popovsky. Popovsky went to five places and in five places discussed five subjects.. The fifth was the Kantian philosopher. Where else did he go? No force on earth could say where he was heading. We have an attractive woman known simply as the fairy tale and a strange character called Eternity. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse turn up – the Symbolists liked their apocalypses.

We move on. Skeletons began to run around decrepit Europe, shimmering with the darkness of its eye sockets. The procession contains a host of characters nicknamed, though Stone names them in the end-notes and they include Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Oscar Wilde and Ibsen. He names Ruskin and even gives him a knighthood which he never received in real life.

We end with mystics (which Symbolists also liked) and a cynical conclusion: The West stinks of decay, and the East no longer stinks only because it decayed long ago.

Возврат (The Return)

This work starts with a dream. A man imagines himself to be a child by a seashore, populated by strange creatures and protected by an old man. The child scrambled behind him, following the mysteries ascending over the earth. When he awakes we learn that he is Khandrikov, M.A. He is married to Sofia Chizhikovna. The work gets its title from a statement made by Khandrikov: Maybe everything will return. Or everything will change. Or everything will return, but different. Or just appear to be the same.

He is a chemist and goes off to his lab, where he is opposed by associate professor of chemistry Tsenkh, who describes Khandrikov as a hack. Tsenkh has another enemy, the psychiatrist Orlov. Khandrikov and Orlov battle Tsenkh, though Khandrikov is left on his own as Orlov travels extensively abroad. He knew that he had to face the abyss without fear.

Кубок метелейA (Goblet of Blizzards)

This is the longest work of the four and is what the translator describes as a mystical love story and Bely as sacred love : I wanted to depict the whole range of that particular type of love which our era vaguely anticipates, as in earlier times Plato, Goethe, and Dante anticipated sacred love. He is Adam Petrovich and she is Svetlova. (свет, i.e. svet is the Russian for light.) She is married to a stout puffy engineer. He is still attracted to her and, indeed, has sex with her: She froze with sorrow in the odious embrace, eternally odious.

However their love is not just sexual, as mentioned. We get a lot of imagery but as well as imagery from the natural world, we also get a lot of mystical, Christian imagery. However, it is a fortune-teller who sums up their love: The sweetness of mystery, the sweetness of mystery—because even before meeting you he answered your sigh with a sigh, your desire with desire. He has been searching for you his whole life. You are his

As this is a Symbolist work, we get appearance from various Russian writers, including but not limited to Symbolist ones: Georgy Chulkov(nicknamed Nulkov), Aleksey Remizov, Fyodor Sologub, Alexander Blok, Lev Shestov and Vladimir Solovyov. Some, like Chulkov are mocked, others join in what can best be described as a wild literary party.

Adam has another apparent rival – Colonel Svetozarov – who lives with his mother and who forces himself on Svetlova. Adam thinks she prefers the Colonel and this causes a rupture, with Svetlova off to a monastery. While this plot continues, with a duel and a fair amount of Christian/mystic iconography, Bely is much more interested in the imagery, particularly but not only from the natural and religious worlds.

Indeed, much of what makes this work so interesting is the imagery. We start with the eponymous blizzard but, as the title tells us, that is not the last blizzard. Bely gives us wonderful pictures of the blizzards but also of the wildness of nature, including anthropomorphic animals as well as more blizzard, when they move out to the country. Clearly, all too often conventional plot is of little interest to him.

The four works are all worthwhile in their own right but are, of course, interesting both for showing us the Bely the Symbolist in full flight but also showing us the writer of Петербург (Petersburg) in his early days. We must be grateful to Columbia University Press and translator Jonathan Stone for finally giving us this work in English.

Publishing history

Драматическая симфония (The Dramatic Symphony)
First published in 1902 by Skorpion
First published in English in 1985 by Polygon
Translated by John Elsworth

Северная симфония (The Northern Symphony)
First published in 1904 by Skorpion
(Note that Северная симфония (The Northern Symphony) was written first but published second)

Возврат (The Return)
First published in 1905 by Grif

Кубок метелейA (Goblet of Blizzards)
First published in 1908 by Skorpion

Collected edition Симфонии (Symphonies)
First published in 1991 by Leningradskoe otd-nie

First published in English in 2021 by Columbia University Press
Translated by Jonathan Stone