Petersburg (Russian: Петербург, Peterbúrg) is a novel by Russian writer Andrei Bely. A Symbolist work, it arguably foreshadows James Joyce's Modernist ambitions. First published in 1913, the novel received little attention and was not translated into English until 1959 by John Cournos, over 45 years after it was written.
Cover of 1916 edition
|Translator||John Cournos, John E. Malmstad and Robert A. Maguire, David McDuff and John Elsworth|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
Today the book is generally considered Bely's masterpiece; Vladimir Nabokov ranked it one of the four greatest "masterpieces of twentieth century prose", after Ulysses and The Metamorphosis, and before "the first half" of In Search of Lost Time.
The novel is based in Saint Petersburg in the run up to the Revolution of 1905 and follows a young revolutionary, Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov, who has been ordered to assassinate his own father, Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, a high Tsarist official, by planting a time bomb in his study.
Bely drew his characters from historical models: Apollon Apollonovich shares many characteristics with Procurator of the Holy Synod Konstantin Pobedonostsev, and Dudkin resembles the revolutionary terrorist Boris Savinkov.
There are many similarities with Joyce's Ulysses: the linguistic rhythms and wordplay, the Symbolism and subtle political concerns which structure the themes of the novel, the setting of the action in a capital city that is itself a character, the use of humor. The differences are also notable: the English translation of Bely remains more accessible, his work is based on complex rhythm of patterns, and, according to scholarly opinion, does not use such a wide variety of innovations. But these innovations, which subvert commonplace literary rhetoric, are necessary to conveying Petersburg at such a tumultuous time.
Just after the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukov is given the task of assassinating his bureaucrat father, Apollon Apollonovich, using a time bomb supplied to him by a fellow radical, Alexander Ivanovich Dudkin. Nikolai Apollonovich spends much of his time dressing himself in a red domino mask and cape, making a fool of himself in front of Sofya Petrovna Likhutina, a woman who has rebuked his flirtations in the past. Instead of focusing on the immense task he has agreed to undertake he attends parties and gets himself into the newspaper's gossip columns with his antics. His father notices these exploits and decides that his son is a scoundrel. Dudkin himself answers to a higher power, a man named Lippanchenko who is the leader of their radical group. Eventually both Nikolai Apollonovich and Dudkin experience a change of heart about their mission, however there is much to detain Nikolai Apollonovich on his way to throw the bomb into the river.
The comparison of Petersburg to Ulysses has been made for both its symbolist style and for the centrality of the city within the narrative. There are many allusions within the novel to the city's history going back to its founding by Peter the Great, and it incorporates a number of literary allusions to literature set in Petersburg (especially The Bronze Horseman) as well as Russian literature in general. The characters such as Apollon Apollonovich and Alexander Ivanovich often merge with their environments, while the city itself forms a significant role in the story's unfolding.
The book was informed by many of the philosophies Bely and others of his time were concerned with, both political and spiritual. One of the major influences on the somewhat mystical tone of the book was Bely's experience with Rudolf Steiner and his philosophy of anthroposophy. The characters undergo various transcendent states, and these are generally drawn from Bely's spiritual studies. There are also discussions of Marxism and Nietzsche's ideas, and though the book revolves around a political action, much of it is concerned with spiritual states.
There have been four major translations of the novel into English:
- St. Petersburg or Saint Petersburg, translated by John Cournos (1959)
- Petersburg, translated and annotated by John E. Malmstad and Robert A. Maguire for Indiana University Press (1978) (paperback: ISBN 0-253-20219-1)
- Petersburg, translated by David McDuff for Penguin (1995)
- Petersburg, translated by John Elsworth for Pushkin Press (2009). Winner of the Rossica Translation Prize.
In a review of all the existing English translations, Professor Michael R. Katz writes " . . . if someone wants to read Bely's masterpiece and to understand most of it, then learn Russian and read it in the original; if he/she wants to understand some of it, then read Maguire and Malmstad's magisterial annotated, introduced, and reasonably well-translated scholarly edition; and if someone wants just to say that he/she has read Bely's Petersburg for the sake of adding one notch to his cultural gun . . . then go read Elsworth's version."
- Nabokov, Russian Writers, Censors, and Readers, Read at the Festival of the Arts, Cornell University, April 10, 1958
- 1965, Nabokov's television interview TV-13 NY
- Nabokov and the moment of truth
- Katz, Michael R. (Spring 2010). "'Petersburg' Only Seems to Exist--Bely in English Translation". The Slavic and East European Journal. 54, No. 1: 165–167.