Saturday, July 1, 2017

Cerebral Play and the Red Domino

‘Petersburg,” by Andrei Biely, written 1916, re-written1922, published 1928 and 1935

To continue our celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, this is a review of another lost classic of Russian literature.  It focuses on 5 days in 1905, September 30 through October 4 in the city of St. Petersburg, a year of revolution in Russia.  Vladimir Nabokov thought this novel was one of the great books of the 20th Century, along with ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Remembrance of Things Past’.  Of course, that is Nabokov, a son of the Russian nobility.  Virtually unknown in the ‘West’ and only published in English in 1959, it is a modernist blend between traditional Russian literature and a symbolist approach that reminds one of surrealism or James Joyce.  Biely himself became a supporter of the Russian revolution, working on the Organizational Committee of the Union of Soviet Writers.  He died in Moscow in 1934 at the age of 53, prior to the majority of Stalinist purges.

The Bronze Horseman is After You
The plot is slight but a bit tense.  A wealthy and absurd son of a high Czarist official promises the “Party” that he will kill his father.  Like ‘Ulysses,’ and Dublin, the city of St. Petersburg plays a central role as a virtual character.   Psychological portraits of various Gogol-like citizens – the green-eared Czarist official, a ridiculous society woman, a repressed Czarist officer, a sinister anarchist revolutionary, his sick or mentally disturbed compatriot, the trivial son who dresses in a mask and red cape (and is called ‘the red domino’ by the yellow press, as ‘domino’ means mask), and marginal servants (called ‘lackeys’) or apartment dwellers populate the book.  For Russian literature connoisseurs, there are quotes or references to other Russian writers like Pushkin and Bulgakov. There is a Tolstoyan ball that degenerates into a creepy farce.  Flying over it all is the metal statute of the ‘Horseman” that stands along the Neva – Peter the Great, the spirit that haunts this corrupt city built on a swamp.  The Russian steppes surround that swamp and frighten the Czarist official.

Politically, this is an odd book.  Working class characters are almost invisible.  Factories that ring St. Petersburg are occasionally mentioned.  The working-class ‘islands’ surrounding central St. Petersburg – Vyborg, Vasilyevsky, Petrograd, Narva and the others – are where the unwashed masses lives, while the Nevsky Prospect carries a constant stream of the bowler-hatted middle class.  The 1905 Revolution plays an almost invisible background role, though it started in December 1904 and went for a whole year.  Bloody Sunday predated the book, as it was in January 1905 when the Imperial Guard shot demonstrators before the Winter Palace.  

 The character of the anarchist bomber(s), as in Turgenev, Dostoevsky and Chernyshevsky, play a central and negative role. The ‘red domino’ represents the coming bloodshed, and you could even interpret this symbol as a foreshadowing of the later November 1917 revolution.  The clash between “Asian’ and ‘European” cultures that meet in St. Petersburg is another non-class theme (much as the Sokurov film “Russian Ark” dwelled on it in relation to the Winter Palace/Hermitage), with mentions of the 1905 Japan-Russia war and various insults involving "mongols."  The “Party,” which is frequently mentioned, does not seem to be the working-class and Marxist ‘Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party’ (which united Bolsheviks and Mensheviks at the time), but something more like the anarchist Narodniks or peasant-based Socialist Revolutionaries.  The 'educated classes' and the Czarists are depicted as weak, useless and odd, which is probably its most important political point.

The book itself is an enclosed symbolic and dream space, where the choral repetition of colors, shapes like circles, spheres and rectangles, musical sounds, architectural details, dialog and ugly physical characteristics attempt to forge some kind of literary unity.  Biely was called a ‘symbolist’ and the novel really centers on the psychological developments of his odd and somewhat worthless characters.  For what it is worth, ‘symbolism’ seems to be a dead style, but the book is interesting in how it attempts to do what a modernist symphony does – create some kind of artistic whole, but through non-linear or dissonant methods.  Nothing like it was produced in the U.S. at this time, so it shows how literary Russian culture was more advanced at the time, much like Irish or French literature.

What to make of the book?  It is a hard, wandering 300-page read, given it is mostly a dream fugue.  If you are a fan of Russian literature, it should be a part of your readings, as it has ties to many other Russian works.  If you like modernism mostly divorced from politics, this is the book for you.  If you want a feel for the foggy, sad culture of St. Petersburg and the ‘green’ Neva at the time, it might be interesting. But if you are interested in Russian politics as reworked by literature, this will be a disappointment.  

Prior review of “What Is To Be Done,” below.  Use blog search box, upper left.

Red Frog
July 1, 2017

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