In case anyone was wondering what Russian novel I turned to after finishing Fathers and Sons (discussed here), it was Andrei Bely’s 1909 Серебряный голубь (Russian text; translated as The Silver Dove). I had actually been planning to tackle Bely’s Петербург (Petersburg), which Nabokov called one of the four greatest novels of the twentieth century, but since it had been intended as a sequel to The Silver Dove and I had a copy of the latter, I decided to start with that and get acquainted with Bely’s prose style, and I’m glad I did, partly because it’s a wonderful read and partly because the Russian is so difficult just about anything I read next is bound to seem like a cakewalk.
I wouldn’t call it a great novel, because the plot is slender and pretty silly: a soulful young aristocrat, Daryalsky, is lured away from his virginal young fiancée Katya by a pockmarked village woman, Matryona, whose husband, the leader of a messianic/revolutionary cult called the Doves, wants them to have a child together for vaguely apocalyptic purposes. There’s a good deal of mystical hugger-mugger, and it’s impossible to take the characters very seriously, but who cares? The real hero of the book is Bely’s prose, and it’s mesmerizing, an astoundingly accomplished variant, sophisticated and flexible, of Gogol’s early village-bumpkin style. The novel is the first of what Bely intended as a trilogy on the East-West theme so dear to the Russian intelligentsia of a century ago; Petersburg, with its pastiche of official jargon, represents the West, and The Silver Dove the East, with its backwoods village of Tselebeevo, located (as is frequently pointed out) to the east of westernized Gugolevo, home of the forsaken Katya. The whole thing is told in the cheerful voice of a narrator from Tselebeevo (the first chapter is called “Our Village”), and it slides from thick dialect to highfaluting prose-poetry and back, depending on the situation. The opening paragraph will give an idea of the style:
Еще, и еще в синюю бездну дня, полную жарких, жестоких блесков, кинула зычные клики целебеевская колокольня. Туда и сюда заерзали в воздухе над нею стрижи. А душный от благовонья Троицын день обсыпал кусты легкими, розовыми шиповниками. И жар душил грудь; в жаре стекленели стрекозиные крылья над прудом, взлетали в жар в синюю бездну дня, – туда, в голубой покой пустынь. Потным рукавом усердно размазывал на лице пыль распаренный сельчанин, тащась на колокольню раскачать медный язык колокола, пропотеть и поусердствовать во славу Божью. И еще, и еще клинькала в синюю бездну дня целебеевская колокольня; и юлили над ней, и писали, повизгивая, восьмерки стрижи.
[Again and again, into the dark blue abyss of the day, filled with hot, cruel brilliance, the Tselebeevo bell tower sent forth loud cries. Hither and thither in the air above it fidgeted the martins. Whitsunday, sultry with fragrance, strewed the bushes with light, pink dogroses. And heat stifled the chest; in the heat dragonfly wings were glassy over the pond, they flew up into the heat into the dark blue abyss of the day, there, into the blue peace of emptiness. With a sweaty sleeve a perspiring villager diligently spread dust over his face, dragging himself to the bell tower to shake loose the bronze tongue of the bell, to sweat through and show diligence for God's glory. And again and again, into the dark blue abyss of the day, the Tselebeevo bell tower pealed forth, and above it fussed the martins, shrieking and inscribing figures of eight.]
Besides the obvious repetitions of phrases, there is a subtler repetition of perhaps the most important word of the novel, дух [dukh] ‘spirit,’ hidden in воздух [vozdukh] ‘air’ and душный [dushny] ‘sultry’ and душил [dushil] ‘stifled.’ And many words and phrases from this prelude are repeated at significant points throughout the novel. Bely had been writing “symphonies” that were narratives in verse; in his first novel he turned to prose but kept the arsenal of techniques of manipulating sounds and senses he had learned, to superb effect. As I say, it’s not an easy read, full of dialect, idiosyncratic usages, and made-up words like росянистые [rosyanistye] and зызыкнет [zyzyknet], but it’s well worth the effort. (And for the benefit of those of us with philological leanings, at one point characters are said to be making clever remarks about Wilamowitz-Moellendorff “and even Brugmann.”)
I’ll add a little about the real-life sources of the novel. In the years before the 1905 Revolution, Bryusov and Bely quarreled over the affections of the young poet Nina Petrovskaya, a woman whom Kristi A. Groberg, in her essay on Petrovskaya in the Dictionary of Russian Women Writers (pp. 500-02), calls a “Symbolist groupie” who “had affairs with Bal’mont, Belyi, Briusov, and Sergei Auslender in that order. In 1903-4, she was involved with Belyi, whom she saw as her spiritual salvation, the New Christ. When the romance faltered, she turned to Briusov.” She divorced her husband Sergei Sokolov in 1906 and tried to shoot Bely in 1907; the next year she moved to Paris, converted to Catholicism, and started calling herself “Renata” after the character (a witch) based on her in Bryusov’s novel based on “the stories Petrovskaia told Briusov about her fascination with Belyi,” The Fiery Angel, set in 16th-century Germany and full of mysticism and demonology. Her memoirs “treat the relationship with Briusov as the great event of her life and him as a man of spiritual depth, yet she describes it as a pact with the Devil.” Bely (who gave the novel a rather condescending review in the Symbolist journal Vesy) obviously read it attentively, and Groberg says The Silver Dove “can be read as his polemical answer to The Fiery Angel.”