A Reader’s Guide to Petersburg.

Leo Livak, one of the great scholars of Russian modernism, promised me he’d have University of Wisconsin Press send me a copy of the new book he’s edited, A Reader’s Guide to Andrei Bely’s Petersburg; it’s arrived, and it’s even better than I expected. Fortunately, Livak has posted a summary of the book’s contents, from which I will quote:

The first part treats Petersburg’s rapports with Russian and European intellectual life in Bely’s day. Lynn Patyk elucidates the historical circumstances informing Petersburg’s terrorist intrigue, with an eye on the range of meanings that intrigue had in Bely’s modernist circle and in contemporary Russian society at large. Maria Carlson draws attention to Bely’s fascination with Theosophy and with its offshoot—Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical doctrine, which freshly captivated the writer midway through his work on Petersburg. Bely’s interest in Friedrich Nietzsche’s iconoclastic thought predated his work on the novel. The formative role in modernist philosophies of art and life of Nietzsche’s intellectual heritage all but assured that Bely would engage with it in Petersburg, as Edith Clowes illustrates. Neo-Kantianism is yet another philosophical current informing the novel. As Timothy Langen explains, it shaped Bely’s thought in the decade preceding his Petersburg project, and it is present there as one of the novel’s competing philosophies. Henri Bergson equipped Bely with polemical tools for a critical reexamination of Nietzscheanism and Neo-Kantianism, whose philosophical virtues, Hilary Fink argues, the writer no longer took for granted during his work on Petersburg. Judith Wermuth-Atkinson shows that Bely’s modernist search for alternatives to the materialist understanding of the world and the human being led the author of Petersburg to heed the new science of psychology, as elaborated by Sigmund Freud. A special place in Petersburg’s imaginative universe is occupied by racial theories, whose narrative manifestations are explored by Henrietta Mondry. Closing the book’s first part, David Bethea demonstrates the centrality of eschatology—speculation about the end of history, framed as the demise and rebirth of the world and humankind—in Petersburg’s narrative and stylistic economy.

The volume’s second part examines Petersburg in the aesthetic context of Bely’s day. Keenly following the latest developments in Russian and Western artistic theory and practice, Bely poured his erudition into Petersburg as a medium for reflecting on and realizing modernist artistic philosophy. Steven Cassedy explores the role of music in Bely’s novel against the backdrop of modernist musical theories and their implementation in literature. Considering Bely’s novel as an exemplar of modernism’s embrace of performance practices and metaphors, Colleen McQuillen shows Petersburg’s place in the practice of “life-creation,” common among Russian modernists who turned their lives into artistic texts that were lived before they could be written down. Olga Matich treats Petersburg as an expression of Bely’s passion for painting, exploring the ways Bely uses verbal signs to create visual images. Taras Koznarsky shows Petersburg’s contribution to transnational modernism’s intense preoccupation with urbanism. Violeta Sotirova looks at Petersburg as a case study in the larger modernist turn to consciousness as the source of reality, placing Bely’s novel alongside literary experiments by his Western European peers.

Petersburg explores every level of spoken and written language in order to speculate about language as a source of what people perceive as reality but what might as well be an illusion originating in the psyche. That is why we open this volume with an essay by John Elsworth, the author of the most recent English translation of Petersburg, who endeavors to impart to Bely’s Anglophone reader a sense of the challenges inherent in translating the novel; and to give the reader an idea of the inevitable losses and distortions accompanying any such translation project.

Livak’s introduction is a little gem in itself, not only briefly describing the essays but providing piquant details like this, following a description of Bely’s infatuation with Alexander Blok’s wife:

Both poets lived this drama, in 1905–7, and wrote about it in terms of the commedia dell’arte plot pitting the red Harlequin (Bely) against the white Pierrot (Blok) in a contest for Columbine’s heart. Replacing Harlequin’s traditional, checkered and particolored suit with a patternless and monochromatic red domino, Bely wore that masquerade attire in public and subsequently bestowed it on his hero in Petersburg.

I might have thought his reference to Wagner’s “Gesammtkunstwerk” was a typo or error, but a footnote explains: “Throughout this volume, the term Gesammtkunstwerk is cited in Wagner’s original spelling (see Steven Cassedy’s essay), in contrast to its current spelling with one m.” And his account of the creation of the novel is eye-opening; apparently Bely and his lover Asya Turgeneva fell hard for Rudolf Steiner’s mystical thoughts right in the middle of writing it, and Livak says:

This entailed not only a crash course in Anthroposophy (accompanied by German instruction since Bely’s and Turgeneva’s knowledge of the language was poor), but also constant travel as they followed Steiner, like groupies, on his lecture circuit—from Munich to Basel to Vitznau to Stuttgart to Berlin. Naturally, Petersburg’s proposed work schedule “went to hell,” as Bely told Blok in December 1912, taking stock of his sporadic work […] and asking his friend for another loan, since he was already in breach of contract with the publisher.

Shades of Dostoevsky’s troubles with gambling! And in describing the 1916 book edition, which I hadn’t realized was simply bound copies of the Sirin installments from 1913-14, he says:

Characteristically, in 1916, preparing to reissue Petersburg in book form, Ivanov-Razumnik cited its completion in 1913, and its resultant rootedness in antebellum realia, to dissuade a tsarist censor from retitling the novel Petrograd—after the wartime capital as it had been patriotically renamed in August 1914.

I love that kind of detail, and I’m very much looking forward to diving into the essays, which provide a comprehensive picture of the intellectual life of the day. It’s not too late to get the book as a last-minute Christmas gift for a lover of Russian literature, but I have to warn you it currently costs $79.95. Alas for the inflated costs of academic publishing! On the other hand, it does look impeccably produced; I haven’t noticed a single typo yet. Well done, U of Wisc Press.

Addendum. I read the novel in Russian about nine years ago and posted about it here, here, and here; I’m excited about reading it again once I’ve got this book under my belt.

Update (Dec. 2020). UWPress is releasing the book in paperback for only $21.95 — at that price anyone interested in the period or the novel should definitely snap it up.


  1. the writer no longer took for granted during his work on Petersburg

    Missing itals.

  2. David Marjanović says

    The mm in pre-orthographic sammt, (-)gesammt(-), sämmtlich was etymologically justified by zusammen, mitsammen, beisammen (all “together”).

  3. Missing itals.

    Fixed, thanks!

  4. Some time ago I realized that in my mind I make distinction between Russian writers and European writers of Russian origin.

    Obviously, people like Nabokov who lived in America and wrote in English fall in the latter category, but I would also include plenty of writers who lived in Russia and wrote in Russian too.

    Alexander Grin, for example. Or the founder of Russian science fiction Belyaev (his SF novels written in 1920s and 1930s would fit amazingly well in Golden Age of American SF).

    Andrei Bely fits too.He well may have been named Andrew White and written his strange novel about Dublin or London…

  5. I think you will find an interesting contradistinction in reading Bely and Leskov within a short span of time. Where Bely is urbanist, Leskov is a small-townist, Bely’s language experiments are highfalutin and “European”, Leskov’s are purposefully middlebrow (if that high) and “Russophile”. Bely is trying to express a very sophisticated feelings of very sophisticated people, Leskov is showing to the reading public how much is there to find in “simple people”.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    I was at the Strand in Manhattan trying to buy some Christmas presents yesterday when my eye was caught by this amusingly-subtitled (“A Manifesto of Nonsense”) academic volume out on one of the tables in the basement. https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/deleuze-and-futurism-9781472534286/. But of course while it’s easy to fit the vogue for that particular style of French post-modern nonsense into a broader narrative of what sort of silly things people got away with in the 1960’s at seq. it is important to remember that way back on the eve of WW1 some literary intellectuals were already suckers for a quite diverse range of nonsense and crackpottery, as your summary of Bely’s interests and enthusiasiasms helps to illustrate.

  7. The thing about anthroposophy (besides my unexplained but consistent difficulty in spelling its name correctly) is that it is possibly the least “cracked” of all crackpot ideas. Rudolf Steiner and his followers believed that the world of the mystical and paranormal should be just as susceptible to scientific study as the everyday world where science had already been so successful.

  8. See Update for new paperback edition at a much reduced price.

  9. Words starting with that morpheme seem to be easily confused: there is a book claiming that societal cannibalism has never happened (as opposed to psychopathic and starvation cannibalism) called The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. There seem to be three views about it: (a) polemical nonsense, (b) brilliant scholarship, (c) mostly true but overstated. In such cases, Gassalasca Jape, S.J., suggests believing all options.

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