Bely’s Second Symphony.

I’ve long been intrigued by Andrei Bely’s first published prose works, his set of four “symphonies,” and since everyone seems to agree that the first to be published [in 1902], Симфония (2-я, драматическая) [Symphony: Second, Dramatic], is without question the best of them and perhaps the only one really worth spending time on, I bought a copy of it. Unfortunately the edition I got is crappy (print-on-demand, shoddily bound and produced, horrible cover, doesn’t reproduce Bely’s numbered lines and line breaks), but hey, it was cheap and gives me something to make notes in, and thanks to the amazing Bely Memorial Apartment Site with its online versions of all editions of his work published in his lifetime, I am able to consult the first edition whenever I want.

But before I get to the symphony, I’ll say something about Bely in general. He’s been called the most difficult of Russian writers, and while once I would have scoffed at that, I’m now inclined to believe it. There are writers with weirder vocabulary (Remizov), more opaque style (Platonov), general craziness (Khlebnikov), and so on, but nobody combines so many forms of difficulty as Bely. He doesn’t use as many strange words as Remizov, but some of them are impossible to interpret even for Russians (a good example is безмирный, which he used repeatedly; there’s a whole forum discussion of what he might have meant by it, somewhat vitiated by the fact that nobody bothers to check the old spelling — it’s written with і, not и, as you can see in the sixth line of p. 64, so it can’t possibly mean ‘without peace’). His style is so musical it’s easy to be seduced by the sound into not bothering to figure out what’s going on or what he’s trying to say. He alludes to so many people, ideas, and phenomena of the period that to really get it you’d have to do a separate study (and there is an excellent book that allows you to do just that — see my review). And, perhaps most importantly, he was obsessed throughout his life with a mix of philosophy and mysticism that lurks behind everything he wrote and is essential to interpreting it in a way he would have approved of (though not to enjoying it, which you can do in all sorts of ways). Here’s a quote from the Introduction to J. D. Elsworth, Andrey Bely: A Critical Study of the Novels (CUP, 1984) that will give you an idea of his multifariousness:

Any one of Bely’s separate capacities would have been sufficient to secure him a permanent reputation. Much of his poetry is strikingly original, showing great rhythmic inventiveness and constant evolution. His verse memoir, First Encounter, from 1921, is widely regarded as one of the highest poetic achievements of the early twentieth century. Yet as poetic spokesman of his generation, Bely is inevitably overshadowed by Blok. As a memoirist, on the other hand, he has no rivals. His Reminiscences of Blok, upon which he embarked as soon as he returned home from his friend’s funeral in August 1921, went through several stages of revision and expansion to emerge as three volumes of memoirs, covering the period from his childhood to 1912, which are essential reading for anyone interested in this era of Russian culture. His theoretical writings are often, to say the least, opaque, yet we know that he could hold spellbound any of the audiences that came to hear him lecture on the most diverse topics, from poetic rhythm to Apocalypse; and if he never silenced the scepticism of a professional philosopher such as Berdyayev, still he was much more than a dilettante and enjoyed in his own day great popular standing as a thinker and a teacher. He was also a highly competent musician, and in his later years turned himself into an efficient painter in water-colours. It is perhaps on account of his versatility, as much as anything else, that he might be said typically to embody the aspirations of his generation. […]

Nevertheless it is as a novelist that Bely has achieved the greatest lasting fame. It was with an experimental prose work, called a Symphony that he made his literary debut in 1902, and in the realm of prose there is no one to overshadow him. His second and best-known novel, Petersburg, was the single most influential prose work to appear in the immediate pre-revolutionary period, and the principal progenitor of early Soviet experimental prose. Not only is Bely the most innovative prose-writer of the first third of the twentieth century, but it is also true to say that the novel form provided him with the best vehicle for embodying his complex view of human culture and the proper function of art. Bely’s novels are the core of his achievement.

However, they are not easy to approach.

You can say that again. So what about the Symphony? Here are the first few lines (or “musical phrases,” as Bely called them — you can see the first edition here), with the translation by Roger and Angela Keys (first page here):

  1. Стояла душная страда. Мостовая ослепительно
  2. Трещали извозчики, подставляя жаркому солнцу
истертые, синие спины.
  3. Дворники поднимали прах столбом, не смущаясь
гримасами прохожих, гогоча коричнево-пыльными

1. A season of sweltering grind. The roadway gleamed blindingly.

2. Cab-drivers cracked their whips, exposing their worn, blue backs to the hot sun.

3. Yard-sweepers raised columns of dust, their grime-browned faces loudly exulting, untroubled by grimaces from passers-by.

The problems start with the first line; the Russian says ‘it was a stuffy/sultry/stifling stradá,’ and that last word is very hard to translate — it can mean ‘harvest time,’ ‘hard work during harvest time,’ or figuratively ‘drudgery,’ and I’m not sure “grind” is the best way to render it, but I can’t think of a better one. But the pleasure also starts with the first line: “stoyala dúshnaya stradá. mostovaya oslepítel’no sverkala,” with its many /a/ vowels (pre-stress o is pronounced /a/) surrounding an /u/ and then an /i/ shows off Bely’s way with sound structure, and I frequently found myself reading lines out loud.

The entire first (and longest) section is pretty much like that, chunks of description of city life intermixed with brief introductions to various characters, all unnamed — a philosopher, a “democrat” (i.e., progressive), a married woman known throughout as skazka ‘fairy tale’ — who will play roles later on. Halfway through the second section the autobiographical protagonist, a mystic named Sergei Muratov (known as “ascetic” and “prophet”), is introduced; in the third section he visits his brother Pavel at the latter’s country estate (which reminded me of Levin’s half-brother, the writer Koznyshev, visiting him in Anna Karenina), and in the fourth he discovers that the “woman clothed in the sun” he’s been having mystical thoughts about is just an ordinary woman, and the rider of the white horse who (according to his mystical reading of Revelations) will rule mankind with an iron rod turns out to be her little girl (“we dress her as a boy”). Disillusioned, he goes to a tavern and gets drunk for the first time in his life, and he meets with agents of darkness who tell him the secret is that there are no secrets, and it is folly to try to break through the wall to the fourth dimension. There are many mentions of figures like Kant, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer, and especially Vladimir Solovyov, who had recently died and whose spirit turns up more than once, discussing things with a friend (also dead) in the graveyard. It’s hard to know what to make of it all.

For one thing, how seriously are we to take all the mystical mumbo-jumbo? In his other symphonies, apparently it’s treated as real and vitally important, but in this one it’s constantly being undercut, high-flown ideas having the air let out of them by reality (as with the “woman clothed in the sun” and the man who was supposed to rule mankind with an iron rod but turns out to be a little girl). That’s all to the good for the symphony as a work of art, but Bely himself was heavily invested in the mumbo-jumbo (eventually he would encounter Rudolf Steiner and be lost for good in a haze of anthroposophy), so the reader has the uneasy feeling that it’s hard to find the correct balance. Roger Keys, in “Bely’s Symphonies,” his contribution to John E. Malmstad (ed.), Andrey Bely: Spirit of Symbolism, says (p. 58):

In a sense this structural resolution of the work’s dissonant themes is rather spurious, little more than the implied author’s attempt to impose a harmonious ending from above. We felt Musatov’s travail from within and this was the symphony’s greatest achievement, but we are told about the skazka‘s inner serenity from without. […] Either Bely’s positive theme about religious faith and the ability of human love to defeat the sense of purposelessness and evil, so well embodied elsewhere in the symphony, is not translated into character and action at all (the narrator’s lyric monologue) or, where Bely does make the attempt, in the case of Father Ioann and the skazka, the results rarely rise above the level of flaccid sentimentality. Musatov encounters resistance from surrounding reality; the positive characters do not.

And of course to truly grasp Bely’s intent and meaning, one would have to take the mumbo-jumbo more seriously than I have any intention of doing. But that’s OK; if I can love Yeats while ignoring his mumbo-jumbo, I can love Bely despite his.

And now I’m going to take a Strugatsky break and read Волны гасят ветер (translated as The Time Wanderers), the third of the Maxim Kammerer novels.


  1. David Marjanović says

    be lost for good in a haze of anthroposophy

    I must say, you have a way with words yourself!

  2. Why thank you, kind sir!

    (I’m most of the way through the Strugatsky and loving it; I’m only sorry there are no more Max Kammerer novels after this.)

  3. SFReader says

    Do you know what Max Kammerer has in common with President Putin?

    They were both in KGB.

    Kammerer’s KGB is Komitet Galakticheskoi Bezopasnosti (Committee of Galactic Security), but there isn’t much difference.

    Same mentality. As KGB chief Rudolf Sikorski put it:

    “We are permitted to be ignoramuses, mystics, superstitious fools. But we won’t be forgiven only one thing: if we underestimated the danger. And if our house suddenly stank of sulfur, we simply do not have right to speculate about molecular fluctuations – we must simply assume that devil with horns has appeared nearby and we must take appropriate measures, up to the organization of production of holy water on industrial scale. “

    Galactic national security state – that’s what the Noon Universe is.

  4. I’ve finished the book now, and it’s wonderful; my only question is: why the hell is the English translation called The Time Wanderers? It makes no sense!

  5. SFReader says

    I have no idea, but it sounds very close to

    Strugatsky brothers translated The Day of the Triffids into Russian, coincidence?

  6. Wow. Seems hard to believe it’s a coincidence, but I’d sure like to know the story behind it.

  7. David Marjanović says

    KGB chief Rudolf Sikorski

    That is such an early-20th-century Viennese name.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    День триффидов.
    It sounds even better/more terrifying in Russian. But so many things do …

  9. SFReader says

    Yep and such names were very common in Soviet SF.

    This is because many novels couldn’t pass censorship and be published in the Soviet Union as written.

    There was lots of stuff which Soviet people in Soviet book simply weren’t allowed to do for various ideological reasons.

    The way to get around this was to make them non-Soviet by slightly modifying their surnames to something a bit more foreign-sounding.

    But authors didn’t want to go to the extremes – very exotic surname would make it too difficult for a Russian reader to identify with a hero.

    So they needed a foreign surname which sounded vaguely Slavic or German (but not Jewish which would open another can of worms).

    Hence, all these Kammerers, Sikorskis, Glebskis or Banevs.

  10. Indeed. Pre-censorship names of Maxim Kammerer was Maxim Rostislavsky (making him vaguely aristo) and Rudolf Sikorsky was Pavel Grigoryevich without a last name. Probably nickname Wanderer was supposed to be enough.

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