I’m almost halfway through Andrei Bely’s Peterburg (complete Russian text of the earlier, longer 1913 version, with introductory essay by Igor Sukhikh)—I’ve read it before in English, but this is my first time reading it as Bely wrote it—and I’m perfectly willing to go along with Nabokov in calling it one of the great novels of its century. Its prose is even more mesmerizing than that of The Silver Dove (discussed here), with brilliant use of repetition (all of Bely’s prose works on the incantatory principle), and the plot is far more interesting, with intertwining strands on the generational theme (still productive a half-century after Fathers and Sons), the theme of love and marriage (two very different things in Bely), and the prescient theme of red revolution, all played against the backdrop of a murky and frightening city that Bely knew well but didn’t like (he was a proud Muscovite). I’ll probably have more to say when I finish it, but right now I just want to share a sentence that struck me with its inadvertent foreshadowing of Martha and the Vandellas and the Rolling Stones: “Apollon Apollonovich thought [while watching the dancers at a party in the revolutionary October of 1905]: just let these seemingly innocent dances go on here, and, well, of course these dances will continue in the street; and the dances will end, of course—there, there.” (Russian below the cut.) The final “там, там,” literally ‘there, there,’ carries the sound of тамтам ‘tomtom,’ and in general is meant to bring to your ears (if you will) the sound of marching, charging feet, boy.

Аполлон Аполлонович думал: допусти только здесь эти с виду невинные пляски, уж, конечно, продолжатся эти пляски на улице; и окончатся пляски, конечно, — там, там.


  1. Is that your translation or from the English version you read?

  2. My translation; in general, if I don’t mention the source of a translation, it’s mine.

  3. rootlesscosmo says

    Shorter Lenin: “Are you ready for a band new beat?”

  4. rootlesscosmo says

    brand new, sorry.

  5. The weirdest spam I’ve ever seen…

  6. Languagehat, Have you read Gerald Janecek’s “The Look of Russian Literature”?
    It is about typographic effects in avant-garde Russian books where the effects were the author’s intention when they wrote them rather than a later design. It has a chapter on Bely and has examples of the manuscript and the some early editions. Petersburg uses a lot of these effects – does the edition that you are reading preserve the layout?

  7. Languagehat, Have you read Gerald Janecek’s “The Look of Russian Literature”?
    No, I wasn’t even aware of it, but it’s now been added to my wishlist—thanks for the pointer!
    Petersburg uses a lot of these effects – does the edition that you are reading preserve the layout?
    No, unfortunately; it’s a cheap paperback (full of typos) I picked up in 1996 at Barnes & Noble after looking fruitlessly for a copy of the book for ages—Russian bookstores, at least in NYC, had no interest in Bely back then. I’d love to get a better one someday. (Same for Nabokov’s Russian novels.)

  8. (I deleted the weird spam, sorry!)

  9. “Russian bookstores, at least in NYC, had no interest in Bely back then”
    I picked up my nice Russian edition in ’92, I think at Szwede’s in Redwood City, CA. In the Russian department at Stanford, Bely was a major part of the canon. The New York Russian community seems to be heavily into Dovlatov, Aksyonov and other immigrant/dissident Soviet writers.

  10. Out of interest, is your copy printed by Booking International, Paris? My public library has one, but I’m doubtful of its quality – my wife read their edition on Oblomov and its riddled with typos. Mind you, I’ve got a long,long way to go to be able to read it and I’ve a ton of russian books at home to read first.

  11. Oh the irony. I meant Bookking International.

  12. Yup, it’s the Bookking edition. It’s not quite as bad as their Oblomov (I bought that at the same time and wound up throwing it away and buying a real edition), but it’s chock full of typos; occasionally I can’t figure out what the original was and have to check with the online edition I linked in the post, but in general I consider them a useful test of my Russian reading skills.

  13. At the bottom of p. 67 they omit an entire line, but other than that it’s just wrong letters in words (and once a repeated paragraph).

  14. Its a shame that the quality is so low – their range is (or was – I can’t find their internet page) quite wide and the books are cheap compared with the real thing. Thankfully though, Russian books are still comparatively cheap if you can buy them in/from Russia and I’m in the position that I’ll be there on occasion in the future. If only my brain didn’t cease up in the bookshops and make it nearly impossible for me to chose anything.

  15. I have the Bookking edition of Peterburg, along with a Chekhov stories and plays, and something else. The typos in the Chekhov plays were weird. I literally (not figuratively) cannot understand how so many typos got through. Even the most cursory proofing would fix 90% of them.
    … unless the type was set by someone who doesn’t speak Russian, as in some French type-setter in Paris setting the type for Russian books.
    By the way, the surreal spam isn’t a problem. I’d just never seen that kind of spam.

  16. Start a blog and, trust me, you’ll see every kind of spam there is.

  17. John Emerson says

    When facsimile reproduction is as cheap as it is, it’s very odd that anyone would go to the trouble of typesetting a book just for the sake of putting out a defective edition. I’m imagining a 100-year-old publisher with a 150- year old press working in one of the smaller Siberian cities and eking out a bare living.

  18. Sounds like a book I need to read. Any thoughts on the various English translations? (And a very Happy New Year to you and yours!)

  19. Beth, hi! I’d recommend the David McDuff from Penguin, which has useful notes, but there’s a new one translated by John Elsworth for Pushkin Press that I haven’t seen and know nothing about. Anybody familiar with it?

  20. McDuff’s was the first translation of the Bros. K. I read, and it was great. I didn’t know he translated this. I’ll have to check it out. He’s a good translator.

  21. Oh, and I should mention that there’s a translation by Robert Maguire and John Malmstad (Indiana UP, 1978) of the considerably shorter version (which some consider superior) that Bely wrote in Berlin a decade later; it too has notes, though some have been superseded.

  22. Correction: It was the Magarshak translation of Bros. K. I read.

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