I’ve finished reading Bely’s Peterburg (see here and here), and I’m even more willing than before to join Nabokov in calling it one of the great novels of its century. It moves slowly, concentrating on building up musical and incantatory effects by means of the repetitions he (unwisely) pruned heavily for the later revision, and as it reaches its end all the themes come together satisfyingly, with what might have been sentimentality in a lesser writer carefully cushioned by a wide variety of distancing mechanisms. I won’t try to sum it all up, I’ll just mention one example of the kind of build-up and payoff I’m talking about, and one radiant moment that must have impaled the book firmly in Nabokov’s soul when he read it as an impressionable teenager.

In this post I quoted this sentence: “Apollon Apollonovich thought: 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.” That final “там, там” [tam, tam] had been prepared for by a cluster of a half-dozen previous instances of the percussive phrase within a few pages of the third chapter (and once again I must thank the internet for providing the entire text of the novel on one page, making it trivially easy to locate every occurrence of a word or phrase; I’m lazily quoting McDuff’s translations rather than doing my own):

Но Софья Петровна не слушала больше: неожиданно для себя она повернулась и увидела, что там, там, на дворцовом выступе в светло-багровом ударе последних невских лучей, как-то странно повернутый к ней, выгибаясь и уйдя лицом в воротник, отчего скатывалась с него студенческая фуражка, стоял Николай Аполлонович: ей казалось, что он неприятнейшим образом улыбался…

“But Sofya Petrovna [Likhutina, faithless wife of the long-suffering but stubbornly loving Lieutenant Likhutin] was not listening any more: unexpectedly to herself, she turned and saw that there, there, on the front square of the palace in the light purple thrust of the Neva’s last rays, somehow strangely turned towards her, stooping, and hiding his face in his collar, which caused his student’s peaked cap to slip down, stood Nikolai Apollonovich [Ableukhov, the protagonist, who had had a brief fling with Sofya Petrovna]; it seemed to her that he was smiling in a most unpleasant manner…”

Оба встали: оба стали расхаживать по комнатной анфиладе; встали в тень белые Архимеды: там, там; вот и там; анфилада комнат чернела…

“Both [Nikolai Apollonovich and his aged father] stood up: both began to walk about the enfilade of rooms; white Archimedes rose into the shadow: there, there; and also there; the enfilade of rooms lay black…”

В глазах ее еще багрянели закатные пятна; и — там, там: как-то странно повернутый к ней на дворцовом выступе в светло-багровом ударе последних невских лучей, выгибаясь и уйдя лицом в воротник, стоял Николай Аполлонович с пренеприятной улыбкой.

“In her [Sofya Petrovna’s] eyes the stains of the sunset still shone crimson; and there, there: somehow strangely turned towards her on the front square of the palace in the light crimson glow of the last rays of the Neva, stooping, hiding his face in his collar, stood Nikolai Apollonovich with a most unpleasant smile.”

Софья Петровна Лихутина останавливалась в этом месте и прежде; останавливалась когда-то и с ним; и вздыхала о Лизе, рассуждала серьезно об ужасах “Пиковой Дамы”, — о божественных, очаровательных, дивных созвучиях одной оперы, и потом напевала вполголоса, дирижируя пальчиком:
   — “Татам: там, там!.. Тататам: там, там!”
   Вот опять она здесь стояла; губки раскрылись, и маленький пальчик поднялся:
   —”Татам: там, там!.. Тататам: там, там!”

“Sofya Petrovna Likhutina had stopped at this spot before; had stopped with him [Nikolai Apollonovich] here, once upon a time; and sighed about Liza, arguing earnestly about the horrors of The Queen of Spades—about the divine, charming, wonderful harmonies of a certain opera, and had then sung in a low voice, conducting with her finger:
   ‘Tatam: tam, tam! . . . Tatatam: tam, tam!’
   Now again she stood here; her lips opened, and a small finger was raised:
   ‘Tatam: tam, tam! . . . Tatatam: tam, tam!'”

…и сама она туда убегала в глубину, зеленоватую муть; и там, там — из фонтана вещей и кисейно-кружевной пены выходила теперь красавица с пышно взбитыми волосами и мушкою на щеке: мадам Помпадур!

“[Sofya Petrovna looks in her mirror] and she herself disappeared down there, into the depth, the greenish dimness; and there, there—out of the fountain of objects and the muslin-lace foam there was now emerging a beautiful woman with luxuriantly fluffed hair and a beauty-spot on her cheek: Madame Pompadour!”

Это смятение танцевального зала передалось инстинктивно через две проходные комнаты и в гостиную: и там, там — где горел лазоревый шар электрической люстры, где в лазоревом трепетном свете грузно как-то стояли гостинные посетители, выясняясь туманно из виснущих хлопьев табачного синеватого дыма, — посетители эти с тревогой смотрели туда — в танцевальный зал.

“This commotion in the ballroom [caused by the tormented Nikolai Apollonovich, hiding his identity beneath a red domino] was instinctively transmitted through the two intermediate rooms and into the drawing room; and there, there, where the azure globe of the electric chandelier burned, where in the shimmering azure light the drawing-room visitors somehow heavily stood, showing mistily through the suspended flocks of bluish tobacco smoke—these visitors looked with alarm in there—to the ballroom.”

The “dances” quote I began with is immediately followed by two more in the same section:

Аполлон Аполлонович Аблеухов повернулся всем корпусом; и — там, там, он увидел конвульсии уродливых ног, принадлежащих компании государственных преступников: виноват: танцующей молодежи; среди этих дьявольских танцев внимание его поразило то же все домино, развернувшее в танце кровавый атлас.

“Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov turned right round; and there [, there,] he saw the convulsions of the ugly legs that belonged to this company of state criminals: no, sorry, of dancing young people; among this devilish dancing his attention was still struck by the domino, who had unfolded his bloody satin in the dance.”

Аполлон Аполлонович переменил положение тела, повернув спину зеркалу; и — там, там: в комнате, промежуточной меж гостиной и залой, Аполлон Аполлонович вновь увидел подлое домино (ублюдка), погруженное в чтение какой-то (вероятно, подлой) записки (вероятно, порнографического содержания). И Аполлон Аполлонович не имел достаточно мужества, чтоб уличить сына.

“Apollon Apollonovich altered the position of his body, turning his back to the mirror; and—there, there: in the room between the drawing-room and the ballroom, Apollon Apollonovich again saw the foul domino (the mongrel), absorbed in the reading of some (probably foul) note (probably of pornographic content). And Apollon Apollonovich did not have sufficient courage to catch his son in the act.”

There are two more instances in the body of the novel:

И простерлись проспекты — там, там: простерлись проспекты; пасмурный пешеход не торопил шагов: пасмурный пешеход озирался томительно: бесконечности зданий! Пасмурный пешеход был Николай Аполлонович.

“And the prospects stretched—over there, over there: the prospects stretched; the gloomy pedestrian did not hurry his step: the gloomy pedestrian looked painfully around him: those infinities of buildings! The gloomy pedestrian was Nikolai Apollonovich.”

Итак, в обещании, возникшем у моста — там, там: в сквозняке приневского ветра, когда за плечами увидел он котелок, трость, усы (петербургские обитатели отличаются — гм-гм — свойствами!..)

“And so, it was the promise that had emerged by the bridge—there, there: in a gust of Neva wind, when over his shoulder he had caught sight of a bowler hat, a cane, a moustache (the inhabitants of Petersburg are distinguished by—hm-hm—qualities! . . .)”

Note the repeated accompaniment of Nikolai Apollonovich, the Neva, enfilades of rooms, mirrors; there’s a lot going on here. And in the Epilogue, the payoff. In this post I mentioned that the Russian phrase “carries the sound of тамтам ‘tomtom,'” but I felt a little abashed about it—maybe that was an anachronistic reference? I felt pleasantly vindicated when I hit this:

…под ним — деревенская площадь и звуки “там-там”‘а: ударяются в уши глухим тяготящим оттенком.
   Николай Аполлонович не слушает звуков “тамтам”‘а…

“…beneath him [Nikolai Apollonovich] are the village square and the sounds of a tom-tom: they strike the ears with a hollow, oppressive quality.
   Nikolai Apollonovich does not hear the sounds of the tom-tom…”

And the radiant moment? Near the end of the book, Nikolai Apollonovich is trying to locate the source of a ticking sound that bothers him:

Николай Аполлонович запыхался, метаясь с протянутой свечкой среди пляски теней; все ловил порхающий звук (так гоняются дети с сачками за желтеньким мотылечком).

“Nikolai Apollonovich began to pant, rushing about with candle outstretched amidst the dance of the shadows; he kept trying to detect the fluttering sound (thus do children pursue a little yellow butterfly with nets).”

As any reader of Speak, Memory will recognize, Vladimir Vladimirovich was one of those children.


  1. he (unwisely) pruned heavily for the later version
    Kind of an anti-Prelude, then?
    It’s interesting how some artists become florid while others terse as they age. How the senses of ‘opportunity’ and ‘missed opportunity’ evolve under the selective pressures of fortune.

    I’m looking forward to plenty of heavily pruned scatalogical mirth on this thread.

  2. I’m looking forward to anything at all in this thread. What, no love for Bely? Or did I include too many quotes?

  3. Have you read Kotik Letaev by Bely? Its his third novel and continues the sound and layout experiments. Its a “symbolist novel of early childhood” to quote the back cover of the northwestern university press edtion. Its translated and annotated by Gerald Janecek who I’ve mentioned before. With 40 pages of translators notes, no less.
    One thing odd about Bely – for some reason I keep on seeing 2nd hand German editions of his work here in Aberdeen, Scotland. But never russian.

  4. Or did I include too many quotes?
    No! I was glad to see so many — it was just the inspiration I needed to move Petersburg up on my to-read shelf.

  5. Have you read Kotik Letaev by Bely?
    No, but now I want to. I’ll look for that NWU Press translation (40 pages of translators notes, yum!).
    Lisa: I’ll be very interested to see your response to the book.

  6. WTF
    Try alibris or abebooks.

  7. I read Petersburg 20 years ago for class, and probably missed a great deal. LH, you have inspired me to reread it, and Moskva as well, but until I do I just don’t have a lot to add to your very interesting post.

  8. Oops, guess I botched those html tags.

  9. Try alibris or abebooks.
    A good thought, but no bargains this time. (I don’t want the old Ardis edition.)
    Oops, guess I botched those html tags.

  10. I found an interesting piece on the novel by Solzhenitsyn, pretty much Bely’s diametrical opposite as a writer; it’s fascinating to see him reluctantly concede that some of the techniques he doesn’t like actually work, and to get his perspective on the scenes and characters (I particularly like his observation that the father, Apollon Apollonovich, keeps escaping from the cardboard figure Bely tries to make of him). And one thing the two have in common is a fondness for unusual or invented words:

    Встречаются неплохо найденные слова (я взял бы некоторые из них в словарь языкового расширения, да уже поздно): бесцелебный, смежнобегущий, многоогневой, выструивать, вечеровое, ливенная полоса, громопенный, притуманиться, потусветный, протемниться, бредный, интеллигенческий, дымновеющий, вычерняться, лазурный пролёт (на небе, среди туч); вызревал огонёк (о приближении издали).

  11. Incidentally, I decided to follow up Bely with a lighter palate-cleanser, Grin‘s Алые паруса (Scarlet Sails), which I’m enjoying tremendously.

  12. John Emerson says

    This is the one of the only that I post on that has an HTML fixer. We should send Steve a piglet to show our gratitude.

  13. I liked Solzhenitsyn’s list of words, thanks for posting that excerpt.
    Алые паруса (Scarlet Sails), which I’m enjoying tremendously
    I’m glad to hear that because I just bought it and am looking forward to reading it.
    As for Petersburg, I loved it even in translation years ago — I’ve always enjoyed symbolism — but have been so focused on contemporary fiction for the last few years that I kept setting it aside.

  14. I would love them! I’ll e-mail you with my address.

  15. John Emerson says

    And we’ll mail you the piglet too.

  16. Ouch! 2 new from $275.48; 8 used from $40.94! WTF??

    Holy Crap! Amazon’s Sellers strike again. Another one to add to my list of “fall off your seat prices” from Amazon’s Sellers. But Only £60.89 to £125.46 on Amazon UK though. They really take the piss sometimes.

    I do apologise – I assumed it would be easy to get. The same publisher’s Chonkin is £17.50 new (full price). (2nd hand from £1.81).
    Talking of secondhand books, LanguageHat – I have a couple on your wishlist that I no longer need (didn’t actually read them to be honest). Bolshevik Women and The Bakhtin Reader. Would you like them? I’ll be giving them to a charity eventually anyway as I need the space.

  17. Julia’s friend’s mailing me alpacas.

  18. Julia’s friend’s mailing me alpacas.

  19. Piglets for some, miniature American flags—I mean to say, alpacas—for others!

  20. Ouch! 2 new from $275.48; 8 used from $40.94! WTF??
    that’s what you do when you know you have to cull, but don’t have the heart to part with them.

  21. I very much enjoyed your miniseries of posts on Petersburg, Steve, in particular the comments about Bely’s musicality and your mention about the “Nabokovian” butterfly at novel’s end (which I hadn’t connected previously). Am now looking forward to more Bely soon or at least before the end of the year–Petersburg is such a wonderful introduction to him!

  22. Glad you enjoyed it! Try The Silver Dove (LH post), to which Petersburg is something of a sequel.

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