The Bookshelf: Bely’s Symphonies.

Last year I wrote about Andrei Bely’s Симфония (2-я, драматическая) [Symphony: Second, Dramatic], and I’m happy to announce that Columbia’s indispensable Russian Library series (see this post) has published The Symphonies, a complete translation by Jonathan Stone of all four of his first published prose works, and Columbia was kind enough to send me a copy. As I expect of the Russian Library, it’s well produced, with a gorgeous cover, a good introduction by the translator, and helpful endnotes. The introduction starts by describing a sunset Bely watched from the balcony of his family’s apartment and wrote about as an instance of “a world transformed — the everyday became magical, the ordinary became mythical”; the prose “symphonies” he wrote and published between 1902 and 1908 “demonstrate a reformed vision of the world that reflected the combination of optimism and fear that accompanied the new century” and that “was captured by the emerging literary and artistic movement of Russian Symbolism.” Stone then has sections on Russian Symbolism and on Bely’s life before proceeding to the symphonies themselves:

In addition to being literary works, the Symphonies are musical, philosophical, autobiographical, visual, and theurgic compositions that continually destabilize all notion of genre and bombard the reader with vaguely familiar allusions and echoes (both internal to the work and drawing on outside elements). […] The vision of a world transformed is always lurking at the edges of even the most realistic and biographical moments in the Symphonies, and as readers we cannot escape the sensation that a centaur or serpent or mystical eagle may suddenly interrupt our evening walk home. The simultaneity of both this world and the other is the most constant feature of these stories because it was how Bely had come to see reality around him, a reflection of his view from the balcony on the Arbat. […] One of the most frequent words we encounter in the Symphonies is “passerby.” Bely fixates on the anonymous Muscovites, a city whose population had surpassed one million around the time Bely began writing the Symphonies, because he sees in each of these ordinary and unremarkable characters the potential to be mystical, magical, mythical.

He ends with this summary:

Bely’s Symphonies embody the changes that literature was experiencing in the early twentieth century and are quintessential works of modernist experimentation and innovation. They fundamentally alter the relationship between reader and text and make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. They transport us to worlds that resemble our own but reveal the elements of artifice and magic that allow us to see the truth of our place in the universe. For the Symbolist, art is no less than the complete transfiguration of life, and the Symphonies are representations of the “new art” par excellence. In the first decade of his momentous career, Bely understood that the function of modern artists was to endow the seemingly small details of their lives with cosmic significance. That level of meaning allows the Symphonies to soar and pull us out of turn-of-the-century Moscow, out of our unremarkable lives and into the realm of the Infinite and Eternal.

To give you an idea of the translation, here are the first few lines of the Dramatic Symphony to compare with the original and the Keys translation I quoted in the earlier post:

1. The workday was humid. The street shimmered blindingly.
2. Cabbies trembled, turning their threadbare blue backs to the hot sun.
3. Janitors swept up a pillar of dust, unmoved by the grimaces of the passersby, cackling their dust-brown faces.

I think this is a much more successful version; while there’s no really good way to render “Стояла душная страда,” “The workday was humid” gives a better sense of what’s going on than “A season of sweltering grind,” and “Janitors” is an improvement on “Yard-sweepers” (though again, there can be no perfect equivalent of “Дворники”). It’s interesting to see the dueling interpretations of “Трещали,” the first word of the second line; the Keys have “cracked their whips,” while Stone prefers “trembled.” While both are plausible interpretations of this multivalent word, I myself would vote for the colloquial meaning ‘chatter, jabber,’ which was already common in the early years of the century (my beloved Makaroff Dictionnaire Français-Russe Complet, 11th ed. 1908, gives “jacasser, jaboter”). But we’ll never know what Bely intended; as I wrote in the earlier post, he is sometimes impossible to interpret even for Russians. The important thing is that Stone’s translation reads convincingly throughout, giving as good a sense as is probably achievable in English of what Bely was trying to do. It’s a tremendous achievement, and I hope lots of people take advantage of Columbia’s offering of something beyond the usual dozen classics that get translated every other year.

As a retired copyeditor, I couldn’t help noticing a couple of typos that impede understanding and should be fixed when the book is reprinted: p. 4, “The wind burst through the widow” [should be “window”: “Ветер ворвался в окно”]; pp. 45-46, two occurrences of “Years past” [s/b “passed”: “Шли года”]. Otherwise, the book is well produced, a notable achievement in these cost-cutting times.


  1. PlasticPaddy says

    From Russian Wikipedia:

    Первое время восторженный поэт писал своей возлюбленной множество писем, но скрывал при этом своё авторство, подписываясь «Ваш рыцарь».
    Маргарита Морозова не уничтожала этих писем, но тщательно сберегала. Морозовой удалось разгадать анонимного корреспондента, лишь когда она по совету знакомых купила «Вторую (драматическую) симфонию» Андрея Белого, где узнала саму себя в образе Сказки, а своего мужа в образе Кентавра.

    So she did not find out who was the author of the letters, signed “Your Knight”, until she bought the book (“Dramatic Symphony”).

  2. Yes, that’s a great story. And how on earth did Morozova survive all the tempests of revolution, civil war, and Stalinism to die a natural death in 1958?

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