Few artistic works created before World War I convey the sensibility, ideas, phobias, and aspirations of Russian and transnational modernism as comprehensively as Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1913), whose place and importance in cultural history have been often compared to those of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Yet Petersburg has not received its due attention from the Anglophone public and is rarely taught within the framework of literature and humanities courses, because like other hermetic modernist classics, this novel presents serious challenges to nonspecialist readers as well as to instructors in literature and general humanities. The essays collected in our volume strive to make Petersburg more accessible. They have been written with a broad audience in mind in order to help the Anglophone reader gain a better understanding of Bely’s novel and to facilitate its study in the college classroom. The volume’s contributors have been asked to refrain from new interpretations of the literary classic and to summarize instead what we already know about Petersburg, explicating it in the intellectual and artistic context that informed the novel’s creation and historical reception.
Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev (1880–1934), who used the penname Andrei Bely, was an intellectual omnivore drawn to the most diverse practices in art and thought. Petersburg is a virtual encyclopedia of European philosophical and aesthetic currents between the turn of the century and World War I. This makes Petersburg—originally written for an interpretive community that shared the author’s cultural knowledge—all the more difficult to understand today. Hence the structure of our book: each essay explores a particular aspect of Bely’s novel.
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.
Petersburg’s importance for the evolution of Russian prose writing in the twentieth century had no equals. Fifty years after the novel’s original publication, Vladimir Nabokov ranked Petersburg alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in his list of “my greatest masterpieces of twentieth century prose.” Like the other modernist masterpieces on Nabokov’s list, Petersburg makes for an intensely enjoyable but challenging read, for Bely expected his audience to actively participate in unraveling the work’s many meanings, narrative strains, and patterns of details. The present volume aims to facilitate that task by recreating for the general Anglophone public the sociopolitical, intellectual, and artistic context informing Bely’s novel.
is a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Russian Émigrés in the Intellectual and Literary Life of Interwar France, The Jewish Persona in the European Imagination, and How It Was Done in Paris: Russian Émigré Literature and French Modernism.