”Nikolai Apollonovich raised curious eyes toward the immense outline of the Horseman (a shadow had covered him); but now the metal lips were parted in an enigmatic smile.
The storm clouds were rent asunder and, in the moonlight, clouds swirled like the green vapor from melted bronze. For a moment, everything flared: waters, roofs, granite. The face of the Horseman and the bronze laurel wreath flared. And a many-tonned arm extended imperiously. It seemed that the arm was about to move, and that metallic hooves at any moment would come crashing down upon the crag, and through all of Petersburg would resound.”
The Bronze Horseman that Andrei Bely is referring to in this novel is of course the statue of Peter the Great which is the most recognizable structure that people will identify with St. Petersburg. I had a postcard of the Bronze Horseman that someone gave me when I was a kid. When I discovered that St. Petersburg was the center of cultural achievement I knew it was the place I most wanted to visit in Russia. They’ve changed the name several times: to Petrograd in 1914 and to Leningrad in 1924; as if you can change the soul of a city by changing the name. In 1991 it was changed back to Saint Petersburg although the name had never changed for me. Whenever I see a picture of Tsar Peter on his frisky horse I get a jolt that connects the middle aged me to the child me and I dream again of seeing Russia. Pushkin wrote a narrative poem about the statue and the influence of Pushkin on Bely is evident in the text.
He runs and hears as if there were,
Just behind him, the peals of thunder,
Of the hard-ringing hoofs’ reminders, –
A race the empty square across,
Upon the pavement, fiercely tossed;
And by the moon, that palled lighter,
Having stretched his hand over roofs,
The Brazen Horseman rides him after –
On his steed of the ringing hoofs.
And all the night the madman, poor,
Where’er he might direct his steps,
Aft him the Bronze Horseman, for sure,
Keeps on the heavy-treading race.
Andrei Bely, a fortunate son of brilliant parents.
Andrei Bely was a polymath, but his main interests were mathematics, music, literature, and philosophy. All figure prominently in the story. He describes the character Apollon Apollonovich, father of Nikolai, in mathematical terms.
”While dwelling in the center of the black, perfect, satin-lined cube, Apollon Apollonovich revelled at length in the quadrangular walls. Apollon Apollonovich was born for solitary confinement. Only his love for the plane geometry of the state had invested him in the polyhedrality of a responsible position.”
Apollon goes on to describe his house.
”He would have characterized even his own house with laconic brevity, as consisting, for him, of walls (forming squares and cubes) into which windows were cut, of parquetry, of tables. Beyond that were details.”
Even with hallucinations math figures prominently.
”A man of all three dimensions had entered the room. He had leaned against the window and had become a contour (or, two-dimensional), had become a thin layer of soot of the sort you knock out of a lamp. Now this black soot had suddenly smoldered away into an ash that gleamed in the moonlight, and the ash was flying away. And there was no contour. The whole material substance had turned into a phonic substance that was jabbering away. But where? It seemed to Alexander Ivanovich that the jabbering had now started up inside him.”
Nobody does crazy like the Russians.
Nikolai’s has been approached by an anarchist group to kill a high ranking Tsarist official that just happens to be his father. The father and the son have issues, but as the novel progresses it becomes more evident how much they are exactly alike. The mother/wife ran off with an opera singer two years ago and probably whatever differences the two men had could have easily been smoothed over by her presence. They both miss her, but both are busy or at least distracted by their lives and most of their issues seem to be more about misunderstandings than any real hostility. Nikolai is given a bomb in a sardine tin that is set on a timer so it is already ticking. He loathes sardines which does not help his state of mind as this ticking tin also reeks of fish.
To make matters worse he is in love with a married woman named Sofya Petrovna Likhutina who has spurned his advances. Her husband, a military officer, gets wind of Nikolai’s interest in his wife and after a failed suicide attempt that is pathetic/hilarious he decides his problem isn’t with himself, but with Nikolai.
Immanuel Kant is doing his best to keep Nikolai sane.
Nikolai has been reading Immanuel Kant, but despite the best efforts of the philosopher his mind is unwrapping, becoming untethered from logic.
”In this room, not so very long ago, Nikolai Apollonovich had grown into a self-contained center, into a series of logical premises that flowed from the center and predetermined everything: the soul, thought and this very armchair. Not so very long ago he had been the sole center of the universe here. But ten days had gone by, and his self-awareness was now getting disgracefully stuck in the heaped-up pile of objects. Thus does a fly, freely running around the edge of a plate on its six legs, suddenly get hopelessly stuck by one leg and wing in sticky thick honey.”
He begins dressing as a domino, pursuing Sofya, nothing like making a fool of yourself for a woman. I’ve even heard sometimes it works. He is dressed in scarlet which might indicate a lot of things. It might be that he already feels stained by what he intends to do to his father.
”The domino, stepping over the threshold, trailed its bloody satin across the parquetry. It was barely mirrored in the panels which shimmered in a crimson ripple of its own reflections, as if a little pool of blood were flowing from panel to panel.”
Nikolai is recognized as the domino and as a result his father is passed over for a promotion. Humorous situations ensue as Nikolai attempts to get to the ticking tin to toss it in the river, but his harried life keeps getting in the way.
I’m not going to tell Vladimir he is wrong.
To be clear this is a masterpiece. You don’t have to believe me.It was regarded by Vladimir Nabokov as one of the four greatest "masterpieces of twentieth century prose", after Ulysses and The Metamorphosis, and before In Search of Lost Time. It was published in 1913 so it predates Ulysses, but because Petersburg was not translated into English until 1954 it gets shortchanged by Joyce’s masterpiece.
For me this was a much more accessible book than Ulysses. I was lost at times, but not Joyce lost. The edition I read was the Indiana University Press version and it has these wonderful footnotes that at times I hungrily devoured and at other points simply ignored. I believe that sometimes you just have to let the story take you and ignore what you don’t quite grasp.
This book has layers upon layers and if I were to read it again, I would write a totally different review merely by focusing on a myriad of other wonderful pieces of writing.