The Colours of Chaos

Anyone interested in Russian literature will know that it is all too easy to be distracted by those two giants of the country’s literary Golden Age, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky (or Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, depending on your views…), writers who overshadow their countymen to such an extent that generations of great writers struggle to receive the recognition they deserve outside their home country.

One such writer is Andrei Bely, an author I’d never heard of until I saw his novel Petersburg advertised on the web-site of indie publisher Pushkin Press.  I was intrigued by the blurbs, including a quote from Nabokov declaring Petersburg as “One of the four most important works of twentieth-century literature”, and was lucky enough to obtain a review copy to find out for myself how good it was.  I certainly didn’t regret it…


Petersburg (translated by John Elsworth) is set in the famous Russian city of the title during the autumn of 1905, just prior to the culmination of the 1905 revolution.  Elderly statesman Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov (how I’ve missed reading Russian names!) shuttles between his enormous, cold, empty house and his slightly-less frigid workplace, where he creates messages to be sent out to the far-flung corners of the empireMeanwhile, his son, Nikolai Apollonovich, spends his days avoiding his university studies, lounging around reading Kant and paying visits to a beautiful married woman.

Ableukhov’s wife, Anna Petrovna, left him two-and-a-half years ago, and the two men, father and son, are attempting to fill the void in their lives.  However, while the elder Ableukhov is attempting to keep the barbarians at bay, struggling to douse the growing signs of civil unrest, Nikolai has taken a very different path.  In a chance meeting with certain unhappy souls, he has made a promise – a promise which he regrets, but which circumstances will compel him to keep…

The family relationships of the Ableukhovs, father, son and (later in the book) mother form one of the basic themes of the book, and considering the time the book was written, it is hardly surprising that their relationship is handled in Freudian terms.  Of course, when the pivotal occurrence of the novel is the possibility of the son planting a bomb in his father’s bedroom, the words Oedipus complex do seem to scream out at the reader 😉  Bely gives us detailed descriptions of the two male Ableukhovs, in some ways very different, but in others so similar – in fact, at times the writer plays with their appearance making the son age into the father and the father turn back into the son.

The psychology in Petersburg isn’t limited to this family rivalry though.  Each of the main characters seem afflicted with some sort of mental disorder, one exacerbated by the pressure-cooker environment of the Imperial Russian capital.  Apollon Apollonovich suffers from agoraphobia, his missives to the provinces a misguided attempt to tame the wilderness he fears; Alexandr Ivanovich, Nikolai’s contact to the revolutionaries, is driven mad by confinement in his small, squalid apartment; Sergei Sergeich Likhutin, a solid young soldier, loses his mind because of his wife’s continued dalliance with Nikolai Apollonovich.  And outside, the crowds grow, the strikes begin to increase in number, and everyone feels that something important is coming:

“There was a rush of wind from the sea: the last leaves fluttered down; there would be no more leaves till May; how many people would be there no more in May?  These fallen leaves were truly the last leaves.  Alexandr Ivanovich knew it all by heart: there would be bloody days, full of horror; and then – everything would collapse; so swirl then, whirl around, you last, incomparable days!
  So swirl then, whirl in the air, you last of the leaves!  Another idle thought…”. p.338 (Pushkin Press, 2012)

At times, the distancing effect of Bely’s language makes the characters slightly unreal, but that is of little importance because the real star of the show is the city itself.  Petersburg is a city that shouldn’t exist, a metropolis raised from the marshes by Imperial edict, permeated by the tainted swamps it is built upon.  There is a formidable bureaucracy which attempts to bring the unruly landscape to heel; Apollon Apollonovich dreams of creating a landscape with roads criss-crossing throughout the empire…

“And exactly the same houses still rose up there, and the same grey streams of people passed by; and the same yellow-green mist hung there; faces ran past deep in concentration; the pavements shuffled and whispered – under the horde of giant houses; towards them flew – Prospect upon Prospect; and the spherical surface of the planet seemed to be entwined, as though by the rings of a snake, by the grey-black cubes of houses; and the network of parallel Prospects, intersected by another network of Prospects, spread into the abysses of the universe with its surfaces of squares and cubes: one square per man-in-the-street.” p.533

However, the attempts of the civil servants to tame nature are doomed to failure.  As man seeks to dictate terms to the vast open spaces, slowly the flow is reversed, and now it is nature which is slowly encircling the isolated capital…

These ideas work so well because of the writer’s inventive use of language.  Petersburg is less plot- than language-driven, each word carefully weighed (and equally carefully translated), each having a specific purpose.  One of the themes running through the novel is colour, with Bely saturating his text with a plethora of shades and hues.  Green appears to be used for decay and pestilence, with the phosphorescence rolling in over the Neva a sign of unavoidable sickness.  Red appears frequently in its usual guise of danger, with Nikolai’s costume and the beguiling Sofia Petrovna’s lipstick proving to be signs of caution that are more often ignored than heeded.  Yellow is associated with sickness and madness, the best example of this being the face Alexandr Ivanovich sees each night on the wall of his bedroom…

A second common linguistic trick is Bely’s liking for repetition, both within paragraphs and throughout the text.  The attentive reader will frequently find sentences used earlier in the novel in a different context, often in describing a different character, linking the various parts of the story together.  However, it is the close repetition which is more striking, as in the following example:

“Those were strange, misty days; venomous October was passing with its freezing tread; frozen dust blew around the city in drab-brown vortices; and the golden whisper of foliage lay down submissively on the paths of the Summer Garden, and the rustling purple lay down submissively at people’s feet, to wind and chase at the feet of a passing pedestrian, and to murmur as it wove from leaves a red-and-yellow web of words; that sweet chirruping of blue tits that all August had bathed in waves of foliage had long since ceased to bathe in foliage: and the Summer Garden blue tit herself was now hopping forlornly in the black network of boughs, along the bronze railing and across the roof of Peter’s house.” p.102

When you add to this the fact that the opening comment (“Those were strange, misty days”) has already appeared several times over the past couple of pages, it gives you a good impression of how the book actually reads.

Looking back at what I’ve written, I realise that I haven’t really said much about what actually happens in the novel, but to be honest that’s beside the point – Petersburg is about how things happen and how the protagonists feel while it happens.  There are large traces of Dostoyevsky in the handling of the novel, but it definitely has a later feel to it, more of a Henry James feel than a Russian one at times.  Despite this though, there is a plot, and with knowledge of the revolutions which are about to shatter Russian society (some of which had yet to occur at the time Bely first wrote the book), we can see how the writer has examined the seeds of these later events.

Petersburg is a book which is beyond analysing in a mere blog post; there are just too many angles you could pursue (Marxism, Post-Colonialism, Stylistics, Eco-Fiction…).  While it’s not a book that everyone will enjoy, I loved it, and I was very impressed with John Elsworth’s Rossica-Prize-winning translation, one that must have been a touch trickier than the average job.  This is a novel that will bear reading time and time again.  I can’t really give it greater praise than that 🙂

17 thoughts on “The Colours of Chaos

  1. Not a writer I'm familiar with & like yourself I love Russian Literature, as well as the giant shadows mentioned as Turgenev & Andreyev, making this a book I'm very interested in, thanks for posting on it.


  2. Thanks Tony: I'm going to buy this (not sure which translation yet) as I am a fan of Russian lit and this one sounds great. I'd heard of it but you gave me the nudge.


  3. Thanks for that review. I read the translation byRobert Maguire and John Malmstad ( a few years ago, and found it fascinating. Modernism is generally reckoned to have started around 1920s or so, but to judge from this, or from, say, the paintings of Kandinsky, there were some remarkable things happening in per-Revolutionary 20thcentury Russia.

    Bely apparently never could decide on a definitive text, and as a consequence, there are, it seems, a number of texts out there all of equal validity. The text in the Maguire-Malmstad edition seems a bit shorter than this one (to judge from one of my recent bookshop-browsing sessions!) The original text is crammed with linguistic virtuosity, and while Maguire & Malmstad do a terrific job on that front, they also provide extensive notes at the back describing some of Bely's linguistic effects. I'd be very interested to read this version also, as, clearly, much depends here on the skill of the translator – even more so than usual.


  4. I've been trying to find what to say in this comment, but I guess it's pretty simple after all: this is the type of review that really makes me want to read Petersburg. These are lovely passages you've included, but more than that your descriptions of the language-love and the repetitions are quite attractive. That the general story behind the book sounds interesting certainly helps.

    I'm curious, though, in what regard you think people won't enjoy the book. Are you referring to the style as being divisive perhaps, or to the actual in-story plot/character content? Or is it something less specific?


  5. Great review, Tony, and yes – you make a very valid point that there are countless different angles to pursue. I was interested to see how you picked up on the symbolic colours, whereas I was more interested in the disembodied bits and pieces of people (the bowler hats & noses etc. (I forgot to mention Papa's green ears in my review!) I have a feeling that I'll be revisitng Petersburg when I've read more of (or re-read) some of the authors that influenced him…


  6. Gary – As I said, I'd never heard of him before trying this one, but I'd like to read some more (and yes, Russian names are the best!).

    Guy – Good to hear 🙂 I did like this translation if that's any help, and it's definitely a book where the translation is important.

    Mr. Git 😉 – I did hear that some later versions were shorter (possibly in Elsworth's 'Afterword'), and they decided to go with the earlier 'full' version. Probably the only downside to this version is that it doesn't have a lengthy introduction or annotation – something for a future revision perhaps 🙂

    Bblibio – Many thanks for the praise 🙂 When I say that some people won't like it, I simply mean that it's a challenging, grown-up book and that this won't suit everybody out there. Hopefully, that wouldn't apply to many readers of my blog, but it's not a flick-through-casually-in-front-of-the-TV book – it's real classic literature…

    Lisa – Yes, I almost wrote about the ears too 😉 The problem I had with this review was that there were so many things to write about that it risked becoming very unwieldy. It's simply too dense and impressive to cover adequately in one post…


  7. I would say that the Ulysses comparison is a stretch. I guess it depends on what you emphasize. I do not remember Petersburg having the kind of variety of styles found in Ulysses, for example. It does have a “24 hour” structure.

    I also remember the plot as being pretty great – a ticking time bomb! – but Tony is write that the extraordinary part of the book is the brilliant creation of meaningful patterns, like what I recently described regarding Madame Bovary.


  8. Tom – It's definitely the 24-hour angle which is alluded to here (although it is linguistically inventive, just not to the degree that Joyce's work is).

    I must admit that one of the first things I did on finishing this was rush over to your blog and look for a review… in vain. Pre-blogging days?


  9. Oh I'm so glad you linked to this! Since I've been not keeping up w my reader, I missed your post when you originally published it. Now I really want to read this! St. Petersburg, my beloved! Henry James! 😉

    My library does have it, but in a different translation. I wonder if they'll let me ILL your translation instead.


  10. Eva – I'm not sure what the other one is like (Penguin edition?), but I was very happy with this one 🙂 St. Petersburg really is a great setting for a novel too!


  11. I'm just getting to this post…yes, I'm always so top of things. I tremendously enjoyed Petersburg and glad to see others experiencing it. Glad to see you pointing out the sicknesses and repetition of the novel. I don't think I highlighted those points enough in my posts on the novel. Thanks!


  12. Dwight – Funnily enough, I stumbled across a couple of your 'Petersburg' posts last night 🙂 It's one of those books that you spend weeks writing about – sadly, with my inistence on reviewing everything I read, I don't have enough time to really do it justice 😦


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