Archive for August 23rd, 2009

“Unnecessary, Idle Cerebral Play”: Petersburg and the Substance of Shadow

This is Part II (of…II) of our review of Andrei Bely’s Petersburg. The first, which you can read by clicking here or scrolling down for about two seconds, focused on Bely’s use of an amorphous narrative voice to foster an atmosphere of instability.

Let’s go all the way back to the prologue, in which Bely established his earlier theme of narrative instability with his opening question, “What is this Russian Empire of ours?” Bely concludes the prologue by opening up another key theme: the relationship between fiction and reality. The prologue closes with the idea that “Petersburg not only appears to us, but actually does appear—on maps: in the form of two small circles, one set inside the other, with a black dot in the center; and from precisely this mathematical point, which has no dimension, it proclaims forcefully that it exists…”. Bely here states that Petersburg’s existence is affirmed by its appearance on a map; the map validates the city as more than just the construction of a solipsistic mind. This argument contains the implication that Petersburg’s actual appearance in brick and stone could be illusionary, could just be “cerebral play.” But make it a dot on a map, in a book, and the city’s existence is forcefully proclaimed, its buildings and prospects becoming real and tangible.

It’s the same argument Bely will make about the characters and events of his novel, albeit one complicated by the fact that those characters and events, unlike the city of Petersburg, do not actually exist and in fact are the construction of a solipsistic mind. Bely works around this by using his narrative voice to muse on the function of fiction through snide side commentary and metanarration. This conceit is best expressed in the novel’s first chapter through Apollon Apollonovich’s interactions with the “idle shadow” of the stranger. “[I]dle shadow” is a significant way of referring to the stranger by the narrative voice because the stranger does not exist: “The shadow arose by chance in the consciousness of Senator Ableukhov and acquired its ephemeral being there.” Our impulse is thus to disregard the stranger’s “existence,” to view it as reflective of Apollon Apollonovich’s mental state more than anything else. But the NV presses on by making the comparison between Apollon Apollonovich’s conscious construction of the stranger and Bely’s concurrent construction of Apollon Apollonovich: “But the consciousness of Apollon Apollonovich is a shadowy consciousness because he too is the possessor of an ephemeral being and the fruit of the author’s fantasy: unnecessary, idle cerebral play.” Note the repetition of “idle,” which serves to make the comparison more explicit; the senator’s relationship with the stranger then becomes analogous to our relationship to the senator.

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“Unnecessary, Idle Cerebral Play”: Petersburg and Narrative Instability

We’re pulling out all the stops for a two-part review of Andrei Bely’s little-known 20th-century masterpiece, Petersburg. The first will look at how Bely uses an amorphous narrative voice to establish an ambience of instability while the second will examine how Bely then uses this narrative voice to animate and validate his fiction.

The motivation for this review: While reading Infinite Jest, Josh asked me if there were any book that, if I saw someone else reading it, I would feel a compulsion to talk to them about it. My answer, after some consideration, was Petersburg. My motivation: Petersburg is the most underrated novel of the 20th century.

Released in two different versions in 1916 and 1922, Petersburg is an awful lot like James Joyce’s Ulysses, written around the same time (1922). There are three important differences, though: 1) Bely wrote in Russian, which means a lot of his wordplay simply doesn’t translate to English; 2) Bely wasn’t a flamboyant stylist who did as much as he could to mess with the reader the same way Joyce was; 3) Ulysses is generally considered the best novel of the 20th century. Petersburg is not.

Now I’m not here to say that Petersburg is better than Ulysses, but I do want to make this much clear: It’s a hell of a lot closer than most people realize.*

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