By Jacob Emery
Vladimir Nabokov ranked Andrei Bely’s 1913 novel Petersburg among the masterpieces of twentieth-century prose—in third place, to be precise, behind Kafka’s Metamorphosis but ahead of Proust. This fact is Bely’s usual calling card in the English-speaking world. I tend to agree with Nabokov that if the high points of literary modernism were invited to stand godparent at a christening, Petersburg would be justified in cursing the child with a terrible curse if it were left out. But Bely’s prodigious, erratic, graphomaniac genius possesses dimensions beyond Petersburg: occult thinker, Symbolist poet, and theorist of metaphor, to name a few. Not the least of the vents of his volcanic imagination was a centaur named “Bentaur,” in which role the young writer would gallop with his pals around Saint Petersburg’s Summer Garden, acting out fairy-tale scenarios much like those described in early poems like “Song of the Centaur” or “Centaurs at Play.” In a 1901 poem entitled simply “The Centaur,” the languished cry “O, where are you, centaur, my vanished brother!” summons the creature, who romps with the protagonist in the park until, with the setting of the sun and the onset of the last stanza, the centaur, “with a red torch, went off into another world,” leaving an indelible memory of that happy elsewhere that we gain through the artistic imagination—a fantasy “more real than reality,” as the Russian Symbolist slogan had it (my translation).
In the same year, at the age of 21, Bely was embarking on the unclassifiable literary experiments known collectively as The Symphonies. All four of these are now available to the English reader in this sensitive and resourceful translation by Jonathan Stone. Stone’s introduction deftly evokes Bely’s artistic milieu and his affiliation with the Symbolists, decadent Silver Age dreamers of a noumenal reality behind the curtain of material existence, tending at their best toward shimmering ornamentalism and uncanny intuitions of life’s artificiality, at their worst toward gilt-tin mysticism, nebulous mediocrity, and gussied-up cliché. Bentaur makes a cameo in the first of these compositions, “The Northern Symphony,” along with giants and undead kings and other fairy tale staples. The solar centaur, who “flashed his lightning smile and shouted about the golden dawn” (36), now has a double painted in a darker mythological palette. Ghoulish satyrs enter the scene at nightfall, when a Satanic steward with the feet of a chicken induces an incestuous nobleman to cry out “O, my goat-legged brother” (38) and ride off on a black stallion to dance “the goat jig” at a “disgusting mass with goat’s blood” (39). The Symphony shares with the poem a single fantasy world, painted on a larger canvas and in fuller tones.
Collectively, The Symphonies offer a glimpse into the cradle of Bely’s art: less fully achieved than his mature novels, but closer to a common source in the author’s twisted and escapist imagination. Marrying naïve cliché and bold innovation, always diversely energetic but always grinding the same gears, these experimental works are a storehouse of raw material that draws on the early poems and feeds into the more masterful accomplishments to come. For readers who are already fans, one of the great pleasures lies in the Easter eggs. The messianic cults of the first two Symphonies are a dry run for The Silver Dove, a Dionysian novel of human sacrifice and demonic conception.In the second Symphony we read of a sleeping philosopher that “even a small child could have smothered him” (85): the same sentence is a refrain in Petersburg, an Oedipal thriller set in an unreal city. Like the fourth Symphony, Petersburg revolves around marital rape, and from the third Symphony it revisits this bonkers blend of mystic exoticism and chancellery language:
There was the echo of horses’ hooves and a flabby voice, “Chapter 26: Citizenship Among the Papuans.”
On the path were the centaurs. They were both old, were both venerable, and were wearing wide-brimmed hats and cloaks. They were holding hands. (263)
In Petersburg, a Satanic particle of insect powder babbles on about “certain institutions…which have been approved by the Papuan parliament” and indicates that murder is the “signature” that will validate this “shadow passport” (214-216).
By comparison with these later works, The Symphonies are journeyman pieces. None is wholly successful. In each, the artist is striving for something he can barely conceive and not quite execute. Nonetheless, as a record of Bely’s transformation from writer of precious verse to writer of disquieting prose, they possess a palpable energy and excitement and commitment. The translator observes that he has treated the Symphonies “as works of prose (which ultimately they are),” but the fact that he has to pick a side is significant. The Symphonies approach verse language in their sonic texturing, woven motifs, and short, often numbered paragraphs, in groupings that resemble line-phrased stanzas. As a poet, Bely was a metrical gymnast who delighted in putting as many unstressed syllables in a row as possible. He often strains at the conventions of Russian verse, as in the 1903 “Centaurs at Play”:
The centauress suckles her colt in the cave,
her milk is
[В пещере кентавриха кормит ребенка
As I have approximated in my translation, the Russian is amphibrachic, with extremely variable line lengths that give the impression of pulsing prose. Bely quipped that he composed his novels in verse, and wrote them down without line breaks only in order to save paper. Passages like this one from the fourth Symphony—effectively line-phrased, with striking enjambments and, in Russian, a running rising meter—show that his claim is not wholly facetious.
With one hand
the mad abbess tore at the gravestone;
with her other hand she
grabbed the cross, pressed her head to it, crimson from the glow of the lamp—
fell down, fell down—
with the silk of her mantle licking the cross like black flames, as if it were washed by the wind from her well-defined legs and thighs. (447)
сумасшедшая игуменья сорвала плиту гробовую;
другой она рукой
охватила крест, прильнув к нему малиновой от лампадного блеска головкой,–
припала, припала –
с языками, точно черных огней, лизавшего крест мантийного шелка, словно омываемого ветром с ее четко обрисованных ног и бедер.]
Although the sonic qualities do not come through in translation as fully as the thematic weaving and hypnotic, repeated imagery, Bely’s aim, as he puts it in his programmatic essay “The Magic of Words,” is always the “creation of a new world in sound…to weave a veil of eternal illusion” (Selected Essays, 102). In their attempt to transpose into literary form the four-part structure of the classical symphony, the early Symphonies establish the fundamental synesthetic conceit that culminates in Bely’s 1918 novel Kotik Letaev, whose infant-narrator as he gradually acquires language performs the evolution of meaning from patterned sound. Abstracting themes and characters and organizing them in an essentially musical pattern, Bely’s Symphonies are his first sustained attempt at what he called “living speech,” bound in time to die, rot, and leave behind the fossilized archetype of its internal structure.
In the introductory note to the last and most complex of the four compositions, “A Goblet of Blizzards,” Bely writes that he “attempted to introduce a structure of phrases and images such that form and images were predetermined by their thematic development and, as much as possible, make image subordinate to the mechanical development of the themes” (269). Admitting that he “was often required to make the Symphony longer for entirely structural reasons,” Bely evokes the tradition of fugal composition and even anticipates the wholly abstract and mathematical work of high modernist composers like Arnold Schoenberg. Like most contemporary art, he concludes, this “purely structural task” may have no value; he compares himself to “those who toil for pure knowledge: the future decides if there is any practical application for their labor.” Bely identifies the austere logic of his formal experiments with a scientific laboratory; in later years, he would become in his literary criticism a pioneer of quantitative methods in literary analysis. And he may be correct that, their own value aside, The Symphonies are the test kitchens in which the radical techniques of the later fiction are first put to boil.
Each of the Symphonies is an independent composition whose four-part structure is at least loosely identifiable as corresponding to the symphonic form of opening sonata, slow second movement, violent third, and closing recapitulation with variations on a major theme. But they readily fall into a series. An Oedipal triangle of old man, beautiful woman, and sensitive child is discernable at the heart of each. Recurrent leitmotifs bind together each Symphony; many recur and evolve throughout all four. We read of a queen fleeing a land of death in the “Northern Symphony” that “her tears, like pearls, rolled down her pale cheeks” (6). Soon the image pertains to an anthropomorphic landscape, as “tears of pearl drip from a passing cloud” (9). After four hundred pages of mutating imagery, we read in “A Goblet of Blizzards”:
You, puddle, a mirror of the bride: the sun will gaze, and you shine.
It sets, and you are covered in round icy pearls. (416)
By this time all the elements have become identified with one another: the woman and the weather, mourning and jewels, all involved in the basic Symbolist preoccupation with reality and reflection—for if “life serves art,” observes the protagonist of the third “Symphony” in a drunken metafictional insight, “we may turn out not be people but merely their reflections…a stranger, who approaches from the other side” (241).
The “Northern Symphony,” the most evidently fantastic and naïve of the four, is explicitly a fairy tale, unfolding through very short numbered paragraphs grouped into stanza-like configurations. This concatenation of princesses, dwarves and giants, among which one catches an occasional allusion to drab reality, has its complement in the “Dramatic Symphony,” a satire of dreary life seeking a true world beyond the sensory one. This higher world, a “fairy tale” or “holy vision,” is manifest in a beautiful and innocent woman who is fatally beloved by turns by a philosopher (madness), political activist (suicide), and mystic (who constructs an elaborate eschatological scenario that collapses when the woman’s son, whom he has cast as the returned Christ, turns out to be a little girl dressed up in boy’s clothing).
The third Symphony, called “The Return,” gives up the numbered lines and coordinates the workaday and fantastic milieux through parallel plots, one concerning a research chemist who squabbles with the head of his laboratory, the other a divine child who cavorts with friendly crabs on a mystical shore as he awaits the test that will make him the messiah. It is left unclear whether the chemist nurses an escapist fantasy or whether the seedy academic rivalries are a fallen reflection of eternal mythic symbols. “A Goblet of Blizzards,” the last, longest and most arcane of the Symphonies, overlays an elaborate vocabulary of tropes having mostly to do with cold weather onto a rehashing of Russian literary standards—a duel, a train—all of them lent mythological overtones as they develop through textured motifs that remain innovative, compulsive, and strange in Stone’s mostly concordant translation.
Breathtakingly uneven, deeply odd, and clearly of their time, each Symphony traffics in cliches as much as it mocks them. By turns satirical and sentimental, their evocation of another world lacks an instinct for when that world comes off and when it doesn’t. It is precisely in this last point, however, that the chief interest of The Symphonies might reside. They are often cast as the weak sibling to Bely’s more mature works or as exemplary texts of Symbolism, as I have done above. But the pieces might also, and for some English-speaking readers perhaps more usefully and entertainingly, be treated as part of the development of a pan-European fantasy literature, whose idiosyncratic early exemplars, with all their false steps, dead ends, and moments of unreadability, present a similar mélange of romance, myth and fairy tale. The overture to the “Northern Symphony,” in which a landscape becomes populated with fantastic creatures, has many of the same ingredients as George MacDonald’s 1858 Phantastes, with its opening confusion of dream and reality and its superimposition of a faerie wood and a bourgeois bedroom. As MacDonald’s protagonist awakens to the sound of running water, he discovers his marble washbasin overflowing and the ornamental foliage that decorates his furniture taking root. “A stream of clear water was running over the carpet … Springing from the bed, my bare feet alighted on a green sward; and although I dressed in all haste, I found myself completing my toilet under the boughs of a great tree” (5). A similarly porous boundary separates a magical realm of stirring adventure and moral clarity from domestic furnishings and articles of middle-class dress in the Symphonies: for example, a psychology professor’s walking stick blurs into a prophet’s iron rod.
Of the early pioneers of fantasy, this link between home design and utopian longing is clearest in Bely’s contemporary William Morris, whose queer, archaic language in novels like The Wood Beyond the World (1896), written in imitation of Malory’s Arthurian romances, strives, like his famous wallpaper patterns, for a marriage of limpid medieval idyll and the radical innovations of modernity. Morris’s monumental if partially failed efforts are a prototype for the many cycles of fantasy literature in years since, which also grow out a profound dissatisfaction with the modernity that is their condition. Bely’s Symphonies are a dream of the same nowhere, a work of literary modernism in which the dragon to be slain is modernity itself—personified in a Satanic locomotive engine, a “giant black snake with fiery eyes” that carries us willy-nilly, with an “unimaginable rumble” (244), across the abstract geometry that Bely patterns with meaningful sound, so that a dream of the idealized past will gallop always alongside us into the disquieting future.
Bely, Andrei. The Symphonies. Translated by Jonathan Stone. Columbia University Press, 2021.
Jacob Emery is a professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Indiana University. He is the author of numerous scholarly works as well as the fantasy novel A Clockwork River, written collaboratively with his sister under the name J.S. Emery. His forthcoming work includes a co-edited and co-translated collection of essays by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Countries That Don’t Exist.
Bely, Andrei. Petersburg. Translated by Robert A. Maguire and John E. Malmstad. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2018.
——. Selected Essays. Translated by Steven Cassedy. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985.
——. The Symphonies. Translated by Jonathan Stone. NY: Columbia University Press, 2021.
MacDonald, George. Phantastes. NY: Schocken, 1982.