The attraction of this story by Andrei Bely is that it is set against a backdrop of Russian history that is often not used in novels with the period of the 1917 revolution being favoured, presumably because it is more dramatic. But in 1905 Russia was at a crossroads with signs of dissent against the Tsar’s reign increasing, assassinations through the use of bombs thrown at carriages were popular and the reaction to these changes was split on class but also generational lines.
Bely manages to weave a tale of suspense around a bomb that also touches on several strands of love including parental, unrequited, sentimental and when it is non existent.
The focus is on a father and a son – Apollon and Nikolai – who have been abandoned by the mother, who two and a half years earlier ran off with an Italian singer. Apollon is 68 and a senator hoping for one final advance in his career. He is unloving towards his son and isolated from much of the world around him. Nikolai has made some sort of promise to a group planning to kill his father with a bomb and is handed a sardine tin containing the explosives. The promise seems to have been made after a failed bid the win the hand of Sofia who is married to his old school friend Sergei. Meanwhile the conspirators Dudkin and the head of the party, who uses various aliases, start to fall apart with the former going mad and killing the latter. Nikolai disgraces himself and his father by going round town in a mask and after his mother returns and his father shows some sort of love after his career collapses he no longer wants to use the bomb. But the bomb has gone missing, discovered by his father, and goes off in the study not killing anyone but exposing the hate at the core of the family and driving son and father apart for ever.
Is it well written?
There are moments where it is hard to tell what is a dream and what is reality that remind you of other books including Ulysses and that can be quite a struggle. Also you are left to try and piece together what drove Nikolai to make the promise because it is sketched out but not always clear. What makes Petersburg stand out is not so much the role of the City as a character, which is impressive in dictating the mood as well as the location, but the time the book is set against. There are some passages that describe the stirrings of unrest in a way that is sometimes not dealt with in as much depth in history books covering the period.
Should it be read?
If you have a love for Russian literature then yes. If you are interested in Russian history then again yes and finally if you like stories that operate both in the mind as well as in the flesh then this is a prime example. Bely refers to its as cerebral play but this is a style of writing that is attempting not only to show you the inner thoughts of the character but the inner workings of their brains with the hopes and fears described in detail. It is ambitious and does not always come off, but that is because what he is doing id ground breaking for his time. Psychoanalysis is something that was still a young field when Bely was writing and no doubt the same book penned now would be more clinical and scientific in its approach, but that might lose some of the charm.
For lovers of Russian literature this has to be read at some point and for those keen to see just how destructive guilt can be then this also serves as a great example with bombs of various types ticking in all of the main characters.
Version read – Penguin Twentieth Century Classics paperback