This book ends in a way you could not have predicted with the victims emerging just at the end without any real victors. The phrase that will linger is “cerebral play” referring to the thoughts and dreams inspired by a city where everything seems to have its own lifeforce from the statutes to the fog.
Bullet points between pages 232 – 293
* Following his son’s performance at the ball Apolllon the senator is ruined and seems to suffer some sort of break down which sees his glittering career literally disappear overnight
* He wanders through the house into his son’s rooms and discovers the sardine tin with the bomb and takes it back into his study and then heads out to see his estranged wife in her hotel
* Meanwhile Nikolai has been taken prisoner by Sergei who declares after a spell of hysterical rage that he has taken Nikolai to make sure he doesn’t use the bomb to kill his father but allows his captive free after the denials make him believe he is mistaken
* Dudkin fulfils his oath to the bronze horseman and kills the party contact who had started the whole ball rolling about the bomb and he has clearly gone mad because he is still crouched over the body and discovered the morning after
* Nikolai having escaped from Sergei’s clutches heads home to try to find the bomb and ransacks his room without discovering it and tries to calm himself believing that Sergei has taken it and then is called to meet his mother
* He cries when he sees his mother and for the first time in years his father shows tenderness towards him and then allows his son to take his mother back to her hotel and they all turn in for the night with the bomb still undiscovered but getting closer to going off
* The bomb explodes in the study but does not kill Apollon but he seems to understand that it was meant for him and his son was going to use it and does not see his son again instead running away from him
* Apollon moves to the country after paying for his son and wife to travel and Nikolai becomes an expert on Egyptian history ending his life living completely alone after his parent’s death – his reward for making the promise to kill his father one presumes
Full review will follow after my own cerebral play after reading this book has calmed down…
Andrei Bely’s Petersburg is not just about the growing pains of anti-establishment forces and a view into their use of terror to make political points but also provides an insight into just what the capital of Russia felt like in 1905, when the first signs of major unrest surfaced, only to be submerged, but never really eradicated, until they sprung up again in 1917.
For those interested in Russian history there is also a great passage on pg185 that describes the gap between those seeking change and those happy to ignore it and cling to the status quo:
“From observing the procession of bowlers, you would never say momentous events were rumbling in the town of Ak-Tyuk, in the theatre in Kutais. In Tiflis a local policeman had discovered that they were manufacturing bombs. The library in Odessa had been closed. The universities of Russia were one big mass meeting. The citizens of Perm had started acting ornery. The Revel iron works had already begun running up red flags.
From observing the bowlers, no one would have said that a strike had already begun on the Moscow – Kazan railway line. Here and there windows had been smashed in the stations, warehouses broken into, and work was being stopped on the Kursk, Windau, Nizhny-Novgorod and Murom railway lines. And railway cars stood idle. And no one would have said that momentous events were rumbling in Petersburg. Typesetters from all the printing shops had elected delegates and had held meetings. Factories were on strike: the shipyards, the Alexandrovsky Factory.
The circulation was not disrupted: the bowlers continued their deathlike flow.”
It is hard to work out what is a dream and what is reality as the sense of hallucination spreads from character to character all stemming from the bomb. It is a bit like the Macbeth hand washing guilt in reverse because although no one has used the bomb yet, and plan if anything to throw it in the river, there is the guilt of having been prepared to use it.
There are powerful reminders of the power of the mind to confront the soul with guilt that echoes through other Russian literature, most notably Crime and Punishment and to a certain extent at the end of Dead Souls. You think of Kafka as being a writer that can take your world view and turn it upside down but this is similar in that reading it feels like being in a spinning bubble that has no visible sign of which way is up or down. But that is not a barrier to enjoying the book because if anything it involves the reader more in the conspiracy.
Bullet points between pages 178 – 232
* Having thought about it and dreamt that he himself is the bomb Nikolai seeks out the stranger Dudkin who gave him the bundle to tell him that he will not carry out the bombing and is advised to throw it in the Neva
* After Nikolai leaves Dudkin, who leaves in an attic room and imagines faces coming out of the wallpaper when things are normal, starts to fall apart and dreams up strangers and becomes obsessed with the idea he is a form of doom
“If he didn’t immediately break this nonsense down with his conscious mind, his conscious mind would break down into nonsense.” P206
* Dudkin loses it when he starts to visualise the Bronze Horseman (a famous statute in St Petersburg of Peter the Great pictured above) dismounting his horse and climbing the stairs into the attic room to tell him what he must do with his life
* All of the characters see the bronze horseman and even Nikolai is troubled by it in his visions but he day dreams about putting the bomb underneath his father’s pillow and graphically pictures the scene after the body and the explosion are discovered but is stopped by a clean shaven Sergei (husband of Sofia) who wishes to confront him over his behaviour towards his wife
* Nikolai cannot think about the events of the last few days only being able to concentrate on the bomb and the fact it is ticking away in his drawer back in his rooms getting ever closer to going off
Will he be able to get to the bomb before it goes off? What will the form of doom that is Dudkin do? More tomorrow…
There are moments when the difference between dreams and reality is hard to tell and the constant idea of the mid leaving the body makes it seem like a dress rehearsal for what will happen when the bomb goes off.
Bullet points between pages 122 – 178
* The story of what happens with Sofia and her husband Sergei is dealt with quite quickly with his failed attempt to commit suicide while she was at the ball exposed and they then forgive each other
* Meanwhile Nikolai has a showdown with his father that he manages to get away from a confession about the bomb by revealing that his mother has returned from Spain but he is tormented by the discussion he had with a secret agent
* The agent, who also warned his father of an imminent assassination, tells him that he is a double agent and has a choice of either going ahead with the assassination, committing suicide or facing arrest
* After discovering the bomb was in the bundle and is in his room Nikolai seeks out the stranger and tells him that he is no longer prepared to carry out the bombing and that he believes the influence of other party members is outrageous
* He is assured that the matter will be looked into and he will be given an answer about it all but the request was that he held the bomb not use it although Nikolai admits he does not love his father
Who is the double agent? What will become of the bomb? What will happen when father and son are reunited with the mother? More to come…
The focus shifts from the senator to his son and most of the assumptions you are encouraged to make in the first chapter are quickly proved wrong with the story being guided in a different direction.
The role that Petersburg plays is an interesting one with the city acting as a simply backdrop as well as a more complex stirrer of moods and catalyst for action. Bear in mind this tale is set in 1905 a period of widespread political unrest in Russia and you sense in the descriptions of the factories and the suburbs that the power in the capital is moving away from the palaces and large homes.
Bullet points between pages 37 – 122
* The reason for the nighttime prowls and the repeated trip to the bridge is because of Nikolai’s failed affair with a woman who outshines the solider she is married to and his thoughts at one stage of committing suicide by jumping off the bridge
* As the relationship between Nikolia and Sofia Likhutina broke down he called her a doll and she labeled him a red buffoon, a criticism he takes very much to heart and starts going out wearing a mask to hide his face and a red domino costume, which becomes notorious in the press
* The stranger with the bundle, which you assume is a bomb, turns up to see Nikolai who has made some sort of promise when he was heartbroken and is now tied in with people he would rather not deal with
* His father returns and sees the stranger who has boasted of being part of the party and worries about what his son is getting involved with and then suffers some disturbing dreams about people knocking loudly on the door at night
* Nikolai spots Sofia on a bridge and dons his red domino costume and runs up to her but then ends up falling over and being chased by the police and she again calls him a buffoon and storms back home and tells all to her husband
* The husband happens to have grown up as a playmate of Nikolai and the report of his friend’s designs on his wife angers him in a way his wife has never seen and he tell her not to go to a ball where he knows Nikolai is going to also be in attendance
* She laughs off his threats of banishing her from the house and goes to the ball and hands Nikolia a note in which he is told to use the bomb in his draw (the mysterious bundle) and although it doesn’t spell it out presumably he is being asked to murder his father
* Nikolai runs from the party with his mask up so everyone knows who he is and he has become a laughing stock, even in front of his father who also went to the ball, but when Sofia gets home she finds her self locked out
Will Nikolai use the bomb? As his mother reappears what will that mean? What will become of Sofia? Some answers will no doubt come tomorrow…
This book by Andrei Bely should really have followed Ulysses because the city of St Petersburg is a character in itself and of course the book takes its name from Russia’s old capital. The sense of the Neva, the fog and the numerous bridges and the limitless facades of buildings provides a picture of a city that is grand but on the edge of a swamp that could consume it at any time.
Bullet points between pages 1 – 36
* The principle characters in the first chapter are a senator, his son and a stranger who you suspect plans to throw a bomb at the senators carriage to make a political point but all of this builds up in fragments
* The senator Apollon Apollonovich is 68-year-old man who is head of a department and therefore successful but his wife left him five years earlier running off with an Italian singer and Russia is in flux
* The year 1905 marks the loss against the Japanese, rising troubles for the Tsar and you sense this with a few comments and the presence of a stranger and whisperings of a terrible act being undertaken as a ‘provocation’
* But there appears to be a link between the stranger and the senator’s son Nikolai who does not get up until midday and seems to have been unlucky in love roaming the streets at night recalling how a lost love ended – you get the idea she might have jumped off a bridge
* But the chapter ends with the stranger again being placed centre stage of not just the senator’s mind but also of the readers
Just what will happen should start to unfold tomorrow and with any luck I won’t forget to take the book to work and will get through more pages…