Petersburg: a city of shadows, a novel of spectres

One of the most haunting lines written by James Joyce was a quip from Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses. Dedalus says that ‘history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.’ It seems ironic, as it is due to the seamless intertwining of history and fiction that made Ulysses an enduring novel to many a critic. I think that the best stories serve as historical tracts at the same time, and this is especially true in novels.

Petersburg in revolution

Petersburg in revolution

Petersburg, written by Andrei Bely, is both brother and father to Ulysses. It was written earlier than Ulysses, and implements that magical mixing of mythology, history, and philosophy that was found in spades in Joyce’s novel. It inculcates news reports (history), mythology, psychology, and anthroposophy in a certain city, Petersburg, just like Joyce did with Dublin in his Ulysses.

Vladimir Nabokov and Anthony Burgess, among the most prominent writers of the 20th century, had nothing but praise for this novel. The premise of the story is quite simple: a senator, Apollon Apollonovich, was marked by an unnamed Party (note that this novel was situated during 1905 in Russia) for death by means of a bomb, which was a popular method of assassination during those times. The catch was that the assassin was going to be his son, Nikolai Apollonovich.

Bely made sure this wasn’t going to be just a rendition of Fathers and Sons. There are even instances in the novel where he parodied Turgenev’s works himself, such as mentioning a certain revolutionary who died of consumption (applicable to Fathers and Sons, as well). Petersburg was something more tasteful than that, and by avoiding being moralistic, Bely was able to elevate his novel into something much more.

The fundamental opposition of the story is between father and son. It is illustrated by the difference of their ages, but more subtly by the incongruity of their philosophies: whereas Nikolai Apollonovich was progressive and a liberal, his father was a Tsarist to the core. It was the reason why he was a high-ranking official in the monarchist government, but it was also one of the reasons why his son and him did not agree with one another (and barely even talked).

Like Ulysses, however, the relationships and references did not end there: mentions of Saturn were made. In Greek he is known as Chronos, or as the father who devoured his offsprings so as they would not be able to displace his reign or dispose of him. This is in disagreement with his namesake, however, who is Apollo, the god of the sun. There remains something that still connects them as family to one another, even in all their differences: while fond of symmetry and logic, Apollon Apollonovich was soft toward his hussy of a wife; in contrast, despite his Kantian philosophies (which was one of the reasons that led him to the madness of carrying the bomb), Nikolai was a fool in love. The idiosyncrasies of their character blur their clash of ideologies and sometimes father and son are painted as similar individuals.

The sun is also a symbol of the Ego’s progression in anthroposophy, which compounds the story further. While they are seemingly just caricatures, their personalities and characteristics disallow easy generalizations, and in this regard they are just as dynamic as real people. The best thing about this novel, however, that for me made it better than Ulysses was the fact that it actually told a highly engrossing story despite its wordplay and complex narrative. Whereas Ulysses was one large sex joke hidden in magical prose and complex storytelling, there was actually an engrossing story in Petersburg. This alone made it a much better read and a much better novel, in my opinion, than Ulysses: it told me that reality and fiction can be intertwined in creative ways while still being able to tell a wonderful story.

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7 Responses to “Petersburg: a city of shadows, a novel of spectres”

  1. Just Generic Says:

    Was reading this and when I got to Petersburg I thought, “I wonder is he going to mention Nabokov’s criticism of it…” If I remember it was Nabokov geeking out about Bely that made me read Petersburg in the first place.
    “Ulysses was one large sex joke hidden in magical prose and complex storytelling”
    Ulysses is a hundred times more readable if you read James Joyce’s dirty sex letters to his wife first. After that the sex jokes just pop off of the page.

  2. Charles Says:

    Sounds like a wonderful novel. I haven’t read either it or Ulysses – thanks for the great review.

    By the way, the line you mention at the beginning of your post – one of the most haunting and amazing quotes I’ve read. Wonderful.

  3. Michael Says:

    Just Generic:

    Petersburg is more brilliant than Ulysses, IMO. I just value a good story more.


    It is. It’s a really fine novel. Thanks!

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