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    The creative word creates the world
        -Andrey Biely

It was Vladimir Nabokov's opinion that this novel is "One of the four great masterpieces of twentieth-century prose," in company with The Metamorphosis, Ulysses and Remembrance of Things Past.  Andrey Bely (or Biely, I've found it spelled both ways) was the pen name of Boris Nikolayevich Bugayev.  He was a leading figure of the Symbolist movement in pre-Revolutionary Russia and, in addition to Nabokov, influenced Boris Pasternak and Yevgeny Zamyatin, among others. St. Petersburg is certainly as innovative as the other works Nabokov ranks it with, using characters and even geography as allegorical symbols for ideas, and written in a nearly stream-of-consciousness prose.  But to my very pleasant surprise, it is much more enjoyable than these other touchstones of Modernism.

The action of the novel, and happily there is some action, occurs over the course of two days in 1905, when Russia, having lost the War with Japan, was wracked by strikes, conspiracy, violence and near revolution.  Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov is an elderly, but still devoted, Tsarist bureaucrat.  His dilettantish son, Nikolai, who is dabbling in radical politics, has been given the task of murdering his own father; the chosen weapon, improbably enough, a bomb in a sardine tin.  Just as the city of St. Petersburg--Peter the Great's "window on the West"--represents the point where the rational West meets the savage and mystical Orient, so this confrontation between father and son represents impending conflict between European reason and Asiatic barbarism, and the bomb itself represents the indiscriminately destructive forces about to be brought to bear on the decaying Tsarist state.

Though much of the story, inevitably in this type of modernist fiction, is obscure and barely coherent, the literally ticking time bomb gives the story a propulsive forward momentum which speeds the reader along and, though I'm certain I missed much of the symbolism, because the imagined clash between the main symbols proved eerily prophetic, we can read things into the story that Biely probably never intended.  Biely's use of language and symbolism lends an almost feverish quality to the narrative, as if the whole thing were a particularly horrible dream.  It is a story suffused with a sense of dread and with intimations of the chaos to come, both in the novel and in the society it depicts.

I don't know that it necessarily deserves quite the elevated position that Nabokov gave it, but it was apparently extremely influential on Russian Literature and it makes for an unusual but gratifying reading experience.  You'll surely enjoy it more than you would the almost unreadable James Joyce and Marcel Proust.


Grade: (B)