Writer, researcher, translator, critic



Andrei Bely, Petersburg [St. Petersburg; 1913]

One of four or five white whales of modernist fiction, which Nabokov ranked with Joyce, Proust and Kafka as the summit of literary excellence and linguistic play in twentieth-century fiction. I've been reading it for a little less than a year, with significant breaks, and completed it last night.

I read David McDuff's Penguin translation, which I have been informed is the wrong one, but it's the one I got hold of. I wouldn't like to hazard a guess as to how much of it I understood — the plot, such as it is, is relatively clear, but I'm certain that much of the symbolism, mystic speculation, and political theorizing flew over my head. Not to mention the linguistic play, which no translation can satisfactorily communicate and which the awkward syntax and puzzling vocabulary choices of this translation may even have obscured for me. (It probably didn't help that I mostly read it, exhausted, before going to sleep.)

But however shadowily or fragmentarily I grasped this book, it's still self-evidently great, a staggering achievement in world literature that takes a comic anecdote about a failed assassination and zooms in — and out — to join up the whole of Russian history, the newest understanding of human psychology, the surreality of dreams, and the ways that fanaticism contracts and simplifies the world. It's also very funny, in the way that grotesque caricatures are — indeed much of Bely's linguistic firepower is spent on describing the kind of hyperbolic imagery that is normally the domain of cartoonists rather than prose writers.

Much of it will remain with me indelibly: the dance at which Nikolai Apollonovich is revealed, Dudkin's break with reality in his attic room, Likhutin's failed suicide, the comic tension of the last chapters as lost domesticity unexpectedly returns while a bomb ticks away. The red domino, at the very least, is a potent image.

But given how shaky I am on the first half of the book (again, it was almost a year ago) I am absolutely going to try to return to it at some point: the Maguire and Malmstead translation, with extensive notes, is probably the one I want. Although as always I'm tempted by the earliest translation despite its limitations. But that's for the future. Onward.

August 16, 2018