Cover of 1916 edition
|Translator||John Cournos, John E. Malmstad and Robert A. Maguire, David McDuff and John Elsworth|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
Petersburg (Russian: Петербургъ, Peterburg) is a novel by Russian writer Andrei Bely. A Symbolist work, it arguably foreshadows James Joyce's Modernist ambitions. First published in 1913, the novel received little attention and was not translated into English until 1959 by John Cournos, over 45 years after it was written (after Joyce was already established as an important writer).
Today the book is generally considered Bely's masterpiece; Vladimir Nabokov ranked it one of the four greatest "masterpieces of twentieth century prose", after Ulysses and The Metamorphosis, and before In Search of Lost Time.
The novel is based in Saint Petersburg in the run up to the Revolution of 1905 and follows a young revolutionary, Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov, who has been ordered to assassinate his own father, Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, a high Tsarist official, by planting a time bomb in his study.
Bely drew his characters from historical models: Apollon Apollonovich shares many characteristics with Procurator of the Holy Synod Konstantin Pobedonostsev, and Dudkin resembles the revolutionary terrorist Boris Savinkov.
There are many similarities with Joyce's Ulysses: the linguistic rhythms and wordplay, the Symbolist and subtle political concerns which structure the themes of the novel, the setting of the action in a capital city that is itself a character, the use of humor. The differences are also notable: the English translation of Bely remains more accessible, his work is based on complex rhythm of patterns, and, according to scholarly opinion, does not use such a wide variety of innovations. But these innovations, which subvert commonplace literary rhetoric, are necessary to conveying Petersburg at such a tumultuous time.
Just after the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukov is given the task of assassinating his bureaucrat father, Apollon Apollonovich, using a time bomb supplied to him by a fellow radical, Alexander Ivanovich Dudkin. Nikolai Apollonovich spends much of his time dressing himself in a red domino and mask, making a fool of himself in front of Sofya Petrovna Likhutina, a woman who has rebuked his flirtations in the past. Instead of focusing on the immense task he has agreed to undertake he attends parties and gets himself into the newspaper's gossip columns with his antics. His father notices these exploits and decides that his son is a scoundrel. Dudkin himself answers to a higher power; a man named Lippanchenko who is the leader of their radical group. Eventually both Nikolai Apollonovich and Dudkin experience a change of heart about their mission, however there is much to detain Nikolai Apollonovich on his way to throw the bomb into the river.
There have been four major translations of the novel into English:
- St. Petersburg or Saint Petersburg, translated by John Cournos (1959)
- Petersburg, translated and annotated by John E. Malmstad and Robert A. Maguire for Indiana University Press (1978) (paperback: ISBN 0-253-20219-1)
- Petersburg, translated by David McDuff for Penguin (1995)
- Petersburg, translated by John Elsworth for Pushkin Press (2009). Winner of the Rossica Translation Prize.
- Magnus Ljunggren and Hans Åkerström: Andrej Belyj's Peterburg. A bibliography. Göteborg 2012.