Andrei Bely (Russian: Андре́й Бе́лый) was the pseudonym of Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev (October 26, 1880 – January 8, 1934), a Russian novelist, poet, theorist, and literary critic. Bely, together with Alexander Blok, was a key figure in the Russian Symbolist movement, often referred to as the Silver Age of Russian Poetry.
But it is as a prose writer and critic that he made his real mark. His novel Petersburg has often been compared with James Joyce's Ulysses for its innovative style and playful use of language. It was regarded by Vladimir Nabokov as one of the four greatest novels of the twentieth century.
As a critic Bely was a forerunner of Russian Formalism, eschewing interest in the political and social dimension of art. However, he was no proponent of "Art for art's sake." Rather he saw in art the missing dimension for translating essential spiritual truths into the human vernacular.
Boris Bugaev was born into a prominent intellectual family. His father, Nikolai Bugaev, was a leading mathematician who is regarded as a founder of the Moscow school of mathematics. His mother was not only highly intelligent but also a famous society beauty, and the focus of considerable gossip.
Nikolai Bugaev was well known for his influential philosophical essays, in which he decried geometry and probability and trumpeted the virtues of hard analysis. Despite—or because of—his father's mathematical tastes, Boris Bugaev was fascinated by probability and particularly by entropy, a notion to which he frequently refers in works such as Kotik Letaev.
Young Boris was a polymath, who engaged in a wide range of studies. He engaged in natural science studies at the University of Moscow, taking up science, philology and philosophy during his tenure there from 1899 to 1906. Bely was also interested in romantic music and religion. During this period he became affiliated with the Religious-Philosophical Society of Saint Petersburg. The group grew up around Dmitri Merezhkovsky and his wife Zinaida Gippius, leading figures in both the rise of Russian mysticism and the development of Russian symbolism. The group represented a Russian appropriation of neo-Kantianism though the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. The group was also part of the Russian reception of Friedrich Nietzsche.
"With the publication his his first prose work, he took the pen name Andrey Bely ("Andrew White") to avoid embarrassing his father, who was the dean of the faculty of science at Moscow. A positivist, he supported strongly the doctrine that all true knowledge was scientific."
Bely's creative works notably influenced—and were influenced by—several literary schools, especially symbolism. They feature a striking mysticism and a sort of moody musicality. He strove, not entirely successfully, to forge a unity of prose, poetry, and music in much of his literature, as evidenced by the title of one of his early works, Symphonies in Prose. His first collection, Gold in Azure (1904)owes much to the poetry of Konstantin Balmont. Ashes (1909), ike the stories of Anton Chekhov addresses the squalor of life in the Russian countryside at the time. His poem, "Christ Has Risen," like Alexander Blok's, "The Twelve," forces Christian messianic imagery onto the Russian Revolution. Like many artists, he saw the revolution as originally hopeful.
Bely viewed symbolism as more than an artistic movement, but as the ability to transcend the phenomenal limitations of human cognition and to perceive the Noumenal realm. (See Kantianism.) True art, for Bely, provides the symbol or language to express the inexpressible, the absolute "...whether one calls it the noumenal (with Kant), 'pure contemplation of the world will' (with Schopenhauer), or 'a manifestation of the spirit of music' (with Nietzsche)..."
Bely's contribution to the development of Russian prose superceded his poetic work. His groundbreaking novel, Peterburg, was the most significant work of modern Russian prose in the early twentieth century. His style of literary construction is musical. "Bely's prose is built on the principle of a 'symphonic' view of verbal art, where the musical aspect of languages provides the deepest level of meaning.
Petersburg or St. Petersburg, Russian: Петербург (1913, revised 1922) is the title of Bely's masterpiece, a Symbolist work that foreshadows Joyce's Modernist ambitions. It is generally considered to be his masterpiece. The book is vivid and memorable, and employs a striking prose method in which sounds often evoke colors. The novel is set in the somewhat hysterical atmosphere of turn-of-the-century Petersburg and the Russian Revolution of 1905. It is populated by a collection of characters that owe much to Fyodor Dostoevsky's treatment of the city—drunkards and madmen.
To the extent that the book can be said to possess a plot, this can be summarized as the story of the hapless Nikolai Apollonovich, a never-do-well who is caught up in revolutionary politics and assigned the task of assassinating a certain government official—his own father. Nikolai is pursued through the impenetrable Petersburg mists by the ringing hooves of the famous bronze statue of Peter the Great.
The novel is based in Saint Petersburg and follows a young revolutionary, Nikolai Apollonovich, who has been ordered to assassinate his own father, a high Tsarist official, by planting a time bomb in his study. 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, and the fact that the main plot of the novel spans approximately 24 hours. 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.
For various reasons the novel never received much 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.
There have been three major translations of the novel into English:
In his later years Bely was influenced by Rudolph Steiner’s anthroposophy and became a personal friend of Steiner's.
Bely was one of the major influences on the theater of Vsevolod Meyerhold.
His fame rests primarily on the novel Petersburg, a philosophical and spiritual work influenced by James Joyce, featuring a highly unorthodox narrative style, fleeting allusions and distinctive rhythmic experimentation. Because of its complexity, the novel is generally regarded as the most complex in Russian literature. Vladimir Nabokov placed it second in his list of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, after Joyce's Ulysses. Other works of mention include the highly-influential theoretical tract entitled Symbolism (1910), which was instrumental in redefining the goals of the Symbolist movement, and the novel Kotik Letaev (1922), which traces the first glimpses of consciousness in a new-born baby.
The far-reaching influence of his literary voice on Russian writers (and even musicians) has frequently been compared to the impact of James Joyce in the English-speaking world. The novelty of his sonic effects has also been compared to the innovative music of Charles Ives.
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