Saturday, July 19, 2014

Book 55- Petersburg

I thought I liked Russian literature, but with the last few novels I have read I have been proved wrong. It turns out I like a very specific era of Russian novels, or perhaps just two Russian authors: Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. With the Russian novels on the Novel 100 list I have been highly disappointed. One of my friends sent me a highly amusing summary of Russian novels that is worth a read. I recognized quite a few novels on the list! It is interesting to point out that Petersburg by Andrei Bely is one of about 10 novels that does not also appear in the 1001 Books list that I am also reading.

One good thing about the list is that I am starting to draw parallels between the novels I have read and I found a few with this novel. The strongest correlation I found in this novel was to Fathers and Sons by Turgenev. The two main characters Abluekhov and Nikolai are at war with one another just like the father and son duo from Turgenev's novel.  I didn't like that novel either.  There was a Russian symbolist movement? Who knew. This novel also has a few comparisons to Ulysses and  James Joyce. In my mind, there is no comparison between the two, although this novel precedes Ulysses by nearly a decade. Having recently read Grapes of Wrath I also found elements of the weird poetic breakouts from that novel in this one. I didn't like those elements in Grapes of Wrath either. Generally, I like symbolism, and I imagine I am one of the few people who truly like Joyce. The movement loses something when you try to place it in the Russian context. All my favourite elements of Russian novels (the focus on the poor, the focus on the human condition, and a connection to the environment around you) get lost in this novel. The final novel I was reminded of, mostly because of the use of a bomb in the novel, was The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad.

I spent a large portion of my time reading this novel completely confused. It jumped around in time and and from several points of view. It retold incidents from several angles. I would eventually figure out what was happening, but not before floundering around helplessly. The one thing that this novel had going for it  is that it had elements of a nightmarish dream world. Reality and dream were intermingled in it and the feeling I was left with was one of impending doom. None of the characters in the novel are having a good time in life and we are viewing the world through their eyes. This leaves everything with a distorted feel to it. I don't think there is a single neutral narrator in the novel. They are all unreliable.

I am grateful to leave this novel behind and will probably not think of it again. I am still left mulling over Grapes of Wrath, however. Although I didn't love the entire novel it had a lot of really great things to say and I am constantly reminded of it when I think of the world today and the disconnect between the rich and the poor.

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