Russian Nightmares

The Silver Dove

by Andrey Biely, translated and with an introduction by George Reavey
Grove, 419 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Andrey Biely
Andrey Biely; drawing by David Levine

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, Russian literature—in a period between its marvelous flowering, which began with Pushkin, and the repression of Stalin’s Socialist Realism—was in a ferment of daring experimentation and theoretic debate, in which Andrey Biely played a leading role. He was an exponent of Symbolism, an original poet and novelist, a perfervid, sometimes wild, critic, and a meticulous scholar whose work inaugurated in Russia the scientific study of poetics. His essays and dissertations argued and explained the doctrine on which he stood; his imaginative writings—prose poems, which he called “Symphonies,” lyrics, fiction, memoirs—exemplified it. His three major novels, The Silver Dove, Petersburg,1 and Kotik Letaev,2 are by now available in English. (Andrey Biely, incidentally, was the pseudonym of Boris Bugayev, son of an eminent mathematician at the University of Moscow, which he adopted on his first publication to spare his father all embarrassment.)

From its ominous beginning to its hideous end, The Silver Dove progresses, in Gogolian prose rhythms, through a hazy landscape that represents a provincial community in Russia. It is a world of unreal figures, of disturbing allusions to some transcendent, ineffable reality. Through a veil of mystery, we recognize the figures vaguely as human beings. We have an idea of how they look, what they do, where they live, even what they think, but in the nightmarish fantasy through which they move, the familiar objects that surround them—dwellings, taverns, streets and roads, trees and meadows, cows and hogs—seem uncanny in their very commonplaceness. They are, for the most part, Gogolian grotesques, all but the hero, Pyotr Daryalsky, who, without being understandable, does have the kind of actuality that makes it possible to believe in him as a person.

Daryalsky is a young poet, author of a book of erotic verse with a fig leaf on the cover, who is spending his third summer in the village. He has been drawn there by Katya, with whom he is in love and who lives with her grandmother in the neighboring estate of Gugolevo. This grandmother, the Baroness Todrabe-Graaben, has at last consented to their engagement, and Daryalsky is happy. But his behavior is incomprehensible. Three days after their engagement, he wanders off in stifling heat to the village church; and on the way, near a quiet pond where ducks are swimming solemnly, is suddenly terrified by the pale blue sky that seems black to him as he peers into it, and almost simultaneously is startled by “a pair of sturdy legs…and a pair of busy hands…rinsing out some washing.”

He is seized by the kind of yearning he had experienced in childhood, “looming out of the unknown, overwhelming and seducing.” “What the devil do I really need?” he thinks, and invokes his “darling Katya” in whom his need for “tenderness and love” has been fulfilled, and who—after all the unsatisfied longings for “the…

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