Artist of Nightmare

Andrei Bely: His Life and Works

by Konstantin Mochulsky, translated by Nora Szalavitz
Ardis, 230 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Petersburg

by Andrei Bely, translated, annotated, and introduced by Robert A. Maguire, by John E. Malmstad
Indiana University Press, 356 pp., $17.50

In the intellectually giddy, combative, brilliant period of Russian art at the turn of the century, Andrei Bely was an outstanding figure, the best representative, no doubt, of its ultra-romantic speculations and experiments. He was “an undisciplined and erratic Ariel,” in D.S. Mirsky’s witty characterization, “a seer and prophet” to some, “a sort of mystical mountebank” to others. He was a leading exponent and practitioner of Russian Symbolism, and is thought to have exercised an enormous influence on Russian literature. The scientific study of Russian prosody began with him and, in criticism, his work gave rise to the Formalist School. We now have excellent translations of his masterpiece in prose and of the best biography about him to date.

Konstantin Mochulsky, a distinguished émigré scholar, had intended to write a book on Russian Symbolism, but his project expanded into three separate studies on the three major poets in the movement, Alexander Blok, Valéry Briusov, and Andrei Bely. All were published in Paris by the YMCA Press, after his death in 1948. The book on Bely was left unfinished. Had he lived longer, he would certainly have tightened up the text, filled in some episodes, elucidated some points. But even as it stands, it is an authoritative, sympathetic study, and a fine portrait. The translation by Nora Szalavitz, though marred occasionally by awkward turns of phrase, is faithful, and her editorship very intelligent.

Mochulsky draws a portrait of a paradoxical and complex being, a gifted man on the brink of madness, sometimes toppling over the brink. Though not sufficiently deranged to be institutionalized, he was always eccentric, suffered from delusions of persecution, and had several breakdowns. His work reflected his nature.

The beginning of Bely’s life was stamped by a profoundly traumatic experience that he himself described in an autobiographical novel, Kotik Letaev, reconstructing, with remarkable insight and precision, a child’s pitiful, amusing, helpless confusion in an unhappy world he cannot understand. His name was Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev—“Andrei Bely,” the Russian equivalent of “Andrew White,” was a pseudonym. He was born in 1880, the son of a man and woman at odds with each other. His father, Nikolai Vasilievich Bugaev, an eminent mathematician, professor at the University of Moscow and Dean of its Science Faculty, was eccentric, clever, and extraordinarily ugly. His mother was frivolous, coquettish, hysterical, and very beautiful. She despised her husband, opposed him in all matters; and the child was the butt of their quarrels. He loved his father for the way he taught him the Lord’s Prayer and told him fascinating stories about Adam and Eve, good and evil; and his mother he adored as a fairy-tale being, all in velvet, lace, and diamonds. But this lovely mother resented the father’s lessons as forcing the child to “a premature and abnormal development.” Her love for him, Bely wrote, was “powerful, jealous, cruel.” She was repelled by his resemblance to her husband. She would kiss him passionately and suddenly push …

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