Andrei Bely is best known for the modernist masterwork Petersburg, a paradigmatic example of how modern writers strove to evoke the fragmentation of language, narrative, and consciousness. In the early twentieth century, Bely embarked on his life as an artist with texts he called “symphonies”—works experimenting with genre and sound, written in a style that shifts among prosaic, poetic, and musical. This book presents Bely’s four Symphonies—“Dramatic Symphony,” “Northern Symphony,” “The Return,” and “Goblet of Blizzards”—fantastically strange stories that capture the banality of life, the intimacy of love, and the enchantment of art.
The Symphonies are quintessential works of modernist innovation in which Bely developed an evocative mythology and distinctive aesthetics. Influenced by Russian symbolism, Bely believed that the role of modern artists was to imbue seemingly small details with cosmic significance. The Symphonies depict the drabness of daily life with distinct irony and satire—and then soar out of turn-of-the-century Moscow into the realm of the infinite and eternal. They conjure worlds that resemble our own but reveal elements of artifice and magic, hinting at mystical truths and the complete transfiguration of life. Showcasing the protean quality of Bely’s language and storytelling, Jonathan Stone’s translation of the Symphonies features some of the most captivating and beguiling writing of Russia’s Silver Age.
Andrei Bely, the pseudonym of Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev (1880–1934), was a central figure of Russian symbolism and modernism as a poet, novelist, and theorist. He was a proponent of innovation who aimed both to revolutionize Russian literature and to find a philosophical framework for modernist techniques. His books include The Silver Dove, Petersburg, and Kotik Letaev.
Jonathan Stone is associate professor of Russian at Franklin and Marshall College. His books include The Institutions of Russian Modernism: Conceptualizing, Publishing, and Reading Symbolism (2017) and Decadence and Modernism in European and Russian Literature and Culture: Aesthetics and Anxiety in the 1890s (2019).
"[A] Symbolist masterpiece by the writer whose work Vladimir Nabokov ranked among Russia’s greatest literary achievements . . . Otherworldly tales of haunting beauty and a welcome addition to the canon of classic Russian literature in English."
—Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 6 members
A worthy author who has earned a place in world literature through books like this one, which manages to entertain and memorably engages the intellectual imagination.
This is a book of beautiful prose. Four stories speak to the intellectual imagination in a poetic and atmospheric voice. While Bely is to be lauded so too is the translator Jonathan Stone who has brought this prose to the English language maintaining the beauty of the writing. All four stories together can feel a little overwhelming - a little like four steak dinners in a row. Spaced out though they are to be savoured and enjoyed. Delicious! Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC
It's hard to know where to start in writing about Bely's Symphonies. Firstly, the style of the prose leapt out at me, looking almost like a prose poem in the way the text was structured. It took me a little while to get used that, but once I did, I settled into the stories. Of the four sections, I enjoyed the first the most, as I liked the fairytale elements of the narrative. However, the remaining three pieces were also interesting, each in their own way, taking the mundane and turning it into something mystical and fantastical. Bely was a symbolist, and that is certainly clear from this text. It was intriguing to see the comparisons he was drawing and the way he highlighted different things, but by the end of four stories like that, it started to feel a little too much and I longed for something simpler again. Nonetheless, I could see the artistry that went into crafting this piece and I appreciated it as something new and experimental, even if I wouldn't want to read books in this style all the time. Recommended for readers who enjoy a touch of the avant-garde in their early-twentieth century fiction, and those interested in the Russian symbolist movement.
I received an electronic ARC via NetGalley for review. I'm not sure if I simply prefer the stories in this book over Bely's more famous novel Petersburg, if I've developed a greater appreciation for Symbolists since undergrad, or if this translation has made the material more accessible to me, but I genuinely enjoyed this collection far more than I initially expected. The stories are strange--that's the nature of them, and I suspect that a reader who doesn't at least somewhat enjoy the sorts of things that came out of the Symbolist movement won't much enjoy this book. It's not a quick read, either--the translation is quite beautiful and smooth, and there are notes to explain some of the references that might not be immediately obvious to a reader who doesn't catch them on their own, but the stories are also something you do have to sit with and enjoy to catch the patterns in the repetition of the language. As with the other books I've read in these Columbia University Press Russian Library editions, the introduction is interesting and insightful, and provides valuable context and a framework for understanding the rest of the text. Also like them, it's probably mainly of interest to readers who already have an interest in the subject matter. I do, though, so for me--it's enjoyable and very much worthwhile.
The language was more poetic, dreamy, and disjointed than I expected. I felt as though I were drifting among clouds instead of anchored in a narrative that could capture my attention. After multiple attempts to finish the book, I can only say that the style is not for me (but I'm sure the right reader would love to sink their teeth into it).