Malcolm Forbes in The Quarterly Conversation:
In a chapter of his memoir, Speak, Memory, Nabokov tells of his nocturnal wanderings through St Petersburg. Real darkness and artificial light conspire to make foreign his surroundings. “Solitary street lamps were metamorphosed into sea creatures with prismatic spines”; “various architectural phantoms arose with silent suddenness”; “great, monolithic pillars of polished granite (polished by slaves, repolished by the moon, and rotating smoothly in the polished vacuum of the night) zoomed above us.” The whole scale is recalibrated, all perspective redrawn, but the young Nabokov laps it up, feeling “a cold thrill” and “Lilliputian awe” as he stops to contemplate “new colossal visions” rising up before him. He is thrown by these hall-of-mirrors distortions but not entirely surprised to be so—after all, he is in “the world’s most gaunt and enigmatic city.”
This was 1915 and Nabokov was not the only writer to consider the city enigmatic. One year later, Andrei Bely’s Petersburg was published, a novel which possesses stranger, more fantastic distortions. The characters in Bely’s book are too flummoxed by the city and intoxicated by its swirling yellow mists to share Nabokov’s thrill. Their dazedness hardens into fear, and the reader is thrilled (and admittedly flummoxed, too) by the fecundity of surrealness on show and the sheer exceptionality of such a book coming from such a country at such a time. Nabokov himself approved, declaring Petersburg one of the greatest novels of the 20th-century.
Andrei Bely was born in Moscow in 1880 as Boris Nikolayevich Bugayev. He studied mathematics at Moscow University but realized his real interest lay in writing essays and poems. His work began to appear in print in 1902, poetry collections and prose “symphonies” that belonged to the burgeoning Symbolist tradition. Russian Symbolism, modeled on its French equivalent, sought to amalgamate literary genres, and its practitioners successfully fused poetry and prose into poetic prose. Despite their radical innovations, or precisely because of them, the Symbolists were considered scandalous by purists still grounded in 19th-century realism, forcing Boris Bugayev to become Andrei Bely to spare his distinguished father’s blushes. He left Russia in 1906 as the political situation worsened, settling in Munich. When he returned to his homeland he was reinvigorated and ready to utilise his pent-up reserves of literary energy. He started tentatively, his first novel, The Silver Dove (1909), being a conventional tale about a town’s religious sect and an outsider’s reaction to it. Believing the novel to be unfinished he set about writing a sequel, but during its composition it acquired new characters, a more complex plot, and grew into a thoroughly original work of art. The result was Petersburg.