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.
more from Malcolm Forbes at The Quarterly Conversation here.