Bely, Andrei

views updated May 21 2018


BELY, ANDREI (1880–1934), Russian poet and novelist.

A writer of great versatility and prodigious talent, Andrei Bely excelled in highly original poetry, experimental prose, and innovative studies of literature; he also was a major theorist of the Russian symbolist school. As a public intellectual, Bely championed a "spiritual revolution" in Russia, thus introducing a different dimension into the debate about his country's identity.

Bely was born Boris Nikolayevich Bugayev on 26 October (14 October, old style) 1880 in Moscow, into the family of a prominent mathematician, Nikolai Vasilyevich Bugayev (1837–1903). After contemplating a career as a composer and thinking about taking monastic vows, he turned his back on both and dedicated himself entirely to literature. At the same time, he yielded to his father's pressure, and in 1903 he earned a master's degree from the respectable Natural Sciences Department of the Moscow Imperial University.

Bely's first published book was the experimental narrative Simfoniya, 2-ya, dramaticheskaya (1902; Second symphony, the dramatic). Three more so-called symphonies appeared in print between 1904 and 1908. These works deliberately blurred the distinction between poetry and prose, the subjective and the objective, and were modeled on four symphonies by the German composer Robert Schumann. The explosive effect of Bely's second "symphony" in particular was its ability to combine a vivid caricature of the educated society of the day; innovative narrative structure; a highly elevated, at times mystical, tone; and an apocalyptic vision of the future. Bely's second book, a collection of poems called Zoloto v lazuri (1904; Gold in azure), further solidified his reputation as a literary revolutionary, and introduced a wide thematic range, unusual rhyming patterns, deliberately shocking imagery, and engaging color symbolism into his poetry.

In 1905 Bely fell in love with the wife of a fellow symbolist, St. Petersburg poet Alexander Blok. This event coincided with the failed Russian revolution of the same year, thus tempting Bely to symbolically reinterpret his own confused feelings and those of the Bloks as an echo of the general crisis of the Russian national psyche. Bely's most powerful collection of poems, Pepel (1909; Ashes), which the author himself called "a book of self-immolation and death," and his ground-breaking novel Peterburg (published serially 1913–1914), were the direct result of this reinterpretation.

A powerful statement on the psychology of political terror, which Bely interpreted as the ritual destruction of paternal authority, Peterburg also exposed growing conflicts inside European modernity and questioned Russia's cultural identity. Bely maintained that the country was neither fully European nor Asian, thus becoming one of the forerunners of the Eurasianist ideology.

Peterburg is a quintessentially modernist narrative about one's mind and its self-doubts. The action takes place in the northern capital of the Russian Empire at the time of the failed Revolution of 1905. The central character is an old senator and acting minister in the imperial government—Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov—the embodiment of Wes tern determination and will, who dreams of preserving the geometric design of the city (his first name and patronymic meaning Apollo, son of Apollo; his last name is of obviously Asian origin). Other characters include Ableukhov's son, Nikolai, who is affiliated with the revolutionaries and is desperately in love with his friend's wife. As the only way out of his inner emotional turmoil, Nikolai accepts an assignment to plant a bomb in a government official's study, only to find that the doomed official is his own father. The bomb explodes but kills no one, and Nikolai, a personification of Eastern introspection, dedicates the rest of his life to studying religious philosophy and mystical contemplation.

Not surprisingly, Bely's idiosyncratic mix of revolutionarism, spiritualism, and strict moralism earned him criticism and praise from both the Left and the Right. When the revolution finally got its way in Russia during 1917 and 1918, Bely very easily felt out of favor with the new ruling elite, and from 1921 to 1923 he went into temporary exile in Germany. This was not his first extensive stay outside Russia; from 1910 to 1916 Bely had traveled abroad with his companion, Asya Turgeneva (the couple were married in 1914, but divorced in 1923). From the 1910s through the early 1920s, Bely became actively involved in the work of the Anthroposophical Society.

In the 1920s and 1930s Bely worked on voluminous memoirs and dedicated considerable time to rigorous studies of literature, which resulted in two major books—one (published in 1929) on the fluctuations of meter in Alexander Pushkin's apocalyptic poem "The Bronze Horseman," the other (published in 1934) on the literary craftsmanship of Nikolai Gogol In this period Bely experienced difficulty in publishing some of his work in the Soviet Union. He died in Moscow on 8 January 1934.

Bely's work strived to transcend ideas of a limited creative "self" and of literature defined solely by its historical or social significance. For him, everything written was only a point of departure in a quest for a final liberation from false authorities—a way to restore the unity of humanity. In accordance with his belief in the essential oneness of different artistic and intellectual discourses, Bely maintained that poetry was a true "philosophy of practical reason."

See alsoBlok, Alexander; Eurasianism; Modernism; St. Petersburg; Symbolism.


Primary Sources

Bely, Andrei. Petersburg. Translated by Robert A. Maguire and John E. Malmstad. Bloomington, Ind., 1978. Translation of Peterburg, 3rd ed. (1922).

——. The First Encounter. Translated by Gerald Janecek. Princeton, N.J., 1979. Translation of Pervoe svidanie (1921).

——. Selected Essays of Andrey Bely. Edited and translated by Steven Cassedy. Berkeley, Calif., 1985.

——. The Dramatic Symphony. Translated by Roger and Angela Keys. And The Forms of Art. Translated by John Elsworth. Edinburgh, 1986.

Secondary Sources

Alexandrov, Vladimir E. Andrei Bely: The Major Symbolist Fiction. Cambridge, Mass., 1985.

Janecek, Gerald, ed. Andrey Bely: A Critical Review. Lexington, Ky., 1978.

Keys, Roger. The Reluctant Modernist: Andrei Belyi and the Development of Russian Fiction, 1902–1914. Oxford, U.K., 1996.

Malmstad, John E., ed. Andrey Bely: Spirit of Symbolism. Ithaca, N.Y., 1987.

Igor Vishnevetsky

Bely, Andrei

views updated Jun 11 2018


(18801934), symbolist poet, novelist, essayist.

Andrei Bely was born Boris Nikolayevich Bugayev on October 26, 1880, in Moscow. His father, Nikolai Bugayev, was a professor of mathematics at Moscow University and a renowned scholar; his mother, Alexandra, was dedicated to music, poetry, and theater. This dichotomy was to influence and torment Boris throughout his life: He would resist both parents' influences while continually seeking syntheses of disparate subjects.

At age fifteen, Boris met the intellectually gifted Soloviev family. Vladimir Soloviev was a philosopher, poet, theologian, and historian whose concept of the "Eternal Feminine" in the form of "Sophia, the Divine Wisdom" became central to Symbolist thought. Vladimir's younger brother Mikhail took Boris under his wing, encouraging him as a writer and introducing him to Vladimir Soloviev's metaphysical system.

From 1899 to 1906 Boris studied science, then philosophy at Moscow University. However, his absorption in his writing and independent research interfered with his formal studies. Restless and erratic, he took interest in all subjects and confined himself to none. His idiosyncratic writing style derives in part from his passionate, undisciplined approach to knowledge, a quality that would later be deemed decadent by socialist critics, including Leon Trotsky.

Mikhail Soloviev applauded Boris's early literary endeavors and suggested the pseudonym Andrei Bely ("Andrew the White"). Bely's four Symphonies (19021908) combine poetry, music, and prose. Bely's first poetry collection, Gold in Azure (Zoloto v lazuri, 1904), uses rhythms of folk poetry and metrical innovations. Like Alexander Blok and other Symbolists, Bely saw himself as a herald of a new era. The poems of Gold in Azure are rapturous in mood and rich in magical, mythical imagery. Bely's next poetry collections move into murkier territory: Ashes (Pepel, 1909) expresses disillusionment with the 1905 revolution, while Urn (Urna, 1909) reflects his affair with Blok's wife, Lyubov, which caused hostility, even threats of duels, between the two poets.

Bely followed his first novel, The Silver Dove (Serebryany golub, 1909), with Petersburg (1916), which Vladimir Nabokov considered one of the four greatest novels of the twentieth century (Strong Opinions, 1973). It concerns a terrorist plot to be performed by Nikolai Apollonovich against his father, Senator Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov. The novel's nonsensical dialogue, ellipses, exclamations, and surprising twists of plot, while influenced by Nikolai Gogol and akin to the work of the Futurists, take Russian prose in an unprecedented direction. The novel's main character is Petersburg itself, which "proclaims forcefully that it exists."

While writing Petersburg, Bely found a new spiritual guide in Rudolf Steiner, whose theory of anthroposophythe idea that each individual, through training, may access his subconscious knowledge of a spiritual realmwould inform Bely's next novel, the autobiographical Kitten Letayev (Kotik Letayev, 19171918).

Like other Symbolists, Bely welcomed the October Revolution of 1917. He moved to Berlin in 1921, but returned in 1923 to a hostile literary climate. Bely tried to make room for himself in the new era by combining Marxism with anthroposophy, but to no avail.

A prolific and influential critic, Bely wrote more than three hundred essays, four volumes of memoirs, and numerous critical works, including his famous Symbolism (1910), which paved the way for Formalism, and The Art of Gogol (Masterstvo Gogolya, 1934). He died of arterial sclerosis on August 1, 1934.

See also: blok, alexander alexandrovich; silver age; soloviev, vladimir sergeyevich


Alexandrov, Vladimir. (1985). Andrei Bely: The Major Symbolist Fiction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Elsworth, J. D. (1983). Andrey Bely: A Critical Study of the Novels. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Maslenikov, Oleg A. (1952). The Frenzied Poets: Andrey Biely and the Russian Symbolists. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mochulsky, Konstantin. (1977). Andrei Bely: His Life and Works, tr. Nora Szalavitz. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis.

Diana Senechal

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