Published 6.14.2001. Northwestern University Press. Translated by John Elsworth. 316 pages.
You would have thought Andrey Bely’s 1910 novel The Silver Dove would be a book to produce books, to be interpreted and exegized endlessly. While I’m not prepared to call it one of the greatest books ever written—it lacks a certain unity, and isn’t quite grand enough in scope to compensate for that deficit—an abundance of astonishing material is contained in its pages. At least two subchapters of the novel are the stuff of immortality, and taken as a whole the book could be considered the highest expression in prose form of that by-word for the esoteric, Symbolism (as opposed to Modernism, to which its author turned next.) And yet little has been written about The Silver Dove, within Russia and without. When Bely’s books are discussed—which is not as commonly as you might think; his memory in Russia having been much effaced during the 1920s and written out of official literary history by the 1930s; and like Platonov, Bunin, Grossman, and others considered disagreeable by the Soviet powers-that-be, ordinary Russians rarely name him among their greatest writers—he is usually lauded for his novel Petersburg, which Vladimir Nabokov counted among the four greatest books of the 20th century, along with Joyce’s Ulysses, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and the first two books of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. The Silver Dove demonstrates Bely clearly belongs in that company, but his greatness is in delightfully unexpected ways distinct from that of Joyce, with whom he is often compared. Like the other three members of the group, he has exceptional qualities that are entirely of his own stamp.
Bely, together with fellow poets Vyacheslav Ivanov and Aleksandr Blok, was a member of the second generation of Russian Symbolists, which turns out to be both more and less of an overwhelming phenomenon for casual readers to enter into than it sounds. On the textual level, Symbolist writers used naturalistic imagery to mean both literally what is said as well as what allegorically is implied, either by nature images directly symbolizing something or by their conjuring up an overall mood or impression, as in a painting by Cézanne or Monet, and Bely uses such descriptive techniques almost constantly throughout The Silver Dove (though he does more with them than just describe and represent, as we shall see.)
Beyond merely changing the way ideas were represented textually, the Russian Symbolists also expressed through their writing a sort of reactionary religious and philosophical viewpoint. (Reactionary, that is, to the Orthodox church, to Czarist rule, and to the cosmopolitan intelligentsia and the landed aristocracy.) This was not so much an atheistical viewpoint so much as a stew of new age belief systems based on various native sectarian and international religious movements, such as theosophy with its claim to reconcile paganism and Christianity, or the rural sects’ claims to draw mystic power from the simple life of the rural peasantry, or the ideas of sobernost and Sophia (which, frankly, I still can’t make heads or tails of) advanced by the 19th century philosopher and mystic Vladimir Solovyov. It is debatable how committed Bely and his associates ever were to all this—though we are furnished with examples in the book and in the explanatory notes of real life members of the Russian intelligentsia who went to soil, basically, and adopted a life as wanderers or farmers tied to the land; in any case, it is too easy as a reader to get caught up in the tangles of mystic-philosophic esoterica that follow this book like a Maenad’s hair train; the ideas are somewhat peripheral to the art, which is why you have Nikolay Berdyaev, a Russian religious writer and literary critic, quoted on the front of my edition of The Silver Dove, praising the book to the skies in his review of 1910, only to find him a decade later castigating Bely and fellow Symbolist Aleksandr Blok for their acquiescence to the Russian revolution and lack of commitment to the ideals of Solovyov in another essay.
What will first stand out to readers of Bely is not his ideas, but rather his style. Long before Bely had ever been available in English translation, D.S. Mirsky in his History of Russian Literature offered the following surprising assessment of his achievement in The Silver Dove:
It is closely modelled on the great example of Gogol. It cannot be called an imitative work, for it requires a powerful originality to learn from Gogol without failing piteously. Bely is probably the only Russian writer who succeeded in doing so. The novel is written in splendid, sustainedly beautiful prose, and his prose is the first thing that strikes the reader in it. It is not so much Bely, however, as Gogol reflected in Bely, but it is always on Gogol’s highest level, which is seldom the case with Gogol himself.
The stylistic connection to Gogol is fairly obvious and it’s one Bely himself wasn’t shy about playing up. As translator John Elsworth explains, the year 1909 when Bely was writing the novel was a time of widespread centennial celebrations of Gogol’s birth, and Gogol’s style was considered by many including Bely to contain in it something more homespun, more essentially Russian than other 19th century writers. In an essay on Gogol, Bely describes him and Nietzsche as “the greatest stylists in the whole of European art, if by style we understand not merely verbal style, but the reflection in the form of the living rhythm of the soul.” I think an examination of the first two paragraphs of The Silver Dove will show how Bely has surpassed Gogol in a couple respects. Here is the first paragraph:
Again and again, into the blue abyss of the day, hot and cruel in its brilliance, the Tselebeyevo bell-tower cast its plangent cries. In the air above it the martins fretted about. And heavy-scented Whitsuntide sprinkled the bushes with frail pink dogroses. The heat was stifling; dragonfly wings hung glassy in the heat above the pond, or soared into the heat of the day’s blue abyss, up into the blue serenity of the void. A perspiring villager assiduously smeared dust over his face with his sweat-soaked sleeve, as he dragged himself along to the bell-tower to swing the bell’s bronze clapper and sweat and toil to the glory of God. And again and again the Tselebeyevo bell-tower pealed out into the blue abyss of the day; and above it the martins darted with shrill cries, tracing figures of eight.
As with Gogol, Bely is a hypotactic writer who makes use of elaborate clause structures to convey a magisterial, Ciceronian sweepingness to his writing. He loves bright colors and lively images—those shrill cries!—and loves painting a whole scene before introducing his characters. Yet notice the recursive quality of the paragraph, how it circles back upon its initial images; the subsequent paragraphs do it too. What you can’t tell from just this paragraph (what I, beginning the novel, could not have foretold) is how all the images in this paragraph would continually recur and even become schematics for larger scenes; how some, like the sky and the dust, almost become characters unto themselves. But that’s still not the most impressive quality of these paragraphs . . .
In the next paragraph, Bely abruptly shifts to another of Gogol’s voices, the comical one of Rudy Panko the beekeeper, the country-bumpkin narrator of Gogol’s early short story collection Evenings on a Farm Near Dykanka:
A fine village! You ask the priest’s wife. When the priest used to get back from Voronyo (his father-in-law has been a dean there these last ten years), this is how it would be: back he comes from Voronyo, takes off his over-cassock, greets his buxom wife with a kiss, adjusts his cassock and straightaway it’s: ‘See to the samovar, my love.’ And then he gets up a sweat, sitting by the samovar and, sure as eggs is eggs, gives voice to his emotion. ‘Ours is a fine village!’ And he ought to know, the priest; besides, he’s not the sort to tell lies.
The foregoing might suggest we are in for some whimsical tale of village life, and the humor seems harmless while the ducks are quacking in the pond and the priest and sexton drunkenly reenact Napoleonic battles in the bushes while haranguing the priest’s wife to keep strumming the guitar. But as soon as everyone wakes up in their own filth and covered in flies, it becomes apparent: this is no idyllic rural village. This is Gogol’s Dykanka by way of Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff, with a plot that ultimately turns as lurid as anything in that author’s The Devil All The Time.
Because this is not just any old time in Russia: brigands and famine stalk the countryside, anarchists and “Slocialists” are urging peasants to rise up against their manorial lords. New religious sects are forming in opposition to the rule of the Orthodox church. Messianic, apocalyptic ideas are in the air. There are rumblings of growing class consciousness and independent-mindedness in the untapped spirit of the peasantry. Some cataclysmic explosion lies just over the horizon, and every naturalistic detail from the burnt bush that seems to hover like a demon at sight distance from village, to the poignant sunsets and the peals of the village bell of Tselebeyevo, represent harbingers of the revolution in human affairs that is to come.
Andrey Bely in Brussels (1912) by Unknown, Public Domain, Link
Within this context Daralsky, a young poet and “misfit” (by his own admission), has come to Gugolevo, the country manor of the Baroness Todrabe-Graaben, to seek the hand of the Baroness’s lovely daughter Katya, a match the Baroness begrudgingly consents to in spite of Daralsky’s low status occupation and rumors that he is an eccentric who writes indecent verses, and associates with such characters as his friend Schmidt who “was just like an Orthodox Christian, only his name was Schmidt and he didn’t believe in God . . .” These are not times when an aristocrat like the Baroness can be too choosy, what with her estates failing, the peasants marching to her door with pitchforks demanding payment, and greedy upstarts like the businessman Yeropegin from the nearby town of Likhov continually scheming to gain of possession of her estate. Meanwhile, there are rumors in the area of the activity of a secret cult called the Silver Dove, with particular suspicion being attached to the local carpenter Kudeyarov and his enigmatic red-haired, browless, poxy-faced wife Matryona. Daralsky sees this strange, mystical vision of a woman everywhere as he loiters around Tselebeyevo; in spite of the conventionally ugly terms with which she is describe—flabby, with a pocked-marked face—something about her eyes he finds unable to shake an attachment to. He feels far in the depths of his soul a crisis; how can he marry Katya with this strange peasant woman haunting his dreams? In fact, Kudeyarov and Matryona have big plans for Daralsky; they believe that (like Joseph and Mary) Daralsky and Matryona are destined to have a child together who will bring peace and order to the collapsing world.
If I can characterize the plot of the novel without spoiling it, I would say that the outcome is largely telegraphed, but the vagaries by which that outcome comes about will constantly surprise you. Bely is that perverse sort of writer who likes to do quite otherwise from what we would normally expect him to do; by the time “General Chizhikov” (from Dead Souls) makes an extended cameo appearance it’s pretty clear that all the rules have been thrown out the window and pretty much everything goes in this novel. There are hilarious bits in here about the struggle between “the mud party” and “the dust party” in the town of Likhov, the sheer squalor that the peasants live in, the “eccentricities” of the aristocratic class and in particular the family of the Baroness Todraben-Graben, as well as a very macabre scene involving a poisoning. The book is frequently amusing when Bely’s rhetorical hijinks are not amusing in themselves. We also see in the never-less-than-witty dialogue that Bely’s art incorporates the heteroglossia that Mikhail Bakhtin celebrates in the works of Dostoyevsky.
But there is one specific thing that Bely does that I have not seen done to this degree in any other writer, and which to my mind makes The Silver Dove one of the most beautifully written books of all time, if not necessarily the greatest—neither ancient writers, nor those from the Renaissance, nor writers in the 18th or the 19th century do this; James Joyce doesn’t do it (and he supposedly knows all the tricks); your supposed modern masters of the sentence (looking at you Morrison, McCarthy, Krauss, Pynchon, Gass, Krasnahorkai) don’t even contemplate doing it; I am talking about Bely’s symphonic prose.
A symphony, as music enthusiasts know, is made of series of interlocking motifs, point and counterpoint, strophe and antistrophe and strophes arpeggiating in-and-out and in-and-out of antistrophes; Bely’s prose works much the same way, across phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, sections, chapters—the dance of parallelisms is enacted across every level of the composition. I wonder if there has ever been a more musical prose writer than Bely. What he composes is not so much prose poetry as prose jazz; he will lay down a dozen leitmotifs and play them like jazz parts, which have wonderful suspended effects (like the sly repetitions of Milton in Paradise Lost) when drawn out between his winding Gogolian banter and the ornamental Ciceronian prose sculptures that constitute many of his paragraphs.
The miracle of Bely’s prose is how he makes a paragraph like the following, so precisely rhythmic, so active and yet serene, seem commonplace:
The rain had stopped: again the sun gleamed for a moment; Gugolevo appeared before him, opened itself out, enclosed him in its blossoming embrace—and now it was looking at him, Gugolevo; looking at him with the lucent waters of its lake, Gugolevo; and the lake was rocking him with its dove-blue waters which sang with silver, and all the while the rippling lake was reaching out to the bank with its waters—but it could not reach: and whispered with the reeds—and there, in the lake, was Gugolevo: it rose behind the trees in its entirety, then gazed with a smile of longing at the water—and escaped into the water: there it was now, in the water—over there, over there.
Isolated here, this paragraph is a masterclass in rhythm and imagery that most writers would have been proud to produce. In the overwhelming lavishness of Bely’s prose, however, it seems almost like filler material. As a reader, you find yourself swimming atop such an ocean of golden lyricism, unable (unless you pause and take a breath) to count the gemstones on one measley crown.
The passages that stand out from all this bounty of musical prose are those that convey Bely’s central theme of the opposition between “Russia” and the “West,” with Katya and the intelligentsia representing the West, and the mysterious Kudeyarov and Matryona representing the enigmatic East. There is a section of chapter five titled, “Matryona,” in which Daralsky agonizes over Matryona’s peculiar beauty; it is in its way as stunning (albeit a bit creepy) a statement on the subject of beauty as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. I won’t quote the whole thing, but offer some excerpts here:
If you fall for a dark-eyed beauty, pretty as a picture, with lips as sweet as a luscious rasberry, and a gentle face, unrumpled by kisses, like an apple-blossom petal in May, and she becomes your love—then do not say that love is yours: even though you cannot tire of her rounded breasts, of her slender frame that melts in your embrace like wax before a flame. . . . The day will come, that cruel hour will come, the fatal moment will come, when he face will fade, rumpled by kisses, her breasts will no longer quiver at your touch: all this will come to pass; and you will be alone with your own shadow amidst the sunscorched deserts and the dried up springs, where flowers do not bloom and the sunlight plays on the dry skin of a lizard; and you might even see the hairy black tarantula’s lair, all enmeshed in the threads of its web . . . And then your thirsting voice will be raised from the sands, calling longingly to your homeland.
But if your love is otherwise, if her browless face has once been touched by the black blemish of the pox, if her hair is red, her breasts sagging, her bare feet dirty, and to any extent at all her stomach protrudes, and still she is your love—then that which you have sought and found in her is the sacred homeland of your soul.
What’s wonderful about these passages are their captivating, back-and-forth rhetorical movements, but they also call back to a central theme in the novel, the “sacred homeland,” the East as an entirely different and inescapable state of mind. There is a surprising strain of Russian essentialism that appears not only in the progression of the plot (Daralsky’s rejection of the cosmopolitan and therefore “Western” Katya in favor of the homely, indefinably “Russian” inner beauty of Matryona), but also in how the book descends further into the mystical murk as it goes further in further, falling into the mystical clutches of the Rasputin-like Kureyevo.
Bely’s narrator becomes an unexpected poet-defender of a type of Russian essentialism Vladimir Putin might rhetorically embrace, one that extols the fields and the peasants and the unspoken and unseen as opposed to the modern and proven; Bely the modernist turns anti-modernist, at least towards the end of The Silver Dove. A revolution against the false Westernism will soon come, yet for Bely it’s a spiritual revolution and not necessarily a communistic one. In a indubitably important set of passages in chapter six of the novel (widely admired at the time of the novel’s release by Bely’s contemporaries), the narrator extols at length the “Russian fields,” and describes in passionate prose the difference between Western “words” and the “unspoken words” of the Russian peasant. Whereas in the West (and the Western-infected classes of Russian life) “they dissipate their words, into books, into all manner of scholarship and science; and therefore theirs are effable words, their manner of life is a spoken one,” in Russia by contrast, “the Russian fields know secrets, as the Russian forests do . . . Russian souls are like sunsets; Russian words are strong and resinous: if you are Russian, you will have a bonny secret in your soul, and your spirit-strewing word will be like sticky resin.” There is also an apocalyptic prophecy that should chill us even today:
Oh, to live in the fields, to die in the fields, repeating to yourself the one spirit-strewing word, which no one knows but he who receives that word; and it is received in silence. Here amongst themselves they all drink the wine of life, the wine of new joy — thought Piotr; the sunset here cannot be compressed into a book, and here the sunset is a mystery; in the West there are many books; in Russia there are many unspoken words. Russia is that on which the book is smashed, knowledge dissipated, and life itself burns up; on the day when the West is grafted onto Russia, a world-wide conflagration will engulf it: everything will burn that can burn, for only from the ashes of death will rise the soul of paradise, the Fire-bird.
Whether or not this reads a touch too much like mystical gobbledygook (and as someone a Nikolay Berdyaev might condemn as a “Western Positivist” myself, I am inclined to regard it as such), it certainly seems to capture part of what separates Russia culturally from the West, why we are liberalizing and secularizing while they retreat back into a Czarist, pre-scientific past.
As a complete work, I don’t regard The Silver Dove as among the greatest books ever written (as stated at the top). The telling of the story is too diffuse, too haphazard to earn a +9 score. The many pages of naturalistic/symbolistic description are beautiful, but I’m not entirely convinced they are necessary, even if the prose effects Bely achieves with them are unique; one of the criterion for judging a work of art is how efficiently it makes use of its materials, and who is to say that a more tightly written book couldn’t come along that does something similar? Likewise, Bely’s sentences are certainly beautiful when taken schematically, as part of their larger paragraphs; but while Bely is a great prose writer, his friend Blok was the better poet, and so on a word-by-word basis there are in fact more stupefying writers of individual sentences out there. The Silver Dove is nonetheless clearly the work of a writer with the potential to produce a masterpiece, and I am curious to find out if that is what Bely accomplished when I get around to reading his Petersburg.