David Lentz's Reviews > Petersburg

Petersburg by Andrei Bely
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's review
Jun 20, 2011

really liked it

Vladimir Nabokov was half-right when he cited the top four greatest novelists of the 20th century. Joyce and Proust clearly are worthy of their luminous literary prominence. While I admire Kafka and his novels, I would hardly rank him among the top four of the century. Bellow, Faulkner, Barth, Hemingway, Gaddis and Vonnegut, for example, all out-gun either Kafka or Biely in their literary prominence. While I admire Nabokov, too, I also wouldn't rank him in the top four and my best guess is that he made this call pre-maturely, perhaps, mid-century before later greats came into prominence. St. Petersburg is easy to underestimate as it was, perhaps, one of the earliest thrillers, a genre that contemporary writers have hacked for everything it's worth. Those novelists who came after Biely and adopted his ability to build suspense into best-selling literary corporations assembled by formulae took a genre that he pioneered to the bank for big bucks and sold our national literary culture down the river in the process. The net effect is that SP seems trite, hyperbolic and, well, to be honest even a bit dull. The contemporary reader is no longer especially enamored of fiction that focuses, once again, upon the detonation, or lack thereof, of a bomb in a sardine tin. Sorry, we've seen so much of it the whole concept for such a storyline now seems unoriginal, although in Biely's case in his day he helped to invent the genre. I wasn't too crazy about the descriptive narrative that followed a series of semi-colons but I assume that Biely was striving to build rhythm and suspense. And I'm not sure what was either lost or gained in translation from the original Russian, which may have impressed Nabokov. But four stars appears generous for this novel. I strongly advise that you turn, instead, to Joyce and Proust. In my view clearly Biely is not "The Bomb" that Nabokov makes him out to be.
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