Tuesday 8 June 2021

Book Review: The Symphonies by Andrei Bely (Literary Fiction)

Title: The Symphonies
Author: Andrei Bely
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Publication Date: 2 November 2021
Format: eBook - PDF
Genre: Literary Fiction
Source: ARC via NetGalley

Andrei Bely is best known for the modernist masterwork Petersburg, a paradigmatic example of how modern writers strove to evoke the fragmentation of language, narrative, and consciousness. In the early twentieth century, Bely embarked on his life as an artist with texts he called "symphonies"--works experimenting with genre and sound, written in a style that shifts among prosaic, poetic, and musical. This book presents Bely's four Symphonies--"Dramatic Symphony," "Northern Symphony," "The Return," and "Goblet of Blizzards"--fantastically strange stories that capture the banality of life, the intimacy of love, and the enchantment of art.

The Symphonies are quintessential works of modernist innovation in which Bely developed an evocative mythology and distinctive aesthetics. Influenced by Russian symbolism, Bely believed that the role of modern artists was to imbue seemingly small details with cosmic significance.
The Symphonies depict the drabness of daily life with distinct irony and satire--and then soar out of turn-of-the-century Moscow into the realm of the infinite and eternal. They conjure worlds that resemble our own but reveal elements of artifice and magic, hinting at mystical truths and the complete transfiguration of life. Showcasing the protean quality of Bely's language and storytelling, Jonathan Stone's translation of the Symphonies features some of the most captivating and beguiling writing of Russia's Silver Age.


It's hard to know where to start in writing about Bely's Symphonies. Firstly, the style of the prose leapt out at me, looking almost like a prose poem in the way the text was structured. It took me a little while to get used that, but once I did, I settled into the stories. Of the four sections, I enjoyed the first the most, as I liked the fairytale elements of the narrative. However, the remaining three pieces were also interesting, each in their own way, taking the mundane and turning it into something mystical and fantastical. Bely was a symbolist, and that is certainly clear from this text. It was intriguing to see the comparisons he was drawing and the way he highlighted different things, but by the end of four stories like that, it started to feel a little too much and I longed for something simpler again. Nonetheless, I could see the artistry that went into crafting this piece and I appreciated it as something new and experimental, even if I wouldn't want to read books in this style all the time. Recommended for readers who enjoy a touch of the avant-garde in their early-twentieth century fiction, and those interested in the Russian symbolist movement.

I received this book as a free eBook ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

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