He is best remembered for his 1913 novel, Petersburg, the book of which Vladimir Nabokov said, “My greatest masterpieces of twentieth-century prose are, in this order: Joyce’s Ulysses; Kafka’s Transformation; Bely’s Petersburg …”
Petersburg is a story of conspiracy and betrayal set during the 1905 Russian Revolution, when massive political and social unrest spread across the country. In the book, a group of radicals plan to assassinate a senator with a time bomb disguised as a can of sardines, but the bomb is lost, the conspirators only manage to destroy someone’s study, and their attempt at revolution becomes a farce.
The language of Petersburg is by turns comical, poetic, and abstract, the city in a landscape where “In this melting greyness there suddenly dimly emerged a large number of dots, looking in astonishment: lights, lights, tiny lights filled with intensity and rushed out of the darkness in pursuit of the rust-red blotches, as cascades fell from above: blue, dark violent and black.”
Nothing in Russian literature up to that point had prepared Russian readers for Bely’s novel, which mixed the scientific and rational with the intuitive and spiritual, an omniscient voice with the first person, adding music, color, past and present, and gleeful humor to a story of impending patricide. But although Petersburg is difficult to classify, critics have remarked that Bely’s novel would be strangely familiar to contemporary readers who have seen the blend of fact and fantasy in The Black Swan or A Beautiful Mind, and that Bely’s writing foreshadows the late American author David Foster Wallace.
Bely lived in poverty through the 1917 Russian Revolution, which led to the end of Tsarist Russia and the beginning of the Marxist regime. He worked as a lecturer in Moscow for a few years, traveled to Berlin for a few more, and returned to find himself denounced in the new Marxist view of literature.