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Kotik Letaev by Andrei Bely

Reviewed by James Yeary

January 13, 2017

Kotik Letaev

Kotik Letaev

by Andrei Bely

Translated by Gerald J. Janecek

Northwestern University Press, 1999

In Kotik Letaev, Andrei Bely, author of the much-celebrated novel Petersburg, creates a self-portrait of his earliest years, a period of time very few of us can attest to remember much of, and he does so in a way that preserves the scaffolding of memory. It can come off as very clumsy, or ineloquent, as the author uses no farce to soften the lines of what memory has faded. Instead Kotik Letaev is something of an impressionist portrait, saturated with colors burst from the edges of objects represented. It is a modernist masterpiece, warts and all, loaded with the nuances of Russian society before the Revolution.

Bely’s novel tells the story of Kotik (literally “the cat”), the son of a mathematician well connected in Moscow society. But Kotik is a stand-in for the author himself, and Kotik Letaev is an attempt at a sort of autobiography. Appearing as a book in 1922, it is a near contemporary with James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and, whether or not it was an influence, Kotik Letaev shows some concerns of both that novel and Ulysses, the first “epic” of his Irish counterpart.

Where James Joyce looked to the quotidian, duplicitous, and punning possibilities of language to uncover history and literature in his own language’s atomic structure, Bely examines a faintly remembered childhood to drum up the thoughts a child might fill his or her mind with in moments of incomprehension. Where Joyce sublimates his texts with double entendre, Bely seeks metaphysical truth in the recurrences and breakdowns of image and language in his subject’s comprehension. By this method, Bely seeks to outline a spirituality grounded in the emergent mind.

While there are levels in which Kotik Letaev resembles Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (a youthful autobiography) and Ulysses (phenomenological stream-of-consciousness), formally speaking it has no kin. In his introduction, the translator Gerald Janecek describes Kotik Letaev as a poet’s novel par excellence. He isn’t referring to conventional beauties captured or created by Bely, but to the novel’s “rhythm, sound-play, repetition of passages and special typographical elements.”

Of these four animals, it is the last two that separate Kotik Letaev from the novel as we know it, in any age or language. First, Bely’s use of repetition is almost confounding. Certain phrases as well as variations on smaller sub-sentences recur throughout the novel. It is a uniquely apt presentation of the stream-of-consciousness. Many of these repetitions (“where I was before birth,” “the memory of memory,” “music of the spheres”) are phrases that become as familiar as the characters. One of the most frequently used images in Kotik Letaev is that of the “sparkle.” Everything sparkles, and the key to unlocking why everything sparkles could be in the first chapter, where it is revealed that Kotik suffers from dysentery, scarlet fever, and the measles all at one time, that he has hallucinated, and, due to his misunderstanding the vernacular of his physicians and family, he comes to believe he is “on fire.”

Then there is the typography and grammar. What is perhaps the most interesting surface feature of this novel are the paragraphs—Bely’s use of the sentence is basically an invention that secures the flowing stream-of-consciousness. Here, the paragraphs are separated not into sentences divided by periods, but into clusters of clauses separated by semicolons (with some exceptions). It is comparable to the final chapter of Ulysses, the soliloquy of Molly Bloom—but—with a more enforced rhythm and pacing due to the semi-interrupting punctuation. Then, affecting more the visual flow than reading rhythm, one paragraph follows another on the next line beginning in the same horizontal position where the preceding paragraph has ended, instead of being flush to the left or indented. Also, the left margin of an entire paragraph will sometimes vary. The reason for this is not apparent but perhaps is due to the logical organization of thoughts—as when taking notes one might contain an idea under the umbrella of another by using an indented margin. But the fact of this is not too clear, and the effect is similar to the typographically confounding “projective verse” of the poet Charles Olson.

Then, the reader of Russian will be familiar with the copular dashes. In Russian, verbs of being (“is” and “are”) are rarely employed, and it is more common to see a hyphen. Normally these copular dashes are translated out when rendering Russian into Western languages, but Janecek found that Bely used them for a rhythmic effect, and so preserved them, and as such translated a characteristic of the original language, as well as a noteworthy feature of the novel.

Kotik recounts experiences as a flow. In the beginning of the novel, the flow is a singular, monadic entity, where Kotik himself is indistinguishable from the stream. In the first two chapters he starts to compartmentalize the flow of experience—imagining the elements of the body as well as rooms: “Rooms are—parts of the body […]—in my head I am shaping a temple of thought solidifying it as…a skull.” So if rooms are basically corporeal, the body is also as much an architectural construction. “Between the holes (of my past and future) went a flow of unsettled images.” To some degree the chapters (there are six total) seem to break along distinctions Kotik has made—degrees of ontological distinction, from the borders of the self, to locations, and persons and their personalities coming into being as his awareness develops. In the second chapter a distinction has been made between things, and Kotik opens the chapter with the “becoming” of Auntie, of Papa. It is in Chapter 3 that Kotik, on his fourth birthday, recounts his birth, describing it as “his appearance in the world.”

This description, given by Kotik, is about as objective a picture as we will get of Kotik in Bely’s capital-M Modernist self-portrait (of his third through fifth year). Even this picture meanders into Bely’s imagined half-understanding of the events of his birth as he might have remembered them recounted on his fourth birthday (or, actually on his name-day, the Russian celebration of the saint for whom Kotik was named). As he recounts his birth, he tells how he “loved to repeat Mama’s words that when they carried me up to the window,”

I saw the flashing gas in Vyodchikov’s colonial store,—got excited began to shake and triumphantly pronounced—my first word:

“—Fire…”

“This is remembered firmly.”

No sorting through the image will make sense of it—most likely, Kotik has been told of his appearance in the world, and in their nostalgia or to Kotik’s begging, he was also recounted the story of this Heraclitean primal utterance. Being told one story after another, he is led to believe they are one event—and he remembers it as such, “firmly.”

Kotik’s mind wanders about in his own memories, and, as in Ulysses, it is difficult to distinguish between lived and imagined experiences. Kotik Letaev is Joycean in its difficulties and in its attempt to use “inner speech” to narrate the experiences of its central character. But where Ulysses is allegorical, or full of in-jokes that reference history, literature, and popular culture, in Kotik Letaev, Bely uses repetition of image and phrase in the recurrent thoughts of his young subject. The recurrences point to a kind of symbolic order, metaphysically foundational to the world as it really is.

Bely was a student of the chic spiritual-philosophical school known as Anthroposophy, and the school’s mystical vibrations resonate throughout. Some time after the publication of Kotik Letaev, Bely would attempt a radical revision to purge it of its (presumably politically consequential) spiritualist undertones, but would never see the revision through. (This reader wonders what kind of work would remain after a radical revision and change of thesis.)

There are two or three layers of narrative here. The first layer consists of the events the narrator is relating through the experience of Kotik. That is, “the objective events” which must be combed from the stream of consciousness. The objective story is that of a chapter of Kotik’s—Bely’s—life. This is a story of a child being torn between two parents, and his burgeoning erotic affection for his nanny, Raisa Ivanovna, and the fate of their relationship. The second layer—or the second, concurrent, narrative—is the evolution of Kotik’s understanding of the objective events. The degree to which this is a lack of understanding creates a gulf between the first and second layer. In that the text itself is embedded in the perspective of the second layer, the first is obscured to the reader to a great degree, as well as to Kotik himself. At the same time, the arc of Kotik’s understanding is married to a third narrative—that which Bely would eventually try to expurgate. That third layer is a symbolic narrative, with roots in Hermeticism and Russian Orthodoxy and filtered by Anthroposophy, as well as other “heretical” (per the Russian Orthodox Church) Christianities. These include several mentions of the unorthodox theologian Vladimir Solovyov, and a family friend who worships the Gnostic and Arian “Armenian God.”

Religious phenomena do not just pepper the narrative of Kotik Letaev, but give the novel some structure: in a transparent, albeit psychedelic, nod to the Christian Bible, the novel opens with the appearance of a serpent, and ends with the vision of a cross. There is also a reference to Noah’s ark early in the novel, and one could see the construction of the skull-temple as a thinly veiled allusion to the building of Solomon’s Temple. These correlations could be seen as being that of a young mind “reading in” to the events of his own life, and perhaps had he chosen to complete the de-spiritualized revision he had planned, Bely might have considered a more mainstream psychological paradigm to organize the phenomena. For whatever reason, personal or political, Bely chose not to. He may have decided that a self-portrait with a worldview incongruent with his own was a perfect illustration of a changing mind. At any rate, the novel is a brilliant and confounding work that sits at the intersection of poetry, fiction, self-portrait, and philosophy.

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James Yeary is a bookseller in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of numerous chapbooks of poetry, many of which were written in collaboration with other artists and writers. His review work has elsewhere appeared in Rain Taxi and Galatea Resurrects. He has taught poetry in the classroom, the museum, and on the street.