cover image Kotik Letaev

Kotik Letaev

Andrei Bely. Northwestern University Press, $17.95 (268pp) ISBN 978-0-8101-1626-9

While many people would be hard-pressed to remember what they ate for lunch, the late Russian writer Bely (pseudonym for Boris Nikolayevich Bugaev, 1880-1934) wrote a semi-autobiographical work focusing entirely on the experience of being between the ages of three and five. The book's earliest appearances can be traced to 1917 in Russia, and it preceded Bely's most celebrated novel, Petersburg. The author was heavily influenced by the Austrian social philosopher Rudolf Steiner, and time spent at a spiritual colony with Steiner made its mark on Bely, himself one of Russia's leading theorists and Symbolist poets. This novel explores the idea that infants are not newborns but part of a universal sea of consciousness, and because the protagonist, toddler Kotik, does not yet have the language to share his memories of this sea, they become increasingly vague as the child develops. Bely voices this struggle in luminously esoteric and poetic prose, and the effect ranges from terrifying to hysterical. It's both amusing and depressing to watch Kotik's bubbling and fiery world narrow into dull routine. Bely writes, ""... a little plate of semolina cereal was eaten up by me; and--I was all messy (Nanny begins to grumble at me: she wipes me off). I feel a little sad and empty... --there are no events; that is, there is nothing anymore; but... the cereal... was eaten up... by me; I ate it--on routine weekdays; I ate it up: and--the same boring weekdays; I feel like crying;... "" The book was first translated into English by Janecek in 1971. In this edition Janecek corrects several mistranslations and provides useful, lengthy annotations, a new introduction based on additional scholarship and a bibliography of relevant critical literature. (June)