The story is a long (and I mean 564 pages of text) and winding narrative centred in Petersburg in 1905. It relays the approximate 10 days in the relationships of the Ableukhov family whilst the turmoil of the civilian uprising of the October Manifesto period. It was written in 1916 and is compared to James Joyce for its influence on 20th century Russian literature.
The basic story is that father Apollonovich, the aged Senator (I took to representing old Russia) is the target for assassination by a radical group headed by Lippendenko and students including Alexandr Ivanovich (perhaps representing New Russia). The senator's son, Nikolai, has fallen in with the group mainly to get to know Sofia, his mate's wife; and because he boasts of hating his father, gets embroiled in the bomb plot. We learn that this father-son relationship, being the long and pivotable, deep thread of the story, centres on the fact that Anna Petrovna, the mother had run off to Spain with another man. There are several side characters including Sergei Likhutin (Sofia's husband) and the families' staff members. There are many intregues and motives from the characters and a couple of revelations which keep you wondering (I'd be honest, a murder occurs at the end and the reasons for it were lost on me)
This is remarkable literature and appears to be a brilliant translation, the narrative style is brilliant. I can't quite explain but the language is detailed, magical realismesque, retrospective and in places dream-like - most of the characters seem to have phases of unreality and waking dreams. You'll read this book for reading sake. The arc of the story is there and builds methodically to an exciting conclusion mainly due to the fact that Nikolai relatively early on receives a bomb and inexplicably sets the timer going. It may help to know (I was ignorant of this myself) that there is a long section of the story related to Nikolai dressing up in red costume to attract Sofia and this gets into the newspapers - this is simply referred to in the translation as the `domino' e.g. the domino appears on the bridge; it may help to know this is the term for the masked-ball type face covering just around the eyes like the Lone Ranger had.
Here is a quote/passage to give you a flavour: And let us also imagine that every point of the body experiences a mad urge to expand beyond measure, to expand to the point of horror (for example, to occupy a space equal in diameter to the orbit of Saturn); and let us imagine too that we are consciously aware not only of a single point, but all points, and that all of them have swollen - and are rarefied, incandescent - and are passing through the stages of the expansion of bodies: from a solid to a gaseous state, and that the planets and the suns are circulating freely in the gaps between the molecules of the body; and imagine further that all centripetal sensation is completely lost; and in the urge to expand beyond measure physically we have been torn to pieces, and only our consciousness remains in one piece: consciousness of our dismembered sensations. What would we feel then? We would feel that our flying, burning, gaping organs, no longer linked together, were separated from each other by billions of versts; but our consciousness binds that monstrous atrocity - in a simultaneous aimlessness; and while in our spine, rarefied to the point of emptiness, we feel the seethe of Saturn's masses, into our brain the stars of all galaxies drill their way ferociously; and in the centre of our seething heart we feel senseless, painful thrusts - of a heart so huge that the sun's candescent torrents, as they fly in all directions from the sun, would still not reach the surface of that heart, if the sun were inserted into that igneous, senseless beating centre. If we were able physically to imagine all that, then before us would arise a picture of the first stages in the soul's life after it has cast off the body: these sensations would be all the stronger in proportion to the violence with which our bodily composition collapsed before us....
So overall this is a long book, the detail of Petersburg pours from the passages, the history of the era seeps into you via the characters. The story seems simple but retrospectively you'll find this a superior, deep novel. Put Ulysses, Life & Fate, Burge-la-morte, Of Human Bondage and The Age of Reason (all brilliant books) into a blender and Bely's novel would pop out. As an aside Russian names aren't a problem as rarely are characters given more than one reference and overall there really are quite few people in it.