Review: St Petersburg city-pick

City-pick St Petersburg, ed. Heather Reyes, Marina Samsonova and James Rann (Oxygen Books, 2012)

The city-pick series of anthologies of city writing has turned its attention to St Petersburg, producing a thoroughly enjoyable collection that made me want to revisit old favourites and seek out some very interesting-looking texts (particularly non-Russian ones) that I hadn’t encountered before. Beginning, as any good work on Petersburg should, with the city’s founding myth, there are then sections on the waters that define it, the streets and buildings that make the city so memorable, the extremes of its climate and the strangeness of the White Nights, the characters who spawned the city, and whom it has spawned, the art associated with Petersburg, its soviet identity, the blockade, and its post-soviet renaissance. So the volume works both thematically and as a stroll through Petersburg’s history, and includes extracts from historical works as well as memoirs and literary texts that do not simply confirm the stereotypes, myths and popular ideas about the city (although many of these are present), but also offer some interesting alternative views and non-standard works.

Criticisms first, made in the understanding that anthologies always require difficult choices, and these are inevitably dictated by the individual preferences of editors, and practicalities such as copyright and space, so there are always going to be criticisms of the selection included. For me, there is slightly too much material written originally in English. This does show the extent to which the hold St Petersburg has on the imagination reaches beyond Russia – perhaps the city for many people represents the side of Russia that is both fascinating and comprehensible – but a small number of recent English novels and memoirs appears repeatedly (13 extracts from one work seems slightly excessive!), at the expense of a wider variety of material from different sources. And there are some notable omissions on the Russian side of things. In particular, the section on the siege (which alone has inspired a remarkable amount of fiction in recent years, much of it very moving) does not include an extract from Lydia Ginzburg’s Blockade Diary. I was also slightly surprised not to see any Zoshchenko, and given the emphasis on the idea of St Petersburg reflecting (upon) itself, it’s a pity there is nothing from Nekrasov’s 1845 almanac The Physiology of Petersburg, where Belinsky’s articles formulate that very process. Moreover (and I say this as someone who is firmly wedded to Russian prose), this is specifically an anthology of prose writing, but Petersburg’s poetic tradition is so important to its self-image that it seems self-defeating not to include, if not an extract from Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman or Akhmatova’s Requiem (both of which could be said to represent the hackneyed view of the city that the editors wished to avoid reproducing), then at least one of Blok’s city lyrics, or Olga Berggolts’ poems about the blockade.

Such grumbles aside, there is much to admire here. Extracts from Joseph Brodsky’s wonderful essay “A Guide to a Renamed City” are judiciously used to shape our journey. Alongside the authors one would anticipate, such as Gogol and Dostoevsky, there are real unexpected delights, such as Truman Capote’s account of accompanying an American opera company to the city in the 1950s, Dmitry Likhachev’s exploration of the city’s horizontals (pp. 39-41), and some fascinating descriptions of the city’s less photogenic areas by Andrei Astvatsaturov, Ivan Chechot and Nikita Eliseev (pp. 65-9). I was particularly pleased to see extracts from Victor Serge’s Conquered City – of all his literary works, it’s the one I find most difficult, but his descriptions of elemental Petersburg (pp. 85-6, 88-9) and of the death of industry in the city (p. 183) reminded me what a powerful evocation of the turmoil of revolution it is. We see a different side of the revolution in John Reed’s laconic account of the “storming” of the winter palace (pp. 173-8). There are some excellent selections from the recent collection Peterburg kak kino (St Petersburg as Cinema), edited by Lubov Arkus, that probably represent the best of recent city writing in Russian. Here and elsewhere, translations are sound, and transitions between materials originally written in different languages are seamless.

The considerable number of pages devoted to the ballet makes sense as this is, I suspect, the starting point for many a young girl’s fascination with Petersburg, but also because it acts as an important reminder of the city’s view of itself. However, these for me were not the most interesting passages (despite once upon a time being one of those young girls who was obsessed with the ballet, though in my case Petersburg came somewhat later), and I was very glad to see Andrei Bitov’s sardonic and demystifying corrective to the breathless eulogies, in perhaps my favourite passage of the entire book:

… and into this snow a naked ballerina in a ballet skirt – also snow-white – would flit onstage to our applause … She “expressed” the sorrow of encountering her beloved through her leaps across the stage, a sorrow we’d all had the chance to read about during the intermission; so we sat there with bated breath, overlaying what we’d just read with what we’d just seen, and at the right moment, we would know when to applaud by the prima ballerina’s facial expression … (p. 142, from “Why I Don’t Like Ballet At All,” in Life in Windy Weather, 1991, trans. Maya Vinokur).

Such moments cut through the standard views of both the beautiful, museum-like city and its literary underbelly, but this sort of counter-narrative could perhaps have been made a little more prominent, for example with reference to the recent work on the city by the collective Chto delat?.

But we each have our own Petersburg, and the fact that mine does not coincide entirely with that of the editors in no way prevents this being a worthwhile and very readable book that successfully evokes the multifaceted nature of the city and conveys a strong sense of the many stories it tells about itself. It has plenty to offer to both old hands and newcomers, though for the latter at least, a map of the city indicating the sites that appear would be very welcome – I know all the places, but I imagine a lot of readers will not, and if it is to function in part as a guidebook, that would be a useful addition. That’s certainly how I will be using it next time I visit the city, and in the mean time I will definitely be checking out other volumes in the series.

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