André Aciman Follows Literary Ghosts in St. Petersburg

On Getting Lost, Literary History, and Dostoyevsky

On an intensely bright morning in June, I find myself roaming the streets of St. Petersburg, looking for the 19th century. I have always meant to roam the city. That’s what I thought you did in St. Petersburg. You shut your door, head downstairs, catch yourself blinded by the sun, and before you know it, you’re wandering to places and squares you never thought you’d be passing through. A guidebook won’t help, and neither will a map, for what you want is not just the thrill of getting lost when you stray off the chart and discover corners you hardly expected to find and might actually grow to love; what you want is to drift along the streets in as flushed a jittery state of mind as everyone does in Russian novels, hoping that some internal compass helps you find your way about a city you’ve been imagining since your bookish young teens. Stop thinking, shut down everything, and for once, go with your feet. This is supposed to be déjà vu, not tourism.

Part of me wants to visit Dostoyevsky’s city as it once was. The heat, the crowds, the dust. I want to see, smell, and touch the buildings on Stoliarny Place and hear the bustle of Sennaya Ploshchad, where hawkers, drunks, and all manner of slovenly people still come close enough to jostle you as they did 150 years ago. I want to walk along Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg’s major artery, because it appears in almost every Russian novel. I want to get a firsthand feel for this boulevard that was once peopled by wretched waifs on one end, affluent fops on the other, and in between by a flotsam of petty, hapless, embittered, backbiting civil servants whose only task, when they weren’t drafting mindless reports or copying them forever again, was to spend their hours groveling and gossiping and feeding off each other’s blighted lives. Call this paleo-travel: searching for what’s underneath, or for what’s no longer quite there.

I want to see the building where Raskolnikov lived (5 Stoliarny Place), scarcely a block across from where Dostoyevsky himself had lived and written Crime and Punishment; the bridge Raskolnikov crossed on his way to the murder on 104 Ekaterininsky (now renamed the Griboyedov) Embankment; and a few steps away, at number 73 on the same street, the place where the meek and sweet prostitute Sonia lived. All these places have hardly changed since Dostoyevsky’s time, though Raskolnikov’s five-story building has four floors now. The house on Stoliarny where Gogol himself had lived no longer stands, and the old wooden Kokushkin Bridge, which Gogol’s Poprishchin crosses in Diary of a Madman, is now made of steel.

But it is the crowd and the stultifying bleakness of Sennaya Ploshchad and the unremitting thirst that I seek. These, I realize, would matter less in the end if they weren’t inevitably linked to the angst that comes of solitude and destitution and of wearing such utterly drab clothes—a young man’s nightmare, as Dostoyevsky describes it in Crime and Punishment: 

The heat in the street was terrible: and the airlessness, the bustle and the plaster, scaffolding, bricks, and dust all about him, and that special Petersburg stench, so familiar to all who are unable to get out of town in summer—all worked painfully upon the young man’s already overwrought nerves. The insufferable stench from the pot-houses, which are particularly numerous in that part of the town, and the drunken men whom he met continually, although it was a working day, completed the revolting misery of the picture…

Rag pickers and costermongers of all kinds were crowding round the taverns in the dirty and stinking courtyards of the Hay Market.

–tr. by Constance Garnett

Everyone has an imagined St. Petersburg. Everyone’s life took a sudden turn because of books set in St. Petersburg. Everyone wishes to go back to that disturbing first page when a writer called Dostoyevsky prodded demons that we never knew we had and, because of these demons, put loutish noises in our heads and, in the process, gave us the most twisted romance we’ve ever nursed for a city.

Stop thinking, shut down everything, and for once, go with your feet. This is supposed to be déjà vu, not tourism.

We come back to St. Petersburg to recover the forgotten first spark of that unsettling romance—who were we when it took hold of us and what were we thinking when we allowed it to happen, knowing what it was already doing to us? What we want is not St. Petersburg as it looks now—though parts have hardly changed. Neither do we want to be dazzled by its avenues and palatial buildings—though you need to have seen these enough times to stop focusing on them. Our inner St. Petersburg will come from the sheer exhaustion of our aimless trundling up and down its streets and embankments, over and across this or that bridge, this park or that island, “without noticing his way,” until the oppressive heat and the suffocating loneliness of it all take hold of us and we begin to recall how for a few days we too belonged in Crime and Punishment:

On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in Stoliarny Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards Kokushkin Bridge.

For a few days or weeks, every reader has lived on Stoliarny Place.

Dostoyevsky’s was certainly not the city that Peter the Great envisioned when he wrenched it out of the mud of the Neva River in 1703. From literally nothing he created one of Europe’s most stunning cities and made it the capital of Russia, which it remained until the fall of the Romanovs in 1917. Peter appointed Alexandre Jean Baptiste Le Blond to design his new city after seeing some of the architect’s magnificent creations in France and conferred upon him the title Architect-General of St. Petersburg. Simultaneously, he appointed several Italian architects to design palatial buildings like those he had seen on his travels through Europe. Petersburg was going to be Peter’s window to the West, but it was also going to rival in grandeur any city in the world.

To build this new port city on the Gulf of Finland, Peter forcibly put Swedish prisoners of war and Russian serfs to work day and night. More than 100,000 of them paid with their lives as they pounded piles into the slosh and drained the bogs and carried stones with their bare hands, leaving nothing but their bones underfoot. Peter couldn’t be bothered with their deaths. He had big plans. Inspired by Amsterdam and Venice, he wanted his city to be crisscrossed by canals, but it was also going to outdo Paris and London in splendor and magnificence. To this end, Peter forced all Russian aristocrats to build homes in St. Petersburg—and if they demurred, he’d haul them there by force. The streets were going to be wider and longer and far better planned than any in Paris, with one stately home after the other lining the lavish avenues and canal embankments, each building rising to the same height as its neighbors. Since St. Petersburg did not grow out of a previously existing town, Peter’s planners did not have to contend with narrow medieval lanes winding in absurdly circuitous paths. They were able to design a grid layout for the city, with streets and avenues intersecting at right angles, and a central plaza where the spire of the Admiralty Building—St. Petersburg’s focal point—would surge and be seen from everywhere.

From that spire, three interminable boulevards would radiate: Nevsky Prospect, Gorokhovaya Street, and Voznesenskiy Avenue. All three lead to train stations today, and all three are intersected by canals and three large avenues. The only other city I know that was as symmetrically and as rationally planned is Washington, DC—but Washington doesn’t come close.

From sketches and cityscapes drawn in the very early 1700s, St. Petersburg was already turning into a sumptuous metropolis. By the end of Peter’s reign in 1725, it could boast 40,000 inhabitants and 35,000 buildings, and by 1800, its population had swollen upward of 300,000.

Still, Peter was so barbaric in his mission to civilize Russians that he also managed to create an entire naval fleet the way he’d created the city: from nothing. In the end, and by dint of ruthless, despotic will, Russia was dragged by the scruff of its neck into the modern world, after which there was no turning back.

Instead, many turned inward. The mud, the buried bones, Peter’s monomaniacal reign—none ever went away. They are seared into the city, for St. Petersburg internalized both the frightful tyranny of the tsars and the smoldering dissent it stoked. In literature, wraiths and nightmares and distorted, demonic thoughts seep into a landscape where repression and flight are forever wrangling at cross purposes. Nevsky Prospect may be one of the longest and most polished boulevards in Europe, but as so many characters in Gogol and Dostoyevsky discover, it just as easily chokes every human impulse that it stirs. Love, envy, shame, hope, and above all, self-loathing scavenge the sidewalks. Shoo one, and it plays tricks on you; try to seize the other, and it shoves its ghost at you.

Here, as everywhere in St. Petersburg, you can make out the grieving resentment that finally gives birth to either madness or revolution, or both. “I am a sick man,” says Dostoyevsky’s underground man. “I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.” No one is the same after reading this. No city can be whole after this. We take sneaking peeks at its subconscious, the aching, bruised, damaged, self-hating, tormented subconscious that it lays bare before us like those defunctive tramway tracks that continue to furrow so many streets and avenues that no longer have any use for streetcars. The rails still stare at you, refusing to sink underground, the way so many things continue to show up even after they’ve been covered up here. Nothing goes away.

Take the weather, for example. On winter days, darkness descends much too soon on Nevsky Prospect, and the freezing wind sweeps in from all sides and then gathers up hellish speed down the avenues, because the brilliant city planners of St. Petersburg failed to remember that a chill wind loves nothing more than long urban canyons and thoroughfares.

Or take the River Neva itself. It floods the city and has done so 300 times since St. Petersburg’s founding. In 1824, it rose more than 13 feet; exactly a century later, it rose nearly that high again. The most famous description of the overflowing Neva is found in Pushkin’s narrative poem “The Bronze Horseman”:

The tempest blustered unabated:
Neva swelled up and roared, frustrated— A seething, effervescent brew—
Then with a wild beast’s frenzy threw Herself upon the city. All now
Took flight before her; all around Became deserted; cellars drowned:
Through gratings gushed the turbid water, Intent on violence and slaughter;
And fair Petropolis must lie
Plunged, Triton-like, in waves waist-high …

–tr. by John Dewey

A marble plaque marking the level of the flood of 1824 is built into the wall of the building where Dostoyevsky’s young criminal lived. The Neva, like the weather, and like Petersburg’s two most notorious butchers—Peter the Great and Raskolnikov—will always haunt the city, wrangling to expiate their crimes. Even Stalin’s determined reconstruction of the city after it withstood Hitler’s brutal 900-day siege is still trying to cover up what the city can’t forget.

I came to St. Petersburg to stroll on Nevsky Prospect. Then as now, one drifts along; one shops or stops for a meal or to drink coffee somewhere. The avenue is named after Prince Alexander, who was given the name Nevsky after defeating the Swedes at the Battle of the Neva in 1240. Here the rich and the wannabes ambled up and down, to see and be seen, in all seasons and all garbs. Here, also, people always heard French and English spoken and came to purchase the most luxurious wares from all parts of Europe. Gogol’s uncanny and biting descriptions are inimitable:

Nothing could be finer than Nevsky Prospect, at least not in St Petersburg; it is the be-all and end-all. It positively gleams and sparkles—the jewel of our capital! I know that not one of the city’s pallid functionaries would exchange Nevsky Prospect for all the riches of the world. By this I mean not only the young fellow of 25, sporting splendid moustaches and a remarkably well-cut frock-coat, but also the old gentleman with white hairs bristling on his chin, and a pate as smooth as a silver dish—he too is in raptures about Nevsky Prospect. And as for the ladies!—The ladies are even more enamoured of Nevsky Prospect. Mind you, who wouldn’t be enamoured? No sooner do you step out on to Nevsky Prospect, than you are swept along in its unending carnival. … This is the only place where people will appear without any special reason, where they are driven neither by mundane need nor by the mercantile interest which pervades all St Petersburg. … It is a dizzying phantasmagoria!

Gogol lists how Nevsky Prospect changes aspect by the hour. Nevsky Prospect in the morning, at noon, at two in the afternoon, at three, at four:

Let us begin with the very earliest hours of morning, when all St Petersburg smells of freshly baked bread and teems with old women in tattered dresses and coats, making forays to church and raids on compassionate passers-by.

Gogol’s most lyrical and Baudelairean brushstroke comes in his final description of Nevsky by twilight:

But as soon as dusk settles on the houses and streets and the night watchman, with a length of bast matting thrown over his shoulders, clambers up a ladder to light the street lanterns, while in the low shop windows tableaux reveal themselves which dare not show themselves by daylight, then Nevsky Prospect once again comes alive and begins to stir. Now comes that mysterious time when the street lamps invest everything with an alluring, magical light.

–tr. by Christopher English

For about two hours during my five nights in late June—called “white nights” because the sun never sets during that time of the year—Gogol’s evening lights on Nevsky were the view from my window. The lights are totally unnecessary during high summer, but they still cast a beguiling incandescence on the emptied avenue. Today, although the gas jets studding the sidewalks have long since been replaced by electric streetlights, the imaginary trace of glowing old lanterns on Nevsky Prospect all the way to the Admiralty hasn’t disappeared.

Nevsky Prospect, which has four lanes leading to the Admiralty and four in the opposite direction, is no different from any other major city’s shopping strip: high-end boutiques, fancy restaurants and cafés, department stores, Pizza Huts, KFCs, buses, trolley buses, and tramways, and wedged in between larger stores, and abutting porticos to courtyards that have seen better days, are the usual assortment of rinky-dink cellular telephone stores and currency exchange windows. The buildings along the avenue are extravagant—some indeed majestic— built in the floral Italianate style favored by the Romanovs. Most have been restored (at least externally), though some garrets on the top floors, which can’t be seen from street level, remain in deplorable condition.

I begin to wonder whether their lives upstairs correspond with what I am seeing here or whether they still live in cramped, Soviet-style homes.

Restoration has always been the byword in St. Petersburg. After the floods, after the German siege, after the near-intentional neglect of the Soviets, at twilight, as if to echo Gogol’s gaslit world, many of the buildings and hotels along Nevsky, with their façades illuminated, sneak back into the past. When I walk during the day, I want happenstance. So it is by almost miraculous happenstance that while strolling I discovered a glass-vaulted arcade at 48 Nevsky Prospect, and almost on a fluke decided to step into its two-tiered gallery. It rivaled the tinier remaining galleries in Paris, London, and Turin, though it was not as large or as open as the Galleria in Milan or the GUM Gallery facing Red Square in Moscow. Still, as I stepped into this 19th-century shopping mall, which Dostoyevsky described in The Double and “The Crocodile” and which had been entirely restored to suit 21st-century tastes, I spotted one store that sold a product you find in every gift shop in Petersburg: colorful high-end Matryoshka dolls: painted wooden dolls of increasing size nested one inside the other, a metaphor for everything here: one regime, one leader, one period nested in the other, or, as Dostoyevsky is rumored to have said, one writer coming out of another’s overcoat pocket.

Just across the arcade, between 25 and 27 Nevsky Prospect, stands the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan. The external colonnade is clearly modeled after that of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but inside, to my complete amazement, it is not exactly a tourist attraction, though tourists do throng around the nave and the transept. It is a place of worship, in a way Saint Peter’s is not.

Outside the cathedral stands the statue of Nikolai Gogol, erected in 1997. His presence there is not exactly an accident, since Gogol was a pious man. But it should be noted that this is also the church where the nose from Gogol’s eponymous tale, after escaping from Kovalyov’s face, is seen riding in a carriage on Nevsky Prospect, wearing, of all things, the gold-braided uniform of a state councilor. Kovalyov, of course, is eager to get ahold of his nose and put it back where it belongs, on his face. Whether the body part in question here is not exactly a man’s nose has long been a subject of ribald speculation among Gogol’s fans.

The cathedral was closed after the Communist revolution and was turned into the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism. Soviet propaganda notwithstanding, religious fervor went underground—the way so much has always gone underground here. Faith returned far, far too soon in a country that appropriated one of its most imposing religious edifices to house the history of atheism. This, after all, is the capital of things that never go away: they just go under for a while.

The sidewalk café is bathed in sunlight, its white chairs and tables gleaming in the light. A couple is sitting in one corner, another is chatting with the waiter.

Nowadays, there is such scant evidence of the 70 years of Soviet life in St. Petersburg that one must suspect that the population had either never taken to Marxism or that Marxism itself has gone underground. One of the telltale signs of the return to pre-Soviet times is that the tsarist names of many of the streets and avenues have returned, not least of which is the name of the city itself, which reverted to St. Petersburg after being named Leningrad, shortly after Lenin’s death in 1924. One is always free to speculate in what buried chamber old Soviet street signs are being stored. Seeing the power of the current Putin regime, one has to ask what precisely about the Soviet regime ever did go underground.

Not too far to the west of the Cathedral, at 35 Nevsky Prospect, is the shopping area Gostiny Dvor, built in 1757, the oldest and largest shopping center in St. Petersburg, its infinitely long arcade circling the huge block and echoing similar arcades on rue de Rivoli in Paris.

At number 21 is an art nouveau wonder, a structure built by Mertens Furriers in 1910 and now a Zara clothing store. Across from it, at number 28, is the art nouveau domed turret of the Singer Sewing Company’s building, now a large bookstore with a café overlooking Nevsky Prospect. Much farther to the west, at 56 Nevsky Prospect, is another glorious art nouveau building, which at one time housed the Eliseyev (or Elyseyeff ) Emporium and still bespeaks the luxury that must have existed on this thoroughfare. After many permutations, it has now been turned into a gourmet food shop. The wealthy Eliseyevs lived in the Chicherin House at 15 Nevsky Prospect, a building that went through several hands before they acquired it in 1858. Here, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, and the father of the periodic table, Mendeleev, were guests. Later, after the Eliseyevs fled the revolution, the writers Blok, Gorky, Mayakovsky, and Akhmatova would gather here until part of the building was converted into the Barrikada Cinema—where a young Shostakovich played the piano for silent films.

But the Eliseyevs are also famous for once owning a large collection of Rodin statues that was nationalized after the revolution and is now housed in the Hermitage. The Soviets were notorious for “requisitioning” and “expropriating” or—to use a more appropriate term—looting private art collections. The wealthy cloth merchant we still call the Russian soul.

Sergei Shchukin had developed a strong relationship with Matisse, which explains why the Hermitage holds a large collection of Matisses and Picassos as well as many works by Cézanne, Derain, Marquet, Gauguin, Monet, Renoir, Rousseau, and Van Gogh. Like Shchukin, Ivan Abramovich Morozov also fled the revolution, thus allowing his collection of works by Bonnard, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, and Sisley to end up in the hands of the Bolsheviks. Both Shchukin and Morozov eventually managed to leave Russia, though not without first undergoing deplorable Dr. Zhivagoesque conditions in their own homes. For all of Russia’s proclaimed de-Sovietization, these priceless art collections are seldom allowed to travel outside Russia, because the inheritors of the Shchukin and Morozov estates, living abroad, always threaten to sue in local courts to repossess what is rightfully theirs. The same is also true of Otto Krebs’s art collection at the Hermitage: works by Cézanne, Degas, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Van Gogh.

Unless the paintings were purchased by the state commission of experts or given as gifts—and these represent a minuscule fraction of impressionist, post-impressionist, fauvist, and modern French paintings at the Hermitage—the Hermitage possesses virtually no French work painted after 1913. This is when time stopped. Coincidentally enough, 1913 was the very year when the United States first opened its doors to modern European art at the famous New York Armory Show.

Come to Nevsky Prospect today, and you cannot help but feel the 300 years of Russian history and culture crammed into this one street. Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Goncharov, Bely, Nabokov—these figures never leave. We come to Nevsky Prospect hoping to run into them, or to catch a glimpse of their shadows, or to happen upon some private space that is our projection of who we think they are, and this may in the end say more about us than about them, though we need their ghosts to feel the pulse of that unfathomable organ we still like to call the Russian soul.

*

I’ve been walking up and down Nevsky Prospect the whole day. On this night, I decide to take a bus up the street and head to the Admiralty, facing the river to see the Dvortsovyy Palace Bridge open at one A.M. Very, very few people can give you directions in English. When you ask whether someone does speak English, everyone in St. Petersburg answers with the same two words: “a leettl”—which is really less than a little. But Russians are magnificent and munificent, especially when three or four individuals on the bus have watched you struggling to get directions and become determined to take charge of you and make certain not to let you step off at the wrong stop. Suddenly I realize that I should have mastered at least a phrasebook knowledge of Russian, if only to say pozhaluysta, for please, skol’ko for how much, and spasibo for thank you. Such beautiful words and such frank, unguarded glances from strangers.

By then it’s already nearing one in the morning, and I am probably on the last bus. I get off at the Hermitage. Like so many buildings here, the Hermitage is all illuminated. I walk to the riverbank, where a large crowd has already gathered to watch the opening of the bridge, which is supposed to be raised for three hours, until four A.M., to allow the larger boats through on the Neva.

The crowd at the head of the bridge keeps swelling, and people with all kinds of sophisticated cameras and video equipment are getting prepared. Individual flares, launched ever so softly from left and right of the bridge, begin wafting in the air, hovering way aboveground like distant kites, eventually dropping into the water as gingerly as they’d been released, one down, two up, three up, one down. The crowd cheers.

Across the river, another crowd has also gathered on the artificial sand beach by the Peter and Paul Fortress. There is still a lot of traffic crossing the bridge. Groups of younger pedestrians are running back and forth, almost taunting the personnel on the bridge. There is laughter in the huge crowd, and there’s music, and a festive atmosphere prevails as people bide their time, everyone already sharing in the good cheer. People love to party in June.

By 1:20 A.M., a clamor ripples through the crowd, and traffic authorities begin attempting to stop cars, but no one seems to pay much heed, and the cars keep racing across the bridge. Minutes later, bridge workers begin to order everyone off. Some yell, people applaud. Meanwhile, a flotilla of small and midsize boats has gathered in the middle of the Neva, sitting still in the water, waiting for the chance to pass.

Then it happens. Cell phones light up everywhere, mottling the twilight from both sides of the bridge, while cameras click and flash frantically, as if members of a famous rock band had just arrived and were about to step out of their limousine. There are astounded gasps and cries, as a loud hurrah races through the crowd, down to the park area by the Admiralty, where yet more people, I only now realize, are gathered. Finally, the bridge starts to open.

This is the moment everyone has been waiting for. The crowd applauds yet again. Then tourist boats of various sizes begin to pass under the opened bridge, cars honk, a police-boat siren wails half in greeting and half as a warning, while the Hermitage still glows in the backdrop, its floodlit forefront reflected on the Neva. And it suddenly occurs to me that I need to come back here to watch the exact same thing tomorrow night. Who wouldn’t come back for this? So many people, so much joy, not even the shadow of a policeman in the crowd, not one person becoming a public nuisance or going rogue, nothing loutish anywhere, and so much mirth everywhere.

This was my very first white night. I’ve been waiting to see this ever since reading Dostoyevsky’s story “White Nights” as a very young man.

*

And it is precisely because I’ve begun thinking of “White Nights” again that I do not wish to head back to my hotel. I want to put off going to sleep, knowing I’ll be up in a few hours because of jetlag. So I keep walking to experience St. Petersburg during one of those sunlit day-nights that occur for such a brief spell every year. But I have another agenda. I want to visit the very spot where the Kryukov Canal meets the Griboyedov Canal. I want to go back to the place where the unnamed narrator of “White Nights”—the solitary, bookish dreamer—sees Nastenka along one of the deserted embankments, “leaning on the canal railing … with her elbows on the rail.” She is crying. The two talk. Eventually they must part. But they meet on the same embankment the following night, and the night after that, and one more night after that as well, which is when she finally decides to accept the narrator’s love. Yet no sooner is she about to pledge herself than someone suddenly brushes by the pair. It’s her old flame who has come back, as promised. The old lovers are reunited and leave together, while our anonymous narrator is left alone, startled and forlorn.

The tale is sentimental to the core, but on nights such as this, especially when, in Gogol’s words, “the street lamps invest everything with an alluring, magical light,” nothing could be more real than the tremulous colloquy of two strangers on a bridge. When I get back to the hotel, I do not wish to lie down and end up sleeping through the whole day. So I sit around, turn on the TV for a while, and, rather than wait for breakfast in the hotel, decide to step out and walk. I don’t get lost, though I don’t know where I’m going. I wish to have breakfast in the bookstore café located right under the dome of the Singer Building, but I’ve had coffee already once there and wasn’t impressed. Instead I find a side street off Nevsky Prospect and, thinking it’s a shortcut to a place I’ve passed by earlier on Gorokhovaya Street, find myself walking on Rubinstein Street instead.

And there it is.

The sidewalk café is bathed in sunlight, its white chairs and tables gleaming in the light. A couple is sitting in one corner, another is chatting with the waiter. The third table is occupied by someone who seems a regular, dressed in swanky clothes, obviously coming back from a party and having breakfast before heading back home. This, it occurs to me, is a neighborhood restaurant-café. At the other corner, three women and a man rocking a baby stroller with his foot are laughing and talking. Because the air can be cool sometimes, especially in the evening or early morning, restaurants regularly provide shawls for their customers; these are folded on every chair. Two of the women in the group of four near me are wrapped in pure white blankets that bear the emblem and name of the café in golden filigree: Schastye.

When I ask one of the four, in English, if I can bum a cigarette, two readily produce their packs. I apologize, saying I had long ago stopped smoking, but that watching them all smoking and enjoying themselves makes it difficult to resist. One thing leads to another. Where do I live?—New York. Where do they live?—upstairs. I laugh. They laugh. Perfect camaraderie. I was going to leaf through the day’s English-language paper but decide otherwise. Everyone is happy on this quiet Sunday morning. I order coffee and soft-boiled eggs, and, because the waiter speaks perfect English, I ask if I can have my Americano before the eggs. Of course. Three-minute eggs? I ask, making sure they aren’t going to be hard. Of course. There is something snug with a touch of understated chic about both the café and its clientele, the whole thing without pretense and perfectly décontracté.

I begin to wonder whether their lives upstairs correspond with what I am seeing here or whether they still live in cramped, Soviet-style homes. But I put the thought away. This, I realize, is the new St. Petersburg. Happy to be what it is and totally un-Dostoyevskian. Not a trace of heat, no crowds, no dust, no drunks or hawkers jostling their way about. I am seeing something altogether unexpected. This is a lovely place, the weather is perfect, and I want to enjoy every moment of it before heading out this morning to discover my new St. Petersburg. I just want to get as far away from myself as I possibly can—forget what I know, drown out the noise in my head, stop being such a bookish tourist for once, and finally see what’s right before me.

I promise to come back exactly a year from now and spend a few months here, venture a new life, because here lies a new unborn me waiting to come alive. I stare at the building above the café, only to be told by the waiter that the large archway of the building next door belonged to the Tolstoy House. No, not Leo Tolstoy, but still, a member of the same family. The building has a large courtyard that I should definitely visit later—if I head straight through its courtyard, I’ll come out at the other end, at number 54 on the Fontanka embankment. I want to look at the windows of every apartment in this large complex and spy into all those lives and wonder which might possibly be mine someday, should I be lucky enough to come back and live here for a while.

I want to learn Russian and say pozhaluysta when asking for a cigarette, and spasibo when offered one, and I want to say prekrasnyi den’, because it is indeed a beautiful day, and poka for bye, and so many other things. And I want to come back here every morning of my stay in St. Petersburg, because I’ll find something that I know might still take days to pinpoint and understand, something in me or outside me—I’m not sure which—but in the meantime the one thing I know for certain, as I sit back on my chair, wrapping myself in a white shawl the way all Russians do when the weather isn’t warm enough, is that “I am not a sick man … not a spiteful man … not an unattractive man … and that nothing is wrong with my liver.”

What does schastye mean? I finally ask our young waiter. He looks at me and, placing my Americano on the table, says, “Happiness.”

__________________________________

Originally published in The American Scholar. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. 

André Aciman
André Aciman
André Aciman was born in Alexandria, Egypt and is an American memoirist, essayist, novelist, and scholar of seventeenth-century literature. He is the New York Times bestselling author of Call Me by Your Name and Find Me as well as of Out of Egypt and Eight White Nights, among other books. Homo Irrealis, his forthcoming collection of essays, will appear in January 2021. Audible will soon release his novella The Gentleman from Peru. Aciman is the director of The Writers’ Institute and teaches Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center, CUNY.





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