What to read, bearing in mind a visit to St Petersburg… EPISODE 4
Chekhov – read the short stories, they’re marvellous. I have never liked reading plays, so unless you can get to a performance of The Cherry Orchard, or Uncle Vanya, or The Seagull, I wouldn’t bother.
Nabokov & Solzhenitsyn are fascinating, of course, but are not time sensitive for your visit here. Other than stopping in at Nabokov’s house, now a museum, but you’ve probably read Lolita anyway.
Gogol. He’s a Ukrainian writer, living in St Petersburg, and really the father of the surreal Petersburg novel, which infected so much other literature about the city (for example, Crime & Punishment). He did some short stories – The Nose being my favourite. It tells of a self-important mid-ranking civil servant who wakes up one day to find his nose has left his face. Horrified by what people may think, he can’t work out what to do, or how to go about his usual routine. Even worse – he later spies his nose parading about the city like a full grown chap, in the uniform of a superior ranking civil servant. Absurd, it mocks the type of people who have (sadly) run this country for centuries, and is as relevant now as ever. There’s even a sculpture of said nose on one of the city’s streets, which we’ll go visit. He also wrote The Government Inspector, and Dead Souls, about corruption among government officials – they got him exiled, which is testament to the nerves they touched. And there’s my favourite The Overcoat, about a nobody being stomped on by his uncaring colleagues – all in Gogol’s excellent absurdist style. I found it hilarious, my mother found it tragic; perhaps it depends on the translation you read. To give you a clue, the hero’s name is Akakii Akakievich. My Russian professor at university asked us what we thought it meant. To us, it sounded like any other complicated Russian name, until he asked what the general European child’s word for poo is – kaka. Upon which he said, “This man’s name is Shit, son of shit. Or, as I prefer to call him, Shit Squared.” That’s about the limit of the toilet humour, though.