I was waiting at the top of the escalator, as we had agreed the night before by phone. The marble palace of the metro station Gorkovskaya, named after a Russian writer whose name means “bitter,” felt solemn enough for the occasion. I was peering into the face of every woman delivered by the moving stairs, as if each was a final product on a factory line reaching its destination. I watched their wandering looks, their wrinkles, the tensions of their mouths and speculated which one was my mother. Any of them could be.
My friend K. and I traveled to St. Petersburg on the overnight train from Moscow, where I lived then. She had come from New York to visit me. It was December, 1997, and the cold was brutal, but you have to see the Hermitage, I said. So we took the train north and then, at dawn, made our way to the international youth hostel. It was the first one in Russia—opened in 1992—and like every hostel I’d visited, it was full of backpackers eager to tell us how much of the world they had seen. No one’s hostile in a hostel, I said to K. She and I had been out of college for just a couple of years; our fellow travelers were about our age. Many of them were from Australia and New Zealand. At breakfast that first morning— a room with tentative light and forlorn bowls of muesli—we met a young Japanese-Finnish woman. (Her parents were Japanese, but she’d been raised in Finland.) She had traveled from Helsinki, she told us, to photograph corpses.
The modern novel is probably an unintended consequence of nineteenth-century European cities. James Wood glosses the idea in his handbook How Fiction Works. The breakthrough narration in Madame Bovary, for instance, a stylish authorial voice that seemingly dissolves into the consciousness of its subjects on a wash of image and detail, corresponds to a boom in European industrial urbanism. Its vector is the flâneur: the young and loitering, the unemployable café-sitters, the arcade-browsers. These onlookers adapted their eyes to the city’s “large, bewilderingly various amounts of detail,” says Wood.
The Fiction and Nonfiction of the St. Petersburg Pier