Magazine article Book

Peter's Panorama: In the Three Centuries since Its Founding on the River Neva, St. Petersburg's Haunting Streets and Spectacular Architecture Have Inspired Writers from Dostoevsky to Brodsky

Magazine article Book

Peter's Panorama: In the Three Centuries since Its Founding on the River Neva, St. Petersburg's Haunting Streets and Spectacular Architecture Have Inspired Writers from Dostoevsky to Brodsky

Article excerpt

FOUNDED ON SWAMPLAND THREE hundred years ago by Peter the Great, St. Petersburg is one of the most mysterious and alluring cities in all of Europe. Its history is filled with struggle and conflict: The opening battles of the Russian Revolution took place there, and during World War II--back when it was known, temporarily, as Leningrad--it was besieged by the Nazis for nine hundred days. The city's world-weary but passionate inhabitants, so memorably captured in the work of Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoevsky, are a great feast for people-watchers. And the city, which celebrated its three-hundredth anniversary in May, is also one of Europe's foremost cultural capitals, boasting some of the greatest buildings and arts performances you'll ever see.

A war-torn history, a psychologically complex citizenry and a bevy of rich cultural offerings? Sounds like a great place for writers--and it is. "It's one of the most writerly places I've ever been," says the novelist Aimee Bender, the author of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. "It has such a romance to it. It's a bit severe in its way, almost. But it's also very beautiful."

For two weeks each summer from 2001 to 2003, Bender was a faculty member at the Summer Literary Seminars, a five-year-old program that brings established and aspiring authors to St. Petersburg to write, talk and experience the city together. Bender says that the founder of the SLS, Mikhail Iossel, "wants to bring people to a city that isn't fully acknowledged as a literary city in America." Other writers who have served on the SLS faculty include Billy Collins, Dave Eggers, Robert Coover, Francine Prose, Denis Johnson, Phillip Lopate and Lynne Sharon Schwartz. (For information about the SLS, see www.sumlitsem.org.)

When they're not participating in courses with title such as "Petersburg in the Literary imagination," students and faculty at the SLS join the tourists at the city's numerous literary landmarks. A statue of Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), the author of Eugene Onegin and one of the fathers of Russian literature, stands in front of the Russian Museum on Nevsky Prospekt, the endless boulevard that is the city's answer to the Champs Elysees. The childhood home of Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), the author of Lolita and Pale Fire, has been converted to a museum that often hosts readings and other events. …

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