Once upon a time a now-forgotten Italian art critic called this city "Russia's window to Europe," a platitude not meant wholly as a compliment. Through the turmoil of the last couple of centuries and Moscow's usurping of its place as the governmental capital, the term "window to Europe" has appended itself to St. Petersburg's many titles. These inevitably include "the northern capital," "Leningrad," its name for sixty-seven inglorious years, "Russia's capital of culture," and "The Venice of the North" (a name also bestowed upon both this German city and this Scandinavian capital), among a few more local variants. Whatever the name chosen, the point remains: Petersburg is an imitation. Yet if you have ever been to Petersburg, one of the most magnificent metropolises on this planet, you may well disagree. There are elements that can be hastily categorized as Italian-influenced – after all, Italians did design the city in the form it assumed three hundred and twelve years ago – but these have been transformed by time and empire to reflect a very different understanding of human nature. Some more cynical minds may sneer at the sleaze and corruption that have always composed the foreigner's guidebook to Soviet and post-Soviet territory; others may claim that Russia's enduring struggle to gain religious autonomy makes their pseudo-Roman architecture a particularly lurid form of blasphemy. But we will leave behind these negative hordes to their misbegotten agendas and proceed to a tale of mild salacity and great nostalgia.
The story purports to be a letter by an unnamed Russian émigré residing in Berlin to a Soviet writer called Serge Solntsev, which etymologically suggests "a vassal to the sun." Yet for the entirety of the story apart from the very last line, our writer will address Solntsev as "madam," a conceit that devolves into his identification of the writer's novel, The Admiralty Spire, with the narrator's love affair with Katya, his first love in a Russia that seems lost forever ("since the day of our last meeting there has been a lapse of sixteen years – the age of a bride, an old dog, or the Soviet Republic"). Hence is derived a litany of small everyday objects that can only gain significance in the memory of an exile. We see resurrected, inter alia, a porcelain ballerina with lifted leg, hautbois berries, a breast-pocket handkerchief, the part in his hair right down the middle, and beautiful scenes of young love:
And when night finally fell, and the house was asleep, Katya and I would look at the dark house from the park where we kept huddled on a hard, cold, invisible bench until our bones ached, and it all seemed to us like something that had already once happened long ago: the outline of the house against the pale-green sky, the sleepy movements of the foliage, our prolonged, blind kisses.
The narrator's initial accusation is one of theft: the novelist, like so many predatory hacks, is alleged to have met Katya at some point in the not-so-distant past and become enraptured with her tale of first love, ecstatic and radiant as it must have been, and so much brighter than her own mishandled and lowly affairs. Well, at least that last part is implied. Over the course of the narrator's rantings the events and shades of meaning begin, however, to take a different turn. Our Soviet novelist has been transformed again into the very source of this love affair which doesn't really resemble the storyline one bit. It is here that we sense the narrator is reading one story and imagining another:
In your elegant description, with profuse dots, of that summer, you naturally do not forget for a minute – as we used to forget – that since February of that year the nation was "under the rule of the Provisional government," and you oblige Katya and me to follow revolutionary events with keen concern, that is, to conduct (for dozens of pages) political and mystical conversations that – I assure you – we never had. In the first place, I would have been embarrassed to speak, with the righteous pathos you lend me, of Russia's destiny, and in the second place, Katya and I were too absorbed in each other to pay attention to the Revolution.
Thereupon follows a Petersburg anecdote about a cat, a "truck packed with jolly rioters" (a dead giveaway in any tale by Nabokov), a fateful swerve, and then the repetition of the same sequence in Spain, which deprives the event of any "deep occult meaning." It also hints at another type of story, the very core of which the narrator ingresses as his memories float further and further away from unfriendly and rather parochial shores.
As for the eponymous spire: this sits atop a naval building and is one of the most renowned members of the Petersburg skyline. There are countless references to it in Russian literature, and some critics have even adopted the rather faddish interpretation of its presence to denote the architectonic and structural acme towards which all poets strive (perhaps not all poets; critics often tend to gaze upon poets like sheep). Yet there is a more plausible spin provided near the beginning of Nabokov's tale that relates to the introduction of this famous poem by Pushkin, a monumental work literally and figuratively, in which "admiralty spire" is given, in Russian at least, a line of its own:
I love thee, City Peter built,
I love thy harsh and horrid gaze;
The mighty flow of Neva silt
The shoreline granite by thy haze;
Thy filigreed wall iron-cast,
Тhy lucid dusk and moonless shine
Of pensive days that ever last,
While I, room-bound, my thoughts untwine;
And read and write bereft of lamp,
As clear and sleeping masses ramp
Up empty streets beneath the fire
Of thy taut admiralty spire.
Without the gloaming to corrupt
The gilded clouds that linger long,
Til hasty dawn shall interrupt
Brief night's half-hour twilit song.
Should night bring us our notions of mortality and dread, endless day might inspire us to overcome our fears and hope for a fairer destiny. Nabokov's political leanings were always quite evident in his works, with his bitterness towards two loud and brutal regimes peaking for a solid decade between 1937 and 1947 (thankfully, one at least was extinguished). Not that one needs the political background to enjoy what is said; only the most unimaginative reader requires history and dogma to frame his fiction. But those of us who have the opportunity now can look back and smile at the prescience of his insight, given that he never supposed he would see his hometown again, and if he did, only ravaged and naked in nightmares without sense or end. Windows, we recall, often let us look in as well as out.