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Last Updated: Monday, 4 August, 2003, 06:33 GMT 07:33 UK
Sense of the City: St Petersburg
The BBC is asking novelists who have a profound understanding of the city they live in to reflect on the fiction it has produced and the various works of literature set there.

Konstantin Palace
People often talk about Petersburg being a museum
The daughter of Russian emigres, Ingrid Bengis grew up in the US but moved to St Petersburg in 1991. She is the author of Metro Stop Dostoevsky, which offers a contemporary view of the city from the perspective of an "outsider".

My mother was born in Odessa. My father was born in Vilnius. My mother left in 1921. But I didn't come to Petersburg until 1985, and I came singing in an amateur opera company, and I've been here ever since.

Of course I had no idea what I was in for, or had no idea what Russia was in for - nobody did. I just happened to be here during all of this very difficult period in Russian life, and I wrote about it.

Since the title is Metro Stop Dostoevsky, one of the very important elements in the book is that the shadow of Dostoevsky is always here and always hovering.

I love Dostoevsky and when I first came here it was a great surprise to me to realise that the events that take place in Dostoevsky's novels take place on these streets, in these doorways, these apartments.

The streets are old, the courtyards are old, so that world physically still exists here. It's not as if it has gotten fancied up. It's not a museum. People often talk about Petersburg being a museum, but the world of Dostoevsky is certainly not a museum here. To me it's still very alive.

I feel that somehow the city corresponds to the reality of life, to the real complexity of life, to the whole spectrum of emotions that you can feel.

It's terrible and it's beautiful. It's exciting and it's boring. It's trashy and it's elegant. And it's everything. Everything that has affected me at least - all the literature connected with St Petersburg - has a somewhat hallucinatory quality.

Revellers at St Petersburg's 300th anniversary celebrations
Living here is like an itch
The sense of something glorious but something not stable on its feet. I think the fact that the city is built on a swamp really has an effect on that. The sense that the whole city could disappear in a second.

There is also that sense of discordant elements constantly clashing against each other, of this society that is kind of whirling around at tremendous speed.

So I think a major theme of this city, if you're going to choose only one, would have to do with destiny, a sense of destiny. And what is that destiny - trying to define that destiny, and running from that destiny, trying to escape from it and then being caught by it again.

It's a city with a very, very strong sense of destiny and I think the literature reflects that.

I can't imagine someone writing a calm book that had no serious questions in it. I can't imagine someone writing that kind of book here.

Living here is like an itch. There is something troubling you - troubling your sleep, troubling your dreams. When you're a writer you're sort of juggling all these things that fall into your hands and not really knowing quite what to do with them but they're bothering you all the time.

It's hard for writers in general right now... nobody knows what they're writing about or for whom or why
And so you have to give shape to them. It's not something that they're even consciously saying: "I'm going to write about this." It's just something you can't get rid of.

New literature that's being produced now - it's almost as if there is this gap and history doesn't exist at all. And also right now there is this tremendous attraction, which I find a little odd, to the world of the 19th Century - this aristocratic world as if everybody was living that way - and I think it's a rather romanticised picture of those times.

But as far as writers are concerned I think it's a very confusing time. I think it's hard for writers in general right now, because there is this sense of having lost a sense of purpose, and that nobody knows what they're writing about or for whom or why.

I think that in some strange way that censorship provided something to fight against, and so each word was precious. And I think the preciousness of the word is what's being lost here.

Sense of the City can be heard on the BBC World Service programme The World Today until Friday 8 August, and includes Orhan Pamuk talking about Istanbul, and Romesh Gunesekera on Colombo.

Author Ingrid Bengis
"It's terrible and it's beautiful. It's exciting and it's boring. It's trashy and it's elegant. And it's everything"


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