Given that you’re reading this article, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you like reading books. Even if I’m wrong, the fact that you’ve made it a sentence in proves that you’re literate and will have, inevitably, read some book of some kind in your life. I personally attach a lot of importance and emotions to my most beloved books. In fact, where others might have a comfort food, a comfort film, or a comfort song, for a sense of security I usually turn to a comfort book. And up until very recently, this book was Vanora Bennett’s Midnight in St Petersburg.
Thus far, all the books I’ve focused on have been rather renowned to say the least – they are either classics or have been brought into the limelight thanks to successful adaptations. However, I often find that lesser-known books can have more of a lasting effect on their reader: there are no expectations attached to the reputation of a famous author, and so the connection you form with the book is a more intimate one. This is how Midnight in St Petersburg came to be such an important part of my life. It was around 2015 and I was only a year into learning Russian at secondary school. Our teacher sneaked us into a lecture that only sixth-form students got to attend. This time, Vanora Bennett, a former pupil, promoted her latest book set in St Petersburg from 1911, leading up to the Russian Revolution in1917.
And the book was magical. I was transported back in time to Imperial Russia where huge historical figures such as Rasputin, Prince Felix Yusupov (his assassin), and Fabergé seem as ordinary as the book’s three protagonists that they interacted with. The opulence of the aristocracy twinkled brighter when contrasted with the devastating poverty of the everyman.
The story follows Inna Feldman, a young Jewish girl who arrives in Petersburg at eighteen to escape the pogroms in Kiev. She goes to stay with her distant cousin, the rebellious and revolutionary-minded Yasha Kagan, living and working with the Lemans – a family of luthiers (violinmakers). A love triangle ensues between Inna, Yasha, and Horace Wallick, a middle-aged English gentleman working for Fabergé, all against the backdrop of Russia in a time of great societal and political upheaval.
Midnight in St Petersburg entered my life at such a crucial point in my development as a person. It painted a vivid picture of Russia’s vivacity and culture for a small teenage girl only just embarking on her Russian journey. As a novice linguist, I was overjoyed every time I understood the simple Russian sentences that were transliterated (and then translated) throughout the book. And when this same time period was chosen as our in-depth project for history GCSE, I was even more overjoyed to better understand the context behind the significant historical events I had encountered. The confidence and calm that Midnight in St Petersburg engendered in me got me through a lot of worrying times and stayed with me years after I first read it.
It seemed only natural, therefore, that as I found myself alone and isolated, quarantined in an unfamiliar city, in a foreign country – Russia herself no less! – I should turn to Bennett’s story that had formerly brought me comfort. But instead I was met with utter disillusionment. Yes, I was still overjoyed when I understood the Russian and the social context, and even more so as I found myself intimately familiar with the plethora of artists, poets, and intellectuals that had previously seemed so obscure (I guess those uni fees are worth it, then). But the comfort and reassurance I sought didn’t materialise. What I experienced was nothing short of than spiritual disenchantment.
Don’t get me wrong, I would really recommend this book to people who want a pleasant read and a foray into late-Imperial/pre-revolutionary Russia. But I found the writing lacking. The description of St Petersburg itself, or the sound of music, or the crafting of a violin was breathtaking, but that’s where my praise ends. The three protagonists, despite being given a lot of “screen time”, felt underdeveloped and two-dimensional. The crush that fourteen-year-old me had on the hot-headed and brooding Yasha quickly dissipated. The attempt at the Romantic ideal of an enigmatic thinker was not enough to compensate for the fact that he now seemed reckless, selfish, pathetic and – much like a difficult toddler – prone to hissy fits. The gentlemanly Horace Wallick was wet and bland and not nearly as stoic as I fear he was intended to be. And Inna’s indecision and constant back-and-forth between her lover and husband is, quite frankly, lacking the emotional depth and motivation needed for me to care in the slightest.
The magic and the lustre had disappeared. And besides a feeling of emptiness, what I felt the most was a pervading sense of loss. This book that I had so ardently loved for over six years was now as unimportant as every other one I had rated three stars on Goodreads. Even my nostalgia for how it used to make me feel wasn’t enough. What’s supposed to be my comfort book now?
And that’s when some statistics helped to make things better.
There are just under 130 million books out there in the big wide world. Just under 130 million books just waiting for you to read them. There is bound to be at least one of them that resonates with you. Loss can be a very overwhelming emotion, but as you change as a person, your opinions and beliefs are sure to change with you. So, there’s no point in holding onto a past that used to make you feel happy or safe when there are so many exciting and new things waiting for you around the corner. Don’t be afraid to let go and explore new horizons. Your next favourite book is just waiting for you to pluck up the courage and pick it up.
Image by Sophie Benbelaid