I studied this story in a class on ‘Petersburg’ in Literature at a small liberal arts college in western Massachusetts in the middle of winter. This is the class that changed my life, so whether this is the best short story by a Russian writer, I cannot and will not say. But this class and this story, along with Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, and the western Massachusetts’ winter prompted me to move to London. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the exact translation I read, so I’ve listed here the translation I came across recently by Constance Garnett, whose translations Janet Malcolm holds in some regard. Often presented as a story of love and then eventual disillusionment, I will always read ‘White Nights’ as a love story to a city. A city, like all cities, which is capable of taking you to great soaring heights but equally capable of breaking your heart. Smashing you to smithereens. Really recommend reading it when you are a depressed 19-year-old in the middle of winter at a small liberal arts college in western Massachusetts to experience its full effects.
Original first published 1848, translation in 1918. Collected in The Gambler and Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 2010, and as a Penguin Little Black Classic, 2016. Available to read online at Project Gutenberg
If you come to this story in search of Christmas cheer and cosiness, I am afraid I must, in the spirit of Lemony Snicket, urge you to turn away now and never look back. Here will be all the trimmings of Christmas – presents, sweets and Christmas trees – but all through the lens of the great master of misery, Dostoevsky.
The occasion is a Christmas party, and our narrator is a thoroughly Dostoevskian outsider who perceives with clear eye the macabre mechanisms of society. (How easily this could be Crime and Punishment’s Rodion Raskolnikov, forced to attend a party he has no wish to be at, and which he will pass talking to children and then hiding in a side room, not neglecting to commit social faux pas by laugh in the face of the most important man present.)
Our narrator watches, unperceived, as two children at opposite ends of the social spectrum – the prettiest, richest little girl at the party, and a governess’s son – play with their Christmas toys, only to be disturbed by the sinister figure of the wealthy, corpulent, Mastakovitch who has be calculating what the girl’s dowry will be when she comes of age –and it is a sum that makes him almost dance with glee. The result is a savage pairing of childhood innocence and adult avarice that cannot fail to evoke a shudder.
First published in 1848. Available online here
Chosen by Joanna Harker Shaw. Joanna is a writer and performer of poetry shortlisted for the Outspoken poetry prize. She is currently completing a Creative Writing PhD at St Mary’s University, Twickenham and also teaches and runs creative writing workshops for all ages.