‘Nevsky Prospekt’ by Nikolay Gogol, trans. Ronald Wilks

Gogol was in some ways the most 19th-century-Russian-novelist of the 19th-century Russian novelists. He has some of the louche wit and sophistication of Lermontov; some of the brisk amorality of Leskov; a little of Dostoevsky’s intensity (but, thank goodness, far less of his frantic earnestness); in private he shared with Tolstoy a religious agony. He was a visionary with a cocked eyebrow. ‘Nevsky Prospekt’ is a darkly entranced waltz through St Petersburg, city of clerks and civil servants, an improbable dream-city (but one later spun into yet more oblique fantasy by Andrei Bely). Gogol shows us the cracked passion and miserable suicide of the artist Piskarev, and the thwarted philandering of the officer Pirogov – but most of all he shows us the city (no, his city) with wide-panning camerawork that at times recalls Dickens’ cinematic swoops through London in Bleak House. “Everything here breathes deception,” the narrator warns. With ‘The Nose’ and ‘The Overcoat’, ‘Nevsky Prospekt’ completes a metropolitan trilogy that presents St Petersburg in treacherously shifting light: at once a city of the dead and a theatre of the absurd.

First published in 1835. Collected in The Diary Of A Madman, The Government Inspector and Selected Stories, Penguin, 2005