Book reveals old school Russia

Extravagance, artifice and wonderful architecture: it’s 18th century St. Petersburg, Russia and Debra Dean is here to lead us through.

Specifically, the author’s new book follows a young St. Xenia through her life, friendship and mysticism. The author says that some of the themes are somewhat timeless.

“On the one hand, the novel has elements that are like a dark fairy tale, very far away, but as I wrote there were elements seemed very timely, too. The Russian nobility were like our 1 per cent: a very small number lived lives of incredible excess, and the rest lived on the precipice, always one accident or illness away from ruin.

“One of my main characters is a woman whose life takes her from one extreme to the other. She is based on the historical figure of Xenia of Petersburg, who was said to have gone mad with grief after the sudden death of her husband. As I wrote, I kept thinking of Joan Didion’s remarkable account, in ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’, of her own temporary madness when she was widowed,” Debra says.

Her debut book, the well-received “The Madonnas of Leningrad,” put her in the “15-years-overnight success” category. This time around, the research and writing for the historical novel took five years, she explains.

“I do a lot of research before I write the first word – if you are writing about a culture and a time period that is not your own, that initial immersion is necessary to tell the lie convincingly – but then as I write, new questions emerge, and so research becomes a tandem activity with the writing,” explains Debra.

Compelling stuff

But what is it that’s so compelling about the 18th century? After all, the author herself admits that when she was in university she used to think it was “the boring century”. But not so.

“Far from it. In Russia, it was a period of radical change as the first Romanovs forced their subjects to behave like Europeans. They imported French chefs and German tutors and Italian musicians. In fact, the city of St. Petersburg itself was designed to look Italian rather than Russian.

“The result was a sort of societal schizophrenia: at home, people dressed in their old-style caftans and spoke Russian, but out in public, they spoke French and dressed and ate like Europeans. They were self conscious and never quite sure how to behave. And the old folk beliefs and superstitions also co-existed alongside new ideas: the old monks and holy fools shared the public stage with Voltaire and the Masons,” muses the author.

She says that St. Petersburg is an amazing place, one of the most beautiful cities in the world and the “seat of Russian art and culture”.

“I can’t speak for other writers, but one of the things that makes it interesting to me is that is familiar in some respects – it looks European – but it is also deeply strange. And the stories … Russia has the best stories. Everything is so outsized and extreme.

“Dostoyevsky said of Russians that they were half saint and half savage, and that makes for wonderful stories.”

You can judge for yourself as the author visits Books & Books for a reading and signing of “The Mirrored World” on Tuesday, 6 November at 7pm. Entry is free.

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