Frustration to ‘The Firebird’ — the sublimity of St. Petersburg

In St. Petersburg, Russia, catching an Uber the hell out of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery was nigh impossible and immaculately exasperating — client and drivers just could not connect and a flurry of cancelled rides ensued — so I found myself trekking down bustling Nevsky Prospect, the main thoroughfare in this wonderfully massive city, pocked with shops and banks and restaurants, groceries and souvenir kiosks. I strolled contentedly (ignore the steam poofing from my ears) till I could stroll no more, and located a spot at a landmark from which to finally hail an Uber ride. (Did I mention the average Uber fare ran me about $1.50 US? A dollar-fifty. Yes, at this point I’m grinning.)

What I was doing at the famed, winsome Alexander Nevsky Monastery, at the tippity-top of Nevsky Prospect, was looking at graves, mostly those in the famous Tikhvin Cemetery, where Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and other brand-name bodies lie.

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For about $7 US, one is invited to amble the leafy paths of the 19th-century burial grounds and, with map in hand, á la those furnished at the unsurpassed cemeteries of Paris, seek out the eternal mattresses of the famous and infamous. The weather was cool, distinctly autumnal, the leaves turned and fallen. It was bliss.

Dostoyevsky lurched at me:

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As did this distressed woman, who perhaps witnessed my Uber travails:

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For this visitor, St. Petersburg was glorious that way, in its vibrant, tumultuous history, which is epic and bracingly complex, riddled with shake-ups, triumphs, reversals, oustings, wars, creeps (that’s you, Rasputin), revolutionaries (that’s you, Lenin), and cataracts of blood. Where else would there be this, the knockout, perversely titled Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, the spot where Alexander II was assassinated by a terrorist bomb:

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Endless canals stream through St. Petersburg, requiring scores and scores of small bridges, reminiscent of Amsterdam and its canals, or Paris and the regal Seine.

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And, as I boasted in an earlier entry, I located unfettered beauty at the ballet in the legendary Mariinsky Theatre. I watched, and reveled in, Stravinsky’s landmark fairytale “The Firebird,” perched in a fine dress circle seat. It was lush and extravagant. My view:

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Bonus shots: The Winter Palace, once the official home of the czars in the 1700s, in the sprawling Palace Square. This is the main building of the boggling Hermitage Museum.

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Below, a Hermitage guide describes Leonardo da Vinci’s exquisite “Madonna and Child” from 1478:

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And that’s all from Russia. I’ll spare you the food porn.

A grave interest in cemeteries

Considering my voluptuous fascination with death and dying, I’ve become quite the habitué of graveyards and cemeteries, be they local, regional or far-flung amid my world journeys. I dig graves. And I go out of my way to find them, stroll them, contemplate and photograph them, from Boston to Brooklyn to my personal cemetery capital of the world Paris.

My favorite cemetery is, no surprise, Père Lachaise in Paris, a dense, lush, almost medieval necropolis of winding paths and boulevards, overgrown ivy and shady groves — a crepuscular cosmos unto itself whose edifices just happen to be ornate, angel-crested crypts and poetry-carved tombstones. Famous artists, actors, writers, politicians — Jim Morrison to Oscar Wilde, Proust to Edith Piaf — slumber here. Locating their graves is part of the game at the labyrinthine, 110-acre Père Lachaise, which contains over a million graves. (Cimetiere du Montparnasse is another must-see, star-studded burial spread in Paris.)

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Tchaikovsky’s grave

Researching my nearing trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, I was thrilled to find a whole page about local cemeteries. The most popular and famous is the Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, where Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and other luminaries rest. Expect travelogue-y descriptions of my visits to the Russia repositories.

Meanwhile, this is a catalog of recent cemetery jaunts — and more. All the images have to do with death, dying, the great beyond.

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Brompton Cemetery, London.
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Westminster Abbey, London. (How I face the world each morning.)
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Istanbul Islamic cemetery.  
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Serge Gainsbourg, Cimetiere du Montparnasse, Paris.
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Karl Marx, Highgate Cemetery, London.
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Highgate Cemetery, London.
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Cimetiere du Montparnasse, Paris.
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Paris Catacombs. (Alas, poor Yorick!)
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Cimetiere du Montparnasse, Paris.
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Cast of Joseph Merrick skeleton, aka The Elephant Man, Royal London Hospital.
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Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris.
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Highgate Cemetery, London.
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Cimetiere du Montparnasse, Paris.
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Funeral pyre of old woman, Kathmandu, Nepal.
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London.

It’s my journal. If only it were more.

“Journal entries, those vessels of discontent, are notoriously fickle, subject to the torque of mutable feelings; without caution, speculation falls into usurpation.” Cynthia Ozick

I’ve kept a journal for more than 22 years. It’s mostly electronic, tip-tapped on my computer, though I’ve printed out hundreds of pages from the first decade or so and bound them in a plastic spiral binder, as if I wrote a book. It’s quite fat.

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A big hunk of my journals, bound.

(This word barrage, incidentally, doesn’t include the stacks of Moleskin notebooks deliriously filled during my extensive world travels.)

What I write in the journal is hardly revolutionary. I report, remember, ruminate, philosophize, complain, yearn, whine and woolgather — all that human stuff. Most likely it is ravenously narcissistic, disgustingly self-obsessed, irretrievably solipsistic. (And how.)

Some of it’s pretty juicy, even naughty, but I’m careful not to get too personal about others. For one, I’m not comfortable anatomizing friends and family; second, I wouldn’t want to injure feelings of someone who pried where they weren’t supposed to. (Once, someone did pry where they weren’t supposed to. A romance that was in its death throes was instantly snuffed.)

It wants badly to be literary, more narrative than journalistic, even occasionally novelistic, lyrical, with cartwheels and curlicues. This means a lot of it is dreadful. Perhaps what I’m aiming for is the memoir-y fictions of writers like Ben Lerner (the astounding, erudite “10:04”), Karl Ove Knausgård (the granular, un-put-downable “My Struggle” series), Teju Cole (“Open City,” a minor masterpiece), and Eve Babitz (“Eve’s Hollywood,” a delicious, decadent Didion), paragons of the form, of living, breathing autobiographical novels.

And then there’s one of the Platonic ideals, Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground,” the first half of which is the faux-memoir of a blustering, philosophical nihilist, spittle flying with frothing apoplexy. It’s nuts, pure sulfurous id.

And, three attempts in, I still can’t surrender to this undisputed (until now) classic novel. Despite its machine-gun stream-of-consciousness, “Notes” is a grinding slog. The book rushes headily but incoherently, a corrosive rant by its nameless protagonist that loops-the-loops, caroms, careers and pinballs. Zesty, it’s also strangely insipid. I don’t know what the character is on about most of the time, but there’s a zing and energy propelling his transgressive thoughts.

About putting it down, yet again, I am conflicted, though I am mostly just bored, and that — boredom by a work of art — is unforgivable. I persevere for my friend Sativa’s sake. “Muscle through,” she, a fan of the book, tells me. But I can’t.

Still, I wish my journals were as combustible, as gnarly and smart. Sylvia Plath’s published journals, so frank and vivid, have inspired me, told me how to limn a banal day, galvanize a simple gesture. Lerner, infusing the quotidian with ballistic intelligence — he’s something else. (I’ve twice read “10:04.”)  I return to my bloated journal, its thirsty computer pages, recording the day, feelings, longings, and do what I can, all the while hoping for something approaching, or just faintly grazing, art. Ha.