The view from outside

Thirty-Three Moments of Happiness: St Petersburg Stories

Ingo Schulze <em>Picador, 306pp, £12.99</

Ingo Schulze is a Dresdener who has written a book of stories set in St Petersburg, narrated by a German newspaperman named Hofman who has a curious "passion for karaoke". The stories are discovered (supposedly) by an unnamed passenger in a folder Hofman left behind on a St Petersburg-bound train, and edited (supposedly) by "I.S.", a "person of literary ambition". One gets the sense that the author wants to displace his work.

This is a hard book to situate: not Russian, not German, not a novel, not exactly a short-story collection. (Instead of titles, the stories are numbered one to 33, like chapters.) We are told these moments have travelled a long way from their origin, and they come in short, sharp bursts - number 24 is 13 lines long - like telegrams, or images glimpsed through a telescope.

The stories are set in contemporary Russia and are less about happiness than the confusion and anxiety created by the end of communism. Some are styled after 19th-century narratives (number 18 is a retelling of Pushkin's "The Postmaster"); others tend towards surrealism (in number 18 three businessmen eat a banquet off a waitress's naked body, then consume her organs). The mock academic "Selected Editorial Notes" at the end of the book list some of Schulze's literary sources - Chekhov, Pushkin, Nabokov, Bulgakov and, naturally, Hoffmann.

Thirty-three Moments reeks of cool literary style, but is there more to it than clever acrobatics? German critics thought so: it won the Doblin prize and the Willner prize for literature. Schulze's more recent book, Simple Stories, has been heralded as the definitive post-reunification German novel. His sentences are dense and alive with sumptuous detail ("Pale as naked bodies, floes of ice drifted below the bridges"; "The melon vendor opened my shirt, button by button, and pressed his heavily ringed hands against my navel"). Schulze's narrator, an outsider, wanders around St Petersburg, watching keenly and recording the prosaic and the bizarre. The documentary approach is reminiscent of other famous literary exiles: think of Nabokov and his motels.

Often the stories dwell on consummation (or lack of it), some more successfully than others. In number two, a boy makes peace with his grandmother's lover by offering the older man a meal of his own dried-out excrement. It makes little sense either as slice of life or fable. Number one is better: a man obsessed with a prostitute decides to offer her money, but the resulting encounter is disappointingly brief. In number four, Hofman longs to leave Russia ("If something happens to me here, no one will help me"). But when he gives a beggar money to make her go away, she falls at his feet and starts to kiss his entire body. Onlookers follow suit, and then they lay him on a market stall and write their names and phone numbers all over his body in an orgy of hospitality.

Consumption and consummation go hand in hand. The loneliest people are those who haven't adapted to consumer society and who feel nostalgic for communism, such as the ailing widow in number 22 whose mundane work pales by comparison with the excitement of party meetings years before.

But consummation is a rarity in this St Petersburg. Pushkin once described the city as a representation of authority overriding the lives of real people, and that sensibility is present in Schulze, too. The city's monumental presence belittles human relationships. People lose each other in the wet snow falling on the Nevsky Prospekt, or slip apart on the icy sidewalks, the Admiralty spire towering over them. It's equally easy for the reader to lose track in these allusive and elusive narratives, where new stories mimic and embellish the old. Schulze's St Petersburg belongs as much to the literary past as to the commercial present.

12 issues for £12