Literature as data?

Posted by Sarah J. Young in Discussion | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Cross-posted with sarahjyoung.com.

We’ve added a map of Dostoevsky’s addresses to the site, and this seems like a good opportunity to discuss the question of data. In comparison with our work on the Crime and Punishment maps, mapping addresses was easy: information on where Dostoevsky lived is well established and available from various sources, most significantly E. Sarukhanian, Dostoevskii v Peterburge (Leningrad: Lenizdat, 1970). There’s also a Russian Wikipedia page, and Wikimapia was helpful in places as well. But essentially there were no real complications beyond a brief discussion about whether Dostoevsky’s cell in the Alekseev Ravelin should be marked. I decided that it should; clearly he did not choose it as a residence, but reside there he did, during a very significant period of his life.

This was in marked contrast to the experience of mapping the literary text, a process that was full of ambiguity and complication, and is worth reflecting on. How does one turn literature into data, and in doing so, is it inevitable that one will lose all the richness that makes it a work of art?

From one perspective, compiling data for this type of project is no different, at least in its initial stages, from any other type of literary analysis. Reading for place, as I did (twice) with Crime and Punishment, resembles any close reading undertaken with a specific object in mind. It’s not simply a matter of skimming for place names – the Russian habit of abbreviating to initial or final letters prevents that, and in any case we are frequently dealing with descriptions rather than names (therefore bulk analysis using concordances or suchlike is out of the question). Instead, this is a pain-staking process of extracting every reference to place, with its context and consideration of questions such as what type of place it is, and whether it is being mentioned or is an actual setting; such questions are essential to moving beyond using a map as an illustration (the old woman lived here; Sonia lived there etc), because it is only through considering different aspects of the use of place that one can begin to analyse its significance.

Examining aspects of the novel that have an existence beyond the text, it was necessary to refer to various extra-textual sources to establish precise details of place. In particular, I made extensive use of Boris Tikhomirov’s excellent commentary, ‘Lazar! Griadi von’: Roman F. M. Dostoevskogo ‘Prestuplenie i nakazanie’ v sovremennom prochtenii. Kniga-kommentarii (St Petersburg: Serebriannyi vek, 2005) [‘Lazarus, come forth!’: a contemporary reading of F. M. Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment], which has provided extensive detail beyond that supplied in the Academy Edition Complete Works, F. M. Dostoevskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh (Moscow-Leningrad: Nauka, 1972-90), 7: 363-412, and S. V. Belov, Roman F. M. Dostoevskogo ‘Prestuplenie i nakazanie’: Komentarii (3rd edition; Moscow: KomKniga, 2009) [F. M. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: a commentary]. Also useful was the little guidebook by K. S. Gorbachevich and E. Khablo, Pochemu tak nazvany?: o proiskhozhdenii nazvanii ulits, ploshchadei, ostrovov, rek i mostov Sankt-Peterburga (5th edition; St Petersburg: Norint, 2002). In addition, I made constant reference to the Google map of St Petersburg, to make sense of the geography and possible routes taken, and to clarify possible locations where they are not specified. Three further websites were invaluable in identifying and locating prototypes: WikimapiaPhotographs of Old St Petersburg, and the Encyclopedia of St Petersburg.

For the next stage, turning these places into data, the essential site was Find Latitude and Longitude – a great tool, although some easier way of recording coordinates beyond copying and pasting the two figures separately would be nice.

The first thing to note is that this process helped establish with some degree of certainty some locations that have previously eluded identification. In particular, there is no information in the commentaries on the tavern where Raskolnikov meets Marmeladov (part 1, chapter 2), while Julian Connolly’s map illustrating key locations in the novel places this scene on Brinko Lane (formerly Tairov Lane), just off the Haymarket – a street Raskolnikov does walk down later in the novel, encountering prostitutes here on his round-about way to the Crystal Palace tavern (part 2, chapter 6). But in fact this can’t possibly be the location of Marmeladov’s tavern; Raskolnikov stops outside it when he reaches ‘the next street’ after leaving the pawnbroker’s following his ‘rehearsal’, and when the two leave at the end of the scene, it is only 200-300 yards to Marmeladov’s lodgings – later confirmed (also by reference to proximity to the pawnbroker’s house) as being on Bolshaia Podiacheskaia (part 2, chapters 6-7). Therefore the tavern must logically be located on prospekt Rimskogo-Korsakova (formerly Ekateringoffskii prospekt), near the junction with Bolshaia Podiacheskaia (markers 9 and 12 on Mapping Ambiguity shows this arrangement). The fact that in the scenes with Marmeladov, location, insofar as it is specified, is related to the pawnbroker’s house, is, I think, significant, and this indicates the potential of reading for place; it is not simply a matter of finding the places and plotting them on a map, but through that process, of coming to an understanding of how place is used and what the relationships between the places and the characters signify.

If certain locations can be established by this process, confirming the remarkable degree of locatedness exhibited by Crime and Punishment, is it possible for every scene? Not quite. My reading revealed one location about which too little information is given to attempt to map it: Porfiry’s flat, where Raskolnikov first encounters the examining magistrate and his article on crime and the rights of great men is discussed (part 3, chapter 5). The brevity of the conversations en route to and from Porfiry’s suggest he lives reasonably near to both Raskolnikov’s lodgings on Stoliarnyi Lane and those of his mother and sister on Voznesenskii Prospekt, but the only remark that is made is Razumikhin’s comment ‘It’s this grey building’ (part 3, chapter 4). In comparison with the specificity seen elsewhere, this seems deliberately evasive; ‘grey’ as a synonym for ‘anonymous’. Why is this one – highly significant – scene dis-located in this way? A further ambiguity about location is apparent in the second interview (part 4, chapters 5-6), which takes place at one of two police stations (see Mapping Ambiguity markers 74 and 75). So while most of the other characters are connected to particular locations, Porfiry is treated differently, and I think this should give us some new insight into this character.

I suspect some traditional literary researchers will dismiss this sort of project as reductive and bypassing all that is essential in Dostoevsky’s novel – its philosophical, spiritual and emotional intensity. And there is, on a literal level, a reduction – of a setting to a set of coordinates – but only as part of a wider process, and one that, I think, opens up a new dimension of the text, which goes beyond the consideration of the Petersburg setting as a primarily symbolic part of the text and enables analysis of other aspects of the role of place. Literature is not data, and Dostoevsky wrote a novel rather than providing us with a set of data, but the process of converting a literary text into data in this way, far from being reductive, resulted in perhaps the most revealing reading I have undertaken.

One Response to Literature as data?

  1. Pingback: Mapping St Petersburg: Literature as data? | Sarah J. Young

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