Mapping Machines article now online

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We wrote previously about our article “Mapping Machines: Transformations of the Petersburg Text” in Primerjalna književnost, 36.2 (2013), and can now announce that this issue, “The Spatial Turn in Literary Studies,” is available online. Our article features alongside others initially presented at the 2012 conference, to give a very interesting snapshot of recent work in this field, both theoretical and practical, particularly from Europe. 

New article, new maps

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Our first article based on our work on Mapping St Petersburg has been published: “Mapping Machines: Transformations of the Petersburg Text,” Primerjalna književnost 36.2 (2013). The article was initially presented at a conference of the Slovenian Comparative Literature Association devoted to the “Spatial Turn” in literary studies, and we would like to thank the organizers and other participants for the fascinating and at times combative discussions the event generated.

The article, the text of which will appear on this site in due course, is mainly devoted to exploring the methodologies and ideas behind the project. It also incorporates some preliminary analysis of new maps we have now published on the site. These additions mainly investigate aspects of the chronology and narrative of Crime and Punishment by dividing it up into dates and times of day.

We have also published a map titled Crime and Punishment, indoors and outside, to enable closer examination of the contrast between street and interior locations in the novel. This is the first map for which we have used the Open Layers API, rather than Google’s, and it represents the first step in moving all our maps over to free and open software and data. This is a necessary preliminary for enhancing their presentation and utility, for example by giving us the ability to remove anachronistic features from our base maps.

A note on icons

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We have now finished upgrading the maps to use a new set of icons, provided by Nicolas Mollet under a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license.

Finding decent icons, ones that are both attractive and functional – easy on the eye, standing out from the background map, numbered, and neither too large or too small – has been quite a challenge. Google’s standard set is limited and quite frankly ugly, and the few others we found were also lacking in some way. But with Mollet’s range, this is no longer a problem. Not only are they comprehensive (gumball machines!), but they come in a number of styles, in a wide range of colours (over 16 million shades available), and numbered up to 300.

And of course, by virtue of an open license, they can be freely used, adapted and re-used.

To Nicolas we say, Thanks and Za zdorov’e!

(There seems to be a problem with the icons being slightly distorted on the maps; it’s on the to-fix list.)


Mapping Gogol: methodology

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As part of our work to expand Mapping St Petersburg and develop the idea of experimenting with literary cartography, we have produced two maps visualizing the spatial arrangement of Gogol’s Peterburg Tales. The first marks all the place references in the five stories, Nevskii prospekt, The Portrait, The Diary of a Madman, The Nose and The Overcoat, while the second differentiates between the places where the action occurs, and the spaces to which the characters and narrators refer. Both maps represent the starting point of a distance-reading analysis that will in due course result in additional maps. I’ll discuss the idea behind the second map in another post, but today I want to address a rather more general and basic question about the placement of markers, and consider how to map Nevskii prospekt, both the story and the street.

When mapping Crime and Punishment, the question of where to place markers seldom arose; Dostoevsky’s novel is so detailed in its use of Petersburg locations, and so much extra-textual information is available, for example to confirm the prototypes of the dwellings of most of the main characters, that whatever the other problems presented by the topography of that work (mainly because of its complexity) knowing which buildings required markers was not one of them. Gogol’s stories present a very different picture; while particular institutions, bridges, and named buildings do appear, the majority of references are to streets and general areas, with no further specification.

The lack of a strong reason to place a marker at one point on a street rather than another is not the only issue. The incompatibility of points and polygons presents an additional conundrum; if placing a single point marker is not ideal, then marking the entire street equally fails to resolve the problem. It might be appropriate when a character is walking down a street, as with Pirogov in Nevskii prospekt:

One day, when strolling down Meshchanskaia, he kept glancing at the house adorned by Schiller’s signboard with its coffee pots and samovars; to his great joy, he saw the blonde woman’s head leaning out of the window and watching the passers-by. (pp. 39-40; marker no. 28)

But this is not always the case. Consider Chartkov’s first steps following his change of fortune in The Portrait: ‘… he bought lots of scents, pomades; rented, without bargaining, the first magnificent apartment on Nevskii prospekt that came along…’ (p. 89; marker no. 36)

Obviously here the character moves to a particular apartment in a particular building, not the entire street. It’s an important moment in changing the spatial trajectory of the story, but how and where to geo-reference it is unclear. So far I haven’t found a better answer to this question than Richard Dennis’s comment from his brilliant and thought-provoking essay on mapping Gissing: ‘faced with less than perfect topographical information, mapping is an imprecise art. […] the mapmaker has to be granted some creative licence!’ (Richard Dennis, ‘Mapping Gissing’s Workers of the Dawn‘, Maps, ed. Ross Bradshaw (Nottingham: Five Leaves, 2011), pp. 49-74 (p. 51))

Bearing this in mind, my thinking in producing the Gogol maps was that in assessing whether there is any reason to place a marker at a particular point, to take the stories as a whole, rather than as isolated works. For example, the view of the Neva in Piskarev’s painting of his room in Nevskii prospekt gives no indication of which part of the river should be marked:

He paints his room in perspective, with all sorts of artistic rubbish appearing in it: […] broken easels, an overturned palette, a friend playing a guitar, paint-stained walls, and an open window through which comes a glimpse of the pale Neva and poor fishermen in red shirts. (pp.14-15)

But here reference to another artist, Chartkov in The Portrait, living on the 15th Line of Vasilevskii Island (no. 33), suggested sufficient similarity to place the Neva marker as though viewed from such a location (no. 21). Elsewhere, in the absence of any reason to do otherwise, I placed markers approximately at the mid-point of the street (Nevskii prospekt is an exception I discuss below); avoiding overlapping markers was a reason to choose a different point where possible.

So in its detail, the map does not make any claims to absolute accuracy; many of the points should be seen as general rather than specific indicators, and what is important is the clusters of points around particular streets and areas, rather than pin-pointing exact locations. I hope the reasons for this will become clear when we publish more maps.

Nevskii prospekt presents a somewhat different problem. The opening of the story Nevskii prospekt, with its seven-page hymn to the street, ‘There’s nothing better than Nevskii prospekt, at least in Petersburg…’ (p. 7), cannot simply be marked by a single point, not least because the emphasis in the description is on its varied characteristics and changing appearance throughout the day. And that temporal aspect creates another challenge: how to convey the passage of time (a significant problem for mapping any narrative, and one I will definitely return to in the future)?

My solution – and again I stress this was a creative decision – was to plot the passage of time as movement through space, by marking the transitions in the narrator’s focus as progressive points along Nevskii prospekt. My reasoning here was that Nevskii itself is always on the move and never static; not only is it a main artery for moving people around the city, but in this story and others by Gogol, as well as in the writings of Dostoevsky and many other Petersburg authors, Nevskii is precisely the place for strolling. Given that the street as he describes it in this extended passage is so full of movement, it seems natural to envision the narrative perspective is similarly mobile; moreover, the story that emerges at the end of the description is of two men who have been strolling down Nevskii pursuing the women they see there, which suggests this final transition is a continuation of the previous mode of narration. This final point also influenced the direction of travel, from East to West, as the switch to action is signalled by a reference to the shadows reaching the Police Bridge (now Green Bridge) over the Moika (marker no. 20), suggesting this is the point where they go their separate ways.

This seems to me therefore to be a solution that works and is justified, though others may, of course, beg to differ. But as well as making me find a solution, mapping the story also made me realize that while I might be able to geo-reference certain points in certain texts easily, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to literary cartography; it is always going to have to take account of the different features of individual texts, and even references to the same street, square or building may have to be treated various ways according to how they appear in the texts. Mapping can be an aid to interpretation, but it is already interpretation itself.

Quotations from Gogol are taken from: N. V. Gogol’, Sobranie sochinenie v shesti tomakh (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo khudozhestvennoi literatury, 1952), vol. 3.

Cross-posted with Sarah J. Young.

Literature as data?

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

Cross-posted with

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.


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Welcome to Mapping St Petersburg! This project aims to explore the relationship of the city of St Petersburg to the body of literature it has produced by developing a literary cartography: using maps to visualize and analyse the spatial dimensions of the Petersburg text.

At this initial stage, the site presents twelve maps that are the result of a pilot project, Mapping Crime and Punishment. In addition to a series of six maps plotting the events of the six parts of Dostoevsky’s novel, and a map of all the Petersburg locations that feature in the text, there are also maps of the places that appear in Dostoevsky’s working plans for the novel, of the different types of topographical ambiguity apparent in the text, and of the institutions, both state and private, that feature in the novel. Finally, two overlay maps, of Petersburg’s administrative districts in 1869, and of an old map of Petersburg, indicate future areas of development for the project. Each map is accompanied by a short text outlining its rationale and/or some of its outstanding features.

Three short background essays are intended to orientate non-specialists. St Petersburg: origins and literature discusses the symbiotic relationship of the real city and its founding myth in literature; Dostoevsky: a biographical sketch focuses on the author’s position as a Petersburg writer; and Crime and Punishment: an introduction outlines some of the main themes and preoccupations of the novel. Three bibliographies are presented for further reading: Petersburg, Dostoevsky, and Cities, Spaces, Cartographies.

The site is very much a work in progress, and as the project grows, we will be adding not only more content – further maps visualizing other Petersburg texts and groups of texts – but also technical developments that will enable greater interactivity, such as viewing maps in layers, and exploring a database of texts and historical data to produce new maps.

We will be using this News section to alert visitors to new developments on the site, and to discuss other aspects of the project, such as reflecting on the processes (both digital and humanistic) we have employed in producing the maps.

We welcome comments and suggestions. Please see the Contact page for details.