Mapping Gogol: methodology

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.

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