cover image 33 Moments of Happiness: St. Petersburg Stories

33 Moments of Happiness: St. Petersburg Stories

Ingo Schulze, Isabel Schulze. Alfred A. Knopf, $23 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-375-40029-2

From the pen of German dramaturge and newspaper journalist Schulze comes this tour de force of short-story writing, a remarkable gathering of ""sketches"" of modern-day St. Petersburg. Schulze, clearly a devoted student of Russian literature, constructs characters and scenes that portray complex aspects of the Russian character. In the first of several clever literary devices, Schulze distances himself from the narrative: the 33 sketches, he writes in a preface, were merely found on a train by someone else; in them, the author, a German businessman, ""yielded more and more to his inclination to invent rather than to research."" Some of the vignettes are presented as letters or snatches of overheard dialogue, and there are ""editorial notes"" at the end just in case the reader misses the recondite allusions to the work of Pushkin or Bulgakov. No matter; when the curtain rises on each brief piece the reader is instantly transported. In the Hotel St. Petersburg, the narrator is entranced by the lovely, elusive Maria, who recites Brodsky ""as if she were planning a menu according to the vintage of the wines"" before taking his money. There's a violent Mafia shoot-out at a disco that might or might not have been staged for the cameras. In everyday situations revealing Gogolian slight of hand or crowd scenes that erupt from Dostoyevskian despair, Schulze attempts to fathom the Russian soul--the immense capacity for the spiritual, as well as a recidivist brutality and ""astounding ingenuity for humiliating others."" Accomplished translator Woods has flawlessly rendered a rare and memorable work. First serial to the New Yorker.