George Saunders

Woke early for breakfast: tongue and rice pilaf. I skipped the tongue but ate the rice. Then proceeded to a building across the courtyard from where we’re staying (Herzen University Inn) and taught the first session of our fiction-writing workshop to eight excellent American students from all over the place. After class, came over to this Internet place to write and send yesterday’s entry—a bit frustrating since error messages kept coming up in Russian and I kept losing my files etc., etc.

Upon exiting the Internet place, saw a woman from our group in the little playground, looking distressed. She asked me and a student named Steve if we could “rescue Josip.” Would this be Josip Novakovich, the wonderful short-story writer? I asked. Yes it would, she said. He’s gone into that hole with some Russian drunks, and it’s been awhile. The hole in question was a grated entry to a basement, right out of The Hobbit. Steve descended. Soon Steve too was gone. In I went. The smell was not good. Boulders and chunks of rock, low ceiling, but then there were some stairs and I walked up into an apartment—messy, dank, many bottles strewn around—and in there was a tall T-shirted drunk guy who looked sort of like a cross between Johnny Depp and Pippi Longstocking, and a second man, very well-dressed and soft-spoken, who was, it turned out, Josip Novakovich. I introduced myself. The Russian introduced himself. He was a poet. He gave Josip a chapbook of his, circa 1990. We all returned to the courtyard and had more literary talk.

I then embarked on a tour of all the places I knew from when I was here in 1982. Walked up the Nevsky Prospect, past the Literary Cafe (where Pushkin had his last meal—the windows now feature these photo-dioramas of Pushkin dancing, Pushkin looking pensive, Pushkin resolving to go fight the duel) … then to the Winter Palace, where a dog like Chekhov’s Kashtanka merrily chased birds away from a fountain and a guy had a bear that you could pet for money lashed to a light pole … then through the Admiralty (where I heard waltz music in 1982, some big military dance) and on to the Bronze Horseman, where some chunky Chinese businessmen were taking turns posing for photos on the back of a black horse administered by a Cossack-looking blond woman. Nothing looking a bit familiar … then to St. Isaac’s Cathedral, where for a few dollars you can climb to the top and look out over all the whole fairy tale city … sweet Russian families from the country, on bus tours, and somehow, bereft of language, I was able to see how lovely this all is, how badly everyone wants to be happy. And 18 years older than I was last time I was here, also got a strong sense of how fleeting everything is … in another 18, will I be able to climb these stairs? What then to do? How to live?

On the way down, Russian girls stop to add their names to a wall of graffiti, looking guiltily around.

Then I go in search of Malaya Morskaya Ulitsa, where, at various times, Gogol, Doestoyevsky, and Tchaikovsky lived. Have rapturous time wandering around Gogol’s building, even stealing a paint chip, then go off triumphantly to buy a Coke from a street vendor, which is when I find out I’m on the wrong street. I correct my mistake, steal a second paint chip, and race back to the hotel for tonight’s boat tour, paint chip in pocket.

Beautiful, then, to see the city from the river. Mikhail Iossel, great story writer and leader of this seminar, tells me that, when he was living here, he once had a job guarding a merry-go-round. That is, he had to fill out a nightly form verifying that the merry-go-round was still in the park. He is a kind and brilliant man, who pulls off the complicated logistics of this seminar with grace in abundance. He, like me, is missing his kid(s).

For dinner, the crown jewel of the day: a Russian theme restaurant. On the outside, stuffed dummies of American-style gangsters. Inside, detailed sculptures of Kama Sutra-style orgies. The figures in bright red or blue—a blue woman, enjoying herself with the help of an inanimate object, pinches her own nipple. Here a pile of four red people—one of the red women has apparently fornicated one of her arms off. In the next room, two Russian guys do a passable version of “Sweet Home Chicago,” and several diners sit in swinging chairs—an S&M motif, the chairs swing by black chains. Our waiter is a shy kid dressed like a harem boy.

Then back to the hotel for a late-night talk with the brilliant Jonathan Ames, whose new book of essays is making a splash back home, reviewed in Entertainment Weekly this week. He tells wild stories about encounters with Ginsberg, about training himself for a boxing match—a kind, intense guy I look forward to getting to know better.

So I close for today … will go eat something that is not a tongue …