BOOK REVIEW / City of glamour on the skids: 'A Visit to St Petersburg 1824-1825' - Cornelie de Wassenaer, trs & ed Igor Vinogradoff: Michael Russell, 14.95 pounds; 'One Hot Summer in St Petersburg' - Duncan Fallowell: Cape, 16.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
CORNELIE DE WASSENAER, Countess of the Holy Roman Empire, Baroness of Lage and inheritor of a huge banking fortune, visited St Petersburg at the age of 25 as maid-of-honour to the Princess of Orange, youngest sister of Tsar Alexander I. This elegantly translated account of her year in the old Russian capital is based on her diaries and letters. Educated, observant and emotionally innocent, she describes with freshness and humour the royal feasts and ceremonies, the kindness of the ladies at court, the winter sleigh-rides, the magic of the church singing and the beauty of the Tsar's palaces in and around the city. Uprooted and lost in so much splendour, she falls in love with a St Petersburg of ordered beauty and majestic palaces.

Duncan Fallowell arrived there one recent summer to live quietly and work on a novel, and discovered instead a city of menace and mystery, vodka and hopeless romance. His own taste for solitary travel, uprootedness and gender-bending (he has written a biography of the transsexual April Ashley) chimes with the rot and paranaoia of this city on the skids. 'Everything broken. Not only cars, clocks, taps, windows. Also hearts, minds, memories, insides. Everyone has to make it up as they go along, day by day.'

He searches for Russian music, and watches gymnasts performing ('sculptors of physical energy, yogic youths stretching and contracting time'); he describes his landlady and her son battling to impress him with their collections of coins and stamps; he drunkenly interrogates a table of Jews on love, casually goes to bed with a prostitute, and eagerly embraces the moment. 'Rising from the sucking mud of encumbrant habits . . . feel the cranium stretch across its crown and split] and through the yawning aperture you ascend all moist and fresh into a shuddering space. Up, up, through levels of diminishing inertia . . . and pop] you . . . are . . . free . . .'

As fractured rhythms and sleepless white nights loosen his grip on reality, he discovers St Petersburg's gay scene - raves in swimming-pools, nightmarish theatre extravaganzas and parties explosive with sex. 'The mystery, the spirit, the drama aren't broken . . . they are invigorated and flow as fluid pigments in coils, spasms and fitful lines through the days and nights of the city.'

Out of this miasma of angst and breathless impressionism, a 17-year-old naval cadet smiles at him through a crowd. Lack of words speeds a more direct communication between them. He writes beautifully of Dima at home with his girlfriend and her Granny; Dima's sense of honour, his greed, his indifference; their visit to the ornate Yelagin Island Palace, with its 'air of secret laughter', its mirrors reflecting Dima's dreamy intensity. The affair ends with phone calls trailing off into inaudibility, and the anguish of a brief final meeting. Returning the following winter to find Dima, he learns that he is dead.

Glitzy, louche, camp and funny, Fallowell's writing bubbles with the life of the city - the dark streets, forgotten courtyards and 'scowling staircases', the sexually explicit and the criminally exotic. 'Everyone is a drop-out here, it really is terrifying and marvellous, the whole society has dropped out, crashed out on sofas, letting go, making do, not making do, leaping, fainting, slobbing around, you can do anything, whatever you want, whatever you can . . .'

He attacks the concept of the absurd as the cry of the impotent: 'Life is soaked with meaning - to toss it into the dustbin of the absurd - never]' He conjures up the old Russian empire, without natural edges, 'ballooning outward and vaporising in a mystifying shapelessness, an unpatrollable eternity'. The breathless, show-off prose, endless emotional temperature-taking and huge appetite for chaos beguile us into accepting a contrived vagueness about the history and sudden implosion of this empire (we're never even told which summer all this was happening). For people who have lost all certainty about their future, and know little about their past, living only in the giddy social whirl of the present appears here to offer yet another kind of imprisonment. But it's this immediacy that charges Fallowell's St Petersburg love affair with its wild, vivid energy, tapping the zeitgeist and hitting the heart where it hurts most.

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