The Age of Ice started about six years ago, with me reading The New Yorker article by Elif Batuman, The Ice Renaissance. The article discussed two episodes in Russian history separated by two hundred and sixty six years. One — the building in the winter of 1740, upon the order of the empress Anna Ioannovna, of a palace made entirely of ice, where two of the empress’s jesters were forced to spend their wedding night. The other episode — building of a replica of that palace on the same site in the winter of 2006, and its popularity with St. Petersburg’s denizens.
I remember being fascinated by the article. Born and raised Russian, I come from a long tradition of witnessing, fearing, feeling, and depicting institutionalized subjugation, and the ice palace impressed me as a quintessence of an imperial dark circus running wild, doling out exotic punishments, as entertaining as they are cruel (one of the “jesters” was a nobleman forced to commit daily acts of self-humiliation). Another point of fascination that I remember, was that the misfortunate “newlyweds” managed to conceive progeny that night. And finally, that two centuries later the infamous House of Ice re-emerged on the Palace square of St. Petersburg. If history repeats itself, it is more than twice: the third time it does so as a tourist attraction.
I instantly knew that I wanted to write a novel about it — not the palace itself, but what it signified; and moreover, that I had just the right protagonist for the job. The child born of the wedding night on an ice slab had to be very different. So if I wanted to write about history – about a story that grows on layer upon layer of our cultural, factual, and physical sediment — all I needed to do was stay with the main character, Alexander, on his long tenure as its witness, and let him narrate what he sees. The magical reality was par for the course: a bird’s eye view implies seeing in ultraviolet, as birds do.
Today, as I reread Ms. Batuman’s article, I realize how crisply she formulated precisely the points that I’ve worked myself up to make by a lengthy exercise of a novel. The palace’s public-friendly reincarnation in the 21st century, she writes, “is one way to master history,” and the palace’s attractions could well be considered emblems of “the persistence and mutability of cultural memory.” Speaking of the mutability of my own memory, however, Ms Batuman in fact had made no mention of a child born of the night in the palace. I must have seen it later, as I began to research the topic and came across a genealogy of the aristocratic family to which the nobleman-jester belonged: there was a child, a boy named Andrei. He was born in the fall of 1740; he grew up, married, had children. He died young but his line went on and his descendants are our contemporaries. That’s another way to master history.
I used some but not all of these biographical facts as a framework for the first few chapters of the novel. I changed some but not all names. The spirit of fiction— and magical reality— enters the novel only through its narrator and main character —Alexander, Andrei’s peculiar twin brother.
As I went on, adhering to true historical events as much as I could became my self-imposed challenge. Alexander’s impossible existence would borrow credibility from such adherence, I hoped (if everything else is real, he must be, too!). Another reason was a selfish one: Alexander’s character would let me, the author, live through the events of the past, suffer them, survive them, sustain an illusion of affecting them. Alexander’s life is, of course, a quest in its own right, and much of it has to do with ice and cold. Yet it always seemed that whenever I needed Alexander to face another challenge or make another discovery, the grand book of history had these at the ready. Dates, places, circumstances, and plenty of ice seemed to arrange themselves exactly the way one hoped for. This was one of the most gratifying and wondrous experiences I had writing this book. “Life is short, reading is long,” Milan Kundera wrote (in another New Yorker article), lamenting the ever-growing number of books available and the fixed number of books one can read in one’s lifetime. I agree. But I would also argue that reading can make one’s life feel longer: making memories of times and places other than one’s own is as close as one can get to living them.
Yes, I had to do a lot of research, starting with the basics. I am not a scholar of history, though I wish I were. In grade school I figured quite fast that we were learning facts only for the sake of fitting them into the Marxist-Leninist schema, the schema being quite simple, really, and the only take-home message. History was a thing of the past anyway, merely an inventory of everything that was half-right or dead wrong on a path to the communist happily-ever-after. And so, the efficient schoolchild that I was, I picked up the schema and skimmed the rest. I spent my allotment of teenage rebellion on classical literature instead, choosing Dostoevsky over Tolstoy in much the same way as a kid of today would choose to go Goth. Tolstoy was for preppies! (I’ve since revised this opinion.)
When I discovered passion for world history in college, it was, at first, because of the delight of learning the facts that subverted the schema, and later — because of the realization that history is not a road-march from point A to point B, Marxist-Leninist or any other for that matter. If it is a peregrination at all, it is more like a bush-whack through a forest, where one is bound to revisit one’s tracks and one’s view is severely limited. That is perhaps why I still keep an eye out for everything in history that is time-warped, for every contradiction and every consequence that is unintended or disproportionate, for every complexity that is irreducible to its elements. What was the purpose of the ice palace, Ms. Batuman asks in her article, and answers: it was simultaneously “a torture device, a science experiment, an ethnographic museum, a work of art.” Incidentally, the themes of The Age of Ice can be described in much the same terms.