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THE MADONNAS OF LENINGRAD by Debra Dean

(Photo by David Hiller)

Debra DeanIn 1995, I watched a PBS series on the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. My journal entry for the next day read in part: “I was particularly struck by one incident which might make a story (even a novel, but for the research).” During the first winter that the Nazis lay siege to Leningrad, the Hermitage staff and their families – nearly 2000 people - lived in the basement of the museum itself. In the first days of the war, they had evacuated all the art – millions of objects, thousands of undisputed masterpieces - but they had left the empty frames hanging on the walls of the museum as a token of their pledge that the art would return. A story was related that one of the staff, a former guide now living in the cellar, began to give tours of the empty museum to visitors. It was said that he described the paintings so well that the visitors could almost see them.

This image gripped me. Still, I was a short story writer and even my short stories tended towards the brevity of poems, so the prospect of writing something the size of a novel terrified me. Let alone a novel set in a country that I had never visited and during a tumultuous period about which I knew next to nothing. Throw in a foreign language and some art history on top of that, and I dismissed the notion as far exceeding any reasonable hubris. I tried writing it as a short story, but this world was too expansive to be contained in the short form. I set it aside. Every once in a while, I would return wistfully and rework it a little, adding a few pages or moving pieces around.

Meanwhile, my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. A woman who had resolutely focused forward throughout her life, she began in her dotage to drift back to her youth. She told stories that I had never heard before, some of them beginning quite plausibly and then segueing suspiciously into magical realism. (A nice topaz pendant that a great niece had admired spiraled in value and became a rare heirloom that strangers sometimes dropped by and paid money to see.) I started writing about her, but quickly she metamorphosed into a fictional character, a Russian woman who had survived the siege. Before I knew it, there we were again, back in the museum during the war.

The Madonnas of Leningrad was researched and written over several summers between teaching. During most of that time, I and my husband, a poet, lived in a sweet little apartment with a sweeping view of the city and the water but with not quite enough room for an office. So we set up shop in the windowless laundry that we shared with the neighbors, our desk wedged between garbage cans and the hot water furnace – not so different from the cellars of the Hermitage during the war perhaps, but decidedly warmer with the dryer humming. He worked in the mornings and I took the afternoons. The novel was written slowly, circuitously, and without expectations. Eat breakfast, go for a long walk, write another page or two, make dinner, watch a movie. Repeat. And then one day there was a book.

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