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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 64.4 (2003) 513-517

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The Future of Nostalgia . By Svetlana Boym. New York: Basic, 2001 . xix + 404 pp.

The temporal to-and-fro embedded in the title of Svetlana Boym's most recent book has various antecedents. They include (on this Russian literature professor's native grounds) Vladimir Nabokov's playful sense of "anticipatory memory" (272) and Victor Shklovsky's "knight's move" metaphor for an innovative author's relation to tradition, in which linear prolongation swerves diagonally into new territory (30). Not surprisingly, another source is that locus classicus in the last century's reappraisal of historicism, Walter Benjamin's commentary on Paul Klee's Angelus Novus in "Theses on the Philosophy of History." Yet although Boym responds to Benjamin's reading of the picture, which draws a sharp contrast between the angel's face, "turned towards the past," and the force of an onrushing storm that tosses him "into the future to which his back is turned," she characteristically notices other telling points. Thus, in a possible parallel with Shklovsky, the angel looks not straight back at the past but askance; or, in a touch recalling Benjamin's own nostalgia for the vanishing aura of the older visual arts, its hair "unfolds like indecipherable sacred scrolls"; and finally, in one of Boym's favorite images for the interanimation of past and future, its wings "are turned inside out like a Möbius strip" (29).

As this eye for significant visual detail indicates, the sensibility that informs The Future of Nostalgia goes well beyond narrowly literary issues and their theoretical offshoots. Almost half of the book's pages, in fact, are devoted [End Page 513] to contemporary cityscapes, in which the author figures prominently as a nimble observer, witty interpreter, and photographer—in short, as an updated Baudelairean flaneur. But her "Paris," far from being the capital of a century, consists of newly established, implicitly decolonized, recently reinstated, or variously demoted capitals of the post-Soviet "East." A strong engagement with cultural studies marks this second unit of the book, "Cities and Reinvented Traditions," with vignettes from Ljubljana and Prague and with fuller accounts of recent monumental projects and countercultural events in Berlin, Moscow, and, most of all, the author's former home, Saint Petersburg/Leningrad, where she was once a tour guide. The unit's autobiographical tendency might be confused with David Simpson's strictures regarding "the flourishing genre of academic life stories." 1 It makes more sense, however, to value these chapters as an imaginatively conceived, insightful documentary of a major transition in Russia and eastern Europe. They might be viewed as a late-twentieth-century equivalent to Georg Brandes's Russian impressions from a century earlier, only written by a former cultural insider. In any case, a leap of this kind from literary to cultural study is not so startling in the Russian context, where cultural contrasts between the nation's two capitals have been a literary staple almost since the founding of Saint Petersburg. Think, for example, of the geocultural range of Anna Karenina , which, alongside its multiplot juxtapositions of social life in the two capitals, includes glances at the recently unified Germany and troubled Balkans of its day.

However, this book's basic outlook differs from Tolstoy's (or from the cultural analysis in Raymond Williams's The City and the Country ) in its neglect of rural life. Thus its first, largely theoretical unit, "Nostalgia, History, and Memory," usefully distinguishes between restorative and reflective nostalgias. The former is naively essentialist, while the latter is self-consciously melancholic in the spirit not just of Freud but of Robert Burton, to whom Boym's final words pay tribute. But despite a nod toward Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft , or a quick contrast between Rousseauesque tendencies in Marx and Nietzsche and Baudelaire's and Benjamin's fascination with Paris, both terms are mainly urban in application. Restored or newly erected monuments vie in Boym's cityscapes with thought-provoking ruins or evanescent celebrations. Hence the home implied by nostos in this inquiry into nostalgia consists largely...