Isaac Babel and the Ephrussis

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The name of the Ephrussis — an influential Jewish dynasty of bankers, art collectors, and, latterly, authors — is intimately tied to Odessa and colorfully immortalized in “The End of the Almshouse,” one of the most poignant of Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories. In the following passage, Babel celebrates “the century-old history of Odessa, which lay resting under granite slabs” in the city’s Second Jewish Cemetery. Here were

the tombstones and crypts of the wheat exporters, shipping brokers, and merchants who had erected a Russian Marseilles on the site of Turkish Khadjibey. They all lay there, facing the gates — the Ashkenazis, the Gessens and the Ephrussis — refined misers, bon vivants with deep thoughts, creators of wealth and of Odessan jokes. They lay beneath tombstones of Labrador granite and pink marble, guarded by chains of chestnuts and acacias from the plebs huddling close to the walls.

Babel’s concluding line renders vivid the social stratification of Odessa’s Jewish community, which he also depicts in “The Story of My Dovecot,” again referring to the Ephrussis, who bribe their way into an elite secondary school that enforces a strict quota (no more than two Jewish students in a class of forty):

I had a gift for learning. No matter how tricky the teachers got, they couldn’t deny that I had brains and a voracious memory. I had a gift for learning and scored two fives. But then everything changed. Khariton Ephrussi, the grain merchant who exported wheat to Marseilles, slipped the school a five-hundred-rouble bribe on behalf of his son, one of my fives acquired a minus, and my place at the school went to Ephrussi junior. My father nearly lost his mind.

Yet Babel reminds us that even extraordinary wealth could not shield Jews from violence under the tsars. In the midst of a pogrom, the little boy who had been robbed of his place at the school sees “a young peasant in a waistcoat […] smashing a window frame at Khariton Ephrussi’s house. He was smashing the frame with a wooden mallet, putting his whole body into it, breathing deeply and beaming in all directions with the kindly smile of drunkenness, sweat and hardiness of spirit.”

The true story of the Odessan Ephrussi family is indeed one of privilege and tragedy, and it is told with exquisite lyricism by Edmund de Waal, one of its descendants, in The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010). And now his brother Thomas de Waal has published a moving piece on his own return to the city of his ancestors, which I recommend just as highly. At the end, de Waal describes the sensation of stepping into the Ephrussis’ former home on Primorsky Boulevard:

[T]he doorkeeper was happy to let me in. Old classical mouldings peered out from behind plywood partitions. I found a door onto a wrought-iron balcony, walked out and savoured the chestnut and lime trees in the boulevard and the long view down to the Black Sea in front of me. I felt a curious sweet sensation of homecoming.

“The Port Spins Like a Living Top”: Vadim Strelchenko’s “The Stevedore”

Katz - Odessa - The Docks - 1955.jpg

Ilya Katz’s Odessa’s Docks (1955)

When I was a child, it seemed to me that my relatives were obsessed with my posture… I was encouraged to stand up straight and shove out my chest. It turns out I was being molded to fit a very Odessan pattern. The following phrase, which I heard countless times, expresses my hometown’s distinct ideal of masculine beauty: “The chest of a sailor and the back of a stevedore!” This stands to reason, of course — the port is the beating heart of the city. Many Odessan poets have sung paeans to the port and its denizens, but I’m especially fond of this heartfelt proletarian ode to stevedores by Vadim Strelchenko.

The Stevedore

The port spins like a living top
(so full of youth — astonishing)…
Your back is burdened by a sack.
Your arms are taut as fiddle-strings.
And — marking off your giant day
with tons of cargo in each hold —
you sense
clouds flapping over waves
just like a flock of flustered gulls…
The load is dropped.
And so you walk
with even, springlike step again.
Your heart is beating like a clock
set to the clinks of hoists and cranes…
Another load.
Your shoulders slake
their thirst for coolness — what a treat.
Meanwhile your hands
wait for the sack
to swell beneath the stream of wheat.

1929


Грузчик

Порт вертится живым волчком
(Порт — он до изумленья юный)…
Спина нагружена мешком,
И руки напряглись, как струны.
И чуешь ты,
Свой день большой
Пудами клади отмечая,
Как бьются тучи над волной
Встревоженною стаей чаек…
Но сброшен груз.
И снова так
Идти пружинным, чётким ходом.
А сердце отбивает в такт
Коротким возгласом лебёдок…
Вновь сброшен груз.
И хорошо
Плечам прохладою напиться.
А руки ждут,
Пока мешок
Не вздулся от струи пшеницы.

1929

“What a Radical Treatment for Boredom”: Zinaida Shishova on the Road

Shishova 1919.jpg

Zinaida Shishova in 1919.

Tomorrow evening I’m traveling to Palm Springs to attend the 60th annual American Translators Association (ATA) conference, where I’ll have the honor of delivering two talks — one on mentorship in translation, the other on a topic of which I just can’t get enough: Odessan literature. A couple months ago, the award-winning translator Nora Favorov asked me a few questions for the ATA Slavic Division’s newsletter, the SlavFile, and you can find our conversation in the latest issue.

I’ll be taking the bus to Palm Springs, not driving, but in honor of the 100-mile journey I thought I’d share a little poem on four wheels. It was written (where else?) in Odessa, in 1918, by a young poet named Zinaida Shishova (1898-1977), who was then the wife — and would soon be the widow — of Anatoly Fioletov. Greatly admired by her fellow Odessan literati, Zika, as she was known in those days, would go on to write moving poems about the Leningrad Blockade in the 1940s, as well as works of historical fiction for young adults. But I’m partial to her youthful lyrics, which somehow blend the modes of Anna Akhmatova and Igor Severyanin. Take this one out for a spin:

What a radical treatment for boredom:
your auto — this small landaulet…
To see your swarthy hands gripping
the wheel’s white enamel that way…

Your lips, with their lines of exhaustion,
and your lashes, so calm and so fine…
“Oh tell me, isn’t it splendid
to be us — like birds in the sky?”

I’ll unpin my shy veil of gauze
from my hat, made of old felt…
So sultry — the wind, the sun’s rays,
and your eyes, which will not relent.

Your thin swarthy hands, your profile
shining back from the glass, clear as day…
“What a radical treatment for boredom:
your auto — this small landaulet…”

1918


Радикальное средство от скуки
Ваш мотор — небольшой landaulet…
Я люблю Ваши смуглые руки
На эмалевом белом руле…

Ваших губ утомленные складки
И узоры спокойных ресниц…
— Ах, скажите, ну разве не сладко
Быть, как мы, быть похожим на птиц?

Я от шляпы из старого фетра
Отколю мой застенчивый газ…
Как-то душно от солнца, от ветра
И от Ваших настойчивых глаз.

Ваши узкие смуглые руки, профиль Ваш,
Отраженный в стекле…
— Радикальное средство от скуки
Ваш мотор — небольшой landaulet…

1918

Nikolay Turoverov’s “Crimea”

Each of the four Tolstoy stories I’ve included in Lives and Deaths features vivid, affecting scenes of humans and animals losing their grip on life, but none of these scenes haunts me more than the death of the titular horse in the story I’ve called “Pace-setter” (“Kholstomer”). A few days ago, my colleague Maria Polinsky sent me a poem that called this scene to mind yet again. Its author is Nikolay Turoverov (1899-1972), a Don Cossack and career soldier who fought against the Bolsheviks as a staff captain in the Don Army until 1920, when he and some 150,000 White Russians were forced to escape by sea from Crimea.

Nikolay Turoverov.jpg

The poem, written in 1940 — when Turoverov was fighting against the Germans in defense of France, where he spent the last fifty years of his life — recalls his violent parting with his beloved stallion, whom he could not take with him.

White Army Crimea 1920.jpg

Crimea

We were fleeing from Crimea
through the gunfire and smoke.
I was shooting at my stallion —
kept on missing — from the deck.

And the horse swam on, exhausted,
following the ship’s tall stern,
not believing, not accepting
that we’d never meet again.

Countless times we’d fought together,
thought we’d die a single death…
Now the horse swam on, still faithful
in my love, losing its strength.

Then my batman hit our target
and the water turned light red…
I’ll remember how Crimea
faded, slowly, till I’m dead.

1940


Крым

Уходили мы из Крыма
Среди дыма и огня.
Я с кормы, всё время мимо,
В своего стрелял коня.

А он плыл, изнемогая,
За высокою кормой,
Всё не веря, всё не зная,
Что прощается со мной.

Сколько раз одной могилы
Ожидали мы в бою…
Конь всё плыл, теряя силы,
Веря в преданность мою.

Мой денщик стрелял не мимо.
Покраснела чуть вода…
Уходящий берег Крыма
Я запомнил навсегда.

1940

Cardinal Points, vol. 9

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I’ve just received my copy of this year’s volume of Cardinal Points, with its lovely autumnal cover. And, as always, we are very proud of the cornucopia beneath that cover. Among the treasures are Kevin Windle’s vivid, energetic translation of an excerpt from Russia Bathed in Blood (1927-28), an important novel by Artyom Vesyoly (1899-1938), with an eloquent and informative introduction by Windle and Elena Govor. (Windle also contributes an excellent translation of a chilling poem by Sergei Khmelnitsky, whose “reputation as a poet, resting on a slim collection of striking verse, has been overshadowed by his accomplishments in a different field, as a long-serving KGB informer and collaborator.”) Another Soviet-era discovery is “A Gypsy Caprice,” a dark story by Yuri Nagibin (1920-1994), gracefully translated by Clare Kitson. The darkness of those selections is balanced by a funny, humane story from the contemporary émigré author Vladimir Rabinovich, “Man is Book to Man,” which Yura Dashevsky renders with a light touch. And we are also thrilled to feature an essay by Alexander Nakhimovsky, which serves as a preview of his forthcoming study, The Language of Russian Peasants in the Twentieth Century: A Linguistic Analysis and Oral History. Essays by D. S. Likhachev (1906-1999), translated by Maurits Westbroek, and Tatyana Apraksina, translated by Patricia Walton and James Manteith, round out the prose, and Apraksina then leads us into an impressive and diverse poetry section, which includes a “personal anthology” of contemporary Russian verse selected and translated by Philip Nikolayev. Finally, in the “Art of Translation” section, Peter France introduces his exquisite versions of poems by one of Pushkin’s great contemporaries, Pyotr Vyazemsky (1792-1878), Teffi’s biographer Edythe Haber discusses her brilliant subject’s experiences with translation, and Siân Valvis offers a treat for readers of all ages, a verse rendition of the Slavic fairy tale “Kolobok.” Once again, I thank my indefatigable co-editor, Irina Mashinski, as well as Brown University’s Department of Slavic Studies. See here for volume 8 (2018), here for volume 7 (2017), and here for the journal’s website.

Prose

Artyom Vesyoly, “Bitter Hangover”: Excerpts from Russia Bathed in Blood (trans. from the Russian by Kevin Windle, introduced by Windle and Elena Govor)
Yuri Nagibin, “A Gypsy Caprice” (trans. from the Russian by Clare Kitson)
Vladimir Rabinovich, “Man is Book to Man” (trans. from the Russian by Yura Dashevsky)

Essays

Alexander Nakhimovsky, “Peasant Letters as Background to Russian Literature
D. S. Likhachev, A Selection from Letters on the Good and the Beautiful (trans. from the Russian by Maurits Westbroek)
Tatyana Apraksina, “The Praxiteles Syndrome” (trans. from the Russian by Patricia Walton and James Manteith)

Poetry

Tatyana Apraksina, Three Poems (trans. from the Russian by James Manteith)
Alexander M. Gorodnitsky, “Sailor, Tie Your Knots a Little Tighter” (trans. from the Russian by Zina Deretsky)
Osip Mandelstam, “Sisters – Heaviness, Tenderness” (trans. from the Russian by Yevgeniy Sokolovsky)
Anna Prismanova, Two Poems (trans. from the Russian by Nora Moseman)
Genrikh Sapgir, Four “Sonnets on Shirts” (trans. from the Russian by Dmitri Manin)
Taras Shevchenko, “Young Masters” (trans. from the Ukrainian by Anatoly Belilovsky)

Contemporary Russian Poetry: A Personal Anthology
Selected and Translated by Philip Nikolayev

Evgeny Khorvat, Oleg Dozmorov, Timur Kibirov, Dennis Novikov, Igor Bozhko, Sergey Gandlevsky, Sergey Kutanin, Andrey Toropov, Alexander Kabanov, Yuly Gugolev, Alexey Alexandrov, Tatyana Shcherbina, and Olga Chugai

The Art of Translation

Edythe Haber, “Teffi: Translator and Translated”
Peter France, “Pyotr Vyazemsky: Three Youthful Epigrams, and Poems of Gloomy Old Age”
Siân Valvis, “Isn’t that a Splendid Song: On Rolling ‘Kolobok’ into English Verse”
Kevin Windle, “Sergei Khmelnitsky: Tantamount to Death

Homesick and Happiness

On September 17, Jenny launched her memoir Homesick — a work of unparalleled lyricism and originality, “every page of [which],” writes Emily Rapp Black in The New York Times, “turns words around and around, deepening their mystery.” I cannot describe how happy I was to be at Skylight Books that evening, and to share the stage, briefly, with Jenny’s sister, Anne Marie, wand our friend, the brilliant novelist Marisa Silver.

Homesick Tour.jpg

Now Jenny is midway through her book tour. I’ll miss most of these dates, unfortunately, but the cats and I will be beaming with pride and joy in Los Angeles. In fact, I was so happy to hear (and to see) that Jenny’s first East Coast event — at McNally Jackson in Seaport — went swimmingly that I just had to translate the poem below.

I’ve written about many literary Odessans on this blog, but I have so far only mentioned Yury Olesha (1899-1960) in passing. That surprises me: he’s one of my very favorite authors, whose masterpiece, the novella Envy (1927), shook me to my core when I first read it. Usually only poems do that — but some pieces of prose, like Envy, and like Jenny’s Homesick, are charged with poetic power in the highest degree. They are poems. And their authors are more than capable of writing verse.

Olesha Sketch.jpg

In the 1910s and early ‘20s, Olesha belonged to a circle of poets in Odessa that also included Eduard Bagritsky and the future prose masters Ilya Ilf and Valentin Katayev. The poem below, written in 1918, brims with the romance of youth. Those were tumultuous, perilous days, but you wouldn’t know it from Olesha’s lines. The soldiers that pass him in the street are likely on active duty, yet all he sees is the sun dancing on their bugles. In my translation, I’ve taken just a handful of liberties (for instance, I changed the Turk on the tobacco shop’s sign to an American Indian). No harm done, I feel. After all, liberty is what this poem is all about! So here’s to Jenny, and to happiness!

Happiness

The sea is fragrant with clove,
while the tram smells of leather.
I can smile all I want, by Jove —
don’t give a damn whatsoever!

That friendly street-sweeper says
I’m a loafer. Well, what of it?
I refuse to keep track of the days —
I tell you, I’m simply above it.

There’s a snuffed-out cig in my teeth
and eternal joy in my chest.
The tobacco shop’s Indian chief
winks as I saunter past.

Should I laugh? Call out to someone
in that window there? … Bricked up tight!
Bugling soldiers walk by — the sun
glints and shouts with delight…

While up there, on the balcony, where
there’s a pug, high over our heads,
a boy with a shard of mirror
is tearing the sun to shreds.

Odessa, 1918


Счастье

От моря пахнет гвоздикой,
А от трамвая как будто кожей.
Сегодня, ей-Богу, не дико
Ходить с улыбкой на роже.

Пусть скажет, что я бездельник,
Вот тот симпатичный дворник,
А мне все равно: понедельник
Сегодня там или вторник…

Во рту потухший окурок,
А в сердце радость навеки.
С табачной вывески турок
Прищурил толстые веки.

Смеяться? Сказать? — кому бы,
Кому в глухое оконце? —
Солдаты прошли, и на трубах
Кричало о счастье солнце…

А сверху, чтоб было жарче,
С балкона, где мопс на цепочке,
Осколком зеркала мальчик
Солнце разорвал на кусочки.

Одесса, 1918

“Scows Full of Mullet”: Vladimir Agatov’s Sentimental Tribute to Odessa

Not long after Maxim returns to Tarusa, Jenny and I fly off to London, where she’ll attend to Booker business and I’ll give a talk at Pushkin House on the language of Odessa — a talk for which I’ve been casually preparing my whole life, and which is scattered like breadcrumbs on the pages of this blog. In my blurb for the talk, I mention Eduard Bagritsky, Leonid Utyosov, and, of course, Isaac Babel, saying that, “in the 1920s, their writings and popular songs infused Soviet culture with a new ‘Southern’ flavor, a spicy blend of Russian, Ukrainian, and Yiddish unique to their hometown. For a translator of Odessan texts, the question of whether this blend was a language all its own or a dialect is beside the point. What matters is what one does with it.”

Just to demonstrate how widely influential and easily recognizable this Odessan “blend” was, I thought I’d share my translation of an immensely popular Soviet song written by a Kyivan-born poet and performed by the Nizhyn-born singer Mark Bernes. The poet, Vladimir Agatov (born Velvel Gurevich, 1901-1966), contracted a serious case of Odessa-philia in the mid-1920s, while working for the Moscow-based newspaper Gudok (The Whistle), the staff of which was rife with genuine Odessans at the time. As Charles King writes in his lively history, Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams (2012), the song Agatov wrote for Leonid Lukov’s war film Two Warriors (1943) — “a lively nonsense ditty about a goodtime sailor, Kostya, and his pursuit of the fisherwoman Sonya” — “cemented Bernes’s place as a professional Odessan”: “This was supreme silliness, of course, but it was Odessa’s silliness, and in a time of awfulness and privation, it could make a person smile or even cry — Odessa’s own version of ‘Yankee Doodle’ or ‘Waltzing Matilda.’”

The times were indeed awful; in 1941, Odessa was besieged and occupied by Nazi-allied Romanian forces, and it was not liberated until 1944. Agatov’s song, which strings together a number of Odessan tropes and distinctive words — the neighborhoods Peresyp and Moldavanka, chestnut trees, swaggering sailors, scows and longboats brimming with fish, gruff draymen and stevedores — is a little too pat and sentimental to be authentically Odessan, but it was just the treat Soviet Odessa-philes needed: a sugary monument to the city’s resilience, to the indomitable buoyancy of its spirit. (That said, I couldn’t help roughing it up a bit in my translation, bringing it a little closer to what I think an Odessan song ought to sound like.)

Kostya the seaman used to sail
scows full of mullet to Odessa.
And in the beer joint, draymen hailed
him on their feet, raising their glasses.

The blue sea sparkles from afar,
the chestnut trees are in full bloom —
our Kostya picks up his guitar
and, nice and soft, begins to croon:

“Can’t say this is true of all Odessa,
since Odessa is a sprawling town,
but Moldavanka and Peresyp? Yessir —
they love Kostya. He’s their favorite son.”

Once, in May, the fisherwoman Sonya
moored her longboat at the dock and said:
“Everyone around here knows you, Kostya,
so I figure it’s high time we met!”

Kostya always played it cool and calm.
Reaching for his pack of cigarettes,
he said, “You’re a fascinatin’ dame,
Sonya — but the thing is that…

Can’t say this is true of all Odessa,
since Odessa is a sprawling town,
but Moldavanka and Peresyp? Yessir —
they love Kostya. He’s their favorite son.”

On French Boulevard and near the shore
bird-cherry trees are blooming up above,
and this is all you hear from stevedores:
“Hey, it looks like Kostya is in love!”

All week long, the fishermen at sea
were buzzing with the latest news.
Before the wedding, with an awful creak,
the stevedores squeezed into leather shoes.

Can’t say this is true of all Odessa,
since Odessa is a sprawling town,
but Moldavanka and Peresyp? Yessir —
they love Kostya. He’s their favorite son.


Шаланды, полные кефали,
В Одессу Костя привозил,
И все биндюжники вставали,
Когда в пивную он входил.

Синеет море за бульваром,
Каштан над городом цветёт.
Наш Константин берет гитару
И тихим голосом поёт.

Припев:

Я вам не скажу за всю Одессу
Вся Одесса очень велика.
Но и Молдаванка, и Пересыпь
Обожают Костю моряка.

Рыбачка Соня как-то в мае,
Причалив к берегу баркас,
Сказала Косте: «Все вас знают,
А я так вижу в первый раз!»

В ответ, достав «Казбека» пачку,
Ей молвил Костя с холодком:
«Вы интересная чудачка,
Но дело, видите ли, в том…»

Припев:

Я вам не скажу за всю Одессу
Вся Одесса очень велика.
Но и Молдаванка, и Пересыпь
Обожают Костю моряка.

Фонтан черёмухой покрылся,
Бульвар Французский был в цвету.
«Наш Костя, кажется, влюбился»,
Кричали грузчики в порту.

Об этой новости неделю
Шумели в море рыбаки,
На свадьбу грузчики надели
Со страшным скрипом башмаки.

Припев:

Я вам не скажу за всю Одессу
Вся Одесса очень велика.
Но и Молдаванка, и Пересыпь
Обожают Костю моряка.

Autumn in New York (and Elsewhere): Maxim Osipov’s Book Tour

This summer has, for reasons large and small, felt like a season of transition. I finished a substantial project — a translation of four tales by Tolstoy, to be released by Pushkin Press in November under the title Lives and Deaths — and a few minor ones, including a preface to a republication of Jessie Coulson’s excellent 1959 translation of Ivan Turgenev’s A Nest of Gentlefolk and Other Stories, which Rivverun will bring out in June of next year.

Now autumn is here, and it’s time to return to the 21st century. Not only am I working on a translation of a novel by Andrey Kurkov, set in war-torn Donbas and Crimea, but I will also be joining Maxim Osipov for several dates of his US book tour. I’m very excited to celebrate the successful launch of Rock, Paper, Scissors, and Other Stories with its brilliant author, whose hand I’ve been waiting to shake.

Maxim Osipov by Alexandre Outkine.jpg

Photograph by Alexandre Outkine

The first stop is the Brooklyn Book Festival, where Maxim will sit on a panel titled “Village People: Rural Lives in a Global World” on Sunday, September 22, at 10am. (I’ll be in the audience, if not on stage.) Unfortunately, I’ll have to miss Maxim’s second appearance in NYC, at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute on Tuesday, September 24, at 6:30pm, as well as his presentation at Bard College the following day, at 6pm.

After Brooklyn and before the Harriman, Maxim will travel to Philadelphia for a discussion at the Penn Book Center (Facebook event) on Monday, September 23, at 7pm. And on Thursday, September 26, he will speak at Harvard University’s Davis Center at 4:30pm.

Maxim and I will reconnect in LA — after his readings at UC Berkeley on September 30, Point Reyes Books on October 1, and City Lights (Facebook event) on October 2. I’ll join him at my alma mater, UCLA, on Friday, October 4, at 3:30pm and at the wonderful Book Soup (Facebook event) the following day at 4pm.

I hope to see some of you on the East or the West Coast in a month or so!

Humor Did Not Fail Him: The War Poetry of Veniamin Babadzhan (1894-1920)

Babadgan - Self-portrait.jpg

Veniamin Babadzhan, Self-portrait

Both the work and the fate of Veniamin Babadzhan (1894-1920), an Odessan artist, poet, and soldier of Karaite descent, brings to mind the more famous British poets of the Great War — particularly Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918), who was also Jewish, also an artist as well as a poet, and who also died tragically. But there are as many differences between Rosenberg and Babadzhan as there are similarities. Unlike Rosenberg, Babadzhan was from a well-to-do family; he served as a junior officer, not as a private; and he survived the Great War. His end came two years after the Armstice. Having joined (or been called up to) the anti-Bolshevik Volunteer Army in 1919, he was arrested and executed by the Bolsheviks in Feodosia in 1920.

Babadzhan.jpg

In the 1910s, between deployments, Babadzhan co-founded and ran a publishing house in Odessa, which released five of his own works: three collections of poems, a book about Cézanne, and a pamphlet about Vrubel.  Babadzhan’s verse pales in comparison to that of Rosenberg, but some of the poems he wrote about the war are striking both for their level-headedness and for their ironic humor. Here is a witty example:

Oh, what a bore to sit still in a wet, filthy trench,
with shells shrieking past, with only one thought in your head;
or to warm yourself up by a stove in a dugout that’s drenched,
eating borscht that’s gone cold, drinking tea with dry bread.

No! A hussar’s not meant for the life of an infantryman.
We’re created for horses, and horses for us cavaliers.
Here, in a trench, you’ll forget: What’s a tail? What’s a mane?
You’ll get in the saddle and find that you’re facing the rear…

In 2004, Babadzhan’s surviving poetry, prose, paintings, and drawings were collected and published in two volumes, edited by Sergey Lushchik and Alena Yavorskaya, Deputy Director of Research at the Odessa Literary Museum. As one reviewer of the edition noted, “the Odessa native’s sense of humor did not fail him even at life’s most tragic moments.” I take comfort in that thought.


Ох, надоело сидеть мне в мокром и грязном окопе,
Слушать визгливый снаряд, думать всегда об одном,
Греться в землянке промозглой возле заржавленной печки,
Кушать остынувший борщ, чай попивать с сухарем.

Нет! Неприлично гусару пехотное тяжкое дело —
Мы! рождены для коней, кони для нас созданы.
Тут позабудешь, пожалуй, что хвост у коня и что грива,
И, отправляясь в поход, сядешь к движенью спиной…

“Dear Miss Lazarus”: Ivan Turgenev in English

Turgenev Lazarus.jpg

When I posted about Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” a couple of days ago, I had wanted to include some Russian literary connection, but I was surprised to learn that the first translation of her sonnet into Russian wasn’t published until 1987, and then only in emigration. It was the work of Vladimir Lazaris (no relation), a resident of Tel Aviv, and you can find it here, on the author’s site, in a review of his book about his almost-namesake.

The earliest Russian connection to Lazarus that I found was a letter (page one and page two), in English, from Ivan Turgenev, who responded warmly to the American poet after she sent him a copy of her only novel, Alide: An Episode of Goethe’s Life (1874). It was a delight to see concrete evidence of Turgenev’s use of English, which Henry James described so memorably in his essay:

I have said that he had no prejudices, but perhaps after all he had one. I think he imagined it to be impossible to a person of English speech to converse in French with complete correctness. He knew Shakespeare thoroughly, and at one time had wandered far and wide in English literature. His opportunities for speaking English were not at all frequent, so that when the necessity (or at least the occasion) presented itself, he remembered the phrases he had encountered in books. This often gave a charming quaintness and an unexpected literary turn to what he said. “In Russia, in spring, if you enter a beechen grove” — those words come back to me from the last time I saw him.

Another charming, if less diplomatic, account of Turgenev’s English can be found in Cheerful Yesterdays, a memoir by Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823–1911), who is remembered chiefly for his literary relationship with Emily Dickinson. Higginson famously found fault with some of Dickinson’s poems, and the passage below provides further proof that he was a stickler for linguistic norms. His meeting with Turgenev took place on May 30, 1878, in Paris, at the Voltaire centenary celebration held at the Théâtre des Folies-Dramatiques.

[T]he whole thing would have been rather a disappointment to me […] had it not been rumored about that Tourguéneff was a delegate to the convention. Wishing more to see him than to behold any living Frenchman, I begged the ever kind secretary, M. Zaccone, to introduce me to him after the adjournment. He led me to a man of magnificent bearing, who towered above all the Frenchmen, and was, on the whole, the noblest and most attractive literary man whom I have ever encountered. […] Tourguéneff greeted us heartily as Americans […] and spoke warmly of those of our compatriots whom he had known, as Emma Lazarus and Professor Boyesen. […] All this he said in English, which he continued to use with us, although he did not speak it with entire ease and correctness, and although we begged him to speak in French.

Be that as it may, I imagine Lazarus was more than pleased with Turgenev’s eloquent letter, in which he writes of her novel, “It is very sincere and very poetical at the same time; the life and spirit of Germany have no secret for you — and your characters are drawn with a pencil as delicate as it is strong.” And the Russian novelist concludes with words any young author would love to hear: “I feel very proud of the approbation you give to my works — and of the influence you kindly attribute to them on your own talent: an author who writes as you do — is not a ‘pupil in art’ any more; he is not far from being himself a master.”