“Like a Bow on a Precious Package”: Julia Nemirovskaya’s Object Poems


Trans-Layers (2010), by Sakir Gökcebag

At the end of December, just before New Year’s, I posted my translation of a poem by Julia Nemirovskaya, whose work I’ve shared before, and today I have the pleasure of delivering three more gifts from the poet’s pen. There is a venerable history behind the genre of “object poems,” or Dinggedichte; many brilliant poets, from Rilke to the Martian school, have inspired readers to look at everyday items with fresh eyes. Yet I believe Julia manages to find her way into the inner life of things with unparalleled sensitivity and to render that life with unparalleled poignancy. I’m very grateful to the chief editor of the new journal MumberMag, Harry Leeds, and to the poet D.A. Powell, who edited its inaugural poetry section, for selecting three of Julia’s vivid objects for the first issue. You can now read “Lamp,” “Little Box,” and “Toilet Paper” on the journal’s website, but I’ll also offer the last of these here — since its subject has lately been in such high demand.

Toilet Paper

to be a papier-mâché ballerina, a kerchief,
a statue’s white skin,
to unroll
like a bandage
and lie down like a flower,
like a bow on a precious package.

Kin to napkin and book, although
few acknowledge the bond;
with its tender flesh gone,
its skeleton-tube is exposed.

Tossed among the glass-eyed envelopes
by a hand
that is empty and mortal,
stiff-sleeved and yellow-skinned.

Туалетная бумага

Балериной бумажной, носовым платком,
Кожей статуи в парке,
И лечь цветком,
Бантом на подарке.

Родня салфетке и книге, хоть
Родства никто не признает.
Исчезает ее нежная плоть
Скелет-трубочка вылезает.

Туда где пустые в бельмах конверты,
Бросает ее рука
Из желтой кожи, пустая, смертная,
Картонный задрав рукав.

Welcome to the Grey Zone: An Excerpt from Andrey Kurkov’s Latest Novel

Grey Bees Cover.jpg

As I worked on my translation of Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees, I hoped it would help readers far from Ukraine grasp the human experience of the ongoing war in the country’s eastern regions, but I could not have foreseen how relevant its depiction of a life befogged by uncertainty, in near-total isolation, would be to all of us now…

Kurkov, whose first novel, The Bickford Fuse, I translated in 2015, is one of Ukraine’s most beloved cultural figures. As an author writing in Russian who fervently supports Ukrainian sovereignty, he occupies an especially interesting position, demonstrating with each successful publication that Russophone culture is not inherently opposed to Ukrainian national interests, and that Ukrainian culture is not inherently antagonistic towards all things Russian. Most of his work to date has dealt with the long shadow cast by the Soviet Union over not just the political landscape of Eastern Europe, but over the minds of its residents. With Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and its incursion into Eastern Ukraine, that metaphorical long shadow has transformed into a chillingly concrete reality. In Grey Bees, Kurkov tackles these recent developments with hard-won insight, gently absurdist humor, and deep sympathy for those caught in between, who are themselves still wrestling with the shadows of their past.

The novel’s hero, Sergeyich, had worked as a mine health and safety inspector in the Donbas region before developing silicosis and going into early retirement. He was married, but his wife and daughter left him in the years before the Maidan Revolution. When the war starts and the first shell to fall on his village, Little Starhorodivka, destroys the church, all the inhabitants flee, except Sergeyich and one other man, Pashka. Sergeyich and Pashka have been enemies since childhood, but now that they’re alone in the village, they have little choice but to try and get along. Little Starhorodivka lies at the narrowest point of the so-called “grey zone.” Sergeyich, who has taken to keeping bees, is more concerned about their wellbeing than his own – and his attempts to ensure the safety and happiness of his “honey-bearing wards” propel the novel’s plot, which takes us from war-torn Eastern Ukraine to Crimea.

Grey Bees won’t be ready to hit the road until November of this year, but the wonderful editorial team at The Calvert Journal have published the first few chapters on their site. If you’re feeling cooped up and could use some company, why not spend the evening with Sergeyich and his apian comrades in Little Starhorodivka?

“Beach Is Closed”: Georgy Shengeli and Odessa’s Quarantine Wharf

Quarantine Wall.jpg

Recently — and I’m sure you can all guess why — my mind turned to Odessa’s long history of battling plague and cholera, often by drastic measures. In an article at The Balkanist, Lily Lunch tells the story of the city’s expansive Quarantine Wharf, or Lazaretto, which found its way into many accounts by international travelers, as well as into a stanza of Eugene Onegin’s journey, appended to Pushkin’s novel (here translated by Stanley Mitchell):

Look now — the square has put on motley.
All is alive: the people there,
On business or without, run hotly,
But most of them with some affair.
The merchant, child of cautious daring,
Tells from the ensigns how he’s faring,
Whether he’s favoured by the skies
With sails that he can recognize.
What novel wares from sundry nations
Have entered into quarantine?
Where are the promised casks of wine?
What news of plague and conflagrations?
Of famine or another war,
Or something new, but similar?

But the poem that occurred to me is more somber in tone, a kind of classical epitaph for this fabled spot, which was the site of great suffering and (this being Odessa) chicanery, as well as home to a succession of lighthouses. Its author is Georgy Shengeli, who spent the Civil War years in the region and composed this on November 10, 1920:

The houses move aside, and in the motley clearing,
where the November winds run up the slope and crash
against the earth — I see its ancient outline:
a ruined fortress, overgrown with moss…
Soldiers once drifted through its halls.
The captive plague grew weaker in its fetters.
People were hanged. Then, over massive walls,
the tips of movable antennae soared into the sky
and shot off beams of light into the darkness
that called to ports and vessels hidden from the eye.
Then — everything was gone. Nothing remains:
a vast, chilly expanse — a barren gravesite.
(And even the harsh wind, which plows the waves,
cannot oppress the flat grass of this wasteland…)

I’m moved by this elegiac poem, which shows history taking its usual course. But I’m also reminded that, today, the site of the Quarantine Wharf could not be more picturesque. And to lighten the mood a bit more, let me end with a little bit of Odessan black humor. In 1970, the city was struck by yet another epidemic, this time of cholera. Odessans responded as they usually do — with jokes. Here’s one, which describes a sign on the beach:

Beach Is Closed

1. Cholera in the water.
2. Public health officials nowhere to be found.
3. It’s winter, people!

Beach Is Closed.jpg

Let’s all promise each other to take a dip when the ill winds blow over!

Дома уходят вбок, и на просторе пегом,
Где ветер крутизну берет ноябрьским бегом
И о землю звенит, — обрисовался он:
Старинной крепости дерновый полигон…
Солдаты некогда шагали здесь вдоль зала.
Здесь пленная чума в цепях ослабевала.
Потом здесь вешали. Потом над массой стен
Взлетели острия уклончивых антенн
И кисточки огней с них в темноту срывались,
Портам и кораблям незримым откликались.
Потом — убрали все. И ныне — пустота,
Простор иззябнувший – могильная плита.
(Где даже резкий ветр, избороздивший море,
Травы не угнетет в укатанном просторе…)

“There is an Aero Club in Fair Odessa”: Osip Kolychev’s “All for Publicity”

Utochkin in Farman IV.jpg

Sergei Utochkin Takes Flight in a Farman IV

When I was writing Western Crime Fiction Goes East: The Russian Pinkerton Craze, 1907-1934, the chapter that gave me the greatest pleasure was the one devoted to the authorship of the so-called Pinkertons, those tawdry little dime novels that flooded the Russian book market in the first decades of the 20th century. It wasn’t the actual authorship that interested me most, but rather the rumors about it; “credit” for these anonymously published stories was ascribed to everyone from the adventurous realist Alexander Kuprin (1870-1938) to the dandified aesthete Mikhail Kuzmin (1872-1936). What I focused on in my research was the logic behind those rumors, concluding that the Pinkertons were part of a chain of pop-cultural associations, which also involved the circus, French wrestling, and aviation. Once that was established, it was really no surprise that Kuprin, author of famous circus stories and close friend of wrestler-turned-aviator Ivan Zaikin (1880-1948), would pop up in the Pinkerton guessing game.

Kuprin and Zaikin.jpg

Kuprin and Zaikin

Inevitably, the story of Kuprin and Zaikin’s friendship brings us back to Odessa, where, in 1910, the pair famously took off in a Farman biplane from the city’s Hippodrome, only to crash ignominiously (and harmlessly) at a cemetery. One of the youngsters who had raced down to the Hippodrome to witness this ill-fated but unforgettable feat was Odessan native Valentin Katayev (1897-1986). Katayev would go on to become one of the most successful writers of the Soviet period, and, not coincidentally, a pioneer of the “Red Pinkerton” genre. One could almost say that, at the moment of his crash landing, Kuprin was passing the torch to the next generation of adventure-seeking scribes.

Katayev recalled this momentous occasion decades later, in his memoir A Mosaic of Life, or the Magic Horn of Oberon (1972; Eng. trans. 1976). Recently I discovered another nostalgic account of it — fictionalized and versified — by Osip Kolychev (né Sirkes, 1904-1973). Kolychev is often dismissed as a Soviet hack, owing to another rumor: that he served as the inspiration for the poetaster to end all poetasters, Nikofor Lyapis-Trubetskoy, in the great satirical classic The Twelve Chairs (1928), written by Ilya Ilf and Katayev’s brother, Yevgeny Petrov. For all I know, the rumor may be true, but it seems to me that the charming poem below, published the year of Kolychev’s death, is far above Lyapis-Trubetskoy’s usual standards. In it, the great author Kuprin becomes the publicity-chasing local publisher Finkin (with emphasis on the first syllable); Zaikin (emphasis on the first “i”) retains his identity; the aviation pioneer Lev Matsievich (1877-1910) becomes Matsievich-Matsienko; and Odessa’s beloved flyboy, Sergei Utochkin (1876-1916, emphasis on the initial “U”) really shines!

All for Publicity

I now recall a golden-headed child’s
ungilded youth — recall my youth, that is,
my native town… Utochkin’s daring flights
over Odessa, and Zaikin’s wrestling bouts
in the arena at the local circus…

There, gliding through the sky, with its stacked wings,
an unpretentious Blériot or Farman
And every bit of its insidious design
spells certain death for aviator-airmen…

But have no fear: there is an Aero Club
in fair Odessa, and the Russian pluck
of Sergei Utochkin protects him as he probes
heavenly depths better than any luck…

Alas, poor Matsievich-Matsienko
dies in a crash, and the Odessan Post
presents his portrait, and the tragic scene
where the exalted naval pilot lost
his life… his aeroplane in smithereens…

Finkin the publisher is at the Hippodrome!
Publicity’s the only God he worships,
and so the seafood market’s proudest son
climbs to the Pearly Gates in his own airship…

He soars above the roof of Chichkin’s dairy
but almost slams into the chimney top…
And you can hear the teeming crowd grow merry,
laughing and shouting without stop…

“Hey, looky there — he’s flyin’!” “That’s a crow!”
“What crow, you dope? That there’s an airy-plan.”
“Eel-ectric, eh? I see them sparks…” “Dunno…”
“Workin’ them buttons…” “He’s more dove than man!”

“Get movin’! Step aside!” the coppers roar.
“But look — that airy-plan is headin’ for the sun!”
“This is the first time that a well-known publisher
has flown up with a Russian veteran!”

You can be sure that soon the fearless press will
make a big noise about this wondrous coup:
Publisher Finkin in the Air Over ODESSA,
Publisher Finkin Zipping Through the Blue


Monument to Utochkin in Odessa

Во имя рекламы

Мне вспомнилось незолотое детство
мальчишки с золотою головой:
себя я вспомнил, отчий город свой…
полеты Уточкина над Одессой,
Заикин на арене цирковой…

Неприхотливый Блерио иль Фарман
по небу этажеркою скользит.
Он всем своим строением коварным
неумолимой гибелью грозит

пилотам-авиаторам… Однако
в Одессе действует аэроклуб,
и Уточкина русская отвага
небесную пронизывает глубь…

Но гибнет Мациевич-Мациенко,
и на столбцах «Одесской почты» дан
его портер: почтенный капитан,
и гибели трагическая сцена,
и превращенный в хлам аэроплан…

И вот уже спешит издатель Финкин
на ипподром, — зане реклама — бог!
И вот исчадие рыбного рынка
пересекает господа порог…

Взлетел над крышей чичкинской молочной,
чуть не ударив по печной трубе…
И слышен человеческий раешник
в бурлящей ипподромовской толпе…

— Гляди-тко! Ишь! Летит! — Да то ж ворона!
— Нет, не ворона! Энто ерошлан!
— На електричестве! — Пускает искры… — Вона!
От кнопки, что ль, летает… — Как турман!

— Гей, разойдись! — кричат городовые.
— Гляди, летит на солнце ероплан!
— С редактором-издателем впервые
летит по небу русский ветеран.

А завтра расшумит лихая пресса
о совершенных ими чудесах:
издатель Финкин в небе над ОДЕССОЙ,
издатель Финкин мчится в небесах…

A Circus in Stalin’s Shadow: On Grigori Aleksandrov and Moyshe Kulbak

Circus Event.jpg

On Friday I participated in a screening of Grigori Aleksandrov’s spectacularly entertaining film Circus (1936). I use the word “spectacularly” advisedly — the film is a proper spectacle, not simply because its subject is “the greatest show on earth,” but because it was meant to rival anything Hollywood, the Babylon of Showbiz, could produce. Cinematically, it really is the Soviet answer to Busby Berkeley; but the political challenge it poses to the United States is more serious and more direct. For those unfamiliar with its plot, it’s enough to say that the film stars Alexandrov’s wife, Lyubov Orlova — the darling of the Soviet screen, and Stalin’s favorite actress — as the mother of then three-year-old James Patterson, the real-life son of an African American immigrant to the USSR. As I mentioned in the panel discussion after the screening — in which I was joined by Slavists Sasha Razor and Sarah Valentine, as well as Yiddish scholar Robert Peckerar, who organized the event — the mind reels at the thought that Circus came out a year after Triumph of the Will, and three years before Gone with the Wind

Orlova and Patterson.jpg

But, of course, the story isn’t all bread and circuses, as it were. The shadow of Stalin’s purges hangs over the screen, and the leader’s face appears at the end, on a banner above the marching masses. The authors of the screenplay — Ilya Ilf, Yevgeny Petrov, Valentin Katayev, and Isaac Babel (Odessans all, you’ll note) — all refused to have their names appear in the credits. Babel would be purged in 1940, and the great Soviet Jewish actor Shloyme Mikhoels, who sings a lullaby in Yiddish to little Jimmy Patterson at the end of the film, would be killed on Stalin’s orders in 1948; his scene was cut from later prints of the film.

Robby, who runs the organization Yiddishkayt here in Los Angeles, has given a great deal of thought to the conflicted legacy of Soviet antiracism and Stalinist antisemitism, not only as a scholar, but also as translator. Just this month, the fledgling Naydus Press has released his brilliant version of the Yiddish poet Moyshe Kulbak’s Byronic mock-epic of Weimar-era Berlin, Childe Harold of Dysna (1928-1933), which was written in Soviet Minsk. As I say in my brief introduction to the book:

It was in Minsk that Kulbak once again looked backward — this time not to his Belarusian childhood, but to his wild days in Berlin. And it is Minsk that accounts for that key element of Childe Harold that I have not yet addressed: the tension between its exuberant Expressionistic imagery and ribald, ironic Byronism on the one hand, and its heartbreakingly heartfelt leftism on the other. For Kulbak’s poem is as rich in its rage at police brutality and disgust at bourgeois hypocrisy as it is lavish in its style:

France has steel that’s stainless,
Belgium coke and Germany lead.
So often the worker wracked by pain is
Led to the abattoir, left for dead.
The old prisons have devoured us,
Just like you, O Fatherland Great,
Neukölln sings its hate. […]

The last sound we hear is that of the radicals, “the last of wolves that bay / In the ruins of the system.”

Tragically, like Babel and Mikhoels, Kulbak did not survive the Stalinist era. He was killed in 1937, a year after Circus was released. But thanks to Robby, the poet’s wild Childe Harold has a new lease on life in English.


I keep telling my friend he ought to do more translating… And he seems to be taking the noodging to heart; the version of Circus we screened was furnished with his excellent subtitles.

You can watch the film, with somewhat less engaging subtitles, here:

And if you want to learn more about it, Meredith L. Roman offers a fascinating new perspective in the epilogue to her recent study, Opposing Jim Crow: African Americans and the Soviet Indictment of U.S. Racism, 1928-1937.

My Hollywood: A Triptych

I’m very grateful to Adam Kirsch, the poetry editor of The New Criterion, for including “My Hollywood: A Triptych” in the March 2020 issue of the journal. This brief sequence of poems is set in the Los Angeles neighborhood where I grew up and where Jenny and I now make our home. Hollywood is by no means underexposed, of course, yet some corners of it receive less attention than others, and some episodes of its past are gradually sinking into oblivion. In the stanzas below, I spend some time with a monument to Rudolph Valentino; imagine what one of the neighborhood’s early residents, Paul de Longpré, would have made of its current state; and consider the fates of two generations of Russian émigrés — those among whom I was raised in the 1990s, and those who, like Alla Nazimova, flocked here in the 1910s and ’20s.

I should add that it was especially rewarding to have these poems accepted by Adam Kirsch, a fellow Angeleno, whose electric translations of Bertolt Brecht’s “Hollywood Elegies” gave me a jolt of inspiration when I first encountered them. And Dana Gioia, another great Angeleno — whose “In Chandler Country” and “Cruising with the Beach Boys” are everything LA poems ought to be — helped bring the sequence to life with his invaluable suggestions, for which I am forever grateful.

My Hollywood - Aspiration.png

My Hollywood - Aspiration.jpg

My Hollywood - The Flower Painter.png

My Hollywood - The Flower Painter.jpg

My Hollywood - The Garden of Allah.png

My Hollywood - The Garden of Allah.jpg

Essential Matters: The TLS on Russia and Eastern Europe

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A year and a half ago, I posted about a special Russian- and Eastern European-themed issue of the TLS, in which I was honored to appear. Last week the TLS devoted another issue to the region (7 February), and, once again, I was lucky enough to be included, in two ways. My own contribution is a review of the second and final volume of Varlam Shalamov’s complete Kolyma stories, titled Sketches of the Criminal World (NYRB Classics). As I say in the piece, this is a “grave, weighty book,” but one run through with veins of shimmering lyricism, and Donald Rayfield’s translation

handles [such] rare glimmers of peace and inspiration as adeptly as it does Shalamov’s clinical depictions of that other world, a world of gruelling work and constant humiliation, in which human life is turned upside down; in which there can be no decency, no shame; in which a diagnosis of dysentery is a stroke of luck that hinges on a starving patient’s ability to “make his rectum excrete into a doctor’s hand the verifiable and lifesaving lump of mucus.” The most powerful stories in this volume wed Shalamov’s unblinking awareness of human frailty and historic catastrophe to his keen appreciation for nature — the root of his resilience and poetry.

A related piece in the issue is Lesley Chamberlain’s review of a book I haven’t yet read but certainly plan to, Monika Zgustova’s Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag (Other Press). In introducing her conversations with nine female survivors of Soviet labor camps, Zgustova, Chamberlain tells us, “stresses how poetry, nature and friendship kept her interviewees alive.” Extreme experience tends to boil humanity down to the essentials, so I am not surprised to learn that the interviews in Zgustova’s book “offer cameo tales of good and evil.”

Essential matters also lie at the heart of the issue’s cover piece (and podcast headliner), Caryl Emerson’s staggeringly insightful essay on Leo Tolstoy, which takes as its starting point my collection of the master’s “essential stories,” Lives and Deaths, and goes on to consider Andrei Zorin’s and Liza Knapp’s concise critical biographies of the man. I’m glad to see that the TLS has made Emerson’s carefully woven text freely available, so I don’t have to spoil the reader’s experience by cutting a square out of it. And if you’re a subscriber, accompany it with Carol Apollonio’s two-course offering on Gogol (Oliver Ready’s “essential stories” and Roger Cockrell’s version of The Government Inspector). I also want to thank the inimitable Kaggsy for her generous, eloquent reviews of the Gogol and Tolstoy volumes. Readers, enjoy — no subscription needed!

“Grab It While It’s Hot”: Nina Gernet and the Odessan Sun

Austrian Beach - 1918.jpg

Austrian Beach, Odessa, 1918

It’s a mild, sunny February in Los Angeles, though a little windy. Nothing to complain about, of course: excellent weather, as far as winter goes. Still, it is winter. In Argentina and Uruguay, on the other hand, it’s the tail end of summer. That’s where Jenny is right now, seeing old friends, writing, and soaking up the sun. The photos of Uruguayan beaches she sends me bring to mind a poem by Nina Gernet (1899-1982), a native of Odessa who moved to Leningrad in 1925. There she worked as an editor at Chizh, a children’s magazine that served as a temporary refuge for the mind-bending poets of the OBERIU group, Nikolay Oleynikov (1898-1937), Alexander Vvedensky (1904-1941), and Daniil Kharms (1905-1942). Her work was less experimental than that of her fellow Chizhites, and though she was fired from her editorial post in 1937, she survived Stalin’s purges. And I don’t think it’s unfair to say that, in her own creative way, she also helped others survive. Gernet’s passion was puppetry, and when she found out, in the late 1930s, that a labor camp in the Far North had established a puppet theater, she began to send its organizers all the useful material she could find, including manuscripts of her own unpublished plays.

Nina Gernet.jpg

Gernet’s plays for puppets were very popular in the Soviet Union and earned her international recognition, but below is an obscure little artifact from her youth, written in 1921. It is a playful lyric that captures the wheeling-and-dealing atmosphere of Odessa, where nearly everything’s up for sale:

The only thing that isn’t up for sale,
the only thing that simply can’t be bought,
that has no price in mercantile Odessa,
is the dancing sun. “Give it a whirl!
All free, so grab it while it’s hot
and hang it in your room above your dresser!”

“Hmm… do you have something that’s cheap
yet still quite subtle and refined?
I mean, one has to pay a little to have fun…”
“Why certainly! Austrian Beach: a dip,
fine company, a place to dine.”
“With orchestra?” “Two hundred.” “Done and done.”

I love this little verse snapshot of Austrian Beach, a favorite haunt of Odessan authors in the 1920s, which is now part of the city’s port. Konstantin Paustovsky (1892-1968), who might well have bumped into Gernet while out strolling by the water, describes the place in his marvelous memoir, Story of a Life (translated by Manya Harari and Andrew Thompson): “[It] was made for reading books that have to be read slowly, and set aside from time to time, while you dig about in the sand and by chance come across a fragment of rock crystal. It was a wonderful place to doze. The wind from the sea tickled your eyelashes and the salt air stayed in your lungs and made you a little drunk.”

Единственное, что не продается,
Единственное, что не покупается,
Чем не торгуют в деловой Одессе –
Это танцующее солнце.
– Берите! Даром предлагается!
Годится в комнате развесить.

– А есть ли что-нибудь дешевое,
Но все же тонкое и элегантное-
На удовольствие необходим расход!
– Пожалуйста! Австрийский пляж: столовая,
Купанье, музыка и общество галантное.
С оркестром – двести пятьдесят за вход…

Emil Draitser, the Duc, and Peter Storitsyn: An Odessan Full Circle

Duke Odessa.jpg

Jenny and I have just returned from London, where I spent several stimulating mornings and afternoons going over new translations of Teffi’s stories with Robert Chandler. Equally stimulating (for me, anyway) was Robert’s and my presentation at Pushkin House, and Oliver Ready’s and my double-launch of Gogol and Tolstoy at Oxford. But now that I’m back in LA, my thoughts have turned to Odessa — and for good reason.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve shared a LARB piece on this page; there are, frankly, just too many standouts for me to choose from, columns upon columns of them. But my Odessan pride has finally got the better of me. How could I not play favorites and single out Oleg Ivanov’s zesty review of Emil Draitser’s novel Farewell, Mama Odessa? Draitser, a native Odessan who embodies the best qualities associated with the city (namely, indomitable resilience and a killer sense of humor), immigrated to the States in 1975, first settling in Los Angeles. Since 1986 he has taught Russian at Hunter College in New York City, but all his American writings are imbued with the sunny warmth — and, at times, the scorching heat — of Odessa and LA. Farewell, Mama Odessa, which was first published in Russian in 2012, is just out in Draitser’s own lively English translation. And as Ivanov (himself an excellent Russian-American stylist) makes clear in his review, “though it deals with émigrés fleeing a nation that no longer exists almost half a century ago, the novel addresses many of the concerns facing America and the world today.”

It was Oleg’s vivid opening passage, however, that made his piece especially appropriate for this blog’s purposes:

Perched atop the world-famous Potemkin Stairs in Odessa is a statue of the 19th-century statesman the Duc de Richelieu, the city’s first governor. He is dressed anachronistically in a toga, his right hand gesturing in a vague, noncommittal way either toward the coast of the Black Sea, only recently conquered by the Russian Empire at the time of his term, or perhaps to the lands beyond it. In the 1970s, the embankment at the bottom of the stairs was part of the land border of the USSR, and what lay beyond the sea represented freedom for the millions of Soviet Jews who wanted to escape the country’s state-sponsored antisemitism by emigrating to the West. Taking their cue from the statue of the Duc and its mysterious, ambivalent gesture, most of these hopeful emigrants had only a vague sense of what they would encounter in emigration.

This is as good a description — and interpretation — of Odessa’s most recognizable statue as I have ever seen. In fact, after reading it, I was struck by the fact that Ivan Martos’s bronze Duc has inspired so little memorable prose or poetry. He shows up here and there, of course, but where are the odes, the rhapsodic apostrophes addressed to him and him alone? I did manage to find one poem from the 1910s. Though it isn’t especially good, and doesn’t really hang together, it begins nicely enough, putting a faintly modern, Futuristic spin on the opening of Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman:

Monument to Richelieu

His ancient profile blackly grand,
he slumbers, sullen, night and day,
receiving gifts of orange sand
from tree-lined, passionate allées.
For ships at sea, he points the way
with his extended sovereign hand —
his face is turned toward the waves,
his back toward the noisy land.

The poem’s author, it turns out, is far more interesting than the poem. Those who read Russian can acquaint themselves with the storied and jumbled career of Peter Storitsyn (né Peter Eli-Bentsionovich Kogan, 1877-1942) with the help of a sparkling little essay written by Alena Yavorskaya, the indispensable Deputy Director of Research at the Odessa Literary Museum. And those who don’t will have to rely on the following résumé, composed in 1924 by Victor Shklovsky:

[Isaac] Babel loved to have people over. One frequent visitor was a former chemist-cum-Tolstoyan; a teller of incredible tales; a man who had insulted the Grand Duke of Baden and later appeared in court, freshly arrived from Switzerland, in order to confirm the accusation (but was deemed mentally unfit and punished only by the confiscation of his chemical lab); a bad poet; an inconsequential reviewer — the supremely improbable Peter Storitsyn.

Not all of this can be verified, but one thing is for sure: Storitsyn was an odd bird. He seems to have inherited a fortune from his father and to have actually been a chemist by training. He only spent a few of his mature years in Odessa (1914-1917), but he left quite a mark. Babel was indeed fond of him, and especially of his “incredible tales” (one of which served as the premise for the story “My First Fee”). And Babel’s poetic contemporaries also owed the erstwhile chemist a great debt — literally. He funded the publication of four colorful anthologies, including Automobile in the Clouds (1915), in which Eduard Bagritsky and Anatoly Fioletov published some of their earliest poems. Needless to say, Storitsyn dedicated a generous number of pages to his own verse, like the ode to the bronze Duc.

Storitsyn’s Odessan career ended suddenly. Another anthology was planned, but only its cover — a portrait of the publisher-poet by the Odessan artist Sandro Fazini (né Saul Faynzilberg, 1892-1942) — ever appeared in print.

Storitsyn - Fazini.jpg

By the early 1920s Storitsyn was in Petrograd-Leningrad, contributing to newspapers. In his last years, he was barely eking out a living as a proofreader, and he perished during the Siege of Leningrad.

Yavorskaya opens her essay on Storitsyn with the following observation: “Sometimes, however rarely, one encounters in literary and literary-adjacent milieus people who might not have written anything themselves, but without whom these milieus would have been far poorer, far more boring. Such people tend to be fabulous storytellers and improvisers, natural-born schemers.” That’s certainly how Storitsyn ought to be remembered. And I hope that, in his worst moments, Storitsyn himself remembered his days in Odessa and smiled. After all, as Draitser writes at the end of the prologue to his novel, “There is no such thing as a former Odessan. The place is forever in the veins of every person born and raised in that blessed city.”

Памятник Ришелье

Старинным профилем чернея,
Он спит угрюм и одинок,
К нему влюбленные аллеи
Несут оранжевый песок.
Своей державною рукою
Указывая путь судам,
Он к шуму улиц стал спиною
И повернул лицо к волнам.
И даль туманных зданий тает,
И улицы широк поток,
И плащ тяжелый ниспадает,
Ложась у выкованных ног.
Он смотрит гордо и открыто
В простор, где пляшет серебро,
В плиту тяжелого гранита
Впилось чугунное ядро.
Фонарный газ шурша мерцает,
Проходят пары вновь и вновь,
Он бронзою благословляет
Внизу текущую любовь.
Над ним жемчужная свобода,
За ним расплатанный гранит,
И тяжкий возглас парохода
Его покоя не смутит.

“O Amazing Pals”: Semyon Olender’s “Pat and Patachon”

Shub and Tolstoy.jpg

My dear friend Sasha Razor, who’s finishing a dissertation on the work of early Soviet authors in the film industry, sometimes sends me her neatest finds. The image above, for instance, appeared in an issue of the journal Kino in 1928. It depicts the pioneering film editor Esther (Esfir) Shub (1894-1959) “operating” on Count Leo Tolstoy. The story behind the caricature is that Shub, working in the late 1920s, spliced footage of the late Count into the third part of her trilogy of historical “compilation films.” This third part — now lost, alas — was titled The Russia of Nicholas II and Leo Tolstoy (1928). As Jay Leda, the first great historian of Soviet cinema, tells it, Shub had originally planned to make the film all about Tolstoy himself, but found too little material, and so “decided to work on the epoch, using Tolstoy as a central figure, a spokesman of his time.” She did use the footage shot at Yasnaya Polyana by the Odessan half-huckster Alexander Drankov, which I posted in June of last year, and I would have loved to see it in its new context. In any case, the caricature from Kino couldn’t help but remind me of, well, me, translating and editing Tolstoy’s prose; it doesn’t help that Esther and I have the same ‘do…

But this sketch is just one of the many filmic treasures Sasha has dug up. Another is a poem by Semyon Olender, whose lovely late lyric about Odessa appeared here back in August. This time Olender writes with more humor, but just as movingly, about the Danish comic duo Pat and Patachon  Actually, those are the names by which they were known in Russia and Germany. In the US, they went by Ole & Axel; in the UK, by Long & Short; in their native land, by Fy go Bi; and so on… I think their British monikers sum up the shtick most effectively: one of them was tall and gangly, the other short and plumpish.

Pat and Patachon.jpg

But as with Laurel and Hardy, those bare facts can’t possibly communicate the charm of the combo. Perhaps only celluloid can. And maybe poetry, too. I feel Olender’s ode certainly captures the magic.

Pat and Patachon

Was it real? Perhaps I was dreaming?
O amazing pals, all I know
is the two of you really gave me
quite a shock with your funny clothes!

Can’t remember, or didn’t notice,
how this pair snuck into my flat…
One was short, in a shabby waistcoat
and a crumpled old bowler hat.

The other was tall and slender,
his ill-fitting jacket all stained,
and like some enormous toddler,
he held his pal by the hand.

Crouching and bending briskly,
they spoke in the gentlest tones:
“Pat is my name,” one whispered.
“Me you can call Patachon.”

In response to my friendly offer,
they plopped themselves down, but so
excitedly that the sofa
suffered — the fabric tore!

Patachon turned to me quite sadly,
with a guilty squint in his eyes.
And Pat took it just as badly —
his whiskers would fall and rise…

I tried to console the poor souls:
so what if the sofa creaks?
But the screen: it swallowed them whole!
Boy, is celluloid quick!

I know I need to keep watching
and laughing for five more parts —
but I swear, I’ve not seen a friendship
as warm and as full of heart…

Пат и Паташон

Наяву или в сновиденьи
Поразило мои глаза
Ваше странное облаченье,
Изумительные друзья!

Я не понял и не заметил,
Как пробрался в мой дом тайком
Коротыш в потёртом жилете
И с приплюснутым котелком.

А другой был высок и тонок,
В замусоленном пиджаке.
Он держал, как большой ребёнок,
Руку друга в своей руке.

Приседая и нагибаясь,
Мне друзья прошептали в лад:
— Паташоном я прозываюсь.
— А меня называют — Пат…

И в ответ на моё приглашение
Оба грохнулись заодно
На диван — и в таком волненьи,
Что не выдержало сукно.

Паташон ко мне виновато
Повернулся, глаза скосив.
И подергивались у Пата
Отвисающие усы.

Я старался их успокоить:
Ничего, что трещит диван…
Но — стремителен целлулоид, —
И друзей поглотил экран.

И хотя мне смеяться нужно
В продолженьи шести частей,
Я поклясться готов, что дружбы
Я не видывал горячей.