Brian J. Boeck’s STALIN’S SCRIBE

Quiet Don 1928.jpg

Cover of Quiet Don, vol. 2 (1928)

Brian J. Boeck’s Stalin’s Scribe: Literature, Ambition, and Survival: The Life of Mikhail Sholokhov is a profoundly insightful book on Soviet literary and cultural history. I was very happy to write about it for LARB, and was even more happy to read Robert Chandler’s excellent review in the Financial Times. As I say in my piece,

Sholokhov’s struggle to stay true to his vision in an atmosphere of blinding darkness is the theme of Boeck’s riveting political biography. To his great credit, Boeck himself is never blind to Sholokhov’s profound flaws or to the fact that his struggle was largely doomed from the start. His is a story of a Faustian bargain, a story “in which triumph and terror, disturbing fears, and improbable feats of achievement are inextricably interwoven.” It is a story of Russia in the 20th century.

By the 1960s, Sholokhov, a writer of talent, was nothing more than a tool of the regime — and a rusty tool at that. I cite Boeck’s discussion of one of the man’s moral low points, his speech at the 23rd Party Congress in 1966. In it Sholokhov viciously denounced his fellow writers Andrei Siniavsky and Yuli Daniel, who had been convicted of anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda earlier that year. The following line from his speech echoed through the literary establishment:

If these delinquents with their black consciences pulled the same stunt back in the twenties when people were judged not in accordance with strictly delineated articles of the Criminal Code but instead operated with a “revolutionary understanding of what is right,” oh how these turncoats would have received an altogether different form of punishment!

With bitter irony, Nadezhda Mandelstam complimented Sholokhov for stating the facts so plainly, without hypocrisy, and wondered “what all the fuss was about.” Lydia Chukovskaya, on the other hand, avoided irony and issued an open letter to the disgraced author. Her words proved prophetic:

Literature will avenge itself as it metes out vengeance upon all who retreat from the difficult obligations that come with it. It will sentence you to the highest form of punishment there is for an artist — creative sterility. No kinds of honors, money, or awards, either domestic or international, can prevent this verdict from landing upon your head.

Boeck shows that this verdict was not only justified, but also tragic.

Advertisements

Katya Yarovaya’s Generation

Katya Yarovaya.jpg

I learned of the Russian singer-songwriter Katya Yarovaya only a little while ago, thanks to a brief article on a Russian newspaper’s website. The article featured a video in which a montage of historical footage — Soviet leaders, struggling workers, etc. — unfurled to the sound of another female singer performing Yarovaya’s wittily cynical “Tsars Change (Russia Remains the Same).” That song, it turns out, was written in response to the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982 — the year of my birth. Yarovaya, who was born in 1957, would have been 25 then, and she had only a decade to live.

Before her death of cancer in 1992, Yarovaya wrote some 300 songs, too few of which were recorded. Opportunities to make the sorts of albums she wanted to make, albums that would include not only personal but political songs, only appeared in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A tour of the United States and her illness prevented her from taking those opportunities. But her work survived and is presented beautifully on this website.

The first song I heard Yarovaya sing moved me to tears. Its title is “A Song About My Generation,” and the generation in question is that of the 1970s — of the Soviet citizens who, like Yarovaya, came of age under Brezhnev, in the so-called Era of Stagnation. To Yarovaya, it is an in-between generation, and that is its tragedy. I’ve translated the lyrics, which largely speak for themselves. (It does help to know that Brezhnev had a notoriously ill-fitting set of dentures; you can hear him struggling with them here. And it may surprise some to know that The Shake and breakdancing were both popular in the Soviet Union.)

The Russian lyrics are available here, and Yarovaya’s poignant performance is embedded below.

The Seventies: my generation.
The time? An era of stagnation.
What do we feel? Self-condemnation.
What are we called? The population.

All we have left are hand-me-downs:
a suction denture making sounds,
the faintest echoes of the Fifties,
and muted voices from the Sixties.

And we will always be stuck
between The Beatles and rock,
between “shaking” and “breaking”
between Kennedy and Reagan,
between the false and the true,
between Prague and Kabul,
between hippies and punks,
the whole time between tanks…

Our generational lot…
We’re like wood lying wet:
we don’t burn, we don’t rot,
we just stagnate — that’s that.

We have lived through, discreetly,
two full decades of winter.
Frozen, how can we now
warm ourselves in this thaw?

And we will always be stuck
between The Beatles and rock,
between “shaking” and “breaking”
between Kennedy and Reagan,
between the false and the true,
between Prague and Kabul,
between hippies and punks,
the whole time between tanks…

Now no one much cares
what we all have to say,
although this is our era,
this is our day…

Over thirty? Still teens:
we have nothing but schemes…
While the new generation
has such great expectations…

We can lie to ourselves,
say we’re “lost,” and that’s all…
But our conscience will crawl
up through the lies…
As if X-rayed, our souls
will flash up in our eyes…
We can’t blame our stagnation
on the place and the times!

Ben Hecht and the Bandits

Underworld.jpg

I’m just back from another brief trip to New York, where Jenny and I caught a matinee to beat all matinees!  The film we saw was a smash hit — in 1927, when it premiered at a small theater in Times Square with precious little studio-bought fanfare. The producers at Paramount had predicted that Joseph von Sternberg’s atmospheric Underworld would flop, but the public begged to differ. Paramount soon had to arrange for round-the-clock screenings. And the film really did justify the frenzy. It’s a masterpiece of cinema, silent or otherwise. The cinematography is mesmerizing, the acting bold yet subtle, and the story gripping, The main beats of that story, and some of the intertitles, were the work of one of my favorite American scribes, Ben Hecht, who is the subject of Adina Hoffman’s marvelous new biography, Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures, part of Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series.

Jenny and I were lucky enough to hear Hoffman introduce Underworld at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. She spoke beautifully about Hecht’s contribution, but I can’t quote her words from memory, so instead I’ll quote from her book: “Hecht … provided the movie with its gritty yet somehow glamorous subject: small-time gangsters and their pouting molls, their bacchanalian revelries and brutal street warfare. We might even say he provided the movies with this subject, since Underworld set forth the raw materials for nearly a century of gangster dramas-to-come, from Hecht’s own script for Scarface and right on through the Godfathers, Scorsese, and The Sopranos.

Hoffman’s elegant description should clear up any mystery as to why I’m wild about Hecht. Gangsters and their pouting molls, bacchanalian revelries and brutal street warfare — that stuff’s got Isaac Babel (and me) written all over it. All you have to do is adjust the setting slightly: same time, different place. What Babel did for Odessa of the 1910s and ‘20s, Hecht did for Chicago, where he began his storied career at an impossibly young age. Hecht started out as a cub reporter covering crime (of which there was a surfeit in that fair Midwestern city) and what would come to be known as “human interest” stories. The things he witnessed in those years would fuel his writing for the rest of his life, from the permanently fresh sketches of A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago (1922), through the gangster films he scripted with intimidating ease, to the long out-of-print memoir Gaily, Gaily (1963), which appeared a year before his death.

Gaily, Gaily.jpg

I’ll offer a couple of passages from that book, on the subject of bandits, in order to demonstrate Hecht’s flair for flavorsome language and his beguiling, Babel-like alternative morality:

You’ll forgive me if I tell you about some of the criminals I knew, with a little admiration. They were part of my youth, which, by itself, makes them admirable. But they were also brave, courteous, and fond of us Newspaper Neds. And they were full of hair-raising gossip.

They never told lies, except to the police; never robbed any fellow man of his good name, only of his life if the situation called for it. Being professional criminals, they usually slew each other. Murder was as natural to them as mortgage foreclosing to a banker, or stock watering to a broker. In fact, their lawlessness was as much a part of American tradition as were the laws they fractured.

An ideal spot for consorting with criminals was Big Jim Colossimo’s Cafe, after 3 A.M. Mossy Enright, Gene Geary, Tommy O’Connor, Blackie Weed — a bevy of well-barbered knaves beckons, masticating their porterhouse steaks and listening moodily to Big Jim’s orchestra play “The Chocolate Soldier,” “Madame Sherry,” “The Red Mill.”  But I’ll pass them over for Big Jim himself, the most deserving for recall.

All those mouthwatering monickers… Big Jim’s place sounds like it could have given the joint on Deribasovskaya a run for its money.

Babel and Hecht were born in different countries, but within a year of each other, and both to Russian Jewish parents. And they had more things in common than that — including a thirst for experience. True, Hecht never rode with the Cossacks, but he was in Berlin for the German revolution of 1918-1919. And in terms of literary taste, both men drew inspiration from Guy de Maupassant. Here’s another passage from Gaily, Gaily, in which Hecht recalls his swift recovery from his first punctured romance: “And I preferred the new occupant of my bed — the complete works of Guy de Maupassant, eighteen volumes bound in light-blue covers with titles in gold lettering.”

Of course, while Babel quickly rose to Maupassant’s level, Hecht never quite did. Hoffman cites an assessment by Ezra Pound, an early advocate, from 1918: “Hecht might write good DeMaupassant if he didn’t try to crack jokes and ring bells.” Then again, who needs another Maupassant? Hecht gave us hundreds of pages of lively, lasting prose, as well as the jokes and bells of The Front Page (1931), Twentieth Century (1934), and Nothing Sacred (1937). As for the story of his life, well, it features more twists and turns than any of his screenplays. Luckily, as David Denby writes in The New Yorker, “Adina Hoffman’s superb [book] loads Hecht’s staggering contradictions into a compact but abounding two hundred and twenty pages.” I savored it from first to last.

Tokarczuk and Osipov, Side by Side

Tokarczuk - Granta.jpeg

“Udina assembled a beautiful fish, completely covered in colorful scales, with a great eye made out of the glass for starting fires, with a fluttering tail.”

Last week the editors of Granta felicitously posted two very different stories on their website. I say felicitously because the stories made their way into English through the same household. The first is Olga Tokarczuk’s magnificently lyrical “Borderland,” which opens a window onto a bizarre new world, the second is Maxim Osipov’s cinematic and psychologically subtle “Objects in Mirror,” which reflects, in stark, vivid terms, on intellectual life in modern-day Moscow. The first was translated by Jennifer Croft, the second by myself — and it is very good to see them side by side.

Osipov - Granta.jpg

The Dewy Lustrous Petals of This Rose: Afanasy Fet’s Late Love

Fet - Rachkov.jpg

Portrait of Afanasy Fet by Nikolay Rachkov, 1880s

The nineteenth-century Russian poet to whom I return most frequently is Afanasy Fet (1820-1892), whose work never loses its thrilling freshness. A friend of Tolstoy and Turgenev, Fet devoted himself to crafting exquisite, gem-like lyrics in an age dominated by prose. So exquisite were these lyrics that Turgenev, who served as Fet’s editor, reportedly expected his friend to write a poem that would end not with words, but with a soundless movement of the lips. And some of Fet’s poems almost attain that goal, like the appropriately titled “Whispers,” an evocation of a moment of passion that contains no verbs yet reverberates with irrepressible life. I translated “Whispers” and another fine lyric, “By the Fireplace,” for The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, and last week I had the chance to linger over one of Fet’s late love poems, which was set to music by Nikolai Medtner (Five Poems by Tyutchev and Fet, Op. 37). Many composers have been drawn to Fet’s work, and Tchaikovsky went so far as to say that the poet was “not simply a poet but a poet-musician.” In the translation below, I’ve ventured away from the original’s anapestic meter, but I do hope I’ve preserved more than an echo of its intense musicality. I offer this transcendent expression of late-flowering love to my partner, Jennifer Croft, as an early Valentine’s Day present.

He wished to drive me mad, the one who melded
the dewy lustrous petals of this rose;
he wished to drive me mad, the one who plaited
this lovely hair in heavy knotted rows.

Should vile old age remove all joy from me,
my soul will fly back here nevertheless,
before the sunset, like a sighing bee,
to revel in this potent redolence.

Guarding the sense of bliss within my soul,
I shall echo all life’s joys and wrecks.
This fragrant honey — it is mine, my own!
For others let it stay just sticky wax!

April 25, 1887


Моего тот безумства желал, кто смежал
Этой розы завои, и блестки, и росы;
Моего тот безумства желал, кто свивал
Эти тяжким узлом набежавшие косы.

Злая старость хотя бы всю радость взяла,
А душа моя так же пред самым закатом
Прилетела б со стоном сюда, как пчела,
Охмелеть, упиваясь таким ароматом.

И, сознание счастья на сердце храня,
Стану буйства я жизни живым отголоском.
Этот мед благовонный — он мой, для меня,
Пусть другим он останется топким лишь воском!

25 апреля 1887

Irreducible Lives: Chekhov, Osipov, and Morshen

In recent weeks, my collaborators and I have been rewarded with a number of brief but excellent reviews. Lev Ozerov’s Portraits Without Frames was lauded by Paddy Kehoe at RTÉ and by Peter France in the latest issue of The Scotland-Russian Forum (no. 40, Winter 2019). In that same issue, which is full of interesting material, Margaret Tejerizo also reviews Slav Sisters: The Dedalus Book of Russian Women’s Literature. And today I was delighted to see a starred review of Maxim Osipov’s Rock, Paper, Scissors, and Other Stories in Kirkus!

Reviewing a collection as varied and nuanced as Maxim’s in a couple hundred words is an exacting challenge. Because Maxim is a Russian writer-physician, comparisons to Mikhail Bulgakov and, especially, to Anton Chekhov are inevitable. There are, of course, many stylistic differences between Osipov’s and Chekhov’s stories, and there are just as many differences between the authors’ worldviews; after all, they live in different worlds. But it occurs to me that there is one key similarity.

In Chekhov’s The Seagull, the successful but mediocre writer Boris Trigorin famously sees the life of the young Nina Zarechnaya as “the subject for a short story.” But Nina is obviously more than that — she is a human being, not a plotline or symbol. Magically, Chekhov himself manages to convince us of Nina’s reality, although she is, in fact, a work of fiction — his fiction. Unlike Tirgorin, Chekhov is always aware that human lives, even fictional lives, are more than subjects for short stories. This is why his people live on after their “stories” are over. And that is a characteristic they share with Maxim’s people.

Reflecting on the irreducible intricacy and vitality of these fictional characters, I remembered a poem by Nikolay Morshen (né Marchenko, 1917-2001), who was born in Ukraine, spent the war years in occupied Kyiv and Hamburg, and immigrated to the United States in 1950, where he taught Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, for twenty-six years.

Nikolay Morshen.jpg

That brief outline of his life, like the brief outline of any life, conceals a great wealth of experience, a great deal of complexity. Morshen understood this better than anyone, and he expressed it in the untitled opening poem of his first collection, The Seal (Tyulen’, 1959) — a poem that reads like an epitaph for all the émigrés of his generation, living and dead:

He lived just forty years: too short a life.
These words do not contain a word of truth.
He lived through two world wars, a revolution,
Three famines and four changes in regime,
Six governments and two wholehearted passions.
Add up the years — half a millennium.


Он прожил мало: только сорок лет.
В таких словах ни слова правды нет.
Он прожил две войны, переворот,
Три голода, четыре смены власти,
Шесть государств, две настоящих страсти.
Считать на годы — будет лет пятьсот.

The Translator on the Flying Trapeze

Last week Jessie Chaffee, a gifted novelist who serves as an editor at Words Without Borders, asked me to share a few thoughts on translating humor for a post at WWB Daily. I eagerly offered my two cents and, this week, was thrilled to see them featured among much more valuable contributions from 17 other translators — including Antonia Lloyd-Jones on fishy Polish surnames, Charlotte Whittle on swearing parrots, Jeremy Tiang on a spark of inspiration (“Fire!”), and lots more multilingual laughs!

In my own micro-essay I pick apart a verbal gag from Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Sentimental Tales, so as to to demonstrate “that jokes can teach us an important lesson about translating in general, the lesson of freedom: it’s always best to let one’s mind do a somersault or three before grabbing hold of the trapeze again.” To my delight, the ever-inventive folks at WWB tweeted that quote with a fittingly whimsical illustration.

Translating Acrobats.jpg

Alas, the only thing I have in common with any of those high-flying gents is a relatively well-trimmed mustache…

Maxim Osipov’s ROCK, PAPER, SCISSORS

Osipov Cover.jpg

A couple of days ago, Alex Fleming, Anne Marie Jackson, and I entered a few final corrections into the proofs of our translation of Maxim Osipov’s Rock, Paper, Scissors, and Other Stories, which NYRB Classics will bring out in early April. This is Maxim’s book-length debut in English, but a number of the stories in the volume have already appeared in journals, and another will come out in Granta next month. An excerpt from the title story, translated by Alex, was published in Image in 2016, “Moscow-Petrozavodsk,” translated by Anne Marie, came out in The White Review in 2012, and Asymptote posted Alex’s translation of “The Mill” last year — along with a recording of Maxim reading the opening passage in Russian.

Maxim was born in 1963 and currently lives in Tarusa, a small town 90 miles outside Moscow, where he practices medicine and oversees a charitable foundation he established in 2007 to ensure the survival of the local hospital. As one might expect, in his writing, Maxim does draw on his experiences as a doctor, but his range is far greater. In our description of the book, we say that his “fiction presents a nuanced, collage-like portrait of life in provincial Russia — its tragedies, infinite frustrations, and moments of humble beauty and inspiration.” Svetlana Alexievich puts it more eloquently in her preface (which Alex has translated with equal eloquence):

When you delve into Osipov’s texts you see that they are deceptively simple, just like Shalamov’s: behind this childish ordinariness there lies a hidden chasm. The whole time they leave you thinking how difficult it is to love humanity — wonderful, repulsive, and terrifying as it is — but in order to stay human, that’s exactly what you must do: you must love man. Your soul is restless — it is thinking. To inspire such thoughts — that’s something that only true literature can do.

We hope Maxim’s collection inspires such thoughts in all its readers!

Pierrot in Hollywood: Alexander Vertinsky and Anna Sten

Vertinsky.jpg

I thought I’d follow up my post on Igor Severyanin by turning the spotlight on another big personality, who is often placed  “on the same bill” as the Ego-Futurist, if only in hindsight. Severyanin never actually met the popular poet and singer Alexander Vertinsky (1889-1957), although the latter set a number of Severyanin’s “poezas” to music. In fact, Severyanin detested the decadent “clown.” (The word isn’t slander; Vertinsky did indeed strut the boards as Pierrot.) One of the causes of this enmity was surely a sense of competition: Vertinsky rose to fame just as Severyanin’s star was fading, and he did so by imitating the slightly older poet’s mannerisms. In any case, as far as many of their contemporaries were concerned, the two were cut from the same clownish cloth.

Vertinsky-Pierrot.jpg

In his memoir The Grass of Oblivion (1967), the Soviet author Valentin Katayev recalls a conversation with Ivan Bunin, the future Nobel laureate, that occurred in Odessa during the Civil War. Bunin was to debut one of his short stories before an audience; flyers had been posted all around the city. But on the night of the reading, no one showed up. The great author lamented: “The hall would be packed, of course, for Igor Severyanin, or Vertinsky!” That was the typical, though not universal, attitude of the cultural elite. It is expressed with special vitriol in Passport to Paris (1955), the memoir of the Russian-American composer Vernon Duke (born Vladimir Dukelsky, 1903-1969): “Severyanin had his low-brow apostle in the person of Alexander Vertinsky (at this writing still flourishing in Moscow), who got himself up as Pierrot and mumbled Frenchified inanities to strangely gypsylike tunes — a weird but eminently successful combination.” Perhaps Duke was harsher on Vertinsky because, unlike Severyanin, the “low-brow apostle” had impinged on the composer’s own turf, popular music. But he was also right: Vertinsky wasn’t nearly as good a poet.

Yet Vertinsky’s verse, and certainly his voice, spoke directly to the experiences and aspirations of countless Russians in his time. In his Handbook of Russian Literature, Victor Terras makes the case:

Despite the pretended decadence of the style and contents, Vertinsky’s art stands very far from the vulgarized world of the trivial cabaret and has much more in common with the artistic search of expressionists like Meierkhold, or with the refined experiments produced in the same direction in the Weimar Republic. Vertinsky’s tragicomic persona, in a bizarre way resembling that of Charlie Chaplin, was poignantly moving and cast an enormous spell over his audience. During his emigration period (1919-43) he was constantly on tour giving concerts in different European countries and his profoundly nostalgic art enjoyed invariable success. … [I]n his best achievements, Vertinsky markedly surpasses the playful level; the game becomes serious and the status of the émigré, replete with miseries, acquires the dimension of tragedy.

And it is one of Vertinsky’s émigré poems that I would like to share — a poem that was written in Hollywood, where I make my home, and was published in the first issue of The Land of Columbus, a journal I unearthed some years ago. On his visit to Hollywood in 1934-35, Vertinsky performed to packed audiences, hobnobbed with Samuel Goldwyn, and, reportedly, had an affair with Marlene Dietrich. But he spent most of his time socializing with the “Russian colony,” about which he writes movingly in his memoir The Road Is Long. He accords special attention to the actress Anna Sten (born Anna Petrovna Fesak, 1908-1993), whose failure to become a star offers a particularly glamorous example of the general frustrations of exile:

Among the Russian actresses, Anna Stan was particularly prominent. She played Katyusha Maslova in Tolstoy’s Resurrection and Nana in the eponymous film based on Zola’s novel. But later her relationship with the management deteriorated, and she left the screen. Great sums of money were spent on her “film education.” For three years she took lessons in English and singing. Hundreds of thousands of dollars went into advertising her. But she did not live up to their great hopes, and so they ceased to speak of her.

We Live Again.jpg

Those failed English lessons inspired a jab from another famous songwriter, Cole Porter: “When Sam Goldwyn can with great conviction / Instruct Anna Sten in diction / Then Anna shows / Anything goes.” The joke is that Goldwyn was himself a tongue-tied foreigner. Funny, but cruel. By contrast, the poem Vertinsky dedicated to Sten is deeply empathetic.

To an Actress

You’re a prince left unloved in a Hans Christian Andersen tale;
the Ice-Maiden keeps your heart frozen inside a blue glacier —
your young heart, which has not yet been touched by affection at all,
is now stone. Yes, a sapphire. Granite that’s hard beyond measure.

Have you loved in a dream? Have you sailed to Bermuda in springtime?
Have you heard strains of Bach from an organ inside an old church?
Ah, what kind of love can these awful vulgarians speak of?
Have they earned any love, these boors that seek only revenge?

You have never known love? Ah, but love — it is simply surrender.
Love means throwing yourself at your bitterest enemy’s feet;
yes, it is love that first singed the wings of the Angels —
yes, it is love that caused them to fall from the Light!

My one friend on earth, you don’t look like a woman imprisoned.
The stage and the fame and the fireworks — isn’t it fun?
You have never known love? Ah, but that in itself is a blessing!
To smile from the screen into darkness at no one — no one.

October 1934

Although the poem is, as usual, clumsy and rather treacly, to my mind it does acquire “the dimension of tragedy.” But one must really hear Vertinsky in order to appreciate him. Here is a recording of a song he helped popularize, Boris Fomin and Konstantin Podrevsky’s “The Road Is Long” (which lent its name to Vertinsky’s memoir).

And if the melody sounds familiar, perhaps you recognize it as “Those Were the Days,” a hit from 1968, recorded by Mary Hopkin and produced by Paul McCartney.


Актрисе

Вы покинутый принц золотой андерсеновской сказки –
В голубых ледниках “Дева льдов” Ваше сердце хранит,
Ваше юное сердце, ещё не познавшее ласки,
Превращённое в камень. В сапфир. В тёмно-синий гранит.

Вы влюблялись во сне? Вы видали весну на Бермуде?
Вы слыхали, как Баха играет в соборе орган?
О какой там любви говорят эти страшные люди?
И за что их любить, этих мстительных злых обезьян!

Вы не знали любви? Но любовь – это просто бессилье.
Вы сдаётесь на милость того, кто заведомый враг
И, конечно, любовь опалила у Ангелов крылья,
И, конечно, любовь их низвергла из Света во Мрак!

Мой единственный друг, Вы на пленниц совсем не похожи.
Разве мало Вам сцены и славы бенгальских огней?
Вы не знали любви? Но ведь в этом же счастие тоже!
Улыбаться с экрана во тьму никому – никому из людей.

Октябрь 1934

Igor Severyanin, Early and Late

Igor Severyanin.jpg

Few names in the annals of Russian poetry are as apt to trigger a smile as that of Igor Severyanin (the pseudonym of Igor Vasilyevich Lotarev, 1887-1941). Severyanin was the marvelously mannered founder of Ego-Futurism, one of the many futurisms that competed for the public’s attention in the early 1910s. Briefly, Severyanin’s movement was victorious; his rhythmic paeans (he called them poezas) to bohemian-aristocratic decadence intoxicated readers. These days, the smiles his name triggers are sometimes those of nostalgic delight but, more frequently, those of derision. D. S. Mirsky, the great historian of Russian literature, explains — and expresses — this derisive attitude memorably:

The moment came when vulgarity claimed a place on Parnassus and issued its declaration of rights in the verse of Igor Severyanin… His poetry is an idealization of the aspirations of the average townsman, who dreams of cars, champagne, elegant restaurants, smart women, and fine perfumes. His originality was that he had the boldness to present all this in its naked naïveté and to give the philosophy of a hairdresser’s assistant the gait of an almost Nietzschean individualism.

Yet even Mirsky admits that Severyanin “had a genuine gift of song and a considerable rhythmical inventiveness.” And in his indispensable book on Russian futurism, Vladimir Markov, who is generally dismissive of Severyanin, concedes that the poet “can make a line of Russian verse burst with barbarisms and still be poetically convincing.” These barbarous lines — with their awkward neologisms, misused foreign words, and impossible images — are undeniably memorable. Around New Year’s Eve, I always think of Severyanin’s somewhat silly (and likely tongue-in-cheek) “Overture” form 1915, better known as “Pineapples in Champagne.” Allegedly, the poeza was inspired by Vladimir Mayakovsky, who dipped a piece of pineapple in champagne while in Severyanin’s presence and then insisted that Severyanin do the same.

Pineapples, pineapples — dipped in champagne!
Surprisingly tasty, sparkling, and keen!
I’m in something Norwegian! Something from Spain!
Madly inspired! I take up my pen!

The rattling of airplanes! The roaring of cars!
Wind-whistling trains! Wing-soaring yachts!
This one gets kisses! That one gets scars!
Champagne and pineapples — pulse of the night!

Among skittish maidens and stylish grandes dames
I’ll turn tragic life into fantasy-farce…
Pineapples, pineapples — dipped in champagne!
Nagasaki to Moscow! New York to Mars!

What poem, however silly, better captures the spirit of the belle époque — which, for Russia, arrived so late and ended so catastrophically? It’s not surprising that Severyanin’s popularity was also short-lived. There was no room for this brand of futurism after 1917. As Mayakovsky, who had first tasted pineapples in champagne, warned in his infamous couplet: “Eat your pineapples, chew your grouse / Your end is near, you bourgeois louse.”

Severyanin emigrated in 1918 and settled in Estonia, where he continued to write, more or less forgotten by readers, until his death of a heart attack in 1941. The poems of his final years are very different from those that had won him such fervent adoration in the 1910s. Here is a gentle lyric from 1937, dedicated to the Estonian poet Alexis Rannit (born Alexey Konstantinovich Dolgoshev, 1914-1985).

Some feelings are so intimate that one —
one even fears them in a line of verse:
when such things happen, a ripe lyric can
rot as a swollen seed that can’t quite burst…

Some feelings are so delicate and so
piercingly subtle that, should you try
to put them in a song… You mustn’t, no:
whoever hears that song may simply die…

And this is how a poem that begins
within the heart remains there, locked forever.
This punishment — this penance for our sins —
may be among the cruelest we can suffer.


Увертюра

Ананасы в шампанском! Ананасы в шампанском!
Удивительно вкусно, искристо́ и остро́!
Весь я в чём-то норвежском! Весь я в чём-то испанском!
Вдохновляюсь порывно! И берусь за перо!

Стрёкот аэропланов! Бе́ги автомобилей!
Ветропро́свист экспрессов! Крылолёт буеров!
Кто-то здесь зацелован! Там кого-то побили!
Ананасы в шампанском — это пульс вечеров!

В группе девушек нервных, в остром обществе дамском
Я трагедию жизни претворю в грёзофарс…
Ананасы в шампанском! Ананасы в шампанском!
Из Москвы — в Нагасаки! Из Нью-Йорка — на Марс!

1915

Есть чувства

Алексису Ранниту

Есть чувства столь интимные, что их,
боишься их и в строках стихотворных:
так, дать ростков не смея, зрелый стих
гниет в набухших до отказа зернах…

Есть чувства столь тончайшие и столь
проникновенно-сложные, что, если
их в песнь вложить, они не столько боль,
сколь смерть вливают в слушателя песни!..

И вот — в душе очерченным стихам
без письменных остаться начертаний.
И эта кара, — кара по грехам, —
одно из самых жутких наказаний…

Таллинн
17 ноября 1937