Thoughts of Odessa in Greece: Pericles Stavrov’s “Café”

Jenny and I spent the last two weeks of June in Greece, in Athens and on the Cycladic isles of Serifos and Sifnos — magical places all. I was nervous to travel after a year of lockdowns, but I also sensed I’d feel entirely at home when we arrived. I am, after all, an Odessan, and Odessa’s past is steeped in Greekdom. Built on the site of one ancient Greek settlement and named after another (Odessos, now Varna, Bulgaria), the city played an important role in the Greek War of Independence exactly two centuries ago, and I remember attending a rousing exhibit on the subject as a child in the 1980s. The children of Hellas left many marks on the city, both on its streets and on its literary legacy. One such literary Greek was Pericles Stavrov (born Stavropoulou, 1895-1955).

Part of the lively circle of Eduard Bagritsky, Anatoly Fioletov, Yury Olesha, and other poets I’ve written about on this blog, Stavrov fled Odessa in 1920 and, after spending some years in Greece, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia, settled in Paris, the capital of the Russian emigration, in 1926. There he became a significant figure on the literary scene, founding a bookstore (Sous la lampe), serving as president of the underground Union of Russian Writers and Journalists during the Second World War, translating his fellow Odessans’ Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov’s beloved satirical masterpiece The Little Golden Calf into French, and publishing two collections of his own poems. The verse Stavrov wrote in the 1930s bears all the spare, subdued hallmarks of the “Paris Note” movement. One of the lyrics from his first book, Without Consequences (Bez posledstvii, 1933), evokes a mood of existential despair that many of that era’s émigrés shared with authors like Sartre and Camus.

Café

Days follow days. The days slip past.
And through the pipe smoke’s acrid cloud,
behind the fogged-up window glass
no face is clear, no smile breaks out.

The newspapers emit their gloom:
hot topicality now reigns.
No hope and no escape — all doomed,
all that is said is said in vain.

No words. The ceiling turns dark blue,
faint rustling overtakes the din.
Just wait: the door will scrape, let through
the gaping void. The void stares in.

Stavrov died in Paris in 1955. One hopes that he found, from time to time, an escape from the void, a reprieve from hot topicality. Jenny’s and my sojourn in Greece provided just such a reprieve, though the weather was plenty steamy. But even the sultriness worked in our favor. The waters of the Aegean were there to refresh us, and in the early morning hours we had the Acropolis all to ourselves.


Кафе

День ото дня и день за днём
Не разглядеть от дыма трубок,
За отуманенным стеклом
Нерасцветающих улыбок.

А эта тьма газет — газет
Так злободневно торжествует.
Надежды нет. Исхода нет.
И слово молвлено впустую.

Молчат. Синеет потолок,
И звон сменяется шуршаньем.
Того гляди — и скрипнет блок,
И глянет пустота зияньем.

17 thoughts on “Thoughts of Odessa in Greece: Pericles Stavrov’s “Café”

  1. Really jealous Boris. In the UK Greece is on the Red list. My wife and I were planning a first time trip this year but Covid has put paid to that…must look up those Islands for cultural history and I have not read the Little Golden Calf! I’m sure you had a wonderful time. Love yours and Robert Chandler’s work. We owe you so much for all those wonderful’Russian’ translations! Thanks. Best!
    Steve (UK)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, Steve, that’s all so very kind of you — even the innocent jealousy! I do hope the UK loosens up in due course and that you and your wife get to experience Greece; it’s not to be missed. Jenny and I chose a good time of year, despite the blazing heat. The month of May would have been more temperate, I think — and surely you’ll be allowed to visit by that time in 2022! In any case, thank you for your generous response!

      Like

  2. Greece looks glorious, Boris, and I’ve been loving the images Jenny’s posted. My parents loved visiting the country in earlier years, spending many happy holidays on the islands and the thought of travelling somewhere is rather wonderful. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A wonderful thought indeed, dear Kaggsy, and I hope you soon have a chance to make it a reality! The islands are astonishingly beautiful and peaceful… and each has a personality all its own!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. SUBJECT: Catching up with Boris

    Which i just did. I started making notes about what I liked (so much) in each of the missed ones. I was going to turn them into a coherent email, and then decided that it didn’t have to be coherent — that you’d get it as is. Also I’m attaching a new poem — rain on a desert occupied this past year by photographs. (You know about the new book, yes? description attached) Shall I send it to you? Where?) Much love, j

    Stavrov hot topicality that last stanza Greece Odessa

    Isaac Levitan — the birch forest, the bridge realist painting not realist his self-portrait

    Ellis An orphan see The Survivor (n.b. BD, also attached) I felt for it

    Klyonov Behind the house, cranberries grow — There’s no Berlin!

    Together Again those faces! Forward to myself

    Liked by 1 person

  4. wow, you really dared to travel despite all the pandemic threats and confusions. Yes, the Greek islands
    are a kind of paradise. Greece plays a prominent role in many of the short stories that I have found myself writing since void-19 sent us into isolation. I must visit once more before I kick the bucket.

    Liked by 2 people

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