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