“Off You Roll, You Powder Keg”: Natalya Medvedeva in Los Angeles

Eduard Limonov and Natalya Medvedeva in LA
Photograph by Alexander Polovets

When Eduard Limonov died on March 17, 2020, Russian literature lost one of its most controversial, undeniably original voices. Due to his despicable behavior during the Siege of Sarajevo, Limonov’s pugnacious, affecting, explosively funny novels are no longer sold in the English-speaking world; his poems are completely unknown. He had only himself to blame, of course, but it’s a loss for all of us… There’s nothing quite like his writing. Never mind — I come to bury Limonov, not to praise him. And to recount an adventure in Los Angeles.

Around 1981, after half a decade of slumming with punks and plotting with Trotskyists in New York, the exiled Limonov wound up in LA, where he met the love of his life, Natalya Medvedeva. You may not recognize her name, but you’ve likely seen her face — here it is, on the cover of The Carsself-titled debut.

She had emigrated to Los Angeles from her native Leningrad six years earlier, with her first husband, at the age of 17. Before long, she left the man and struck out on her own, finding work as a model, trying to break into film, and singing — in her deep, soulful voice — “Gypsy romances” and criminal ballads at local Russian restaurants. Luckily, one of her performances is preserved, along with the restaurant, in The Black Marble, a 1980 adaptation of a Joseph Wambaugh novel about an LAPD detective with Russian roots, played here by Robert Foxworth:

It’s easy to imagine Limonov looking up at Medvedeva for the first time just as Foxworth does here. Self-made, beautiful, passionate, sardonic — here was a woman after his own heart. They had another thing in common: both were damned good writers.

Medvedeva’s autobiographical novel about her years in Los Angeles, Hotel California (1989), is begging to be translated. Charles Bukowski has nothing on her. And some of her poems, like the one below, read like a cross between François Villon and Joan Jett, or maybe Kim Addonizio — here with a dash of Bulgakov.

As one might have expected (and I’m sure many did), the Limonov-Medvedeva union was a rocky one, full of wild nights and fights and betrayals. They lived together in Paris throughout the 1980s, split up in the early 1990s, and officially divorced in 1995. Medvedeva, who had transformed herself into a rock star in Russia, drank heavily. She died in her sleep, in 2003, at the age of 44. Reading the poem below, which was composed in LA in the spring of 1981, one wishes the moon had listened to her pleas.

Your tongue’s all blue, a dirty rag…
have you been cleaning toilets?
playing the witch at balls, you hag?
and shtuping halfwits?
whose hat was it you knocked off with your hoof?
whose cheekbones did you fondle with your knuckles?
what guiltless passerby did you accuse? what of?
which filthy joke was it that made you chuckle?

the morning finds you wandering home in tears,
a child all wet after a fever clears,
wringing your hands, you whisper: aren’t you tired?
then sleep till nightfall — and another riot.

that face of yours, though, is an angel’s face
no shadow runs across your forehead —
protect your child from barbarous disgrace,
o moon! and ease her torment
don’t let her kill herself,
she knows not what she does
and either soars like Margarita
or falls head first…
the piano’s dying down,
ending the evening’s revels —
but here comes midnight — toothless crone,
she’s managed to unleash her devils —
and off you roll, you powder keg,
onto the market square to sell your wares,
and in the morning, like a cuckoo chick,
you’ll huddle up in bed and sleep all day
with your angelic face

spring 81 L.A.

Язык твой синий — тряпка половая
какие ты уборные мела?
на чьем балу ты ведьмой танцевала?
с каким вчера юродивым спала?
с кого копытцем шляпу ты сбивала?
кого наотмашь изласкала по скулам?
кого случайных и куда послала?
какую пошлость куковала до утра?

а поутру придешь в рыданьях —
ребёнком мокрым от простуд
заломишь руки, обронишь: ты не устала?
проспишь весь день, а в ночь — опять на бунт?

а личико – подобно ангельскому
ни тень не пробежит по лбу
да сохрани её от варварства
не дай убить себя саму
луна! твоё дитя страдает
куда не знает деть себя —
то маргариткой пролетает
то расшибает лоб в кровя
вот кажется остановилась свистопляска
рука на клавиши – нежней
но полночь тут – беззубая и вязкая
прислать успела всех своих чертей
и ты – пороховою бочкой покатилась
заторговала квасом на сенном
и поутру кукушкиным птенцом в кровать забилась
и проспала весь день ты
с ангельским лицом

весна 81 Л.А.

10 thoughts on ““Off You Roll, You Powder Keg”: Natalya Medvedeva in Los Angeles

  1. oooh i think you’re right about the Bulgakov reference with Margarita, which seems so important to the poem as a whole — it almost reads like a rewriting of Bulgakov’s character. worth sacrificing “margaritka” for it 🙂 and thank you thank you for this story and poem!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, I think the allusion runs straight through, from the witch at the ball to the flight! She would have been great in a film version… Thank you as always for reading and responding, dear Olga! It means a lot!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Why don’t you translate ‘Hotel California’? I know, I know, pitching anything to English language publishers can be like trying to pull impacted wisdom teeth… But why don’t you try? Who’s better placed than you to translate this book?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating — I have the Cars album (or did, it probably got thrown out after the basement flooded), but had no idea of the story of the gal on the cover! I agree, you should try to arrange for a translation; if appropriately (sleazily) marketed, it could be a best seller.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. To shtup or not to shtup. Always the question. If the book sheds any light on her relationship with Medvedeva it could be wonderful not only as a translation but perhaps as a series treatment. I can imagine such a Netflix drama which is exploding with foreign language series now, some of which are very good.

    Liked by 1 person

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