“Oh, Buy My Bagels, Friends!”: Yakov Yadov’s “Bublichki”

In March of last year I posted a clip of Leonid Utyosov (1895-1982), the very soul of Odessa, singing his signature song, “Bublichki” (“Bagels”). I described it as “the sob story of a girl forced to sell bagels on the street corner” and compared it to “The House of the Rising Sun.” But two things — besides language — distinguish it from the American folk ballad. First, the melody, which is based on the Yiddish tune “Dus Zekele mit Koilen” (“A Little Bag of Coal”), is a good deal peppier. And second, we know the name of the song’s author.

The bagels were baked on order by the Odessan poet Yakov Yadov (1873-1940), to satisfy Grigory Krasavin, a popular singer of satirical songs. In 1926, Krasavin returned to his native Odessa for a series of engagements. On his way from the train station, he was accosted by a cavalcade of bagel-hawkers — “Buy my bagels! Buy my bagels!” He described his journey to Yadov, who broke out in laughter and asked to be excused. For about half an hour, Krasavin sat with Yadov’s wife, drinking tea and listening to the clacking of a typewriter in the next room. Then Yadov returned, brandishing the lyrics to “Bublichki,” which Krasavin performed a few days later. The song became a sensation, the soundtrack to Soviet life in the late 1920s — and not just. “Bublichki” was a standard in émigré cabarets, and the fabulous Barry Sisters even recorded a Yiddish version in the United States.

I’ve taken a shot at a couple of the song’s verses and the refrain, but first, to give you a sense of the melody… Here’s the Yiddish “Koilen,” recorded, not altogether coincidentally, by the Odessa-born virtuoso klezmer accordionist Mishka Ziganoff (1889-1967) in New York in 1919:

Here’s Utyosov performing “Bublichki” itself:

And here are the Barry Sisters, with their bluesy “Bagelah”:

I offer you my “Bagels”:

Oh, night is falling now —
and, swaying to and fro,
the lantern’s light
cuts through the gloom…
While little dirty me,
a child of poverty —
out in the street
I stand alone…

Oh, buy my bagels, friends —
hot tasty bagels, friends!
Spare a few rubles —
don’t be tight!
Oh, please, take pity, friends,
on a poor, innocent,
forgotten waif
this nasty night.

When papa hits the booze,
he howls and yells abuse —
mama’s got one foot
in the grave.
My sister’s awful loose,
out shaking her caboose,
and my kid brother —
a gonif!

Oh, buy my bagels, friends —
hot tasty bagels, friends!
Spare a few rubles —
don’t be tight!
Oh, please, take pity, friends,
on a poor, innocent,
forgotten waif
this nasty night.

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Remembering Olga Kagan (1946-2018)

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Olga E. Kagan (December 25, 1946 – April 6, 2018)

(Photograph by Diane Hofland, Portland State University, 2010)

On April 6 the UCLA community lost Olga E. Kagan, a pioneer of heritage language education and an inspiration to countless students and teachers, including myself. I was honored to be asked to speak at Olga’s service, and to write a tribute to this extraordinary educator and human being. The tribute has been posted to a memorial website hosted by the UCLA Center for World Languages, which Olga directed, and now I am posting it here.

Some years ago, when I was teaching Russian under Olga’s direction, we discussed the strange phenomenon — familiar to language teachers — of students blithely sharing intimate information in a language they’re trying to master. These students, we conjectured, are so happy to have the words to express anything at all that they end up making admissions, with broad smiles of self-satisfaction, which might otherwise make them blush. I remember the look of kind wonderment, somewhat regal but not at all condescending, on Olga’s face as we spoke of this — she looked like a benevolent confessor. I had seen that look before, many times, at the Slavic department’s holiday parties, in Olga’s office, and as a student in her classroom.

As an undergraduate at UCLA I took a course for heritage speakers of Russian — a course Olga had designed — which provided a home for us Russophone émigrés, or children of émigrés, whose linguistic storehouses contained as little as “Дай кушать” (“Gimme grub”) or as much as a few memorized Pushkin poems. We all made constant mistakes in conjugation and declension, all struggled to produce flawless if unoriginal sentences. At one point, when practicing adjectives, I offered a simple statement that brought a look of wonderment to Olga’s face: “Я — осенний человек” (“I’m an autumnal person”). Olga smiled warmly and responded: “Я тоже осенний человек” (“I too am an autumnal person”). I suspect she liked the slight imaginative leap of the sentence, its figurative potential. She always inspired her students to take leaps, however small.

I was being honest: I am an autumnal person. And I believe she too was being honest. When I think of Olga, I imagine her in autumn, possessing all the attributes and moods I associate with the season: thoughtful, somewhat rueful, warm — taking the time to look back, but ready to move forward. Ready to move forward because, in the academic calendar, fall is the start of things, not their end. And throughout my years at UCLA, one of the things to which I could always look forward was reconnecting with Olga at the beginning of that first quarter. Olga — who was always full of projects but never seemed to be in a rush, whose door was always open, who always remembered everything about you, about every student she had shepherded into the world. Olga — with whom you could always be honest in any language, and who would offer the perfect advice, smiling in kindness, never condescending.

A year without Olga is as unthinkable to me now as a year without autumn. But of course Olga will always be present — present in each of those whom she taught and trained to teach. Many of them will greet their students and colleagues next fall, passing on her warmth and dedication.

You can read Olga’s life and career, and watch a brief clip of her speaking about her work, at the UCLA Slavic department’s website, as well as in the Daily Bruin.

Tokarczuk and Croft on FLIGHTS, and a Few Words on Ostashevsky’s PIRATE

My brilliant partner Jennifer Croft’s translation of contemporary Polish master Olga Tokarczuk’s “constellation novel” Flights has rightly won praise from all quarters. In a recent list of “50 Writers You Should Read Now,” The Guardian called it a “dazzling novel of fragments [that] makes a passionate plea for connectedness through stories that somersault through time and space.” Last month Flights was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, and the committee has just posted a concise, insightful double-interview with Olga and Jennifer!

Tokarczuk Flights Croft.jpg

Meanwhile, I’ve taken a headlong flight through Russian-American poet Eugene Ostashevsky’s uproarious epic The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi.

“All Progress Is Common to All of Us”: On Arthur W. Ryder, George R. Noyes, and the Art of Translation

Last month I found myself greatly missing a rare, handsomely printed book I had checked out of the UCLA library many moons ago, when I was still an undergraduate. I ordered a copy online and it arrived last week. I’m not sure how I first learned of the book’s existence. I may have simply run across it in the library stacks, where I spent the better part of my college career. It’s titled, quite unassumingly, Original Poems; Together with Translations from the Sanskrit, and contains many more of the latter than of the former. Its author was the supremely eccentric Arthur William Ryder (1877-1938), instructor in Sanskrit at Berkeley, who died the year before it was published. The volume was compiled by Ryder’s colleague George Rapall Noyes (1873-1952), one of the pioneers of Slavic studies in the United States, who also furnished it with a moving biographical essay.

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Both men are heroes of mine — skillful, inspired translators, who recognized that they could make a more significant contribution to the world of letters by rendering the works they loved into English than by explicating them. In fact, Noyes fostered an entire “school” of literary translators from Polish and other Slavic languages at Berkeley. In another volume I treasure, a festschrift for Noyes that bears the equally unassuming title Slavic Studies (1943), his British colleague Sir Bernard Pares (1867-1949) writes: “There is no question in my mind that the Berkeley School of Slavic verse translations is easily the first in the English-speaking world. We on our side of the Atlantic have been as much the practical gainers by its work as you on yours, for in such a domain all progress is common to all of us.”

Noyes was a kindly man, Ryder less so. As Noyes puts it — rather delicately — in his essay, his colleague sometimes “passed the bounds of discretion in expressing his scorn for very worthy men.” Among his indiscretions was a polemic with Harvard University Press, which had raised the price of their publications: “Ryder addressed to the Press violent letters of protest and was not appeased by the explanations offered him. He published and distributed the documents in the case, sending to the Harvard University Press a sarcastic bill for ninety-five dollars for ‘printing and distributing matter designed to raise the moral tone of the Press.’” This curious publication, Noyes concludes, proves Ryder’s “singular wrongheadedness and singular command of vituperative language but also his own honesty of purpose.”

Ryder’s “honesty of purpose” was also evident in his approach to teaching. He “loathed the formal features of academic life; he detested the machinery of courses and grades, examinations and degrees.” What he enjoyed most was “reading Sanskrit privately with his students or ex-students. […] He would listen respectfully to the opinions of the lowliest student, and he never tried to force his way of thinking upon anyone; for, although he might condemn with vehemence the actions or opinions of another, he staunchly upheld the right of every man to make his own mistakes in his own fashion.” In many ways, Noyes’s description of Ryder and his thinking reminds me of the poet Yvor Winters (1900-1968), who taught at Stanford, about an hour’s drive down the coast from Berkeley. I also see shades of Winters’s poetic technique — as well as that of J. V. Cunningham (1911-1985), Winters’s student — in Ryder’s wonderful translations from the Sanskrit.

All three were influential teachers, and all three seemed to regard themselves as men out of step with their era. Compare Cunningham’s witty “For My Contemporaries” with the final epigram in Ryder’s pamphlet of translations titled Women’s Eyes, first published in 1919 and included in Poems:

The critics all were jealous,
The patrons full of pride,
The public had no judgment;
And so my poems died.

And Winters’s “On Teaching the Young” resonates with Ryder’s sense of learning as a long, largely self-guided journey. Another poem from Women’s Eyes reads:

When I knew a little bit,
Then my silly, blinded wit,
Mad as elephants in rut,
Thought it was omniscient; but
When I learned a little more
From the scholar’s hoarded store,
Madness’ fever soon grew cool,
And I knew I was a fool.

Yes, I’m comparing original poems with translations, but like many natural translators Ryder seems to have expressed his own personality most clearly in the poems he rendered. There are even lovelier and wiser poems in this volume than those I’ve already cited, for instance:

“Two Kinds of Friendship”

The friendship of the rogue or saint,
Like shade at dawn or shade at noon,
Starts large and slowly grows more faint,
Or starting faint, grows larger soon.

Ryder certainly had a saint of a friend in Noyes. The copy of Poems that arrived at my home last week is inscribed by Noyes to another Berkeley colleague, Arthur E. Hutson.

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“Surka” and Boris Only Cash Café

Rooting around in Calisphere, the “gateway to digital collections from California’s great libraries, archives, and museums,” my girlfriend and I came across some photographs of Boris Sapiro — actor, director, restaurateur, and who knows what else? — in front of his eponymous café in Shanghai in the late 1930s. These photographs are part of Loyola Marymount University’s Werner von Boltenstern Shanghai Photograph and Negative Collection, which documents, among other things, the fascinating life of the city’s Jewish ghetto. The photograph below, which appeals to me for obvious reasons, reminded me of a line from one of my beloved Odessan criminal songs: “we ducked into a rundown little joint.”

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The song is “Surka” (a diminutive of Sarah), a Jewish parody of the infamous “Murka” (“Moll”), which I mentioned in an earlier post. I was so inspired by the photo of my namesake in front of his greasy spoon that I translated the song’s lyrics. You’ll find several versions of the original here, and a recording of Vladimir Vysotsky’s take below the lyrics. So here’s to Surka, that hell-raiser! (In “Rabinovich,” the emphasis is on the “o.”)

We went to pull a job, me and Rabinovich,
but Rabinovich had to knock one back —
after all, why shouldn’t a poor Jew wet his whistle,
if he ain’t as busy as all that?

So’s to get a stiff one, and a bit of tzimmes,
we ducked into a rundown little joint;
there we saw her — Surka — and she had a pistol
underneath her skirt, loaded with shot.

We thought we were done for, so we took a powder,
vowing that we’d make that Surka pay:
in a darkened alley by the local temple,
we’d take Surka’s wretched life away.

So we called up Moyshe (he’s a hardened convict),
and Moyshe loaded up his trusty gat.
In a darkened alley by the local temple,
he was gonna lay that Surka flat:

“Greetings, my sweet Surka — greetings, little darling.
Greetings, my sweet Surka — and goodbye!
You ratted on poor Shlomo, ratted on poor Aron —
it’s time for you to eat my lead and die!”

Rabinovich drew his crooked-barreled heater,
tried to hold it steady in his paws —
first he screwed up one eye, then screwed up the other,
then he cocked the hammer with his schnoz.

Rabinovich fired — but he missed a bisl,
and his bullet dinged my head instead.
Now I’m getting stitches — meanwhile, Rabinovich
and Surka have been painting the town red!

Neglected Poets at The Odessa Review

The kind people at The Odessa Review have published my brief essay on two Odessan poets who never achieved the success they seemed destined to achieve: Semyon Keselman (1889-1940) and Anatoly Fioletov (1897-1918). In the piece I offer my translation of Keselman’s jewel-like pre-Revolutionary lyric “I wait for love as for a tram at night,” which made a great impression on his contemporaries. I reproduce it here, below his portrait, along with the Russian original.

 

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I wait for love as for a tram at night,
peer through the dark while tears slip down my cheeks —
saying a spell, willing a point of light
to flare up somewhere down the street.

I wait. Quietly, like stars within a cistern,
reflections stir within my soul.
I wait and dream that in the damp of evening
light glides towards me through the cold.


Я жду любви, как позднего трамвая,
Гляжу во мглу до слёз, до боли глаз,
Творя волшбу, чтоб точка огневая
В конце пустынной улицы зажглась.

Я жду. В душе, — как Млечный путь в цистерне, —
Лишь отраженья зыблются одни.
И грезится, что в сырости вечерней
Уже скользят прозрачные огни.

Consider the Lilies: John Cournos, Anna Akhmatova, and H.D.

On my visit to Northampton I had coffee with my friend Marilyn Smith, scholar extraordinaire, who has spent years researching the career of John Cournos (né Ivan Korshun, 1881-1966). The abstract of Marilyn’s excellent essay “The London Making of a Modernist: John Cournos in Babel” summarizes the scope of the man’s achievement as a critic, journalist, editor, novelist, poet, and playwright. But as Marilyn rightly notes, Cournos “is remembered today, most frequently, as a translator from the Russian.” Unfair though this may be, his translations are indeed very artful; they are certainly worthy of closer — and more generous — attention than they have received. (I discuss one of his translations, briefly, in my essay “The Land of Columbus: Echoes of LA’s Russian Past.”) Of course, it stands to reason that I have special affection for him: we were both born to Jewish parents in Ukraine, and both emigrated to the United States at roughly the same age.

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Today I’d like to present one of Cournos’s original poems, which was born of his work as a translator. Cournos visited Revolutionary Petrograd in 1917 and 1918, where he met with a number of poets and writers, including Anna Akhmatova. He presented Akhmatova with a poem, titled “To A.A.,” which was long thought to be lost. In fact, the typescript is safely stored in Akhmatova’s archive, and was reproduced in an article by Roman Timenchik in 1994. In the 1910s, Cournos was quite close to the Imagists, especially to his fellow Philadelphian H.D., and his poem to Akhmatova reads like a subtle synthesis of the Russian and American poets’ styles:
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To A.A.
 
O lily,
Frail white flower,
A joy to behold!
 
The hurricane blows,
Felling huge trees,
The beech and the oak,
And the tall sycamore.
 
O lily sweet,
Dear and frail,
Will you still stand
When the winds cease to blow?
Will you still hold high
Your fair proud head?
Will you look with pity
On the beech and the oak
And the tall sycamore
That lie stretched on the ground
When the winds cease to blow?
 
Compare this to H.D.’s “Sea Lily.” In subsequent years, a number of scholars would remark on Akhmatova’s similarity to H.D., and on the general affinity between the Anglo-American Imagists and the Russian Acmeists. Here, a poet-translator who knew both H.D. and Akhmatova brings them together in his own lyric. And think of how prescient the poem is: Akhmatova, the delicate lyricist, would outlast so many of her seemingly hardier contemporaries. What are Requiem and Poem Without a Hero but the proud, pained songs of the lily, looking down on the felled beech, oak, and tall sycamore?

Raising Hell and Falling for Crooks

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On Monday, February 26, I’m giving a talk on my translations of Isaac Babel’s stories at Smith College. I hope my spiel will be worth my hosts’ time. I certainly don’t want them to feel cheated… Speaking of cheating, whenever I think of Babel’s Odessan crooks, it’s to the soundtrack of Soviet criminal ballads (blatnye pesni) of the 1920s, about which I’ve written before. The one perking me up at the moment may be the simplest of all: “Mama, I’ve Fallen for a Crook!” (“Мама, я жулика люблю!”) The title tells most of the story: a young woman is in love with a thief. How will she and her paramour support themselves? Simple: the crook will rob and steal, and she’ll peddle the ill-gotten goods. Here is a recording of the song by the legendary Romani singer and guitarist Alyosha Dimitrievich (1913-1986), a star of the Paris cabarets:

As a bonus, here is another recording of Dimitrievich, performing with his friend Yul Brynner:

Eduard Bagritsky’s “Smugglers” and Ryszard Krynicki in the TLS

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I’ve written about Eduard Bagritsky (1895-1934), one of Odessa’s finest literary citizens, once before, in connection with Isaac Babel and The Odessa Review. In that earlier post, I offered my translation of his colorful Futurist juvenilia. But as much as I enjoyed rendering those charming quatrains, the real challenge lay ahead. My white whale, as it were, was the poet’s soul-stirring sea chantey “Smugglers” (Kontrabandisty, 1927), and now I feel I’ve finally brought it ashore. The stalwart crew of The Odessa Review were kind enough to post my effort on their site, and I hope it brings to their readers a fraction of the joy it has brought to me.

Whereas Bagritsky, as I write in my brief introduction, was essentially a romantic poet, the contemporary Polish master Ryszard Krynicki is a far more complicated case. Two new collections of his work have recently appeared in English, and I reviewed both for the TLS (2 February 2018).

Anatoly Steiger (1907-1944) and the Paris Note

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The Russian émigré poet Anatoly Steiger (1907-1944), who died of tuberculosis at the age of 37, wrote what is, to my mind, the quintessential poem of the so-called “Paris Note.” Not quite a movement, the Paris Note was the dominant mode of Russian émigré poetry from the 1930s to the 1950s. The poet most closely associated with the mode is Georgy Adamovich (1892-1972), an erstwhile Acmeist, who set out his aesthetic ideals in the journal Chisla (Numbers) in 1930:

A poem should, like an aeroplane, drift, drift, drift along the ground and then, all of a sudden, take flight… if not very high in the sky, then with all the weight of its cargo. Everything should be plain and clear, and only through the cracks of meaning should one sense a piercing transcendental breeze. Each word should mean what it means, but taken together, the sense should double slightly. A poem should sink in like a needle, leaving no sign of a wound. There should be nothing to add, nowhere to go — there should be an ‘Ah,’ a ‘Why did you leave me?’ — it is as if one were drinking a bitter, black, icy drink, the ‘final key’ from which one can no longer tear oneself away. The world’s melancholy is entrusted to poetry. *

The poets of the Paris Note mined the experience of exile for insight into the human condition. Their work was, at its heart, existentialist, and like the prose of Sartre and Camus, it was stripped of all stylistic excess. Fragmentary and elliptic, their poems read like entries in a diary. The forms are unobtrusive, the music iambic, the words simple and often repeated. In 1933, Steiger distilled both the themes and the style of the Paris Note into an instantly memorable five lines:

We put our trust in books, music, and verse;
we put our trust in all the dreams we dream;
we put our trust in words… (Even in words
whose only role in life is to console us —
words spoken from the window of a train…)

Marseille, 1933


Мы верим книгам, музыке, стихам,
Мы верим снам, которые нам снятся,
Мы верим слову… (Даже тем словам,
Что говорятся в утешенье нам,
Что из окна вагона говорятся…)

Марсель, 1933

* In Russian, Adamovich’s statement reads:

Какие должны быть стихи? Чтобы, как аэроплан, тянулись, тянулись по земле и вдруг взлетали… если и не высоко, то со всей тяжестью груза. Чтобы всё было понятно, и только в щели смысла врывался пронизывающий трансцендентальный ветерок. Чтобы каждое слово значило то, что значит, а всё вместе слегка двоилось. Чтобы входило, как игла, и не видно было раны. Чтобы нечего было добавить, некуда было уйти, чтобы «ах!», чтобы «зачем ты меня оставил?», и вообще, чтобы человек как будто пил горький, чёрный, ледяной напиток, «последний ключ», от которого он уже не оторвётся. Грусть мира поручена стихам.