“To Live Means a Life Being Lived”: Andrey Kurkov’s Lonely Beekeeper and Julia Nemirovskaya’s Reflective Poems

On October 30, which seems a lifetime ago, the always-thoughtful editors of Punctured Lines posted a brief interview with me, in which I mentioned three current projects:

I’m awaiting the publication of my translation of Andrey Kurkov’s latest novel, Grey Bees — a moving, gently surreal picaresque set in Donbas and Crimea two years into the current war. […] Alex Fleming, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, and I are also making great progress on a second volume of Maxim Osipov’s beguilingly nuanced stories and essays, and are relishing every minute of it. Julia Nemirovskaya’s humbly revelatory and incomparably humane verse continues to work its way through me.

I’ll have much more to say about Maxim’s stories in the coming months, but I can now offer an update on Andrey’s novel and Julia’s verse. This past Thursday, Grey Bees finally spread its wings, and to mark the occasion the team at MacLehose Press shared my translation of Andrey’s foreword, which describes the ongoing war in Ukraine with admirable clarity:

Since the winter of 2015, less than a year after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the start of the conflict, I have taken three journeys through Donbas, the eastern region that contains Donetsk, Luhansk and the grey zone. There I witnessed the population’s fear of war and possible death gradually transform into apathy. I saw war becoming the norm, saw people trying to ignore it, learning to live with it as if it were a rowdy, drunken neighbour. This all made such a deep impression on me that I decided to write a novel. It would focus not on military operations and heroic soldiers, but on ordinary people whom the war had failed to force from their homes.

The protagonist of Andrey’s novel, a beekeeper named Sergey Sergeyich, is one of these resigned residents of the grey zone, who only quits his attempts to make peace with the war when it threatens his apian dependents. And if you think that premise is far-fetched, I invite you to listen to the following story, shared by the Ukrainian delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross:

I found it to be a moving confirmation of Andrey’s novelistic intuition. And having spent a full year with Sergeyich, visualizing his every move, I was also delighted to see how closely the images in my head matched a set of photographs from the Ukrainian stage adaptation of Grey Bees, on now at the Theater on Podol.

Bohdan Benyuk in the lead role.

Sergeyich is a lonely man who gradually breaks out of his shell-shocked shell by reflecting on what he and others have in common, though he never loses sight of the particularity of each person’s experience. Come to think of it, that’s a fairly sound policy for a translator: focus on the commonality but don’t ignore individuating differences.

In a note accompanying my translations of three poems by Julia Nemirovskaya, which have just been published in the elegant, Dantesquely named journal La Piccioletta Barca, I speak about the mirroring effect of literature — the way the writing of others reveals us to ourselves. Instead of repeating myself, I’ll let you gaze into Julia’s “Mirror,” one of the three poems.


My father left me his face
and all that was his to give.
I’ll carry this mirror always —
in it, father still lives.

My father left me my home
and everything it contains.
I enter for half an hour —
a wasp beats against the panes.

On his birthday we’ll sit a while,
silently drinking wine.
To live means a life being lived —
not necessarily mine.


Папа оставил мне лицо,
И всё, что было его.
Зеркало буду носить с собой,
В зеркале он живой.

Папа оставил мне мой дом,
И всё, что в доме моём.
В дом свой зайду я на полчаса —
Бьётся в окно оса.

В день рожденья его посидим,
Молча попьём вино.
Слово жить — значит быть живым.
Необязательно мной.

“Shut Our Mouths, Then We’ll Talk”: The Late Mikhail Zhvanetsky’s Lesson for the Day

It’s been a rollercoaster of a week in the United States, and has culminated, at last, in the election of Joe Biden to the Presidency. The streets in my LA neighborhood resound with blaring car horns and cheers of joy. The pent-up nervousness was palpable; the sense of relief is hard to describe. For those who wished to see Donald Trump defeated quickly and decisively, Tuesday night was a disappointment. One commentator compared the feeling of watching the national map turn red on the major news networks to the chilling sentiment Osip Mandelstam expressed in his infamous, fatal Stalin Epigram: “We live without sensing the country beneath us.” A strong reaction. My own was best captured by the words of a fellow Odessan, the satirist Mikhail Zhvanetsky: “You want everything all at once, but you get nothing, gradually.”

It was gradual, alright, but today we got something. It’s just too bad that Zhvanetsky wasn’t here to crack wise about it. He passed away yesterday, at the age of 86.

I said “fellow Odessan” up there, but what I should have said was “the Odessan,” or maybe: “Odessa incarnate.” No one since Babel was a purer product of the city, a purer expression of its sardonic yet sentimental, warm yet pugnacious character. My first words on this planet were “Mama Anna,” but considering how often my mother spoke of and quoted Mikhail Mikhailovich, I’m surprised they weren’t: “Like Zhvanetsky says…”

Born in Odessa in 1934 and trained as a mechanical engineer, he took a job at the port in the 1950s, where he met one of his lifelong collaborators, Viktor Ilchenko. The two of them began to perfrom skits and monologues at a student theater, where they met another mechanic, Roman Kartsev — at which point the greatest comic trio of the late Soviet period was complete. I picture the moment: the clouds parting, the angels singing… But it was probably just a couple of chuckles at first, followed by a few belly laughs. Soon enough, though, one sixth of the world’s landmass was in stitches. The trio found work and steady support at the Leningrad theater of the older Soviet comedian Arkady Raikin, whom Zhvanetsky supplied with a steady stream of monologues.

Indeed, Zhvanetsky remained mostly behind the scenes, ceding the spotlight first to Raikin, then to Kartsev and Ilchenko. By the 1980s, however, he was taking the stage — short, plump, bald, toting a beat-up briefcase full of tattered pages, but so witty, so devilishly charming, so irresistible… Like a mix of Wallace Shawn and Tony Soprano. Could you imagine a more Odessan combo?

What accounted for Zhvanetsky’s popularity? His exposure of the absurdity of Soviet life, with its food shortages, its censorship, its hypocrisy, its systemic antisemitism? Sure. But it was also the intimacy of his viewpoint, the particularity of his observations, which struck nearly every Russian-speaker of his generation exactly where they lived. He was a kitchen-table existentialist, as well as a great artist of the word. No one had a sharper ear for the speech- and thought-patterns of Soviet citizens. Perhaps his only peer in this regard was Vladimir Vysotsky, another lover of Odessa. Their output, taken together, can serve as the Encyclopedia Sovietica.

Of course it’s also much more than that. The lessons of Vysotsky’s songs and Zhvanetsky’s monologues are easy to swallow but hard to digest. It isn’t just the cruel contradictions of Soviet life they expose, it’s the inescapable contradictions of human nature. There’s more than a dash of Kafka and Beckett in Zhvanetsky’s most famous, seemingly transparent skit. In it, Kartsev — in his mouthwateringly perfect Odessan accent — complains to an unseen interlocutor about the crayfish on offer at the local market: Yesterday, the crayfish were big, I mean BIG — but for five rubles. Today they’re for three — but small… Boy, but they’re small…  You shoulda seen the ones yesterday — huge beasts! But for five. Today they’re itty-bitty, just nothing… On the other hand, only three rubles… Not that he has any money at all, mind you. But only three rubles. So small, though… Now yesterday…

What’s the target here? Shortages? Yes. A worker’s poverty in a workers’ paradise? Yes. But also the human condition. You want everything all at once, but you get nothing, gradually… Which doesn’t mean you should stop wanting, complaining, or laughing. That’s our condition’s saving grace.

One of my favorite Zhvanetsky monologues concerns another human contradiction that’s been much on my mind lately: the way our desire for freedom often depends on the perception of strong opposition. Now that the majority of my fellow citizens have rendered a final verdict on the last four years, I hope they will not fall silent. There is a lot to talk about.

Shut Our Mouths, Then We’ll Talk


“But you won’t let me.”

“That’s not true. You can say anything you want.”

“Why would you forbid me to speak?”

“We wouldn’t. Speak your mind.”

“How can I speak my mind when it’s forbidden?”

“Nothing’s forbidden. Speak.”

“I distinctly remember your forbidding me to speak…”

“That was then. Now you can talk all you like.”

“Sure, ‘talk all you like’ — that’s what you say now, but I remember…”

“Have you got anything besides memories to share?”

“Oh, so now there’s a ban on memories?”


“As I was saying… When I was banned from speaking, I liked to talk.”

“Listen, can you say something — anything — without mentioning bans?”

“So you’re saying I can’t mention bans?”

“That’s right.”

“Ah, now you’re talking! Your ban on bans is so goddamned stupid. You think you can gag me, do you?  Well, I won’t stay gagged!”

“Take him away.”

“My voice will be heard! You won’t shut me up. Our mouths are wide open. Free speech will break out through clenched teeth, pull apart the bars of any cage… It will raise the banner of freedom the whole world over!”

“That’s a different story…”

“O Verdant Town of Sinful Passions”: Richard Ter-Boghossian’s “Hollywood”

It’s another sultry day in Los Angeles, though we’re well into fall. After a morning and afternoon full of Zoom meetings, I took a long walk, just as the sun was beginning to set, and thought about what I’d witnessed this past weekend. On the evening of Sunday, October 11, my neighborhood began to fill with protesters — some on foot, others in cars, but all proudly flying the flags of Armenia and of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh). Fighting has again broken out in that beautiful mountainous region, which is no stranger to bloodshed, and LA’s large Armenian-American population took to the streets, voicing their solidarity with the people of Artsakh and calling for an immediate stop to the violence.

I wrote about our city’s diverse yet tight-knit Armenian diasporic community earlier this summer, when sharing my translation of a poem by Peter Vegin. Today, at this difficult time for my Armenian-American neighbors, I’d like to share a lyric by another Russian-language poet of Armenian descent, Richard Ter-Boghossian (1911-2005), who emigrated to the United States in 1960 and lies buried, beside his wife, at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. You can learn a good deal about Ter-Boghossian’s life and his difficult journey to Los Angeles by following that last link; it will take you to John Freedman’s interesting blog entry, and if your scroll down to the comments, you’ll find a touching biographical sketch by the poet’s son, Edouard Boghossian.

Ter-Boghossian fought in the Second World War and was captured by the Germans; after escaping from the POW camp, he had to flee once more — this time from Soviet territory, for fear that he might be shot as a suspected spy. Some of the poems in the three books of his that I own confront those traumatic war years directly, while many more look back wistfully on the poet’s youth in Russia. The song-like lyric below, however — drawn from Ter-Boghossian’s fifth collection of verse, Evening Bell (Vechernii zvon, 1995) — sums up his impressions of his adoptive homeland. Although it’s far lighter fare, it brought to mind some of the themes expressed with shattering power in two exquisite recent poems by Dana Gioia, “Psalm and Lament for Los Angeles” and, especially, “Psalm to Our Lady Queen of the Angels.” In the latter, Gioia, a grandson of immigrants from Mexico and Sicily, writes:

I praise myself, a mutt of mestizo and mezzogiorno,
The seed of exiles and violent men,
Disfigured by the burdens they shouldered to survive.
Broken or bent, their boast was their suffering.

I praise my ancestors, the unkillable poor,
The few who escaped disease or despair —
The restless, the hungry, the stubborn, the scarred.
Let us praise the dignity of their destitution.

I offer my translation of Ter-Boghossian’s “Hollywood” in homage to the poet’s people and to all Angelenos who have faced their struggles with dignity, without giving in to despair.


Your air, Los Angeles, is poisoned
with the exhaust of countless cars.
You’re famous — yes, the whole world knows you,
knows all your grand and minor stars.

Gangsters of every form and fashion
drift through your bars, your parks, your streets.
O verdant town of sinful passions,
forever drenched in sunlight, heat.

Lush greenery hides handsome villas —
I loved them at first sight, still do.
True, subterranean forces quiver —
man can endure a fright or two.

City of Angels… Standing guard
are rows of palms, stately and thin.
But we — we trample on our dusty stars,
and that is Hollywood’s great sin.


Воздух, Лос-Анджелес, весь твой отравлен
Дымом от разных машин.
Ты на весь мир достойно прославлен
Звёздами всех величин.

Улицы, парки и бары набиты
Гангстерами всех мастей.
Вечно зелёный и солнцем залитый,
Город греховных страстей.

В зелени пышной красивые виллы,
Я полюбил их навек!
Часто пугают подземные силы,
Но терпелив человек.

Тонкие, стройные пальмы над нами,
Город святой берегут.
Топчем мы пыльные звёзды ногами —
Грешный на то Голливуд.

Herzl in Odessa? Not at 7:40…

Odessa Railway Station

Next Tuesday, by invitation of writer, Odessaphile, and impresario extraordinaire Zarina Zabrisky, I’ll be giving a little talk “at” Globus Books. The subject will be my translations of Odessan literature, from Babel to Bagritsky — not a very impressive range, alphabetically speaking… So let’s make it Agatov to Strelchenko instead. The talk begins at 6pm PST and ends at 7:30 — exactly ten minutes before a very memorable ETA for modern Odessan trainspotters.

A good argument for the independence of the Odessan language might rest on the number of homages paid to it by non-Odessans, from Agatov’s “Scows Full of Mullet” to Rudolf Fuchs’s “7:40.” Like many great imitations of urban folklore (“Bublichki,” I’m looking at you), Fuchs’s song, which was written in the 1970s, slipped from its author’s pen into the great Black Sea of anonymity. Ask Russian speakers about its origins and they might date it to the 1910s or ‘20s. In truth, they’d be partly right: the melody — a Yiddish freylach — was first recorded in 1903, and you can hear a lively yet wistful performance of it by the klezmer violinist Abe Schwartz (1881-1963) below. But it was Fuchs — a diehard devotee of all things Odessan born near Leningrad in 1937 — who furnished it with lyrics. He took his inspiration, he says, from a newspaper article about Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), the architect of modern Zionism. Apparently, at the turn of the century, Herzl was due to arrive in Odessa, to speak about the need for a new Jewish homeland. Odessans waited and waited — but Herzl never showed.

The song Fuchs wrote bears many of the hallmarks of legitimate Odessan lore: the wry humor, the gaudy fashion, and the prominent Yiddishisms. Here, the last of these is truly ingenious. In the closing line of the first stanza, the object people are waiting for is described as “a hits in paravoz” — which literally means, in Yiddish, “heat in the locomotive,” but is also an idiom for “old news” or “big whoop.” I translate it as “hot air.” The song became an underground hit for Fuchs’s friend, Arkady Severny (1939-1980), a beloved popularizer of Soviet (and yes, especially Odessan) criminal ballads. Below you can hear his gruff rendition, as well as my very favorite version: a clip from a musical comedy shot at the Odessa Railway Station in 1992. I left Odessa a year earlier, from the same station, and have a hard time watching the silly clip without tearing up.

Just wait till 7:40!
Pulls in at 7:40 —
a sheyner locomotive —
such hot air!

Along with many traincars,
along with many traincars
stuffed full of people
like huge carts of hay.

He’ll step down from a traincar
and walk along the platform
wearing a classy little bowler hat!
In big green eyes, gazing toward the East,
Odessa’s fire will burn bright and hot!

So he’s not from Odessa,
so he’s not from Odessa —
its courtyards welcome him
as if he was!

Just wait till 7:40!
Pulls in at 7:40 —
our good ole Fedya — that is, Theodor.

He’ll step down from the traincar
and walk along the platform
wearing a classy little bowler hat!
In big green eyes, gazing toward the East,
Odessa’s fire will burn bright and hot!

Well, 7:40’s here,
we heard it loud and clear,
and still no sign of Fedya
or the train — but
still, we’d better wait,
yes, we had better wait,
even if he’s delayed by one whole year.

He’ll step down from the traincar
and walk along the platform
wearing a classy little bowler hat!
In big green eyes, gazing toward the East,
Odessa’s fire will burn bright and hot!

Abe Schwartz
Arkady Severny
Odessa, 1992

В семь-сорок он подъедет,
В семь-сорок он подъедет —
Наш старый, наш славный
Наш а гиц ын паровоз.

Ведёт с собой вагоны,
Ведёт с собой вагоны
Набитые людями,
Будто сеном воз.

Он выйдет из вагона
И двинет вдоль перрона.
На голове его роскошный котелок,
В больших глазах зелёных на восток
Горит одесский огонёк.

Пусть он не из Одессы,
Пусть он не из Одессы,
Фонтаны и Пересыпь
Ждут его к себе на двор.

В семь-сорок он приедет,
В семь-сорок он приедет,
Наш славный, добрый Федя, то есть Теодор.

Он выйдет из вагона
И двинет вдоль перрона.
На голове его роскошный котелок.
В больших глазах зелёных на восток
Горит одесский огонёк.

Семь-сорок наступило.
Часами всё отбило,
А поезд не приехал
Нет его и всё, но вот
Мы всё равно дождёмся,
Мы всё равно дождёмся,
Даже если он опоздает и на целый год.

Он выйдет из вагона
И двинет вдоль перрона.
На голове его роскошный котелок.
В больших глазах зелёных на восток
Горит одесский огонёк.

Universal Horrors and Remedies

In April of this year, a few weeks into California’s COVID-19 lockdown, I wrote a poem about a little parlor that sits at the back of Artisan’s Patio, an alley that cuts into the middle of one of the busier blocks of Hollywood Blvd. Built in 1914, the Patio once boasted of speciality bookstores and avant-garde haunts like Clara Grossman’s American Contemporary Gallery, where, in the early 1940s, the teenaged Kenneth Anger and Curtis Harrington could rub elbows with Oskar Fischinger and the doddering D. W. Griffith. Now the alley mostly hosts souvenir shops, but it is also home to the impressively well-stocked As the Record Turns and the hallowed Hollywood Movie Posters, the subject of my poem, which first opened its doors over four decades ago. I took a walk down Hollywood in late March. It was midday, and the boulevard was completely deserted. The gates of the Patio were locked and I could barely make out the lettering on the sign at the back. I stood there for some time, stupefied. Eventually I snapped out of it, took a couple of photos, and went on my way.

The Onegin stanza that came out of that encounter, “Universal Horror,” was accepted for publication by a poet I greatly admire, A. M. Juster, whose latest collection, the marvelous Wonder and Wrath, is out this month from Paul Dry Books. Appropriately enough, my poem appears in the October issue of First Things — though there won’t be much trick-or-treating this year, of course. I extend my deepest thanks to Dana Gioia for pushing me deeper into the subject, to Mike Juster for taking a chance on the poem, and to Patrick Kurp for giving it more attention than it deserves at Anecdotal Evidence.

As our era’s horrors keep adding up, I look with ever greater hope to the work of Julia Nemirovskaya, who offers one poetic remedy after another. Today, I am happy to say, two more of Julia’s indispensable “object poems” have made their debut in translation. They appear in the visually enchanting and congenially named new journal Pocket Samovar, which is edited by Kate Shylo and Konstantin Kulakov. The first, “Kin,” presents the moon — that mainstay of verse — as I’ve never seen it before, while the second, “Flu Remedy,” is good for what ails just about any of us. I was asked to recite the poems, and the videos are posted above the texts on each page. If my readings don’t put you off, you can also hear four more of Julia’s poems below, courtesy of the wonderful YouTube channel Translators Aloud, curated by Tina Kover and Charlotte Coombe.

“A Land Where Everything’s Funny”: Sofiya Pregel’s Gifts

The Odessa-born émigré poet Sofiya Pregel (1896/97-1972) was best known — and loved — in her day for the work she did in behalf of the Russian literary community. She came from a family rich in talents — talents that served them well both in the Russian Empire and abroad. One of her brothers, Boris Pregel (1893-1976), became a successful engineer and, eventually, the president of the New York Academy of Sciences. Both Boris and Sofiya were uprooted by the Revolution and the Civil War, finding themselves first in Constantinople, then in Berlin, then in Paris. Boris soon rebuilt his business career, while his sister began to publish poems. Forced to flee Paris as the Nazis advanced, Sofiya emigrated, via Lisbon, to New York, where Boris was already well established. In 1942, she founded the literary journal Novosel’e (Housewarming), which welcomed Russian émigré writers of all generations at a particularly difficult time; most had indeed been made homeless, yet again, by the war, which also forced the closure of a number of important journals and newspapers. Preternaturally warm, energetic, and diplomatic, she kept Housewarming running for eight years, becoming the emigration’s great peacemaker, but showing no patience for those who had collaborated with the Axis powers. After the journal folded in 1950, she financed the Paris-based press Rifma (Rhyme), which she took over in 1957, after its founders death. Throughout that time, she continued to write her own poems, and in the 1960s she started a captivating memoir of her early years in Odessa, titled My Childhood. Though left unfinished at the time of her death, it was published in 1973-74, in three volumes, by her brother Boris.

The whimsical poem below appeared in her sixth collection of verse, Spring in Paris (1966), and it appealed to me this week because Jenny and I are currently tending to one of our cats, who had to undergo emergency surgery and is now bravely recovering in an undignified cone. Pushkin is three years old, and, I’m happy to say, still has all his whiskers!

He gave me a whisker-less kitten,
an apple (Golden Reinette),
and a railway ticket bitten
all over, still soaking wet.

That ticket bought me a trip
to a land where everything’s funny —
where a rabbit on roller-skates zips
past a truck driver who flips
through a book on brilliant bunnies.

He gave me a little ladder,
the summer’s sunshine and warmth,
and the gift that most truly matters —
his four-year-old being on earth!

Он дарил мне кота безусого,
И яблоко — жёлтый ранет,
И изжёванный и обкусанный
Железнодорожный билет.

Пробитый всеми контролями
Билет в страну чудаков.
Где заяц катит на роликах,
И читает про умных кроликов
Водитель грузовиков.

Он дарил мне погоду летнюю
И ступеньки в дворовой мгле
И своё четырёхлетнее
Пребывание на земле!

Humor to the Rescue: Herb Randall, Jonathan Waterlow, and Maxim Osipov

I’ve been pitifully slow to note the launch of Punctured Lines, an absorbing new blog that focuses on post-Soviet literature. It’s edited by two of my fellow émigrés, the scholar Yelena Furman — an old friend and frequent contributor to LARB — and Olga Zilberbourg, author of the poignant collection Like Water and Other Stories. The occasion for my noting the launch now is the appearance of a movingly candid, searching, subtly suspenseful essay by Herb Randall, titled a “A Question in Tchaikovsky Lane.” In it, Randall follows a trail of breadcrumbs left by an Englishwoman named Eddie, who — as the title of a 1946 collection of her letters puts it — married a Russian. The trail leads to a street in Kharkiv, where the couple made their home in the 1930s and ‘40s. Randall is keenly aware of the rough historical winds that swirled around Eddie’s private realm, but he knows nothing about her fate after 1945. The doubled pressure of the known and the unknowable forces a question that, to Randall, seems both urgent and unseemly. The essay is so finely crafted and affecting that I was shocked to read the following line beneath the text: “This is his first published piece.” I extend my editorial congratulations to Furman and Zilberbourg for getting this out of Randall, and I hope we won’t have to wait long for a follow-up!

The question of what happened to Eddie and her husband after the end of the Second World War remains open. And so does another: how did they, and those around them, cope with the threats and catastrophes of Soviet existence — the shortages and the famines, the arrests and the executions? A partial answer is offered by Jonathan Waterlow, author of It’s Only A Joke, Comrade!: Humour, Trust and Everyday Life under Stalin (1928-1941), whose work I’ve mentioned once before, and whose superb essay on the necessary risks of sharing a laugh just appeared in LARB. In “The Conspiracy on Pushkin Street,” Waterlow explains how the lives of five students at a provincial Zoological Institute in 1940 were turned upside down and — in one case, cut short — all because they had come together “to tell a few jokes, blow off some steam, and share their hopes and fears.” The young men became victims of “Stalinist paranoia and a ruthless obsession with mental purity that turned humor into heresy, banter into activism, and friendship into conspiracy.” Theirs was a harsh era. But ironically, it was precisely this harshness that had made them resort to humor in the first place:

Humor — flippant, caustic, and often dark — came to their rescue as a kind of emotional therapy. […] Whether it was absurd stories about Molotov’s glasses, mockery of empty propaganda, or even offhand sexism, their jokes met seriousness with silliness, helping them maneuver their way through uncertain times.

Our own times, of course, are anything but certain, and in the great tradition of Russian and Soviet satirists, Dr. Maxim Osipov has served up a bracing tonic of dark laughs. A new anthology titled And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again: Writers from Around the World on the COVID-19 Pandemic, edited by Ilan Stavans and published by Restless Books, carries one of Maxim’s sharp diagnostic sketches of the human response to the spread of the coronavirus — our fears, be they well-founded or groundless, our hopes, be they noble or petty, and our attempts to stay connected, be they helpful or deadly. I won’t ruin the surprise ending of “The Song of the Stormy Petrel” (the title is borrowed from Maxim’s namesake, Gorky), but I’ll share a long quote, together with Stavans’s description of the piece from his useful introduction:

For Maxim Osipov, from Tarusa, Russia, the concern over the elderly masks other fears. He writes of a man who began telling anyone who would listen that he was worried about his mother. “What else would he be worried about? No sense in thinking of the children (they weren’t vulnerable), his wife was eleven years younger than him, and, needless to say, he wasn’t concerned about himself. Do the math: what were the chances of him croaking? One percent, maybe one point five. A real man doesn’t lose his head over trifles. If I die in a combat zone, box me up and ship me home… Oh, speaking of, he’d prefer to be cremated — everyone clear on that? People had always told him he had a pleasant voice, and now he was growing convinced of it. He kept singing and singing — vigorous, patriotic songs. He’d have loved to sing democratic ones, but there just weren’t any. A nervous reaction? Maybe… But it was his mother he was worried about, not himself.”

As Russian authors like Nikolay Leskov, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, Zoshchenko, and now Osipov show us time and again, humor is serious business. Bursting through our pieties, it reveals uncomfortable truths — and even if the truths remain uncomfortable, their revelation can come as a relief. The unsayable is said, with a smile, and the weight falls from our shoulders.

Proceeds from the sales of And We Came Outside will go to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, which aids the heroic booksellers who continue to feed our reading needs in this time of crisis.

An LA Celebration: Lisa Teasley’s “Castle in the Trees” and Vladislav Ellis’s “Californian Verses”

Today is Jenny’s and my one-year anniversary, and though the pandemic has limited our options considerably, we won’t let it hamper us altogether. This evening we’ll enjoy a meal from one of our favorite Italian restaurants, as well as some quality time with the cats, and later in the week we’ll take a brief road trip up to Northern California.

Our state is not in the greatest shape, of course, but optimism is the Californian way. And so, as I look back on a year like no other, I find myself focusing on the many wonderful moments Jenny and I have shared and on the friendships that have sustained us at the most difficult times. I also look forward to a day when we can meet with our friends in person, without endangering them, at some dreamed-of Castle in the Trees. I borrow that dream from Lisa Teasley, a visionary Angeleno author, LARB’s senior fiction editor, and one of the friends whom Jenny and I cherish and cannot wait to see again. Lisa conceived of the Castle for an exhibition organized by the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design and titled “Every. Thing. Changes.” The entire plan is so delightfully imbued with the spirit of LA that it’s hard not to quote it in full, but Lisa’s evocative opening paragraph will do:

Though a traveler, how much more could I love coming home? Particularly when the world still negotiates the fallout from crisis. Los Angeles is my birthplace and heart’s terrain, and I have done my share of complaints during decades of the city’s many neighborhood-identity losses. But from today’s roving view of the Gold Line, the Jacaranda makes a lavender magic carpet of the streets leading to The Castle in the Trees—an epic, majestic, welcoming place to convene and collaborate, after endless months of Zoom meetings.

Do visit the Castle, and make sure to click through to the contributions of artists Silvia Herrasti and Paulina Herrasti, the architects of MUTUO, and the composer Imogen Teasley-Vlautin.

As I dangled my legs from the upper branches of the Castle, I recalled a poem by another Angeleno, the Ukrainian-born Vladislav Ellis (1913-1975), who could probably have helped make Lisa’s dream a reality. Descended from English master welders who had been invited to St. Petersburg by Catherine II, Ellis was raised in Kharkiv, where he received his engineer degree in 1937. Around that time, both his father and brother were arrested and killed in the Great Terror. During the Second World War, Ellis was captured by German troops; after the Nazis were defeated, he remained in the West. Thanks to his professional qualifications, he was able to find work in Belgium and, in 1950, to immigrate to the United States. He and his wife settled in California, where Ellis earned another degree in 1962 and launched a career in construction that took him all around the world. He had been writing poetry since his teenage years, but his travels, as well as his life in California, inspired some infectiously vivacious lyrics that were collected in book form in 1968. The “Californian Verses” below echo the verve of Vernon Duke and anticipate the Ararat-sighting of Peter Vegin. I dedicate my translation to Jenny, the most perfect partner any Californian exile could ever hope for!

Californian Verses


So as to squeeze the sweetest juice
(why pour a drink no one can stand?),
throughout these verses I will use
oranges, women, sun and sand.

Give in, relax, give up your past,
and it will make you young again:
the Californian beach — so vast,
for every class and shade of skin.

There’s space enough for everyone!
Oranges, women — can’t be beat.
Of course, the pastries of Ukraine
would make the pleasure feel complete.


Don’t fret about the heat too much:
evening will bring its cooling touch.

Our climate diligently clears
the heart of all its aches and fears.

Stepping outside to get some air,
a gentle breeze brushing their hair

beneath the Californian sky,
little old ladies grow more spry.


A Scandinavian essence rings
within the sound of Spanish names:
that’s why I love, I must confess,
this flashy, multicolored mess.

There’s plenty room for all one’s thoughts,
which whirl about and glow and flare.
Armenians find Ararat
while Finns find birches everywhere.

So you’ve been wronged by destiny,
your love is in some far-off land —
however hard your luck may be,
you’ll always find a countryman.

Калифорнийские стихи


Чтоб не сварить Демьяновой ухи,
Чтоб был компот приятнее и слаже:
Неси в «калифорнийские стихи»,
Побольше женщин, апельсин и пляжа.

За это много прошлого отдашь,
Любого лаской делает моложе,
Калифорнийский грандиозный пляж
Для всех сословий и расцветок кожи.

Под солнцем мест достаточно для всех,
А апельсин и барышень излишек.
Но нехватает здесь полтавских пышек,
Для полноты и цельности утех.


Жары бояться нечего,
Придёт прохлада вечером,

И грусть на сердце вымыта
Усердиями климата,

И вышедши из комнаты,
Там нежным бризом тронуты,

Становятся проворнее
Старушки в Калифорнии.


У испанских имён
Скандинавская суть,
Потому я влюблён
В эту пеструю жуть.

Вихря мыслей простор,
Разноцветно горят.
Финн берёзку нашёл,
Армянин — Арарат.

Коль обижен судьбой,
Иль любовь далека,
Неудачник любой
Здесь найдёт земляка.

Valery Skorov Finds His Muse in Chicago’s “Garbage”

July 25 was the fortieth anniversary of the death of Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980), the beloved Russian bard whose unmistakably gravely voice has sounded in these pages twice before. “Beloved” is putting it mildly: Vysotsky’s songs were the soundtrack to the late Soviet experience, the most gut-wrenchingly direct expression of the passions and frustrations of several generations of Russian-speaking people. I could post long entries on any number of his performances, but I thought I’d honor his memory indirectly by sharing a song by a far less recognized bard, Valery Skorov (1941-2001), who began writing songs in earnest after Vysotsky’s death. In fact, it was the shock of that news that inspired him.

The Novosibirsk-born and Leningrad-educated Skorov had immigrated to Chicago earlier in 1980, and he would remain in the States until 1993. In that time he wrote a lot, performed frequently, but only recorded a handful of songs; his one full-length cassette, from 1987, was titled Another Poet Has Passed (In Memory of V. Vysortsky), and his name seems to have been misspelled on the label (Snorov). One of the tracks on that album, based on his poem “Garbich” — a phonetic rendering of the Russian pronunciation of “garbage” — wittily dignifies the poverty of newly arrived refugees. Skorov’s words brought back memories of my own family’s first years in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, his growling performance testifies to Vysotsky’s outsize imprint on Russian culture.


Whenever I remember
my first days as an immigrant,
I cannot help but shiver
and blush up to my ears;
my cultivated countrymen
from Moscow and from Leningrad
would pick their way through garbich,
embarrassing their kids.

Yes, to a new arrival —
unseasoned, inexperienced —
this strictly foreign custom
is hard to comprehend.
The bourgeoisie’s decaying —
they’re simply tossing out stuff
that no amount of money
could ever buy back home.

Color TVs and dishware,
new mattresses in plastic,
the latest styles in furniture,
crisp linens in clean bags.
How could the poor not waver,
confronted with such bounties?
What was the point of suffering
and packing up with their rags?

So off they go, my countrymen,
bent under heavy loads,
huffing, puffing, groaning,
on alien streets and roads.
This custom is convenient
for any needy immigrant
until he makes a killing
and earns his first cool million.


Когда я вспоминаю
Период эмиграции,
Меня бросает в краску,
Меня бросает в дрожь;
Культурнейшие люди,
Москвичи и ленинградцы,
Ночами шли по гарбичу,
Смущая молодёжь.

Да, человеку новому,
Ещё не искушённому,
То дело заграничное
Не так легко понять.
Буржуи разлагаются,
Вещичками швыряются,
Такими, что на родине
За деньги не достать.

Цветные телевизоры,
Матрацы в упаковочке,
Посуда, мебель стильная
И чистое бельё.
Ну, как не дрогнуть бедному
В подобной обстановочке.
Напрасно дома мучились,
Везли своё шмотьё.

И вот идут родимые,
Сгибаясь под добычею,
По стритам и по роудам,
Не сдерживая стон.
Для эмигранта бедного
Удобен их обычай,
Пока не заработал он
Свой первый миллион.

“An Eagle’s Heart Lies in the Dunes”: Vladimir Korvin-Piotrovsky at the Colorado River

We’re at the end of the second week of the LARB Publishing Workshop, which its peerless director, Irene Yoon, has taken online this year with the help of her quick-thinking and nimble-fingered crew. I’ve played only a small part so far, moderating a few enjoyable sessions — one with the delightful Adam and Ashley Levy of Transit Books — and hosting an informal discussion on translation. Even so, my eyes are already feeling the strain. I really don’t know how Irene and her team manage it, day in and day out… All this small-screen time makes me long for distant vistas, of which Southern California has its share.

The thought of those vast landscapes sent me back to a lyric by Vladimir Korvin-Piotrovsky (1891-1966), a Ukrainian-born Russian poet who twice narrowly escaped execution (first as a White officer captured by the Bolsheviks, then as a member of the French Resistance captured by the Gestapo) and spent his last years in Los Angeles. He first entered the literary world in the early 1920s, as a member of the Berlin Poets’ Club, along with V. Sirin — better known as Vladimir Nabokov — who remained his friend. The poet moved his family to Paris just before the start of the Second World War; there he grew close to Anna Prismanova (1892-1960), one of the most original voices of the emigration, though his own verse was highly traditional in both form and content, often echoing the tones and moods of Pushkin and Baratynsky.

The same tones and moods — intimate, melancholic, philosophically cool — dominate his Californian cycle, much of which appeared in journals between 1961 and 1966. In it I recognize an existentialist resignation to loneliness that is typical both of Los Angeles literature and of Russian émigré verse. The poem below, however, stands out. Never published in his lifetime, it describes a fishing trip to the Colorado River. The change of scenery reignites Korvin-Piotrovsky’s imagination, restores his warrior spirit, and, in the end, reminds him of what he will never regain, and yet can never abandon.

We’re going fishing. Early morning.
The overheated engine whines.
Quivering layers of desert air
float off toward the hills beyond.
A sandy wasteland — lifeless, bare —
but it’s a joy to watch the sky.
Where fearless Native chiefs once roamed,
death strikes no fear. Let arrows fly.
An eagle’s heart lies in the dunes,
mourned by the desiccated steppe.
Our driver points: a chain of trees,
all green, already looms ahead.
Ridge after ridge. The Colorado
lures with its unseen depths of blue…
O Russia — you’re so far away now
that I can never part with you.

June 1, 1961, Los Angeles

Мы едем на рыбную ловлю с утра,
Гудит перегретый мотор, —
В пустыне слоями сплывает жара
К подножью отчётливых гор.
Песчаная глушь. Ни зверей, ни людей,
Но весело в небо смотреть, —
На родине храбрых индейских вождей
Не страшно от стрел умереть.
Орлиное сердце зарыто в песке,
Вздыхает безводная степь, —
Шофёр указал уже нам вдалеке
Деревьев зелёную цепь.
Гора за горой, — Колорадо-река
Влечёт глубиной голубой —
Россия, Россия, — ты так далека,
Что мне не расстаться с тобой.

1.VI.1961, Los Angeles