In these days of lockdowns and travel restrictions I find myself turning with sympathy and appreciation to Alexander Grin (1880-1932), whose tales of adventure in exotic locales have recently appeared in a fetching new edition from Columbia University Press’s Russian Library. In my endorsement of Fandango and Other Stories, I called Bryan Karetnyk’s translations “sparkling,” which hardly does them justice. Karen Langley (Kaggsy, for the uninitiated) characterizes the experience of reading Grin with far greater gusto in her review for Shiny New Books: “His descriptions are so good that the scene is alive in front of your eyes, and at times I rather felt as if I was about to step into Grinlandia myself! This is language to savour, with vivid imagery which is almost hallucinogenic in places, and it’s really unlike the other Russian authors I’ve read.”
Cover of Alexander Grin’s Scarlet Sails (1923)
“Grinlandia” refers to the imaginary foreign setting of much of Grin’s fiction. Coined by a Soviet critic shortly after Grin’s death, the term has stuck. In truth, the only time Grin ever left the Russian Empire was in 1897, when a cargo ship he was working on docked in Alexandria. The great Slavic scholar Barry Scherr offers a concise, eloquent account of his rather sad life — full of arrests and other hardships — in the introduction to Fandango.
I think of Grin in internal exile in the Ural Mountains or, late in life, ill and impoverished in Crimea, all the while dreaming of faraway lands… And I think of another, almost completely forgotten author, Maria Moravskaya (1890-1947 — or is it 1958?), who was prey to the same wanderlust but, unlike Grin, did set out for the larger world. First, it must be said that Moravskaya’s English-language Wikipedia entry is a masterpiece of incompetence, a mulligan stew of malapropisms and mistranslations, and I cannot imagine a more fitting container for the life it struggles to contain. Take, for instance, the list of her spouses in the sidebar:
somebody unknown in Russia (approx. 1906–1907)
Edward “Ted” M. Coughlan (approx. 1920s–1940s)
unknown Chilean postman (possible 1950s)
Like Grin, Moravskaya was of Polish origin (Grin was born Grinevsky, a Russianizaion of Hryniewski), and, like Grin, she spent some of her formative years in Odessa. Moravskaya’s father Ludwig was, by her account, a kind, dreamy man, who could never hold down a job. It was from him that she inherited her hunger for adventure. That hunger — as well as her fraught relationship with her stepmother — led Moravskaya to leave home at fifteen and throw herself headlong into literary and political activity, first in Odessa, then in St.Petersburg. Her politics landed her in jail on two occasions (a badge of honor at the time), while her poems won the admiration of literary titans like Maximilian Voloshin, Zinaida Gippius, and Nikolay Gumilev.
Up to this point, Moravskaya’s trajectory resembles that of any number of budding Silver Age poets — even her mysterious, short-lived marriage is one of the standard variations — but after the February Revolution of 1917 that trajectory takes a wild turn. She travels to Japan, then makes her way (via Latin America) to New York, where she quickly masters English and begins a new career as a writer of prose; in the States, she learns, poetry doesn’t sell.
An excellent brief essay on the site Tellers of Weird Tales picks up the story: dozens of publications in venues ranging from The Atlantic Monthly to G-Man Detective, some cowritten with her second husband, Edward M. “Ted” Coughlan; a move to Florida, where the couple establish a home-cum-publishing house called “Fiction Farm”; and — according to a 1944 article in the Miami Daily News — no end of “arts, trades, and floral and faunal activities.” As Tellers tells it:
“Diversified hobbies are nerve tonics,” she said, and Maria Coughlan was diversified. In addition to making garden furniture; growing coffee, vanilla, and aloe vera; practicing hydroponic gardening; raising ducks; and breeding lovebirds, Maria used a small hand press to print her own books of poetry, illustrated with linoleum-block prints she made herself.
According to this article — and most reliable sources — Moravskaya-Coughlan died of a brain hemorrhage on June 6, 1947, in Miami. But at least one of her old Russian acquaintances, the great translator and writer of children’s verse Korney Chukovsky, claimed to have received a letter from the poet-turned-lovebird-breeder in the late 1950s, in which she supposedly told him that fate had tossed her down to Chile, where she was living out her days as a postman’s wife.
I bet Moravskaya’s dreamy father would have preferred the Chilean ending… That, at least, is the impression I get from the touching poem his daughter dedicated to him in 1913, titled “The Prisoner.” I offer my translation below, along with one of Moravskaya’s poems for children from 1914, “The Fugitive,” about a boy in whose footsteps she herself was to follow a few years later.
When off from work he’d sit at home all day
atop his tin-bound wooden trunk and pout.
This town was too familiar, he’d complain:
he knew each square, each house inside and out.
Yes, he’d go somewhere far away, and soon:
maybe he’d try the hide trade in Siberia.
Mother would listen with a knowing grin
and never lift her head from her embroidery.
While we’d cling to his knees, climb higher, higher…
So many little hands, so tight our grip!
He would fall silent, and the little fire
would die out slowly in his meerschaum pipe…
Of course we knew he’d stay. No foreign country
would ever rob us of our papa. Still,
his melancholy eyes were always watching
the stunted cactus on the windowsill.
Grishka ran off to the States!
When they saw that he’d gone missing,
Mom and Grandma sure had fits!
They forgot about my dress and
all about my piano lesson…
How they searched! Oh, what a pain!
Found him waiting for a train…
Papa really gave him hell!
Grishka bit his nails and shook,
but he said nothing at all…
Though he’s clumsy and still small,
he’s a hero in my book!
And I’ll make a bookmark, too —
red silk letters stitched on blue —
that’ll give him quite a thrill:
“A hero held against his will.”
По праздникам он с утра был дома,
Садился на окованный сундук
И жаловался, как здесь всё знакомо:
И все дома, и в скверах каждый сук…
Да, он уедет, далеко и скоро:
Он будет шкурками в Сибири торговать.
И, вышивая на канве узоры,
Насмешливо улыбалась мать.
А мы цеплялись за его колени…
Ах, много маленьких и цепких рук!
Он умолкал, и в мундштуке из пены
Огонёк медленно тух…
И все мы знали: папа будет с нами.
Не отдадим его чужой стране.
А он разглядывал печальными глазами
Всё тот же чахлый кактус на окне.
Утром Гришка удрал в Америку.
Боже мой, как его искали!
Мама с бабушкой впали в истерику,
Мне забыли на платье снять мерку
И не звали играть на рояле…
Гришку целые сутки искали —
И нашли на Приморском вокзале.
Папа долго его ругал,
Путешествия называл ерундой…
Гриша ногти кусал и молчал, —
Гриша очень неловок и мал,
Но я знаю, что он — герой.
И в подарок бесстрашному Гришке
Вышиваю закладку для книжки,
Красным шелком по синему полю:
«Герою, попавшему в неволю».