Thoughts of Odessa in Greece: Pericles Stavrov’s “Café”

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
Нерасцветающих улыбок.

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.

“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…”

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.

“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!

“The Young, the Handsome, the Brave”: Odessan Football in Verse

Championship-Winning Odessan Lineup, 1913

My maternal grandfather, after whom I was named but whom I never had the chance to meet, looms large in my imagination. In 1919, at the age of nine, he went to work at a smithy to support his parents and put his siblings through school. When my mother was a little girl, he ran a semi-illicit confectionery factory and would come home smelling of vanilla, the pockets of his linen suit stuffed with sweets. He rescued sparrows who fell down on our balcony every winter and nursed them back to health; he loved to watch them perch on the edge of his dinner plate and peck at his food. I could go on, but you get the gist: this man I knew only through stories and photographs was my childhood hero. Alas, every hero has his tragic flaw…

For my grandfather, as for so many Odessan men, that flaw was excessive zeal. And in his case, the zeal was for football (that’s soccer, of course). Not long after my mother was born, he stopped attending matches altogether and followed the progress of his beloved FC Chornomorets strictly via the airwaves. Why? Because, on what turned out to be his last trip to the stadium, he had become so engrossed in the game that he allowed his cigarette to slip from his fingers. Before he knew it, his trousers were on fire and a neighbor in the stands was swatting at his thighs. Not quite rock bottom for a football fanatic, but it would do. From that point on, he’d have to satisfy himself with radio broadcasts.

Can you blame my grandfather for getting carried away at the stadium? In Odessa, football is almost a religion — one brought by missionaries from the United Kingdom in the late 19th century. You can read Volodymyr Gutsol’s nice little article about the Odessa British Athletic Club (OBAC), which introduced football to the city (and, likely, to Imperial Russia as a whole), at The Odessa Review. Interest in the sport spread like (forgive me!) wildfire, and Odessan players burned bright on the national scene. In 1913, the city’s team took the Russian Empire’s second championship, defeating St. Petersburg 4 to 2. True to form, the pernickety Petersburgers tried to get the Odessans disqualified because they had fielded too many foreign-born players. Their effort was unsuccessful — Odessa had won fair and square…

And just to make sure everyone remembered, poet-turned-epidemiologist Alexander Krantsfeld (1897-1942) immortalized two of the stars of that glorious lineup — the Englishman Ernest Jacobs and the Ukrainian Yuri Dykhno — in an sprightly, springy lyric:

Agile of body, how swiftly they run —
springtime sings out in each kick.
Here every shout is a shot from a gun.
The fans, as if drunk, sway and quake.

Under bright skies, cries of approval
and censure blend into one.
Heavenly rapture, ardent upheaval:
“Go Jacobs! Go Dykhno! Come on!”

Feathery grass, turquoise horizon,
eyes on the crystalline vault:
over the field on which Hellen has risen,
a rook glides close to the ball.

Strong bodies clash, bathed in the sun,
as the crowds roar and rave.
Each woman’s smile gleams like a coin
for the young, the handsome, the brave…


Тела упруги, движенья быстры,
В порывах мощных поёт весна.
И каждый возглас, как будто выстрел.
Толпа трепещет, толпа пьяна.

Под ярким небом крик одобренья,
Крик порицанья слились в одно.
Здесь все в экстазе, здесь все в гореньи:
«Поддай-ка Джекобс! Урра, Дыхно!..»

Вся в бирюзовой оправе зелень.
В прозрачный купол уходит мяч.
Над мягким полем, где ожил эллин,
К мячу так близко летает грач.

Толпа рокочет, залита солнцем,
Звенят удары могучих тел.
Улыбки женщин горят червонцем
Тому, кто молод, красив и смел…


“Beach Is Closed”: Georgy Shengeli and Odessa’s Quarantine Wharf

Quarantine Wall.jpg

Recently — and I’m sure you can all guess why — my mind turned to Odessa’s long history of battling plague and cholera, often by drastic measures. In an article at The Balkanist, Lily Lunch tells the story of the city’s expansive Quarantine Wharf, or Lazaretto, which found its way into many accounts by international travelers, as well as into a stanza of Eugene Onegin’s journey, appended to Pushkin’s novel (here translated by Stanley Mitchell):

Look now — the square has put on motley.
All is alive: the people there,
On business or without, run hotly,
But most of them with some affair.
The merchant, child of cautious daring,
Tells from the ensigns how he’s faring,
Whether he’s favoured by the skies
With sails that he can recognize.
What novel wares from sundry nations
Have entered into quarantine?
Where are the promised casks of wine?
What news of plague and conflagrations?
Of famine or another war,
Or something new, but similar?

But the poem that occurred to me is more somber in tone, a kind of classical epitaph for this fabled spot, which was the site of great suffering and (this being Odessa) chicanery, as well as home to a succession of lighthouses. Its author is Georgy Shengeli, who spent the Civil War years in the region and composed this on November 10, 1920:

The houses move aside, and in the motley clearing,
where the November winds run up the slope and crash
against the earth — I see its ancient outline:
a ruined fortress, overgrown with moss…
Soldiers once drifted through its halls.
The captive plague grew weaker in its fetters.
People were hanged. Then, over massive walls,
the tips of movable antennae soared into the sky
and shot off beams of light into the darkness
that called to ports and vessels hidden from the eye.
Then — everything was gone. Nothing remains:
a vast, chilly expanse — a barren gravesite.
(And even the harsh wind, which plows the waves,
cannot oppress the flat grass of this wasteland…)

I’m moved by this elegiac poem, which shows history taking its usual course. But I’m also reminded that, today, the site of the Quarantine Wharf could not be more picturesque. And to lighten the mood a bit more, let me end with a little bit of Odessan black humor. In 1970, the city was struck by yet another epidemic, this time of cholera. Odessans responded as they usually do — with jokes. Here’s one, which describes a sign on the beach:

Beach Is Closed

1. Cholera in the water.
2. Public health officials nowhere to be found.
3. It’s winter, people!

Beach Is Closed.jpg

Let’s all promise each other to take a dip when the ill winds blow over!

Дома уходят вбок, и на просторе пегом,
Где ветер крутизну берет ноябрьским бегом
И о землю звенит, — обрисовался он:
Старинной крепости дерновый полигон…
Солдаты некогда шагали здесь вдоль зала.
Здесь пленная чума в цепях ослабевала.
Потом здесь вешали. Потом над массой стен
Взлетели острия уклончивых антенн
И кисточки огней с них в темноту срывались,
Портам и кораблям незримым откликались.
Потом — убрали все. И ныне — пустота,
Простор иззябнувший – могильная плита.
(Где даже резкий ветр, избороздивший море,
Травы не угнетет в укатанном просторе…)

“There is an Aero Club in Fair Odessa”: Osip Kolychev’s “All for Publicity”

Utochkin in Farman IV.jpg

Sergei Utochkin Takes Flight in a Farman IV

When I was writing Western Crime Fiction Goes East: The Russian Pinkerton Craze, 1907-1934, the chapter that gave me the greatest pleasure was the one devoted to the authorship of the so-called Pinkertons, those tawdry little dime novels that flooded the Russian book market in the first decades of the 20th century. It wasn’t the actual authorship that interested me most, but rather the rumors about it; “credit” for these anonymously published stories was ascribed to everyone from the adventurous realist Alexander Kuprin (1870-1938) to the dandified aesthete Mikhail Kuzmin (1872-1936). What I focused on in my research was the logic behind those rumors, concluding that the Pinkertons were part of a chain of pop-cultural associations, which also involved the circus, French wrestling, and aviation. Once that was established, it was really no surprise that Kuprin, author of famous circus stories and close friend of wrestler-turned-aviator Ivan Zaikin (1880-1948), would pop up in the Pinkerton guessing game.

Kuprin and Zaikin.jpg

Kuprin and Zaikin

Inevitably, the story of Kuprin and Zaikin’s friendship brings us back to Odessa, where, in 1910, the pair famously took off in a Farman biplane from the city’s Hippodrome, only to crash ignominiously (and harmlessly) at a cemetery. One of the youngsters who had raced down to the Hippodrome to witness this ill-fated but unforgettable feat was Odessan native Valentin Katayev (1897-1986). Katayev would go on to become one of the most successful writers of the Soviet period, and, not coincidentally, a pioneer of the “Red Pinkerton” genre. One could almost say that, at the moment of his crash landing, Kuprin was passing the torch to the next generation of adventure-seeking scribes.

Katayev recalled this momentous occasion decades later, in his memoir A Mosaic of Life, or the Magic Horn of Oberon (1972; Eng. trans. 1976). Recently I discovered another nostalgic account of it — fictionalized and versified — by Osip Kolychev (né Sirkes, 1904-1973). Kolychev is often dismissed as a Soviet hack, owing to another rumor: that he served as the inspiration for the poetaster to end all poetasters, Nikofor Lyapis-Trubetskoy, in the great satirical classic The Twelve Chairs (1928), written by Ilya Ilf and Katayev’s brother, Yevgeny Petrov. For all I know, the rumor may be true, but it seems to me that the charming poem below, published the year of Kolychev’s death, is far above Lyapis-Trubetskoy’s usual standards. In it, the great author Kuprin becomes the publicity-chasing local publisher Finkin (with emphasis on the first syllable); Zaikin (emphasis on the first “i”) retains his identity; the aviation pioneer Lev Matsievich (1877-1910) becomes Matsievich-Matsienko; and Odessa’s beloved flyboy, Sergei Utochkin (1876-1916, emphasis on the initial “U”) really shines!

All for Publicity

I now recall a golden-headed child’s
ungilded youth — recall my youth, that is,
my native town… Utochkin’s daring flights
over Odessa, and Zaikin’s wrestling bouts
in the arena at the local circus…

There, gliding through the sky, with its stacked wings,
an unpretentious Blériot or Farman
And every bit of its insidious design
spells certain death for aviator-airmen…

But have no fear: there is an Aero Club
in fair Odessa, and the Russian pluck
of Sergei Utochkin protects him as he probes
heavenly depths better than any luck…

Alas, poor Matsievich-Matsienko
dies in a crash, and the Odessan Post
presents his portrait, and the tragic scene
where the exalted naval pilot lost
his life… his aeroplane in smithereens…

Finkin the publisher is at the Hippodrome!
Publicity’s the only God he worships,
and so the seafood market’s proudest son
climbs to the Pearly Gates in his own airship…

He soars above the roof of Chichkin’s dairy
but almost slams into the chimney top…
And you can hear the teeming crowd grow merry,
laughing and shouting without stop…

“Hey, looky there — he’s flyin’!” “That’s a crow!”
“What crow, you dope? That there’s an airy-plan.”
“Eel-ectric, eh? I see them sparks…” “Dunno…”
“Workin’ them buttons…” “He’s more dove than man!”

“Get movin’! Step aside!” the coppers roar.
“But look — that airy-plan is headin’ for the sun!”
“This is the first time that a well-known publisher
has flown up with a Russian veteran!”

You can be sure that soon the fearless press will
make a big noise about this wondrous coup:
Publisher Finkin in the Air Over ODESSA,
Publisher Finkin Zipping Through the Blue


Monument to Utochkin in Odessa

Во имя рекламы

Мне вспомнилось незолотое детство
мальчишки с золотою головой:
себя я вспомнил, отчий город свой…
полеты Уточкина над Одессой,
Заикин на арене цирковой…

Неприхотливый Блерио иль Фарман
по небу этажеркою скользит.
Он всем своим строением коварным
неумолимой гибелью грозит

пилотам-авиаторам… Однако
в Одессе действует аэроклуб,
и Уточкина русская отвага
небесную пронизывает глубь…

Но гибнет Мациевич-Мациенко,
и на столбцах «Одесской почты» дан
его портер: почтенный капитан,
и гибели трагическая сцена,
и превращенный в хлам аэроплан…

И вот уже спешит издатель Финкин
на ипподром, — зане реклама — бог!
И вот исчадие рыбного рынка
пересекает господа порог…

Взлетел над крышей чичкинской молочной,
чуть не ударив по печной трубе…
И слышен человеческий раешник
в бурлящей ипподромовской толпе…

— Гляди-тко! Ишь! Летит! — Да то ж ворона!
— Нет, не ворона! Энто ерошлан!
— На електричестве! — Пускает искры… — Вона!
От кнопки, что ль, летает… — Как турман!

— Гей, разойдись! — кричат городовые.
— Гляди, летит на солнце ероплан!
— С редактором-издателем впервые
летит по небу русский ветеран.

А завтра расшумит лихая пресса
о совершенных ими чудесах:
издатель Финкин в небе над ОДЕССОЙ,
издатель Финкин мчится в небесах…

“Grab It While It’s Hot”: Nina Gernet and the Odessan Sun

Austrian Beach - 1918.jpg

Austrian Beach, Odessa, 1918

It’s a mild, sunny February in Los Angeles, though a little windy. Nothing to complain about, of course: excellent weather, as far as winter goes. Still, it is winter. In Argentina and Uruguay, on the other hand, it’s the tail end of summer. That’s where Jenny is right now, seeing old friends, writing, and soaking up the sun. The photos of Uruguayan beaches she sends me bring to mind a poem by Nina Gernet (1899-1982), a native of Odessa who moved to Leningrad in 1925. There she worked as an editor at Chizh, a children’s magazine that served as a temporary refuge for the mind-bending poets of the OBERIU group, Nikolay Oleynikov (1898-1937), Alexander Vvedensky (1904-1941), and Daniil Kharms (1905-1942). Her work was less experimental than that of her fellow Chizhites, and though she was fired from her editorial post in 1937, she survived Stalin’s purges. And I don’t think it’s unfair to say that, in her own creative way, she also helped others survive. Gernet’s passion was puppetry, and when she found out, in the late 1930s, that a labor camp in the Far North had established a puppet theater, she began to send its organizers all the useful material she could find, including manuscripts of her own unpublished plays.

Nina Gernet.jpg

Gernet’s plays for puppets were very popular in the Soviet Union and earned her international recognition, but below is an obscure little artifact from her youth, written in 1921. It is a playful lyric that captures the wheeling-and-dealing atmosphere of Odessa, where nearly everything’s up for sale:

The only thing that isn’t up for sale,
the only thing that simply can’t be bought,
that has no price in mercantile Odessa,
is the dancing sun. “Give it a whirl!
All free, so grab it while it’s hot
and hang it in your room above your dresser!”

“Hmm… do you have something that’s cheap
yet still quite subtle and refined?
I mean, one has to pay a little to have fun…”
“Why certainly! Austrian Beach: a dip,
fine company, a place to dine.”
“With orchestra?” “Two hundred.” “Done and done.”

I love this little verse snapshot of Austrian Beach, a favorite haunt of Odessan authors in the 1920s, which is now part of the city’s port. Konstantin Paustovsky (1892-1968), who might well have bumped into Gernet while out strolling by the water, describes the place in his marvelous memoir, Story of a Life (translated by Manya Harari and Andrew Thompson): “[It] was made for reading books that have to be read slowly, and set aside from time to time, while you dig about in the sand and by chance come across a fragment of rock crystal. It was a wonderful place to doze. The wind from the sea tickled your eyelashes and the salt air stayed in your lungs and made you a little drunk.”

Единственное, что не продается,
Единственное, что не покупается,
Чем не торгуют в деловой Одессе –
Это танцующее солнце.
– Берите! Даром предлагается!
Годится в комнате развесить.

– А есть ли что-нибудь дешевое,
Но все же тонкое и элегантное-
На удовольствие необходим расход!
– Пожалуйста! Австрийский пляж: столовая,
Купанье, музыка и общество галантное.
С оркестром – двести пятьдесят за вход…

Emil Draitser, the Duc, and Peter Storitsyn: An Odessan Full Circle

Duke Odessa.jpg

Jenny and I have just returned from London, where I spent several stimulating mornings and afternoons going over new translations of Teffi’s stories with Robert Chandler. Equally stimulating (for me, anyway) was Robert’s and my presentation at Pushkin House, and Oliver Ready’s and my double-launch of Gogol and Tolstoy at Oxford. But now that I’m back in LA, my thoughts have turned to Odessa — and for good reason.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve shared a LARB piece on this page; there are, frankly, just too many standouts for me to choose from, columns upon columns of them. But my Odessan pride has finally got the better of me. How could I not play favorites and single out Oleg Ivanov’s zesty review of Emil Draitser’s novel Farewell, Mama Odessa? Draitser, a native Odessan who embodies the best qualities associated with the city (namely, indomitable resilience and a killer sense of humor), immigrated to the States in 1975, first settling in Los Angeles. Since 1986 he has taught Russian at Hunter College in New York City, but all his American writings are imbued with the sunny warmth — and, at times, the scorching heat — of Odessa and LA. Farewell, Mama Odessa, which was first published in Russian in 2012, is just out in Draitser’s own lively English translation. And as Ivanov (himself an excellent Russian-American stylist) makes clear in his review, “though it deals with émigrés fleeing a nation that no longer exists almost half a century ago, the novel addresses many of the concerns facing America and the world today.”

It was Oleg’s vivid opening passage, however, that made his piece especially appropriate for this blog’s purposes:

Perched atop the world-famous Potemkin Stairs in Odessa is a statue of the 19th-century statesman the Duc de Richelieu, the city’s first governor. He is dressed anachronistically in a toga, his right hand gesturing in a vague, noncommittal way either toward the coast of the Black Sea, only recently conquered by the Russian Empire at the time of his term, or perhaps to the lands beyond it. In the 1970s, the embankment at the bottom of the stairs was part of the land border of the USSR, and what lay beyond the sea represented freedom for the millions of Soviet Jews who wanted to escape the country’s state-sponsored antisemitism by emigrating to the West. Taking their cue from the statue of the Duc and its mysterious, ambivalent gesture, most of these hopeful emigrants had only a vague sense of what they would encounter in emigration.

This is as good a description — and interpretation — of Odessa’s most recognizable statue as I have ever seen. In fact, after reading it, I was struck by the fact that Ivan Martos’s bronze Duc has inspired so little memorable prose or poetry. He shows up here and there, of course, but where are the odes, the rhapsodic apostrophes addressed to him and him alone? I did manage to find one poem from the 1910s. Though it isn’t especially good, and doesn’t really hang together, it begins nicely enough, putting a faintly modern, Futuristic spin on the opening of Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman:

Monument to Richelieu

His ancient profile blackly grand,
he slumbers, sullen, night and day,
receiving gifts of orange sand
from tree-lined, passionate allées.
For ships at sea, he points the way
with his extended sovereign hand —
his face is turned toward the waves,
his back toward the noisy land.

The poem’s author, it turns out, is far more interesting than the poem. Those who read Russian can acquaint themselves with the storied and jumbled career of Peter Storitsyn (né Peter Eli-Bentsionovich Kogan, 1877-1942) with the help of a sparkling little essay written by Alena Yavorskaya, the indispensable Deputy Director of Research at the Odessa Literary Museum. And those who don’t will have to rely on the following résumé, composed in 1924 by Victor Shklovsky:

[Isaac] Babel loved to have people over. One frequent visitor was a former chemist-cum-Tolstoyan; a teller of incredible tales; a man who had insulted the Grand Duke of Baden and later appeared in court, freshly arrived from Switzerland, in order to confirm the accusation (but was deemed mentally unfit and punished only by the confiscation of his chemical lab); a bad poet; an inconsequential reviewer — the supremely improbable Peter Storitsyn.

Not all of this can be verified, but one thing is for sure: Storitsyn was an odd bird. He seems to have inherited a fortune from his father and to have actually been a chemist by training. He only spent a few of his mature years in Odessa (1914-1917), but he left quite a mark. Babel was indeed fond of him, and especially of his “incredible tales” (one of which served as the premise for the story “My First Fee”). And Babel’s poetic contemporaries also owed the erstwhile chemist a great debt — literally. He funded the publication of four colorful anthologies, including Automobile in the Clouds (1915), in which Eduard Bagritsky and Anatoly Fioletov published some of their earliest poems. Needless to say, Storitsyn dedicated a generous number of pages to his own verse, like the ode to the bronze Duc.

Storitsyn’s Odessan career ended suddenly. Another anthology was planned, but only its cover — a portrait of the publisher-poet by the Odessan artist Sandro Fazini (né Saul Faynzilberg, 1892-1942) — ever appeared in print.

Storitsyn - Fazini.jpg

By the early 1920s Storitsyn was in Petrograd-Leningrad, contributing to newspapers. In his last years, he was barely eking out a living as a proofreader, and he perished during the Siege of Leningrad.

Yavorskaya opens her essay on Storitsyn with the following observation: “Sometimes, however rarely, one encounters in literary and literary-adjacent milieus people who might not have written anything themselves, but without whom these milieus would have been far poorer, far more boring. Such people tend to be fabulous storytellers and improvisers, natural-born schemers.” That’s certainly how Storitsyn ought to be remembered. And I hope that, in his worst moments, Storitsyn himself remembered his days in Odessa and smiled. After all, as Draitser writes at the end of the prologue to his novel, “There is no such thing as a former Odessan. The place is forever in the veins of every person born and raised in that blessed city.”

Памятник Ришелье

Старинным профилем чернея,
Он спит угрюм и одинок,
К нему влюбленные аллеи
Несут оранжевый песок.
Своей державною рукою
Указывая путь судам,
Он к шуму улиц стал спиною
И повернул лицо к волнам.
И даль туманных зданий тает,
И улицы широк поток,
И плащ тяжелый ниспадает,
Ложась у выкованных ног.
Он смотрит гордо и открыто
В простор, где пляшет серебро,
В плиту тяжелого гранита
Впилось чугунное ядро.
Фонарный газ шурша мерцает,
Проходят пары вновь и вновь,
Он бронзою благословляет
Внизу текущую любовь.
Над ним жемчужная свобода,
За ним расплатанный гранит,
И тяжкий возглас парохода
Его покоя не смутит.

“O Amazing Pals”: Semyon Olender’s “Pat and Patachon”

Shub and Tolstoy.jpg

My dear friend Sasha Razor, who’s finishing a dissertation on the work of early Soviet authors in the film industry, sometimes sends me her neatest finds. The image above, for instance, appeared in an issue of the journal Kino in 1928. It depicts the pioneering film editor Esther (Esfir) Shub (1894-1959) “operating” on Count Leo Tolstoy. The story behind the caricature is that Shub, working in the late 1920s, spliced footage of the late Count into the third part of her trilogy of historical “compilation films.” This third part — now lost, alas — was titled The Russia of Nicholas II and Leo Tolstoy (1928). As Jay Leda, the first great historian of Soviet cinema, tells it, Shub had originally planned to make the film all about Tolstoy himself, but found too little material, and so “decided to work on the epoch, using Tolstoy as a central figure, a spokesman of his time.” She did use the footage shot at Yasnaya Polyana by the Odessan half-huckster Alexander Drankov, which I posted in June of last year, and I would have loved to see it in its new context. In any case, the caricature from Kino couldn’t help but remind me of, well, me, translating and editing Tolstoy’s prose; it doesn’t help that Esther and I have the same ‘do…

But this sketch is just one of the many filmic treasures Sasha has dug up. Another is a poem by Semyon Olender, whose lovely late lyric about Odessa appeared here back in August. This time Olender writes with more humor, but just as movingly, about the Danish comic duo Pat and Patachon  Actually, those are the names by which they were known in Russia and Germany. In the US, they went by Ole & Axel; in the UK, by Long & Short; in their native land, by Fy go Bi; and so on… I think their British monikers sum up the shtick most effectively: one of them was tall and gangly, the other short and plumpish.

Pat and Patachon.jpg

But as with Laurel and Hardy, those bare facts can’t possibly communicate the charm of the combo. Perhaps only celluloid can. And maybe poetry, too. I feel Olender’s ode certainly captures the magic.

Pat and Patachon

Was it real? Perhaps I was dreaming?
O amazing pals, all I know
is the two of you really gave me
quite a shock with your funny clothes!

Can’t remember, or didn’t notice,
how this pair snuck into my flat…
One was short, in a shabby waistcoat
and a crumpled old bowler hat.

The other was tall and slender,
his ill-fitting jacket all stained,
and like some enormous toddler,
he held his pal by the hand.

Crouching and bending briskly,
they spoke in the gentlest tones:
“Pat is my name,” one whispered.
“Me you can call Patachon.”

In response to my friendly offer,
they plopped themselves down, but so
excitedly that the sofa
suffered — the fabric tore!

Patachon turned to me quite sadly,
with a guilty squint in his eyes.
And Pat took it just as badly —
his whiskers would fall and rise…

I tried to console the poor souls:
so what if the sofa creaks?
But the screen: it swallowed them whole!
Boy, is celluloid quick!

I know I need to keep watching
and laughing for five more parts —
but I swear, I’ve not seen a friendship
as warm and as full of heart…

Пат и Паташон

Наяву или в сновиденьи
Поразило мои глаза
Ваше странное облаченье,
Изумительные друзья!

Я не понял и не заметил,
Как пробрался в мой дом тайком
Коротыш в потёртом жилете
И с приплюснутым котелком.

А другой был высок и тонок,
В замусоленном пиджаке.
Он держал, как большой ребёнок,
Руку друга в своей руке.

Приседая и нагибаясь,
Мне друзья прошептали в лад:
— Паташоном я прозываюсь.
— А меня называют — Пат…

И в ответ на моё приглашение
Оба грохнулись заодно
На диван — и в таком волненьи,
Что не выдержало сукно.

Паташон ко мне виновато
Повернулся, глаза скосив.
И подергивались у Пата
Отвисающие усы.

Я старался их успокоить:
Ничего, что трещит диван…
Но — стремителен целлулоид, —
И друзей поглотил экран.

И хотя мне смеяться нужно
В продолженьи шести частей,
Я поклясться готов, что дружбы
Я не видывал горячей.