Translated by Sarah Vitali
Review by Karen Langley, 1 Aug 2019
The Russian Library series from Columbia University Press has thrown up some marvellous treasures of literature from Russia, several of which I’ve previously covered here on Shiny New Books (here, here and here). However, they’ve outdone themselves with this recent release, a marvellous literary memoir of leading lights from the Silver Age of that country’s poetry – which was written by an author who was a wonderful poet himself, and who bore witness to the rise and fall of many of his talented contemporaries.
Khodasevich was born in 1886 and lived through turbulent times in Russia. A critic as well as a poet, he mixed with the greats of the pre-Revolutionary period and was well placed to memorialise them. With his wife, the author Nina Berberova, he fled post-Revolutionary Russia and for a while stayed with Maxim Gorky in Sorrento; they then moved on to Berlin where he associated with Andrei Bely although there was a major rupture between them; and finally decamped to Paris. Khodasevich died in 1939 a few weeks after the publication of Necropolis; Berberova would outlive him by several decades, surviving until 1993.
Necropolis is a masterly work, although perhaps a little unusual in its structure in that there are nine individual chapters each focused on a specific individual. However, there are links between each of the subjects, with characters reappearing in other sections, and in fact the poets covered in the first three chapters are linked by an affair! Additionally, Khodasevich uses his book to discuss poetry and poetics, and one of the strengths of the book is his very clear exposition of the symbolists’ views and how these filtered through into how they lived their lives; in fact, dictated that way of life.
To the symbolist or decadent, love opened up the most efficient and direct line of access to an inexhaustible warehouse of emotions. All one had to do was be in love and he or she would be furnished with all the objects of primary lyrical importance: Passion, Desperation, Exaltation, Madness, Vice, Sin, Hatred, and so on. And so everyone was always in love, and even if they weren’t actually in love, they at least convinced themselves that they were; if they discovered the tiniest spark of something resembling love, they would fan it with all their might. It is no coincidence that even phenomena such as the “love of love” were so highly praised at the time.
The poets and writers remembered are a stellar collection: from Andrei Bely through Blok and Esenin to Gorky, Khodasevich creates brilliant pen portraits which capture the writers as they flit across the pages of history and his book. He’s not afraid to be critical – there is a ‘warts and all’ quality to his writing – but this brings the subjects to life with a startling vividness and provides an incredibly poignant window into the past. He is, for example, quite critical of Esenin, stating of the latter’s major work Inonia:
This poem exhibits a great deal of talent. But in order to bask in its merits, one in must immerse oneself in it, must have in one’s possession something like a sturdy diving costume. Only a reader equipped with such a costume can look with spiritual impunity upon the seductive beauties of ‘Inonia’.
He paints the poet as a country lad pulled this way and that by conflicting forces and ideologies, commenting: “He turned his back on God for the sake of his love of Man, but all Man did was take the cross down from the church, hang Lenin up in place of the icons, and open Marx up like the Bible.” Never has a truer word been said…
While I was reading Necropolis I couldn’t help but be reminded of another book of remembering I read recently – Portraits without Frames by Lev Ozerov. In a similar way to Khodasevich, Ozerov set out to record the lives of artists he had known, thereby giving us a look into the past and into their lives. I can’t help but wonder if Ozerov had read the earlier book and whether it could be regarded as inspiration, but certainly both books would make wonderful companion pieces. Writing like this can be a vital act of remembrance, bearing witness to the times the author has seen; and in many ways Necropolis is an elegy for a generation of writers. There are reminders of how hard it was to live through certain periods, and we see authors like Zamyatin, Blok and Khodasevich having to deal with the censorship of politicians like Zinoviev. It’s a sobering read at times.
It was hard to breathe in the hot, pre-storm air of those years. Everything appeared ambiguous and equivocal; the outlines of objects seemed unsteady. Reality, bleeding over into consciousness, became permeable. We were living in the real world – and, at the same time, in some special, hazy, and complex reflection of it, where everything was “the same, but different”.
As well as taking us into the intimate lives of the poets and bringing them vividly into focus, the book inevitably also allows us to get to know Khodasevich himself, which is another fascinating element. He’s always seen in relation to his subjects, as of course (as he states at the start of the book) nearly everything in it comes from his personal experience. His memoir of life with Gorky is particularly lively; Khodasevich does not pull his punches and Gorky was obviously a complex individual. Khodasevich’s writing is excellent, able to convey atmosphere and setting brilliantly, and I was utterly engrossed from start to finish.
Another aspect I particularly enjoyed was the fact that several of the subjects were names new to me – Nina Petrovskaya and Muni for example – as well as poets such as Bryusov, about whom I was keen to know more. On that level, Necropolis acts as an excellent primer in the poets and writers of the time, but with the extra element of being written by a poet and so therefore standing as a work of art in its own right.
Necropolis is translated by Sarah Vitali, who provides exemplary notation for the book; the text is steeped with references to all manner of poetry and writing which a reader not well versed in the sources would miss, and each item is clearly identified. There’s also a handy index of names featured in the book which is really useful, and this level of scholarship really adds to the experience of reading.
As I mentioned earlier, Khodasevich lived long enough to see the publication of his book of memories but did not survive it for long. I couldn’t help but wonder whether he had an awareness of impending death which might have focused his mind on recording the past. Whether he did or not, Necropolis is a very special book, a memorable record of writers living through unimaginable upheaval and change, and an excellent addition to the Russian Library imprint.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and thinks that lying on the porch of a dacha with a samovar of tea and a volume of Russian poetry would be heaven.
Vladislav Khodasevich, Necropolis (Columbia University Press, 2019). 9780231187053, 262pp, paperback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link – free UK P&P.