Literary Hub

On Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Vladislav Felitsianovich Khodasevich


Russian Literature Week 2017 will take place starting today through May 6th at literary venues across New York City including Book Culture, the Strand Bookstore, New York University, Columbia University, the Grolier Club, and the Russian Samovar restaurant–and, as always, online. Below are selections from The Literary Matrix, a compendium of contemporary Russian writers reflecting on Russian literary greats. Originally published in 2011, the collection was edited by Vadim Levental, who will be appearing this week as part of the festival’s events.

On Pushkin, by Vsevolod Bagno

The main mystery about Pushkin is the striking dissonance between the near-adoration, almost sacred reverence for his name in Russia and the polite recognition of his achievements and restrained delight for the poet elsewhere. Apparently there is no other writer whose reputation at home differs so amazingly from the perception abroad. The solution to the mystery may be another one. Recall the Russian soul, mysterious for foreigners. Perhaps the solution is that the mystery was, if not false, then certainly not complete. Dostoevsky, who almost inevitably comes to mind at this point, led us a bit astray, into the shadow of the light that Pushkin was born with a will to have. The light that for Russians was Pushkin himself. The fog of prejudiced perceptions will not dissolve until we admit that the genius of a nation and its soul cannot give rise only to those in its own image nor strive only for what would be the polar opposite of its nature and absolutely alien to it.

The genius of every nation is not the nation and of course not simply the best representative of that nation. The genius of any nation is the dream of its people about themselves. Pushkin is the embodiment for the Russian people of what they want to be. Light and easy, despite the burdens of life. Free, despite the external dependence on all and sundry and an inner readiness for public service. Radiant and harmonious, despite the celebrated predisposition of the “Slavic soul” for metaphysical longing and spiritual distress. That is why Pushkin escapes definition, because his work and his biography, and even more so his name and image were, and are becoming even more so with time, the idea of the Russian people about themselves, their will for a new, higher quality of their soul. However, the dream, and will, and perception are part of their current state. The nation found and personified in Pushkin what it had, what it was, and simultaneously what it wanted to be, what it was striving for. Its overpowering striving for light, purity, harmony, freedom, lightness in life and work.

Semyon Frank did a profound explication of Pushkin’s worldview, nationally typical in essence. The oft-repeated thesis about Pushkin’s joie de vivre is an obvious misunderstanding. According to Frank, “The form of his poetry, tragic in content, is not only aesthetically beautiful, so that its perfection seems to screen the depth of its meaning, but also reflects his spiritual enlightened: it glows in the reflected light of spiritual peace.” An artistic expression of grief or longing is imbued with the light of a particularly peaceful acceptance, which makes the content seem joyful. Pushkin defined more accurately than any of us the national Russian character of the enlightened tragedy of his muse:

I am sad and light;
My sorrow is radiant.

The Russian people announced themselves through the appearance of Pushkin (and not Peter the Great, or Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Mussorgsky, or Tchaikovsky). For Russians it is clear that Pushkin is equal and related to Peter, Tolstoy, and Tchaikovsky, while Peter, Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky are neither equal in everything nor related in everything to Pushkin.

Pushkin and St. Petersburg is a special topic. It can’t be said that they were inseparable. The fact that Pushkin died in St. Petersburg but was buried at the Svyatogorsk Monastery near his family home in Mikhailovskoe, which so generously gave him inspiration, speaks for itself. It is also symbolic that he died in a duel on Chernaya Rechka (Black River), which means that water, always associated for us with St. Petersburg, a city of rivers and canals, played a fatal—black—role in his life.

We must recall Gogol’s words not only on anniversaries: Pushkin “is a Russian in development, the way perhaps he may appear in two hundred years.” A low bow before the Russian genius is combined with the premonition of the new state of Russian culture, the identity of the Russian people. Of course, we must give Gogol his due: the saving “perhaps” leaves us the most important part. Pushkin is Russians in development. Including the development of their dream about themselves.

–Translated by Antonina W. Bouis


On Vladislav Felitsianovich Khodasevich, by Marina Stepnova

Ugly, short, desperate, angry. Desperately angry. Gambler, card player, fierce smoker, ulcerated by chronic eczema, tormented by furunculosis and other unappetizing conditions and chronic poverty. Husband (sequentially, thank God) of complicated women, who were all, as if in spite, femme fatales. Acidic and recognized critic. A killer. Unique interlocutor—smart, talented, precise. A rather cold poet, but so immaculately of pure water that even his skeptics and detractors could see that this was the real thing. One of the best poets of the émigré world.

Vladislav Felitsianovich Khodasevich.

A strange name for a Russian poet. A bad time for Russian poetry.

It is not for me to say whether there is meaning and use in social upheavals, but the Russian revolution did a great service for Russian literature. If not for 1917 and the subsequent emigration (1922), perhaps there would not have been the poet Khodasevich. He began—as many did, incidentally—with such feeble, mannered, bad poems, that even the very best critic (like the one he became) would be hard pressed to find a spark of the real in that pile of falseness. This does not mean that any mediocrity who survived the Russian rebellion could be reborn as a great poet. It doesn’t mean anything at all, actually. But after two anthologies, wretched in every sense (Youth and Happy Little House), Khodasevich suddenly released the book The Way of Corn and woke up famous. It was followed in 1922 by Heavy Lyre. Not a book of genius poetry but a genius book of poetry. That is the correct word order. And finally, in 1927 came European Night, the true snowy peak of Russian poetry.

And that was it. Khodasevich grew silent. At the age of forty-one. He stopped writing poetry—completely. Rather, we know of only four poems written after 1927, and only one was published. This is exactly how Arthur Rimbaud grew silent, stopped writing at twenty-one and lived a rather long and productive (and apparently vile) life of a businessman.

Fortunately, Khodasevich did not stop writing in general—he simply switched to literary criticism, and spent many years making life miserable for his eternal enemy and rival Georgy Adamovich, a minor poet but an extraordinary and subtle critic. In fact it was Khodasevich and Adamovich, who carried on a long and ferocious feud, unthinkable in our boring times, created a voltaic arc that gave the literature of the Russian emigration a bitter charm that it still has not lost.

Georgy Adamovich was but one of Khodasevich’s many literary and personal enemies. By the way, Khodasevich was unbearable, he was disliked by many, and many of those many had very good reason. I am sorry about one thing—Khodasevich had a savage, lengthy, and focused battle with Georgy Ivanov, a remarkable and great poet, and this hostility is particularly sad because Khodasevich and Ivanov thought about many things in the same way and their fates in many ways are amazingly similar, as if the Creator led both lives in counterpoint, either to mock or to caution. “Everything that I hate so tenderly and love so viciously.”

However, Khodasevich was friends with Gorky (for which he was not forgiven). And he was one of the first to take note of Nabokov, Sirin then, and beneath that gaudily operatic pseudonym he discerned the future genius, who at the time was a nothing and arrogant boy storming Parnassus with determination. His brothers of the pen hassled Khodasevich for that as well, for in general they did not like Nabokov. Nabokov repaid in gratitude, which was rare for him—he loved and respected the poet Khodasevich all his life.

I became acquainted with Khodasevich in Moscow, a gift from a friend.

I cannot be myself,
I want to lose my mind,
When with his pregnant wife,
An armless man goes to the cinema.

I was overwhelmed. Poems weren’t written like this in Russian. I was a silly nineteen-year-old, a fiend from the dorms at the Literary Institute, and in those days I was certain that I knew everything about poetry. The arrogance, given my age, is partially excusable. I lived on Pasternak, the early, opaque poems, I wandered muttering them by heart, plus Mandelstam, Brodsky. Zabolotsky, naturally, the early works. I still had to grow for the late. The nineties of the twentieth century, Moscow, the dorms—without a doubt the world’s most terrible and most strange—what was there for us to do? Only read poetry. And we did.

What happened to the boy who gave me Khodasevich? He must be dead or a drunk. Best case, he lost his mind. Worst—he writes commercial mystery books. I don’t even remember his name—we all were always giving one another poetry, there wasn’t anything else. But Khodasevich remained—forever, and he changed my taste in poetry forever. Then came Georgy Ivanov, Nabokov the poet (with astonishing breakthroughs and equally amazing lapses), Adamovich—a long and marvelous list.

But Khodasevich was the very first.

The new Russian poetry began for me with him.

–Translated by Antonina W. Bouis


On Leo Tolstoy, by Pavel Basinsky

Tolstoy didn’t like to remember his life. He was not one of those loquacious grandfathers who, at an advanced age, gather their children and grandchildren around them and proudly recount tales from their past, leavened with good-natured humor.

We don’t know for sure, but it’s possible that Tolstoy did turn his thoughts to his past during strolls through the Yasnaya Polyana park. In the diary entries he wrote after these strolls, however, we will find no direct proof of this. It’s just an educated guess.

“For God’s sake—or not even for the sake of God, but for your own sake, come to your senses. See all the madness of your life. Renounce, for just one single hour, all those small things that occupy you, that seem so important to you: all your millions, your thieving, your preparations for murder, your parliaments, your sciences, your churches… Tear yourself away from all that for just one hour and look at your life, most importantly, at yourself, at your soul, which lives for such a brief, indefinite time in this body; come to your senses, look at yourself, at the life that surrounds you, and see the entirety of your madness, and be horrified at it…”

Is this a person who could even remember his past with joy, much less be proud of it? After all, when he was an old man, none other than his own life—primarily the significant portion of it he spent living for those small things that seemed to him then to be so important—caused him enormous pain and shame.

A shameful, disgraceful life!

Nevertheless, at the request of his biographer, Pavel Ivanovich Biryukov, Tolstoy did begin writing his Memoirs in 1903. “I was sick at that time,” he admits. “And during that time of illness, of involuntary idleness, my thoughts turned again and again to reminiscing; and these reminiscences were horrifying.”

As he notes in his diary, before beginning his Memoirs: “I am now suffering the torments of hell: I remember all the filth of my former life, and these reminiscences will not let me go, they are poisoning my life.”

For religious people, one of the most important sources of spiritual solace is the hope that their identities, their selves, will remain after death (of course, this is impossible if you don’t remember your life, if you don’t remember your self, after death). To Tolstoy, it is precisely this prospect that seemed worst of all! He believed that after death he, his person, would simply be no more. The moment memory disappears, Leo Tolstoy is no more.

“How fortunate we are that upon our deaths memory vanishes, and all that’s left is consciousness… Yes, it’s our great good fortune, this destruction of memory; with it, a joyful life would be impossible…” he wrote.

Even during his earthly existence, Tolstoy probably delighted in the risk of oblivion, rather than being frightened by it. “My life, my consciousness of my self, grows weaker all the time; it will become still weaker, and end in senility and the complete termination of consciousness of my self.”

Could a person like this really write his own Memoirs? Tolstoy not only did not finish them, he didn’t even get all the way to the onset of his adult life; he stopped after his childhood, adolescence, and a few impressions from his time in Kazan as a young man.

Sweet childhood was the only thing he remembered with joy. “Yes, how much that’s interesting and important, that’d I’d dearly love to talk about, is still to come, but I can’t tear myself away from childhood, from bright, gentle, poetic, loving, mystical childhood.”

But life… what is life? It is none other than that something “important” which, in his old age, he called on everyone to “renounce.” And if he had continued his Memoirs, then the Caucasus and Sebastopol would have been included in that something “important,” and his foreign travel, and his marriage, and his farming, and that which the late Tolstoy calls “the artistic blathering that fills my 12 volumes of writing, to which people today ascribe unwarranted significance…”

After the death of a writer who was acclaimed as a genius while he was still alive, there will usually be manuscripts, unfinished works, and early experiments that remain. This wasn’t the case with Tolstoy. When three volumes of his Posthumous Literary Works came out, the public gasped! Masterpiece after masterpiece! “The Devil,” “Father Sergius,” “The Living Corpse,” “After the Ball,” “The Forged Coupon,” “Hadji Murad:” none of these did he publish during his life. What for? He was in no hurry!

The life of Tolstoy… what was most important about it, and what was secondary? What was his own opinion on this?

It might seem strange, but the only aim and meaning of existence for this greatest of moralists was the joy of living. He wrote about this frequently. “Life should and can be an unending joy.” “A person should always be joyful. If your joy is fading, find where you made a mistake.” “If life doesn’t seem to you to be a great joy, then this is only because your mindset is false.”

He lost this feeling, the feeling of the unceasing joy of life, when he lost his childhood. He spent the rest of his days trying to find it again.

Once he lost faith in the possibility of changing the external circumstances of his life, which were—or so he thought at first—what prevented him from bringing back this feeling, he began changing himself, his own false mindset. He worked on this for decades, doing the hard labor of a labor camp on himself.

Did he achieve this feeling? It’s difficult to say. In fleeing from Yasnaya Polyana, this 82-year-old man broke the most important moral law he’d ever discovered: don’t change anything in your external circumstances, change yourself!

So does that mean his life was not a success? If that were the case, then how could the figure of Tolstoy continue to attract the entire world’s attention, even today? And it does attract attention, perhaps even more so than his literary works. Why does the image of this grey-bearded old man in the simple white shirt that bears his name (the “tolstovka”), an image captured on thousands of photographs and newsreels, continue to be imbued with a mystical significance that we struggle to understand? How did his grave, seemingly so modest, set at the edge of a gloomy ravine in a forest, end up being one of world’s most frequently-visited tombs, on the order of the Taj Mahal and the Egyptian pyramids?!

Isn’t it because in the presence of Tolstoy we feel what his contemporaries felt, whether they visited Yasnaya Polyana once or several times? They left that place with a single question in their hearts: what is this person’s secret to life, and why is his influence so irresistible?

“Whoever paid attention to his gait, his seat in the saddle, the way he turned his head, would always plainly see the consciousness of his movements; that is, every movement was worked out, developed, meaningful, elaborated an idea,” wrote Vladimir Fedorovich Snegirev, a professor of medicine who was a friend of the Tolstoy family. And anyone who met Tolstoy even one time felt that along with the life that he lived in front of everybody, this particular man lived another life. Not the one that his contemporaries lived, which is also the one we all live today.

            It was the life of a free man.

–Translated by Anne O. Fisher


All selections are © the authors and translators, 2017. Courtesy of Read Russia, Inc.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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