Sep 10th 2019

Khodasevich in English: personality profiles  from a Russian writer of ‘metallic genius’

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”



One of the finest Russian poets of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was Vladislav Khodasevich, a bitter, ironic man of “metallic-like genius”, as Vladimir Nabokov called him. Nabokov should know. He was much the same. In a rare moment of hyperbole, Nabokov wrote that Khodasevich was “the greatest Russian poet” of his era.

Except among specialists in Slavic literature, Khodasevich is little known today. But “Necropolis” (Nekropol’ in the original Russian), a new translation of his literary memoirs published in the Russian Library of Columbia University Press, may change that.  This English-language version will be a boon to scholars and also a sort of introduction for the general reader interested in Russian literature or in Nabokov’s judgments of fellow-Russians.

Khodasevich’s prose is as crystalline as his poetry, and this rendition by veteran translator and academic Sarah Vitali reads with such punch and verve that some of the personality sketches might have been written today for a mainstream magazine. Her endnotes add background and fascinating detail that put the forgotten era in context. 

To the non-specialist, however, most of the writers profiled are lost in the mists of time. There is no Tolstoy, no Gogol, no Turgenev, no Dostoevsky or Chekhov. Instead, we are introduced to Andrey Bely, Valery Bryusov, Samuil Kissin (pseudonym “Muni”), Nikolai Gumilyov, Alexander Blok and others. Another who made the cut was Maxim Gorky for his “noisy, perpetually crowded household”, and his six months respite in Sorrento, Italy, not for his ambiguous relationship with Stalin.

The connecting thread throughout is the birth and death of the Symbolist or Decadent literary movement in Russia, a short-lived phenomenon that left a string of tragic breakups among participating writer/lovers. They were a tightly-wound bunch. Their beliefs “opened up the most efficient and direct line of access to an inexhaustible warehouse of emotions,” Khodasevich writes. Besides their use of imagery and allusion in their writing, they sought to derive “the maximum number of emotional possibilities from every one of their loves”. They wanted to “feed on the strongest essence that a feeling had to offer.” They were interested in real feelings, not the idea of a feeling.” 

Why this selection of personalities? Khodasevich decided to limit his scope in this book to men and women he knew personally, and to use only first-hand or published materials – no gossip, no second-hand anecdotes, no speculation. The result is a high degree of sincerity and credibility. 

A comprehensive scene-setting introduction by the respected American Slavic languages academic David Bethea, himself a Khodasevich biographer, quotes Nabokov’s memorable pen-portrait of the poet. The two men were friends, and supported each other in their literary efforts as Russian expatriates who fled the Bolshevik takeover. Khodasevich (1886-1939) was “of a sickly aspect,” Nabokov wrote,  “with contemptuous nostrils and beetling brows” sitting on a hard chair, “his thin legs crossed, his eyes glittering with malevolence and wit.” 

Khodasevich had an equal talent for capturing the look and feel of his subjects. Tackling the cranky poet Fyodor Sologub, he describes a famous portrait of him by the painter Boris Kustodiev:

“He is slouching in a an armchair, legs crossed, rubbing his small and very white hands together lightly. He is bald, with a slightly pointed crown; a canopy of grey hair surrounds his bald spot. His face is somewhat floury, somewhat puffy. There is a great white mole on his left cheek, next to his slightly hooked nose. His small, reddish-gray beard hangs down in a wedge and his reddish-gray mustache is droopy. His pince-nez hangs from a delicate cord; there is a crease above the bridge of his nose and his eyes are half-closed. When he opens them, their expression can best be conveyed by the question: “Oh, do you still exist?”

Khodasevich recalls that Gorky was an emotional artist who went to pieces in the presence of art. He demanded that people have hope, “hope in anything at all”. His most telling trait was in his tendency to break down and cry in public.

“I have seen quite a few writers take pride in the fact that Gorky cried while listening to their works. This was really nothing to be proud of:  I can’t recall a work that didn’t make him cry – complete and utter trash being the exception.” Gorky was not ashamed to cry over his own works. “The second half of every short story he read to me was invariably inundated with weeping, sobbing, and the wiping of fogged-up glasses.” 

In his introduction, Bethea provides a synthesis of these concise personality sketches. “Khodasevich was putting the Symbolist epoch in high-resolution historical perspective and explaining to the reader the causes of it rise and fall,” Bethea writes. “The goal was sobriety after the literal and figurative madness of the period.” Along the way, these eye-witness accounts “attempted to capture the core of each individual’s personality”.

Bethea’s 1983 book, Khodasevich: His Life and Art, is rich in its array of samples from Khodasevich’s prolific output and reproduces significant passages in English and Russian. As a taste of Khodasevish’s masterly poetic sense I chose this translation of a tribute to his friend Muni after his suicide. (It sounds even better in Russian.)


Look for Me 

Look for me in spring's transparent air.
I flit like vanishing wings, no heavier than
a sound, a breath, a sunray on the floor;
I'm lighter than that ray – it's there: I'm gone.

But we are friends for ever, undivided!
Listen: I'm here. Your hands can feel the way
to reach me with their living touch, extended
trembling into the restless flame of day.

Happen to close your eyelids, while you linger…
Make me one final effort, and you might
find at the nerve-ends of each quivering finger
brushes of secret fire as I ignite.

The cover of "Necropolis"



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