DECEMBER 25, 2017
“OÙ SONT les neiges d’antan?” Throughout my childhood, at odd moments, I heard my stepfather Vasily Yanovsky — a noted Russian émigré author who provides one of the bookends to this brilliant, poignant anthology — burst out with that melancholic line from François Villon. Even as a child, I could hear its wounded beauty. Now, as an ageing translator from the Portuguese, I can see it as a manifestation of saudades, the famously untranslatable Portuguese term best glossed as a yearning, a longing, both for what is now in the past and for what perhaps never existed. One might speculate that saudades and les neiges d’antan represent a universal response to our expulsion from the Garden of Eden. We are all exiles from a vague paradise that, by its nature, is forever blocked to us, creatures fallen from grace. Bryan Karetnyk, the expert editor of Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky, suggests this poignant connection to the expulsion of our mythic ancestors with the epigraph to his introduction, taken from John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667): “Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon; / The world was all before them, where to choose / Their place of rest.”
Strange as it may seem, though born in New York and speaking at best an embarrassingly rudimentary Russian, I found myself quite at home in this anthology — at home in a world where loss was the starting point, death the never-forgotten conclusion, and love a desperately desired antidote or anodyne. Again I remember the expulsion, the rude thrusting of man and woman into a world of suffering and death, but also with the possibility of salvation: “They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow, / Through Eden took their solitary way.”
Along with their clear, familiar tones of joy and despair, these tales also include minor details that remind me of my Russian-American childhood in New York in the 1940s. For example, Georgy Ivanov, in his tale “Giselle,” describes a billiard player’s apartment back in St. Petersburg, where the “windows […] had not yet been sealed with extra putty against the coming cold.” And suddenly I remember, for the first time in almost 70 years, my fascination with the gray strips of putty that my grandfather, a survivor of Siberian prisons, always clean-shaven and redolent of Eau de Cologne 4711, meticulously pressed into the gaps between window and windowsill in our ordinary apartment in ordinary Rego Park, Queens, allowing me the pleasure of pushing my fingers against the softly receptive substance. This unprofessional aside leads me back to the collection, and the title of a lengthy Parisian tale by Yury Felsen, “The Recurrence of Things Past,” with its obvious Proustian echo. Like Proust’s masterpiece, this anthology is, in fact, a book of memory. And suddenly I remember that Yanovsky’s last published book was Elysian Fields: A Book of Memory (1983, translated by my mother, Isabella Levitin Yanovsky, in 1987), in which he recounts the Russian émigré experience in Paris between the wars, with firsthand sketches of many of the writers included in the present anthology. And then I notice that Bryan Karetnyk initiates this very anthology with a salient quote from Vladimir Nabokov, in response to the question: “What is your most memorable dream?” His answer is: “Russia.”
As I step back for a wider view, I see a kind of double nexus permeating this collection of stories, a nexus of the remembered, seemingly distant past in Russia (Moscow, St. Petersburg, Sebastopol) — a kind of ghost that cannot be escaped — jostling against the more recent past of eternal displacement in Berlin, Paris, Nice, or Montpellier. And this doubleness, I now realize, explains why Yanovsky gave the fictional protagonist of his best-known novel No Man’s Time (1967, translated by my mother and Roger Nyle Parris, and introduced by W. H. Auden) two names: Cornelius Yamb and Conrad Jamb. As the protagonist says of himself: “It is not at all clear who I really am. For instance, one person will say: I, and the other also says: I … Do these two feel something different or is it exactly the same?” A dilemma indeed — the dilemma of the exile.
It’s appropriate, then, to begin my survey of the themes and symbols that recur throughout this collection by looking at memory’s dream, incarnated as les neiges d’antan.
Ivan Shmelyov’s “Shadows of Days” is a lengthy, disjunctive nightmare of the past. But in the chaos of the narrator’s dreaming, religion and nature provide some solace: “I recall the lovely icons, my icons. They exist only in one’s childhood.” And then he encounters snow:
The night street shows blue. The snowdrifts are swept in mounds — you could drown in them. It has been snowing heavily all day. Great bales in snow-capped rows. It’s so quiet on our little street […] Atop the posts, atop the fences — little mounds of snow. Soft, powdery. Lanterns covered in snow shine drowsily; dogs dig up the snow with their snouts. Beyond the fence, among the birches, a crow croaks hoarsely, foretelling more snow.
For the American reader, this gentle, endless snow reminds us of Robert Frost’s ambiguous vision of stopping by woods on a snowy evening, where “the only other sound’s the sweep / of easy wind and downy flake” and where seduction is not easy to resist, for “the woods are lovely, dark, and deep.” In any case, as the dream flickers on, Shmelyov’s narrator is left with “joy, loss — all in a flash.” And when he awakes, it is in alien Paris, to the calls of a rag-and-bone man passing in the street.
In another nightmare vision, Nabokov’s “The Visit to the Museum,” the narrator leaves the titular building and finds himself, unexpectedly, in a snowy landscape:
The stone beneath my feet was real sidewalk, powdered with wonderfully fragrant, newly fallen snow, in which the infrequent pedestrians had already left fresh black tracks. At first the quiet and the snowy coolness of the night, somehow strikingly familiar, gave me a pleasant feeling after my feverish wanderings. Trustfully, I started to conjecture just where I had come out, and why the snow, and what were those lights exaggeratedly but indistinctly beaming here and there in the brown darkness.
Soon he realizes that the “strikingly familiar” snow-covered streets are those of Russia, which is now in Soviet hands. The story ends: “But enough. I shall not recount how I was arrested, nor tell of my subsequent ordeals. Suffice it to say that it cost me incredible patience and effort to get back abroad.”
A possible salvation from the long shadow of displacement is love. For example, in Nobel laureate Ivan Bunin’s “In Paris,” the narrator finds love in a Russian restaurant in the guise of Olga Alexandrovna, a waitress. We assume that solace has come to the uprooted protagonists in the form of a convenient alliance, and only at the end do we understand that the younger waitress had not only found support and comfort in the well-to-do older Russian gentleman, but had actually fallen in love with him. By that point the elderly gentleman is dead and the former waitress, turned rich by his death, is “convulsed by sobs, crying out, pleading with someone for mercy.” What touched me in this tale was the understated and simple drift from a casual pickup to a true love between two Russians, making their lonely way in the alien West.
Another story that turns with an unexpected rush toward love is Irina Odoevtseva’s “The Life of Madame Duclos,” in which, after a lifetime of compromises, the Russian protagonist, having bought comfort and success by marriage to an elderly Parisian, suddenly senses salvation in the offing with a younger Russian. This time, however, the heroine can only declare herself to her mirror:
“Hello,” she will say, in Russian. She can see her lips moving in the mirror, struggling to remember the long-forgotten Russian word.
She leans closer to the mirror.
And, so close now that she’s touching the cool glass, she whispers:
“I love you. I love you!”
Alas, the yearned-for lover, unaware of her feelings, has slipped aboard a ship returning him to Russia: “And then there is nothing. No ship, no happiness, no life.”
Finally, Irina Guadanini’s “The Tunnel” is a sad retelling of the author’s doomed love for Vladimir Nabokov, who was then already married to Véra. The intensity of her love is sustained through the 13 sections of the tale, but in the end the unfortunate woman, grown frantic, falls from her perch high above the Italian coast — where she was seeking distance and perspective, while also trying to spy on her lover — and tumbles downhill to the railroad tracks. There she lies, perhaps dead, perhaps only dying, but clearly reminiscent of Anna Karenina, her literary progenitor. The glory and obsession of love give way to despair. The exile does not find salvation.
Though gambling is a universal human pursuit, Russian literature has given it a particular focus. In his notes, Karetnyk traces the literary portrayal of this obsession to Alexander Pushkin’s story “The Queen of Spades” (1834) and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Gambler (1867), which was based on the author’s own experience with the deadly fascination of roulette. In fact, Dostoyevsky used proceeds from the novel to pay off large debts he had accumulated in the casino. In this collection, we encounter, in Georgy Adamovich’s “Ramón Ortiz,” an Argentine version of Dostoyevsky’s obsessed youth. With no restraint, no realistic self-appraisal, the young man, fond of being considered a baron, gambles his way from early success to utter destitution and resolves his situation by committing suicide. The narrator approves of this final act, seeing it as a proper response to the universe’s indifference toward the individual’s sufferings. Adamovich himself was the chief arbiter of the Paris Note, a Russian-Parisian literary movement that sought, in Karetnyk’s words, “to combine the despair of exile with the modern age of anxiety.” Certainly Ortiz’s suicide can be seen as indicative of both the despair of exile and the age of anxiety pressing on these displaced people. And I recall that shortly before Adamovich died, Yanovsky invited him to his home in New York to meet W. H. Auden, the man who coined the very phrase “Age of Anxiety.” It was a great satisfaction to Yanovsky to bring together the two intellectuals he admired most, one from his youthful years of exile in Paris, the other from his mature exile in the United States. Within one year of that meeting, both Adamovich and Auden were dead.
One of those who gambled over the bridge table with Yanovsky and Adamovich in Paris was Vladislav Khodasevich, whose story “Atlantis” depicts a circle of obsessed Russians immersed in games of bridge in a basement below the cafe Murat. (Interestingly, the lost land of Atlantis is also the setting for Yanovsky’s unpublished short story “The Adventures of Oscar Quinn.”) And in Dovid Knut’s “The Lady from Monte Carlo,” we again encounter an obsessed gambler, who can see the truth in others, if not himself: “these indifferent people [are] eternally — tragically — lost and disassociated from one another.” He is tempted by an older woman with a secret for winning (borrowed from Pushkin’s tale a century earlier), but in this version we have a seemingly happy ending: the ancient temptress resists her own urge to pass along her secret and insists that he leave her. Still, indifference reigns: “She kissed my forehead. The evening was cold, majestic, and indifferent.”
Entropy is, of course, our common foe — the one to whom, in the end, we must succumb. But for the exile, the onslaught of chaos can come early and in a heightened, phantasmagoric form. Here are snippets of chaos from Shmelyov’s “Shadows of Days”:
Night. Snow. I’m in the alleyways. […] Dead houses, closed gates. I’m lost, I don’t know where mine is. […] Dark, blind buildings. They’ve all gone. Now there’s just one road — […] I run in trepidation. The Champs-Élysées, my final road. […] The Elysian Fields! […] The end!
And “It’s them, they’ve come for me … I know it. […] The trees and the wind are whispering. Footsteps below the windows. I listen — a scratching at the window sill, they’re climbing up. […] I scream, I scream.”
In the anthology’s final text, Yanovsky’s “They Called Her Russia,” we encounter a vortex of entropy in a circular vision of hell: a trainful of soldiers going round and round through jumbled fields, never engaging “the enemy,” slowly spiraling through the repetitive brutality and madness of the Russian Civil War toward utter dissolution. In fact, it is never clear who the enemy is. Their own “engine-driver offered to find a way through to the Reds; the stoker tried to persuade them to join the partisans.” Eventually, “[t]hey decide to break through up ahead: if not Whites, then Reds — whomever they meet.” In this nightmare — where the commandant’s refrain is “Dream or real?” — the enemy they engage is themselves.
It seems appropriate to conclude with the most painful, touching image I found in this anthology, an image that occurred twice: a horse without a rider, striking out into the sea — one in Gallipoli, the other in the Crimea. Both horses are valiant, yet have nowhere to go, no function to fulfill; nothing awaits them but death in an alien sea. They are abandoned by history. The narrator of Ivan Lukash’s “A Scattering of Stars,” a poetic evocation of the retreat to Gallipoli, tells of his beloved horse and its shameful end:
I spot my Leda […] craning her neck towards the water, whinnying, nostrils flaring. […] I see her suddenly, with all four legs, leap into the water. She couldn’t bear the thirst. She went crashing down, placed her lips to the sea salt and began jerking her head about. She jerked her head, Leda did, but she was soon swept away by the current.
And in Galina Kuznetsova’s “Kunak,” the denouement is even more poignant: “Above the grey misty water, a horse’s head could be seen craning. It was swimming apparently without knowing where it was going, borne by the current out towards the middle of the bay.” A rowboat comes to the rescue, but in fact only offers the hopeful horse three sudden bullets in the head, and then “the current was freely, and with terrible speed, bearing it away. It disappeared again, then reappeared … until finally it vanished for ever in the quick-flowing water.” The onlookers “all gasped in horror and compassion.”
And there we stand, observers of an entire culture carried out to sea, but with nowhere to go. There is much grimness, much pain, much despair in this collection, but it is also struck through with deep emotion and a pulsing sense of life. We contemplate the struggle of the exiles with horror and compassion, for we know that, at some level, we all share their plight.
Alexis Levitin, a professor of English at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, translates works from Portugal, Brazil, and Ecuador. His 40 books of translation include Clarice Lispector’s Soulstorm and Eugénio de Andrade’s Forbidden Words, both from New Directions Publishing.