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Chances are my introduction to Alexander Nemirovsky will be yours as well: Scholar, PhD, Professor, founder of Etruscan studies in the Soviet Union, founder of the Department of Antiquities at Voronezh University, author of 70 books of prose, monographs, historical novels, novellas, children’s books, poetry, popular science and textbooks.
Enough for you? Enough for a life?
Alexander Nemirovsky (1919-2007) was a remarkable man who lived a remarkable life, to put it lightly. He managed to mix being one of the most important scholars of his time in his field with writing several best-selling historical novels, translating some of the great European poets and leaving behind an impressive collection of original poetry as well. He had a sense of humor about his voracious appetite for work and writing:
Between scholarly bruises and the muses
I wasted the heat of my soul.
I raced around between pockets
Like a cueball smacked by a cue…
Nemirovsky introduced the Soviet Union to Rainier Maria Rilke when he published the first Russian translations of the great German poet in the Voronezh magazine Ascent in 1958. But that is barely the start of the writer’s work as a translator. From the German he translated Rilke, Herman Hesse, Hugo Huppert and Johannes Becher. His translations of writers from antiquity included Virgil, Catullus, Ovid, Martialis, Horatio, the Gilgamesh epic, “Song of Songs” from the Bible and more. He translated Giogos Seferis from the Greek, and he spearheaded the rediscovery of the forgotten, “repressed” poet Boris Zubakin, as well as being one of the first scholars to publish “lost” poetry by Osip Mandelstam in 1966.
The Mandelstam connection is interesting, and not only because the poet German Getsevich called him a “poet of a Mandelstamian nature.” He also wrote poetry dedicated to Mandelstam, who coincidentally or not, had, during one of his periods of exile in the 1930s, lived directly across the street from the apartment building Nemirovsky would call home between 1957 and 1978. Mandelstam lived at 13 Friedrich Engels Street (see my piece about that location elsewhere in this blog); Nemirovsky at 14 Friedrich Engels Street.
In a fine internet essay about Nemirovsky (from which I have culled many facts), Getsevich wrote:
“Alexander Iosifovich Nemirovsky wrote not only with words but with feelings, and he translated not just the words, but the meanings of many foreign languages. Poetry lovers responded well to his collections, Scroll, Memory of War, Immersion, The Year of Verse and others. The last collection that the author was able to prepare was First Snow. … I personally see a book collecting his poetry and his translations in a format no less than the Literary Monuments series, accompanied by good scholarly apparatus.”
I am particularly enamored of one quatrain Getsevich quotes:
Life never showed us any comfort,
For that we were too lofty.
It just whacked our heads with pleasure
On massive door beams hanging low.
I can’t help but notice that in the two small, virtually random, quatrains that I chose to quote, we encounter the notion of getting smacked around. Is this incidental? Is this a theme of Nemirovsky’s work? Or is it mine? I’m too much a novice to know.
Nemirovsky’s historical novels (primarily written for teenage readers) included The Elephants of Hannibal (1963, reworked 1992), Purple and Hell (1973), Behind the Columns of Melqart (1959), Pythagorus (1998), I am a Legionnaire (1968), Tiberius Gracchus (1963), The White Deer (1964), The White, the Blue and Nix the Dog (1966), The Etruscan Mirror (1969), Ariadne’s Thread (1972), In the Circle of Lands (1995), and Carthage Must Fall (2010?). (Dates are curiously hard to come by for his novels – I offer with a grain of salt the dates I pulled together from various sources.) Wikipedia states there are approximately six million copies of his historical novels in print. However, it’s possible that this number is low by now, for, if you look for his work on the net, you’ll find his books everywhere, virtually all of them appearing in new editions over the last few years – many in 2017.
As hinted above, Nemirovsky hardly limited his work to the field of antiquity. He also wrote essays of one kind or another on Alexander Griboedov, Nikolai Gumilyov, Marina Tsvetaeva, Georgy Ivanov, Valentin Kataev, Mikhail Bulgakov and Boris Pasternak. He was truly a man deeply bitten by the bug of curiosity.
Nemirovsky was born in Tiraspol, Moldavia. Shortly afterwards his family fled from advancing Ukrainian Jewish pogroms, slipping into what was then called Bessarabia (Romania). When he was seven years old, the family crossed the Dniestr River illegally and made their way back into the Soviet Union, ending up in Moscow where they remained. In the Soviet Union’s crucible year of 1937 – the commencement of the Great Purges – Nemirovsky began attending Moscow University in the history department. Both his parents were arrested that same year but, by some trick of luck I cannot explain he was not only able to continue his studies at the university, he was able to enroll in the Literary Institute in 1938. This was unheard-of for a child of “enemies of the people” and a Jew to boot. I would love to learn some day how it all came about. For now we skip ahead to 1941 and the beginning of World War II. Nemirovsky volunteered to go to the front and he spent the entire war in various hot spots. After the war he completed graduate degrees in history at Moscow University and began his teaching career in Penza. He moved to Voronezh in 1957 when he was hired to teach at Voronezh University. He founded the Department of Antiquities in 1966 and remained in Voronezh until he quit teaching and moved to Moscow to write in 1977 (or 1978 according to the plaque). In his remaining 30 years in Moscow Nemirovsky published over 300 works – do the math on that, folks! His writings were translated into English, Bulgarian, Lithuanian, Moldovan, German, Serbian and Ukrainian. He published 11 collections of poetry in his lifetime; that number has grown by several volumes since.