Tag Archives: Osip Mandelstam

Alexander Nemirovsky plaque, Voronezh

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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. 


Dmitry Sverbeev, Yekaterina Semyonova house, Moscow

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This house at 37/1 Arbat is a throwback to another age. It was built in the late 18th century – the oldest remaining building on the Arbat – and, after damage suffered in the fires associated with the Napoleonic War of 1812, it was reconstructed. What we see today is the result of work done in 1834. Quite a few people of note have lived in or visited this home. Today we’re interested primarily in Dmitry Sverbeev (1799-1874), who was born here,  and Yekaterina Semyonova (1786-1849) who lived here for a time from 1834 to 1835.
Sverbeev was a diplomat who loved literature and writers and befriended many of them. He described his own interest as such: “I sometimes love to read a bit and listen to intelligent conversations.” He knew Alexander Pushkin and appeared to be rather close to Nikolai Gogol, which is a little bit like a tiny planet orbiting two super-suns. Sverbeev spent a good deal of time with Gogol abroad and, when the writer found himself in financial difficulties, the friend generously gave him money to keep going on. (Sverbeev in general seems to have been a generous man, often helping out people who were not as well-situated as he. In a stroke that says much about him as a person, he never wrote about any of this in his memoirs.) Sverbeev was not as close to Pushkin as he was to Gogol, although the poet did attend Sverbeev’s salons in Moscow in the 1830s, and they crossed paths in various places for many years.
Interestingly, one story from Sverbeev’s memoirs, My Notes (written in retirement in Switzerland and never intended for publication), involves Pushkin and Semyonova, a famed actress who counted Pushkin among her admirers.
In 1820 when Pushkin was visiting the theatres in Moscow, he attended a performance of Semyonova and caused a bit of a ruckus. I’ll let the Prometheus website finish the tale: “Pushkin brought to the theatre a portrait of the French artisan Louvel, who had recently been executed for assassinating in Paris the Duc de Berry, an heir to the throne. The portrait bore a  sweeping inscription: “A Lesson to Tsars.” After the first act, the portrait was passed around the rows of the theatre. Incidentally, it is precisely Dmitry Sverbeev who tells us about this incident from the life of the poet.”
There is some slight confusion about the actual years Sverbeev spent at this house on the Arbat. At least I don’t find hard evidence of the date he left for good. The plaque on the building facade states he lived here from 1799 to 1825, but I haven’t been able to corroborate that. What I do find is that he was posted to the Russian embassy in Geneva in 1824. What exactly he did in the immediately preceding years, I do not know (he graduated from Moscow University in 1817). I’m guessing that the famous literary salons that he hosted were not begun until he left the Arbat, even though the Prometheus site claims he “organized a circle in his own home on the Arbat.” It is known that his most famous salon gatherings were held when he lived at 10 Strastnoi Boulevard and later at 25 Tverskoi Boulevard (I’ve written about this location previously as one of Osip Mandelstam’s addresses in the early 20th century.)

Semyonova is one of those shooting stars that history tosses up every now and then. She was an uneducated, apparently illiterate peasant who, thanks to her fiery temperament, became one of St. Petersburg’s and Moscow’s most popular actresses of her time. She particularly shone in the romantic dramas and tragedies of Vladislav Ozerov, himself a huge star playwright whose fantastic popularity died utterly within just years. He had the misfortune of being a pre-Pushkinian writer, and was soon wiped from the memory of his countrymen. (You will see Pushkin do a bit of the wiping himself in a long quote offered shortly below.) Nobody has performed Ozerov plays for decades, if not centuries. Be that as it may, four of Semyonova’s first six major roles were in plays by Ozerov (stress on the first syllable) – Oedipus in Athens (1804), Fingal (1805), Dmitry Donskoi (1807) and Polyxena (1809). She also shined in Yakov Knyazhnin’s Rosslav (1805) and several foreign plays: Friedrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart (1809), Corneille’s Ariana (1811) and Racine’s Iphigenie (1815). She debuted in 1802 and joined the company of the Alexandrinsky Theater in 1805.
As I have mentioned, Pushkin was a huge fan and in a long defense of Semyonova (whom some in St. Petersburg compared unfavorably to the popular French actress known as Mademoiselle Georges), he wrote:
Speaking of Russian tragedy you speak of Semyonova, and, perhaps, only about her. Gifted with talent, beauty and a lively, true temperament, she came into being all on her own. Semyonova never had a model. The soulless French actress Georges and the eternally enthusiastic poet [Nikolai] Gnedich could only hint at the secrets of art which she understood as a revelation of her soul. Her performances are always unencumbered, always clear, with noble, lively movement, her voice is clean, smooth, pleasant and often reveals gusts of true inspiration – all these belong to her alone and are not borrowed from anyone. She decorated the imperfect creations of the sad Ozerov, creating the roles of Antigone and Moine; She animated the pedestrian lines of Lobanov; In her mouth we appreciated the Slavonic verses of Katenin, full of strength and fire, but lacking in taste and harmony. In colorful anonymous translations which, unfortunately, today are much too ordinary, we heard nothing but Semyonova. The actress’s genius gave stage life to all these lamentable works translated by allied teams of poets, where each of them individually renounced his participation. Semyonova has no rival; The occasional gossip, brief battles and invented hearsay have ceased; She remains the unanimous queen of the tragic stage.”
Pushkin so admired Semyonova that he mentioned her in his great novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin. Celebrating his young years when he frequented the theatre, Pushkin in Chapter 1, stanza 28, wrote: “There Ozerov shared the involuntary tribute / of people’s tears and applause / with the young Semyonova.”
Depending upon the source, you can read all kinds of probable nonsense about Semyonova; what a hothead she was, how ignorant she was, how lazy she was, how covetous she was… You can always read things like that about popular, to say nothing of great, actors. I think Pushkin’s characterizations beat the hell out of all the snippers, snappers and snipers combined. I just have a feeling (say I with no small sarcasm).
In any case, Semyonova’s career took a downturn in the years 1815 to 1820 and from then on she performed less and with less success. She moved to Moscow in 1827 and the following year married Count Ivan Gagarin, the man who had been her lover and had given her several children. It wasn’t the happiest of arrangements, but it became worse after his death in 1832. At least as late as 1830, Pushkin is said to have attended her performance in an amateur production in Moscow, but it was a far cry from her glory days. By the time Semyonova lived briefly on the Arbat, her acting days were effectively behind her.


Vera Komissarzhevskaya presence, Voronezh

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I am stretching things here today but you’ll see why soon enough. Vera Komissarzhevskaya (1864-1910) has very little to do with Voronezh. The great actress of the late 19th-early 20th century was born and lived in St. Petersburg. She became a star on the stage of the Alexandrinsky Theater after she joined that company in 1896. She made history when she founded her own theater, the Dramatic Theater, in 1904. She famously invited Vsevolod Meyerhold to work with her in 1906 and, in the course of a single season, he staged  an insane number of productions there – thirteen. Although several of them went down in history and provided cachet for Komissarzhevskaya forever more, the two did not hit it off. After sending Meyerhold packing she invited the poet Valery Bryusov to collaborate with her, but that didn’t last long, either. In the spirit of the time, Komissarzhevskaya occasionally barnstormed around the country, playing  provincial venues, and that is how the Komissarzhevskaya-Voronezh connection arises.
She spent seven days in Voronezh, from May 16 to 22 in 1903, putting on six performances: Ignaty Potapenko’s The Magical Fairy Tale, Hermann Sudermann’s Homeland and Battle of the Butterflies, Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Savage Girl and Without a Dowry, and Alexei Suvorin’s The Question. She clearly made a serious impression on the city. Despite the fact that she only made one trip there, the city fathers saw fit to name one of the local central streets after her, as you can see in the photo at the top. I noted in a recent post about Mikhail Lermontov that Voronezh seems to have a thing about people passing through. And I say that as a great compliment. A city can be so busy with itself, and so ignorant of everything going on around it, that it hardly takes notice of its place in the world. Voronezh is not like that. It does take note of brief but noteworthy encounters, and it sees itself as a part of the greater whole of Russian culture. That impresses me.
The rest of the photos here are of the city’s main drama theater, now known in full by one of those horrid official monikers – The Voronezh State Academic Theater named after Alexei Koltsov. It’s an old theater that dates back to 1787 or 1802, depending upon your source.  The building you see in these photos has little in common with whatever existed then, just as it has little to do with what the theater looked like when Komissarzhevskaya performed here.  At that time it was called the City Winter Theater. In fact, the physical plant even has little to do with what the theater looked like in the mid-1930s when the exiled poet Osip Mandelstam (see yesterday’s post) worked here briefly as the theater’s literary manager.The arched windows and the basic box are still the same. Much of the roof line is gone, however, and the rather cliched columns in front have been added. The excellent downtown.ru site tells the story of the theater and provides some excellent old photos.
But here I must digress from Komissarzhevskaya for a moment to finish up a thought about Mandelstam. It is fascinating what the “institution” of exile in the Soviet period did for provincial theaters. Exiled great writers often found employment and some safety by taking jobs as literary managers or consultants at local theaters. It is a job that the playwright Nikolai Erdman held in Tomsk when he was in exile there from 1934-36. I have no idea what actual work Mandelstam did for the theater – if any – but my heart is warmed by the notion of theaters providing shelter to great artists.

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Komissarzhevskaya was one tough cookie. An absolutely fabulous letter that she wrote to a producer or manager Yevtikhy Karpov has come down to us, and it deserves to be aired in full in English. It concerns a series of performances that she plans to give in St. Petersburg in the near future. The Suvorin to whom she refers is Alexei Suvorin, a minor writer who ran his own theater in St. Petersburg and was a good friend and publisher of Anton Chekhov. My wife Oksana Mysina, an actress who has had plenty of memorable encounters with producers and managers, read this letter and howled with delight. “This should be included in the education of all young actresses!” she said. Here is the letter, translated from a site that publishes Komissarzhevskaya’s archive:

“It’s all wrong and you tell Suvorin that you mixed everything up because I am not to blame here. 
1) I will not perform before September 15.
2) I refuse to play less than four plays.
3) I will provide two plays myself and you give me two more. As for the money, I did not say That for Suvorin’s sake. For you I said the word ‘or’ because I Thought you yourself would decide what was best for me, and that you would say so.
In all good conscience I cannot ask for more than 300 rubles, but I do not have a single acquaintance who would fail to tell me that this is very little. Since I take 300 rubles in the provinces, 300 rubles would be too little from Suvorin, whose take is 2,400 rubles. I also have in mind that in Petersburg I have to perform 15 shows for them, which means I live there for two months. I had thought that, taking all that into account, you would do what is best and so I turned the affair over to you entirely.
I read your
Happiness again [a footnote tells us that this may refer to a play by Izabella Grinevskaya (thanks to a reader for that first name!) based on Polish writer Eliza Orzeszkowa’s novel The Foundling], and it’s no good. Boring. I’ll send you Fairy Tale. And then, what does your phrase ‘if there is a good box office take’ mean? If I’m receiving a percent, then I depend on the take, but if I am receiving a set sum, I couldn’t care less what the take is – I get my sum. I bring this all out in the open because you have 75 managers there and my conditions must be clear: Please pass this all on to Suvorin. If he doesn’t want to, that’s his business. And I already see how poorly you think of me. I finish up here [Voronezh] tomorrow. We made 800 rubles on the turn here. [“On the turn” is a phrase I don’t know how to translate. It’s a phrase that had to do with the way money was paid out for benefit performances in the old Russian system of touring actors and shows.] The first city was terrible, too much – six shows. We now head for Saratov – all sold out, all six shows. I rented the Hermitage [probably meaning Moscow] on the 2nd and 3rd. For the Holy Week I’ll be with Masha in Znamenka. Easter week I’ll be in Samara and then three shows in Orenburg, four in Simbirsk and beyond that I don’t know the dates, but Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod remain. Write me about Chernyshov, are you taking him on? Well, goodbye. Your letter, in essence was horrible! Christ be with you.”

Following are some excerpts from reviews of the Voronezh tour, drawn from the Gallery of Chizhov website:

“There was something special, something inexpressibly pleasant and touching in the actress’s performance. From her very first entrance her tender figure and her tense, subtle face with sad eyes grabbed the attention of the spectators. This was not just attention paid to an exceptional actor, but rather more like attention one would pay to a near and dear person. […] With every gesture, every intonation, one thinks everything must be precisely like this and not otherwise. […] The ticket prices were very high, but the theater was filled.” – Voronezh Telegraph, review of The Magical Fairy Tale.

“Anyone who saw the previous performance would have been amazed by the change in everything about the actress. What happened to the pale, oval face, the sad eyes, the nervous grace of the body? Her face now smiles entirely, her manners are loose and wildly graceful as she purses her lips or jerks her shoulders. The audience enjoyed every minute.” – From a review of The Savage Girl.

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