Tag Archives: Zinaida Gippius

1st Vladimir Nabokov flat, London

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This home at 55 Stanhope Gardens in South Kensington, London, is where Vladimir Nabokov came to rest for a short time after the long journey of emigration from Russia by way of Crimea, Turkey, Greece and France. The Nabokov family arrived in England May 27, 1919, pulling into the port of Southampton on a ship that had departed from Le Havre. Nabokov (1899-1977)  had just turned 20. Vladimir’s father Vladimir rented the home for the whole family at Stanhope Gardens in early June, although it would appear they didn’t stay long. A fabulous webpage called Nabokov’s Whereabouts, put together by the German writer and scholar Dieter E. Zimmer, indicates that, soon enough, they moved to a place nearby at 6 Elm Park Gardens. I spent some time looking for that building, but could not find it. I don’t know if the reason was my ignorance or the fact that things have changed in 85 years. The Stanhope address, however, like several other locations around London, is still there to be tracked down, perused and photographed.
Nabokov, at this time, was already an aspiring author. He had published two volumes of poetry in Russia, Poems (1916) and Miscellany: Two Paths (1918), a collection of twelve verses by Nabokov and eight by Andrei Balashov, a young man who subsequently disappeared from the historical record. By the tradition of alphabetizing, Balashov’s name stands first on the book cover and his poems are printed up front. Some of the titles of Balashov’s poems are: “Verses about Russia,” “Two Lives,” “The Death of a Man” and “Have you Really Known Parting?” I’m not trying to read too much into titles (I have never seen a copy of the book, so I have not read the poems), but there is no denying that Nabokov’s titles, at least, differ from those of his colleague. Some of the Nabokov titles are: “Dark Blue Wallpaper,” “Rain Flew Past and Burned Up in Flight,” “Admiring Mutinous Clouds,” “Birch Trees Do Battle with Rain and Wind” and “I Absolve the Wise and the Evil of Nothing.” You can see a scan of the book’s cover at this Russian website.
The eminent American scholar Simon Karlinsky (whom I had the distinct pleasure of escorting around Moscow one day in 1989 – we talked mostly about Nikolai Gogol), brings to our attention a passage in Nabokov’s autobiography Other Shores, that reflects at least one poet’s response to these early poems. Zinaida Gippius, symbolist, mystic, poet, playwright and memoirist, reportedly told Nabokov’s father shortly after the publication of Poems, “Please tell your son that he will never be a writer.” (See Karlinsky’s “Nabokov and Some Poets of Modernism.”)

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That aside, Miscellany: Two Paths is of interest for several reasons. One, it is the only book in which Nabokov shared authorship (although none of the poems are co-written). Two, it was published in Petrograd by M.S. Person (whose typography office was located at 35 Kazanskaya Street) several months after Nabokov and his family had already left the city to escape the Revolution. Three, there is the case of Balashov, about whom we know virtually nothing. The total mystery of this man, who shared a flash of poet’s glory with a friend or colleague in his teenage years, then disappeared utterly, is quite Nabokovian in itself.
Balashov and Nabokov were classmates at the Tenishev School. There is some basic information extant about Balashov’s parents and siblings, but after his graduation from Tenishev and the publication of his eight poems, there is virtually nothing of importance we can say about him. Russian Wikipedia writes that he stayed in the Soviet Union, although one wonders if any real facts exist to back that claim.
I spend some time on Balashov because Miscellany: Two Paths would still have been of some importance for Nabokov at the time he arrived at Stanhope. It was published less than a year before, and it would be the last of Nabokov’s major publications until 1926 when his first novel, Mashenka, appeared in Germany under the pseudonym of Vladimir Sirin. Standing between the publication dates of Miscellany: Two Paths and Mashenka were two translations, Russian versions of Romain Rolland’s Colas Breugnon (1922) and of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1923). This translation of Alice, incidentally, is still cherished in Russia.
Nabokov’s first stay in London was short. Whatever the amount of time he spent at Stanhope and/or Elm Park Gardens, by October 1 he was already enrolled in Trinity College, Cambridge.

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Ivan Bunin monument, Voronezh

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I got into the mood for this little excursion today by re-reading a Facebook post that many of my friends posted in recent days. You see, I will unleash a bit of bile myself before this is all over, so we might as well make this whole thing a journey down a ragged road. Actually, I’ll start with my own grievances. They have to do with this monument unveiled by Moscow sculptor Alexander Burganov in 1995 on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of Ivan Bunin’s birth in Voronezh. (For that event this little park located at the meeting of Plekhanovskaya and Ordzhonikidze streets, right in front of the local Oblast court, was renamed Bunin Square.)
Burganov is an ubiquitous sculptor in Moscow. It would appear that he is a good friend of that blight on Moscow culture Zurab Tsereteli, because, after Tsereteli himself, no one seems to get as many commissions to slap up monuments as Burganov. The latter’s work – like so many “official” Russian “public” artists, including Tsereteli and the abominable Soviet-era painter Ilya Glazunov – is simplistic and cartoony. Look at Bunin’s face here; you can’t see a feature anywhere that is not generic. There are the requisite attributes – a beard, cheekbones, ears, a nose, a mustache – but they look like they come from that kids’ game we used to play, remember? the one with the plastic parts of a body and a face that you slapped together on a slick surface to create different images of a human being? Look at the mustache and beard in the second photo below – they’re stuck on there like plastic strips. You almost suspect that if Burganov were to have received a more lucrative assignment while he was working on this one, he could have just used the basic carcass and slapped different features on it in order to have a quick turn-around time.
The dog, we’re told by Russian Wikipedia, symbolizes isolation and the fading of the noble class in Russia… What the hell? I’ll tell you what I think the dog is doing here: Burganov finished the sculpture (or, at least, the drawing and model) with just Bunin sitting there, and he realized, Holy Moses! this is boring! Just at that moment, Burganov’s dog ran up and licked his hand, or he heard a dog bark in the distance – and, voila! the monument was saved. Sort of. It’s like when a theater director doesn’t know how to end a scene and so he just turns the volume of the music up really loud. The dog is like bling. It sprinkles sparkly dust in your eyes so you don’t think too much about how vapid Bunin looks. You can just hear people coming up to the monument:
MAN: Aw! Isn’t he cute?
WOMAN: Coochie-coochie-coo!
MAN: Look at him stretching! Here, let me give him a rub on his butt!
WOMAN: Who is this guy here?
MAN: I dunno. Who cares?
Okay, so I made up the details, but not the essence. This monument succeeds in being pompous and bland all at the same time. That, of course, is an accomplishment, although not one you look for in your public art.
But, enough of that. Let me return to Bunin.

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I don’t know the original source, but the poet Andrei Permyakov posted an informational chart about Ivan Bunin on Facebook on Oct. 23 that really made the rounds. As of midday Oct. 28, it had been “liked” nearly 1700 times and had been “shared” nearly 200 times. (For the record, I include a screen shot of it after the last photo below.) This chart shows 16 nasty comments that Bunin, the 1933 Nobel Prize winner in the field of literature, made about illustrious colleagues.
Isaac Babel was “one of the most despicable heretics.”
Alexander Blok was “an unbearably poetic poet” who “hoodwinks the public with gibberish.”
Vladimir Nabokov was “a charlatan and a phrasemonger (often merely tongue-tied).”
Mikhail Kuzmin was “a pederast with a half-naked forehead and a funereal face painted up like a prostitute’s corpse.”
Mikhail Voloshin was “a fat, curly-haired aesthete.”
Of those Bunin rakes over the coals, the great experimental poet Velemir Khlebnikov seems to have come off relatively well amidst the insults: He was “a rather gloomy youth, silent, perhaps hungover but at least not pretending to be hungover.”
On Andrei Bely: “There’s nothing left to say about his simian furies.”
He wasted few words on Leonid Andreev (“drunken tragedian”) and Maxim Gorky (“monstrous hack”).
Of the 16 targets, only two are women. I don’t know if that means Bunin was more appreciative of women writers or less. In any case:
Marina Tsvetaeva is singled out for her “unending, lifelong flow of wild words and sounds in her poetry.”
Zinaida Gippius was merely “an uncommonly repulsive harpy.”
And to think that a man so bursting in personality, passion and opinion should be condemned to sit forever in front of a court building in his birth town with a blank, empty expression on his face, upstaged by a dog.
God works in wondrous ways.

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Bunin Chart