Monday, November 25, 2019
Columbia University's Russian Library continues to deliver first-rate translations of important but neglected Russian classics. In this case, Sarah Vitali has translated Vladislav Khodasevich's collection of biographical sketches of Silver Age giants. Khodasevich's insightful essays remind me of the equally insightful essays that make up Marina Tsvtaeva's Earthly Signs. In both cases, the poet seems to produce something better than ordinary prose. In both cases, the poet seems to be able to analyze both people from multiple perspectives. While not a student of poetry, my experience with Tsvataeva and Khodasevich's prose suggests that great poetry must usually involve both prodigious amount of logic and the ability to view a single person or phenomenon from a multiplicity of perspectives. In any case, Necropolis and Earthly Signs go well together. Necropolis focuses on the life of writers and poets before World War I, it necessarily describes their experiences in World War I and their deaths between the wars. By contrast, Earthly Signs focuses on the the experience of writers and poets in War, Revolution, Civil War, and War Communism. Khodasevich's menagerie of writers includes Bryusov, Bely, Muni, Gumilyov, Blok, Gershenzon, Sologub, Esenin, and Gorky. Each essay is better than the next. Khodasevich is usually sympathetic, but sometimes caustic, and often satirical. And the best part of Necropolis is that the whole is better than the sum of its parts. That is to say, we conclude the book with a much deeper appreciation for the Silver Age, with all its triumphs and absurdities. We come to understand that these poets, writers, and aesthetes were extremely talented, but that their approach to art had some serious limitations. Indeed, Khodasevich argues that in the absence of a moral or intellectual sensibility, the search for experience wasn't quite enough to drive art far enough in any particular direction to make a lasting impact on the future of Russian or European art.