July 01, 2019

Khodasevich and Vodolazkin

Khodasevich and Vodolazkin

The Russian poet Vladislav Khodasevich’s collection of short memoirs of his author-friends of a hundred years ago is completely captivating. Straight off, he neatly recounts the literary history of the Symbolist movement: “All that was required of each person entering the order (and Symbolism was, in a certain sense, an order) was a ceaseless burning, a ceaseless flow of activity – it made no difference what the burning and activity were for.” He offers sharp characterizations of the men and women (“Muni wasn’t lazy, but he didn’t know how to work.” He makes astute commentary on their writings and occasionally theirs on his: “I went to him [Muni] with all of my new poetry… In the best cases, having read them, he would declare that ‘they weren’t all that bad.’ But, far more often, he would pull a bored, weary face and moan: ‘Lord, what drivel!’ Or, ‘What have I ever done to you? Why should you read me something like that?’” 

These portraits he wrote from 1924 to 1938 of the self-tortured and Soviet-tortured writers feel fresh and are somehow ever-entertaining. Besides Bely and Blok and a half-dozen others, there is Khodasevich’s particularly illuminating account of his friend and colleague Maxim Gorky: “I have seen quite a few writers take pride in the fact that Gorky cried while listening to their works. This was really nothing to be proud of: I can’t recall a work that didn’t make him cry – complete and utter trash being the sole exception... Gorky was not ashamed to cry over his own works, either: the second half of every short story he ever read to me was invariably inundated with weeping, sobbing, and the wiping of fogged-up glasses.”

Khodasevich (1886-1939) scarcely mentions his own life and successful career as a poet, except as they intersect with the lives of his 10 primary subjects. Among the amusing though unusually suicidal cast of characters, he knows the gossip and puts himself forward to separate the truths from falsehoods and to testify, always in particular detail, his eye-witnessed experiences or the testimony he says he received on good account.

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