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His Life and Art
By David M. Bethea
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1983 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
— Wallace Stevens, "The Idea of Order at Key West"
In a hundred years or so some young scholar, or poet, or maybe just a snob, some long-nosed chatterbox ... will turn up a book of my verse and create (for a month or two) a literary fad of Khodasevich. — from Khodasevich's notebook
Other than what is given in "Mladenchestvo" (Infancy), Khodasevich's short autobiographical fragment, and in retrospective asides that dot his later memoirs and critical prose, we know relatively little about the early life of the poet. To proceed with the modest inventory of these beginnings is to proceed as well with the following assumption: Khodasevich saw the past somewhat differently than did many contemporaries; his relation to personal history was neither so "lyrical" as that of Irina Odoevtseva, nor so "metaphysical" as that of Fyodor Stepun, nor so resiliency forward-looking as that of Nina Berberova, nor so capriciously revisionist as that of Andrey Bely. Nor were his memories from childhood on like Nabokov's, suspended in a sort of amniotic fluid, "a radiant and mobile medium that was none other than the pure element of time." Khodasevich might have remarked instead, not unlike Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake"; and thus he never had the internal equilibrium, never was "awake" from personal history long enough to write a volume about himself. Unfortunately, all we have is the first installment; but if a little under twenty pages of economical prose, wrought from what seems a prehensile memory by the blade of self-analysis, is any indication of promise, then such a volume would have been remarkable indeed.
Vladislav Felitsianovich Khodasevich was born in Moscow on 28 May 1886 (16 May, old style) into a family of modest means whose ties with Russia were more geographical than genealogical. His father, Felitsian Ivanovich (1834?-1911), was the son of a disenfranchised Polish nobleman who had fled with his family into Russia (from his native Lithuania) during the Polish rebellion of 1833. What we can say further about Felitsian Ivanovich is quite sketchy, his son giving us little in his autobiographical prose to flesh out the paternal portrait. He decided as a young man on a career in painting and studied under the famous F. A. Bruni at the Imperial Academy in St. Petersburg; he had at one point painted frescoes in the churches of Vilnius. But then with time he abandoned this first love, either because he doubted his talent or his ability to support a family (he had married Vladislav's mother while still a fledgling painter). At the time of Vladislav's birth, he was Moscow's first Kodak dealer, the proprietor of a photographic supply shop centrally located on Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street. Felitsian Ivanovich, then, seems to hover somewhere slightly beyond the threshold of impressions that Khodasevich recalls in his autobiographical fragment: perhaps he was too old (he was going on fifty-two when Vladislav was bom); more likely he was simply too busy making ends meet to be a chief attraction in the fanciful world of his youngest child. Still, as Khodasevich suggests elsewhere, his father appears to have been quiet and kindly, happy during the evening to play an occasional game of sorokavorovka (something like "This Little Piggy") with his son. It would be wrong, I think, to interpret Khodasevich's relative silence as resentment of his father's absence, while much closer to the truth to take it at face value: as the lack of strong influence, either positive or negative. Generally speaking, a father's domestic role during this late Victorian period was not nearly so intimate as it is today. Like Blok, Khodasevich would be growing up mainly in the presence of women, or as he puts it, in a "gynaeceum." What in fact the poet finally does have to say about his father, the artist manqué, comes not in prose but in the sub specie aeternitatis of poetry, as Blok used to call the artistic transformations of his affair with Volokhova: over forty years later Khodasevich would, with some fine dactylic strokes, provide the image of an artist-become-father whose gift to his sonbecomeartist was, ironically, the will and talent he did not have. The sixth child of a six-fingered father, Khodasevich would find a use for the extra little finger that, like the unfulfilled aspirations of a young painter, his father had kept hidden in his left hand:
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My father was six-fingered. And his son? Neither a
nor a family of many children, nor a six-fingered hand
did he inherit. As does a gambler on a risky card,
so does he on a word, on a sound, bet his soul and
Now, this January night, a little in his cups, with a six-fingered
and a six-fingered strophe the son remembers the
Vladislav's mother, Sophia Yakovlevna (née Brafman) (1844?-1911), assumes a greater, though by no means dominant, presence in the writings of her son. Her father was Ya. A. Brafman (c. 1825-1879), the Jewish author of the notorious Book of the Kahal (1869) and Jewish Communes: Local and International (1888). The Book of the Kahal, which discusses the oppression in southwest Russia of poor Jews by rich Jews, was interpreted as a justification for pogroms. As his daughter after him, Ya. A. Brafman was converted from Judaism to Christianity — first Protestantism, then Catholicism — and under Alexandr II became something rare for his time, a nobleman of Jewish origin. The maternal grandparents of the poet must have separated at an early date, since Sophia Yakovlevna was soon left an "orphan," having "lost" her mother; through her father's connections, she was taken in by the Radziwills, one of the most prominent families in Polish Lithuania. The orphaning of the girl was real if not literal: her mother, whose name is found nowhere, apparently did not die, but according to family legend, ran off with another man and thereafter became a black sheep. She later returned to her daughter's household, however, and was to be one of the fixtures in the distaff world surrounding young Vladislav.
It was in the aristocratic Radziwill household that the Jewish girl Sophia seems to have found not only material shelter but cultural and spiritual largesse as well, for when she and her new husband, Felitsian Ivanovich, left Vilnius for St. Petersburg and his renewed course of study at the Imperial Academy, she had been converted to Roman Catholicism and had conceived a lasting passion for Polish literature. In an article about Mickiewicz that her son wrote much later the completely ingenuous nature of Sophia Yakovlevna's feeling for her acquired, yet nonetheless real, homeland is poignantly evident:
Several impressions, which even now I recall very clearly, relate to the earliest period of my life, to the time when I had not yet begun to go to kindergarten, after which there set in my irrevocable russification.
During the mornings, after tea, my mother would take me into her room. A picture of the Ostrobram Holy Virgin hung there in a golden frame over the bed. A little rug lay on the floor. I would kneel and read first "Our Father," then "Hail Mary," then the "Credo." After that mama would tell me about Poland and sometimes read me poetry. The poetry would be from the beginning of Pan Tadeusz. I learned what sort of work that was only much later, and only then understood that her reading went no further than the seventy-second verse of the first book. Every time the hero (as yet unnamed), after having just climbed out of the carriage, ran alongside of the house, caught sight of the familiar furniture and chiming clock, and with childish joy
Once again tugged the cord that let forth the familiar surge of an old mazurka by Dabrowski, mother would begin to cry and let me go.
Here in the child's view the traditions of Roman Catholicism and Polish national identity are magically woven into the poem's "acoustic fabric" (zvukovaia tkan'), the result being a sort of nostalgic tinnitus, what thereafter would be a benignly recurring autosuggestion of who he was and where he had come from:
I knew these verses almost by heart, not understanding much in them, and not trying to. I knew that they were written by Mickiewicz, a poet in the same way that Pushkin, Lermontov, Maykov, and Fet were poets. But to understand Pushkin, Lermontov, Maykov, and Fet was both necessary and possible, but Mickiewicz was something else altogether: his was not just poetry, it was something inextricably bound to prayer and to Poland, that is, to the church, to that Catholic church [kostel] on Milyutinsky Lane where mama took us on Sundays. I never saw Mickiewicz or Poland, for they were as impossible to see as God, but they were there in the same place as God: behind the low railing covered in red velvet, in the organ's thunder, in the smoke of the incense and in the golden radiance of the slanting rays of the sun, falling sideways out of somewhere onto the altar. For me the altar was the threshold or even the beginning of "that other world" where I was before I was in this one and where I will be when I am in this one no longer.
God — Poland — Mickiewicz: invisible and incomprehensible, but my own [rodnoe]. And — inseparable from one another.
So without getting too far ahead of ourselves, we can see in these passages, the details of which are as emotionally shaped as any in Khodasevich's autobiographical prose, the character of the maternal legacy. On the other hand, the fact that the poet was by blood half-Jewish seems to have had little significance for his childhood development. Only much later, perhaps through his close friendship during the Symbolist years with the Jewish poet Muni (Samuil Viktorovich Kissin) (who wrote in Russian), and certainly through his editing and translating of the texts of the great modern Hebrew poets (including Bialik and Tschernichowski), did the fact of his Jewish heritage begin to take on an added weight. Strangely enough, it was Khodasevich's Jewish mother who so religiously emphasized the Polish legacy that by blood issued from Felitsian Ivanovich. And stranger still, like one of those infinite vagaries that pattern our lives if only there is an ironist there to see them, it would be another Jewish member of Khodasevich's family, this time the wife and ministering angel of his final years in emigration, Olga Borisovna Margolina-Khodasevich, who converted not to Roman Catholicism but to Russian Orthodoxy shortly before disappearing into a Nazi heart of darkness.
Khodasevich's "irrevocable russification," which he dates from his entrance into kindergarten and, presumably, into a world full of Russian youngsters, might have begun even earlier with the appearance of a third very important adult influence on his childhood life. Like many children of foreign-born parents committed to preserving native traditions in an alien environment, the young Vladislav grew to chafe at his mother's reminders that other Polish children living in Moscow still managed to speak their language and go to church regularly. WacIaw Lednicki, the Polish scholar, who met Khodasevich only many years later as a result of a mutual love of Pushkin, was apparently just such a model child, and without even knowing him, Vladislav came to hate him like the taste of bad medicine. But alongside Mickiewicz, Roman Catholicism, and maternal coaxing there was a Russian presence from the very beginning: as Khodasevich tells us in verses whose odic splendor recalls Derzhavin, the child "sucked the agonizing right ... to love and curse" Russia with the milk of his nurse, Elena Alexandrovna Kuzina (by marriage, Stepanova). More than to his mother or father, it was to this simple peasant woman, born in a village of the Tula Province, that Khodasevich traced his adopted birthright as a Russian poet. There was no need to embellish the fact of her importance. When as a newborn infant Khodasevich appeared too weak to suckle and all other wet nurses refused the task, Elena Alexandrovna managed the impossible. And in suckling the little Vladya, she not only saved his life, she gave up the life of her unweaned son, Vladya's coeval: to have milk enough for one, she had to give the other to a foundling hospital, where he was bound to die, and did shortly thereafter. The debt that the future poet owed his nurse, therefore, was incalculable, and it is not curious that her example, which reads like fiction become life, should provide an important clue to the portrait of an artist in statu nascendi.
Yet the Russian legacy goes deeper, I think, than these perhaps too easily romanticized facts. It is not enough (though much, to be sure) that Elena Alexandrovna was Russian and the baby owed his life to her, since this does not account for her connection with the chudotvornyi genii (wonderworking genius) of the Russian language, as Khodasevich calls it in the same poem. Unlike another famous nurse, she did not, as the poet tells us, ply her young listener with the language-rich marvels of Russian fairy tales. The answer lies in what Elena Alexandrovna came to represent, what Khodasevich made her, in his poetry. Of the three parental figures, she alone occupies a central position in the Collected Verse. In a sense that returns to this heavily patinated metaphor some of its original vitality, Elena Alexandrovna was Khodasevich's Muse; it is her image that will be tightly linked with that of the poet's dusha, his Psyche and Beautiful Lady; it is for this reason that the poem invoking the old nurse comes very close to the beginning of Tiazhelaia lira (The Heavy Lyre), Khodasevich's finest, most "musical" collection. Like Pushkin before him, whose Muse undergoes gradual mythopoesis from old nurse, Arina Rodionovna, to winsome young goddess, Khodasevich will trace his "psychic" milk to the real breasts of Elena Alexandrovna.
F. I. Khodasevich and his bride had arrived in St. Petersburg in the early 1860s. It was not long thereafter that Felitsian Ivanovich changed his profession and the family moved to the ancient city of Tula, eighty miles south of Moscow. Tolstoy had been born on Yasnaya Polyana, his family estate nearby Tula, and one anecdote has Khodasevich's father photographing the great author. Although Vladislav, born some twenty years later, does not appear at first to have been much interested in his father's (for that time) innovative profession, it is curious that the central image in Sorrentinskie fotografii (Sorrento Photographs), perhaps Khodasevich's greatest work, is a double-exposed snapshot. Why Khodasevich, in many ways a traditionalist, would use what Susan Sontag calls an "optical-chemical process" to develop the image of Russian culture in eclipse might be explained by a conviction that the photograph is an ersatz art form, catching by chance what a painting would catch by design — Felitsian Ivanovich had traded genuine art for photography, a mechanical substitute.
In Tula the Khodasevich family began to grow. After the first child, a son, died within a few months of birth, there followed over the next eleven years (1864-1875) Mikhail, Maria, Viktor, Konstantin, and Evgenia. Except for Evgenia (Zhenya), we know almost nothing about the others as children, for by the time the family had moved to Moscow (sometime after Evgenia's birth in 1875) and Vladislav was born and had his first childhood impressions, the older children had already begun to leave the household: Mikhail to become a lawyer, Maria to get married, Viktor to work in his father's store, and Konstantin to enter medical school. From little Vladya's point of view they appear as adults who drop in to visit.
Excerpted from Khodasevich by David M. Bethea. Copyright © 1983 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
- FrontMatter, pg. i
- Contents, pg. ix
- List of Illustrations, pg. xi
- Preface, pg. xiii
- A Note on the Transliteration, pg. xxiii
- Abbreviations, pg. xxiv
- 1. Origins: 1886-1896, pg. 1
- 2. Youth and Youth: 1896-1908, pg. 28
- 3. Finding a Home: 1908-1914, pg. 68
- 4. The Wise Sower: 1914-1920, pg. 103
- 5. The Lyre Gets Heavy: 1920-1922, pg. 186
- 6. Seeds of Wrath and Impotence: 1922-1927, pg. 251
- 7. Nightwatch: 1927-1939, pg. 317
- Selected Bibliography, pg. 353
- Index, pg. 369