The brilliant and intriguing poet and essayist Vladislav Felitsianovich Khodasevich (1886-1939) shared the general fate of many Russian émigré writers, who tended to slip through the cracks between their homeland, with readers living under an oppressive regime, and the West, which offered freedom but no audience. (It was this dilemma that, in part, prompted Vladimir Nabokov to become an English-language novelist.) Khodasevich’s long eclipse, however, appears to be ending—a fact attested by a forthcoming collection, edited by Robert Hughes and John Malmstad, that will include such books of verse as Molodost’ (1908; Youth), Schastlivyi domik (1914; The Happy Little House), Putem zerna (1920; Grain’s Way), Tiazhelaia lira (1922; The Heavy Lyre), and Evropeiskaia noch’ (1927; European Night). There is a general consensus that Khodasevich’s work has long been undervalued, and efforts have been made to assign to him his rightful place among modern Russian poets.
David Bethea’s study of Khodasevich is a pioneering attempt to ascertain the relationship of the poet to his contemporaries during a period of rapid artistic development in Russia, noting those events that had an impact on his verse and thought, and finally arriving at an appreciation of his work in the context of overwhelming political and social changes. Bethea has worked intensively on Khodasevich, having published portions of the present book as separate essays, and he has edited Khodasevich’s letters to his third wife, the writer Nina Berberova. The latter had in fact read the manuscript of Khodasevich, and her intimate acquaintance with Khodasevich and with the émigré community during the 1920’s has been a valuable asset to this study. In Khodasevich, Bethea writes on Khodasevich’s life and art, but his study is not divided into the conventional two-part work with a biography in the first part and a literary analysis in the second. He instead uses a chronological framework to link the historical context, and particular episodes in Khodasevich’s life, with the poetry of each specific period of development. The resultant work not only furnishes the background associated with biography but also links biographical data with literary analysis in a well-integrated study.
Bethea suggests that certain occurrences in Khodasevich’s early life had an enormous impact on his later writing. The poet was the sickly child of a Polish father who worked as a photographer and a Polish-Jewish mother who had converted to Catholicism. The child, however, identified with Russian culture, not Polish, and the determining factor here was his nurse, Elena Alexandrovna Stepanova. It was Elena Alexandrovna who was his wet nurse when no one else would care for the child, and in so doing she sacrificed the life of her own infant, whom she had given to a foundling home. Just as the nineteenth century poet Alexander Pushkin, to an extent Khodasevich’s model and a writer he deeply revered, found his nurse’s folktales to be a source for some of his own work, so, too, did Khodasevich assert that he had imbibed Russian culture with the milk of his nurse.
Khodasevich began his literary career early in the twentieth century during the ascendancy of Symbolism. Valery Bryusov, one of the founders of the school and a mentor for younger poets, was his role model. Khodasevich became disillusioned with Bryusov, however, particularly with the older poet’s exploitation of art to enable him to play the “role” of poet, and the younger writer drifted away from Symbolism. Khodasevich’s position in relation to Symbolism is complicated further by the fact that he was only twenty in 1906, a period when the school was beginning to decline and to be wracked by internal dissension, but, in addition, Khodasevich was too much the ironist to be either a poseur, like Bryusov, or to subscribe to mysticism, as did such younger Symbolists as Andrei Bely and Aleksandr Blok. Bethea presents a careful synopsis of the Symbolist movement, and he discusses Khodasevich’s later aloofness from the school with sensitive insight.
Khodasevich, however, was to be closer to the Symbolists than to any other group in modern Russian poetry; he disavowed himself from the Acmeists and Futurists, both groups having risen to dominate Russian letters with the demise of Symbolism around 1910. His verse combines the searching lyricism of the Symbolists with the irony that would be his trademark particularly during the emigration. Because Bethea’s biographical comments are interspersed with poetic analysis, the reader can follow the development of Khodasevich from the young poet blindly following the “decadent” stylistic excesses of Symbolism to the mature writer whose melodious verse gradually gave way to stark visual images that would dominate his poetry at the end of his...
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