During the unusually hot Parisian summer of 1924, 38-year-old Vladislav Khodasevich—regarded by Nabokov as the finest Russian poet since Blok—was suffering from an identity crisis. One of 3 million exiled from Soviet Russia, K. was spending days at a time lying in bed, looking up at the ceiling of his cheap one-room rental on the Boulevard Raspail: depressed, exhausted by insomnia, flat broke and without prospects. Just 2 years before he had been one of the brightest poets in Petersburg: the author of 3 acclaimed collections, with perhaps his greatest, “The Heavy Lyre,” ready for print; compiling anthologies under the patronage of Maxim Gorky; reciting his verses at star-studded literary gatherings; delivering lectures on Pushkin; invited by the great poet Osip Mandelstam to join the Acmeists (K. declined); and granted a coveted apartment at the influential House of Arts.
Russia’s Silver Age was peaking, and K. was riding the wave. But in 1922 the ailing Blok was denied medical treatment by the Bolsheviks and died; K’s friend and fellow poet Nikolay Gumilev was suddenly arrested and executed; and the leader of the new republic, V. Lenin, was busy preparing a long list of intellectuals soon to be forcibly deported. K. saw what was coming and chose to leave. Bumping around Europe from Berlin to Prague, from Venice to Belfast, K. finally ran out of steam and dejectedly settled in Paris. Enduring poverty, illness, and the specter of obsolescence—what use is an émigré poet, cut off from his homeland, with an ever dwindling readership?—he offers us a slice of his tortured psyche in the poem “In Front of the Mirror.”
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita.
Я, я, я. Что за дикое слово!
Неужели вон тот — это я?
Разве мама любила такого,
И всезнающего как змея?
Разве мальчик, в Останкине летом
Танцевавший на дачный балах,—
Это я, тот, кто каждым ответом
Желторотым внушает поэтам
Отвращение, злобу и страх?
Разве тот, кто в полночные споры
Всю мальчишечью вкаладывал прыть,—
Это я, тот же самый, который
На трагические разговоры
Научился молчать и шутить?
Впрочем — так и всегда на средине
Рокового земного пути:
От ничтожной причины — к причине,
А глядишь — заплутался в пустыне,
И своих же следов не найти.
Да, меня не пантера прыжками
На парижский чердак загнала.
И Виргилия нет за плечами,—
Только есть Одиночество — в раме
Говорящего правду стекла.
18–23 июля 1924
IN FRONT OF THE MIRROR
Halfway through life’s journey
I, I, I. What a wild, elusive word!
Is that man over there really me?
Did mama really love someone like that?
With a pasty yellow face, half grey hair,
And all-knowing, like a snake?
The boy who danced at parties
At summer houses in Ostankino—
Is that me? The one whose every remark
To a freshly hatched poet
Induces revulsion, malice and fear?
The one who laid his entire boyish energy
Into late night arguments—
Is that me? The very same one who
Has learned to keep quiet or make jokes
When talk turns to tragedy?
And still—it’s always like this halfway
Along this earth’s fateful path:
From one insignificant cause to another,
And look—you’re lost in the wilderness,
And can’t find your own tracks.
Yes, it was not a panther that
drove me with leaps to this Paris attic.
And Virgil is not at my shoulder.
There is only Loneliness—framed
In the looking glass, speaking the truth.
July 18–23, 1924, Paris
Thanks to Natasha Zhiltzova for her help with the translation.
– Vladislav Khodasevich
translated by Jenny Wade