"I Still Think That Any Moment He Will Come Quietly Through the Door..."
A TRIBUTE TO ALEXANDER SUMERKIN
Alexander Yevgenievich Sumerkin was born on November 2, 1943 in Moscow. A graduate of Moscow State University (M.A. in Philology), he worked as translator and interpreter for the Union of Cinematographers till his emigration from the U.S.S.R. in 1977. After 1978, Sumerkin lived in New York, where he quickly became a leading figure in Russian émigré literature - publisher, editor, translator, and essayist unobtrusively shaping the culture of Russia-in-exile for twenty-five years. Sumerkin's best-known project is The Collected Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva in Five Volumes (1980-1990) - the most authoritative academic compilation of Tsvetaeva's poetry to this day. He also edited and published Tsvetaeva's Selected Prose in Two Volumes, three volumes of Vladimir Vysotsky's lyrics, and four books by Nina Berberova. Sumerkin was the editor of Joseph Brodsky's last collection of poems Peizazh s navodneniem (1995) and translated Brodsky's essays and poems into Russian. He died in New York on December 14, 2006.
I rarely saw Sasha outside of his tiny, bejeweled apartment on St. Mark’s Place. When Joseph Brodsky died, Sasha and I were his two secretaries, in his two languages, and we collaborated on being the voice of his office for years after his death. Sasha’s apartment was a mirror of his person—innocuous on the outside, but on the inside intricate, like a geode: layered with books, pictures, and enigmatic mementoes; redolent with music; and bathed in warm, red light, like the inside of a brain, a brain constantly revisiting the most precious bits of art and literature and the other charms of existence. Like many of Joseph’s American friends, I was fooled by the fecundity of his life as an American into near oblivion of his life as a Russian; what little of his Russian self I knew was refracted through his own ironic, self-mocking, scene-shaping musings. In (American) company, Joseph’s Russian friends often deferred, amusedly, to his version. So the confrontation I encountered on Joseph’s death with the actual Russia, no longer screened by the vividness of Joseph’s personality, was dramatic. Sasha’s apartment was like a door to that Russia, and he was its host. In it the inherent dualism of the emigre, who must carry his rich past like a secret in an utterly different world, a world where, if he is to be recognized at all, he is recognized as something completely new and unfamiliar, was distilled and offered, kindly, for my observation and slow understanding. Sasha offered me Russia in beautiful little homeopathic doses: a quote that is both funny and wise, a pause to hear a strain of music, a little candy remembered from childhood and discovered in some dusty shop. He was a true diplomat—in the sense of a person who at home between peoples, observing, interpreting, selecting. I would trudge over to St. Mark’s Place with my burden of contentious or officious correspondence, and Sasha would open the door delightedly, as though this were a long-sought reunion with a little bit of business on the side. His knowledge was vast, but he was incapable, as a matter of taste, of overwhelming one with it. He would never give you a lot if he could give you a little. In this he always had a sympathy with the light--a popular song or a bit of doggerel were more likely to find their way into his conversation than an aria or an epic, though there were signs that in his private moments that Sasha could be more swept away than anyone by the great crescendo. He was less cynical than Joseph and more willing to embrace enthusiasm, so I would find out about things that Sasha knew were a little sentimental, but were beloved nevertheless—indeed, for Sasha, their acknowledged sentimentality was perhaps a little part of their charm. For him forgiveness was a part of aesthetic judgment—the human appetites that find expression in our aesthetic lives are not always in the best taste. Indeed, his famous self-effacement seemed a dimension of this aesthetic eschewal of grandiosity; he couldn’t help but create, supremely successfully, in his own persona—“I like here like a cockroach”—a character who could have emerged from an admired short story. Remembering him now, I peruse our correspondence in search of examples of his exceptionally delicate style, but they are so hard to isolate: he was always to the point, and the wit in his correspondence was wound like a delicate vine around the occasion—I couldn’t remove it without killing it. To my surprise I found the most overtly funny bits to be about his illness—perhaps because its gravity, and the necessity of dismantling my worry over it, were so great that they called out the big guns of his wit. Some examples:
I used to say that by my average life rhythm I approached snails but now I understand I insulted snails - I think at present I should look for comparison in the world of minerals.
Dearest Ann, my attempts at returning to some normalcy were stalled by the outrageous behaviour of my gall bladder that had to be removed about a week ago. As soon as I recover from this internal sabotage I will try to get back to Ardis and our orphaned interlinears.
I had a surgical cleansing that doctors call 'debridement' to scare poor patients to death or nearly so.
It worked. He convinced me that his illness was a comic inconvenience that would soon pass. I knew him first as a presence who always seemed reassuringly loving and kind at Joseph’s gatherings of often out-sized personalities. After Joseph’s death he became an essential person in my world—no holiday or important occasion could pass without a glance exchanged withhim, if only figuratively. Sasha and I traveled together to Russia in June of 1997 for a Zvezda conference on Brodsky. Here for once I was fully aware of my good fortune. What more wonderful traveling companion could there be, perennially unsurprised, durable, ready, amused. On that journey we encountered many heated and mutually clashing expectations among Joseph’s ardent, long thwarted readers, expectations heightened by grief and loss and by ocean-wide differences of experience and custom. Only truly mind-boggling powers of sympathy could have encompassed all the yearnings we encountered on that journey, and Sasha possessed not only such powers, but the power to convey them, with humor and warmth, to me, in my own slowly abating innocence and provincialism.
That particular journey, unrepeatable as it was, served as a kind of illustration of Sasha’s role in the situation we found ourselves in, and Sasha’s bravura performance simply took public a negotiation he managed all the time behind the scenes as an advisor and translator and editor. The manuscript of Peizazh s navodneniem that he prepared with Joseph, and the numerous manuscripts of translations and editions of Joseph’s work that he prepared with me (which can be seen in the Brodsky collection at the Beinecke Library) abundantly illustrate his trademark qualities as an editor: extreme delicacy and meticulousness, fidelity to the author’s intentions and immunity to the temptation to impose foreign rules or systems on the work, and, appropriately, respect for the wayward and inexplicable in the text, as in the person. He was an editor who listened. He prepared a beautiful set of interlinear translations that were used by a number of great English poets—Derek Walcott, Richard Wilbur, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Glyn Maxwell, and Melissa Green—in the preparation of an English edition of Rozhdestvenskii Stikhi. In the notes to his interlinears he identified jokes, puns, mannerisms, figures of speech, shifts of register, sound-patterns—every sort of echo or resonance, without larding on empty pedantry. They set a very high standard of the form. Once again, is in so many of the invisible, essential things that Sasha did, they were an exercise in perfect style and superior readership.
I used sometimes to visit Sasha in the anonymous office he had for a while down by Battery Park. I’m not sure what he did there. I think it had something to do with helping new immigrants get government benefits. It was rather thrilling to see his rare nature persevere in the face of such a banal setting. I envied the coworkers with whom he exchanged wry pleasantries. They probably also carried their own emigre’s secrets. I wondered about the sad stories that he must hear every day from his charges, and about how he led these mysterious people, as he had led me, into a new world.
Ìîé ×åáóðàøêà (My Cheburashka)
We met in the crowded room, filled with books and the dust of Russian culture, that was home to the antiquarian book store Russica. It was near the end of 1977, soon after he came to the U.S. "Russica" was a store in the sense that books were indeed sold there, but booklovers didn't simply drop in to browse. The store primarily prepared catalogues of rare and antiquarian Russian books and magazines for libraries. In order to peruse the contents of its shelves the duyer had to first know the exact address of the store, then know that he or she needed to take the elevator to the third floor and ring the usually unmarked door; after a while footsteps could be heard, the door would opened, and the visitor would find himself in a long, narrow hallway, illuminated by the untrusty light of fluorescent fixtures. At the end of hallway was a room.
The room would probably have been considered large had it been possible to removed the thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands, of books, old and new, pre-Revolutionary and on occasion even pre-Petrine, Soviet, "tamizdat", and reprints of samizdat, which constantly came and went.
The atmosphere and paradoxes of the Brezhnev era reigned in 'Russica': garrulous émigrés, drawn by the wealth of good books and the opportunity to talk about them in their native language, would willingly share their literary opinions and were ready to tell you the story of their lives. Another kind of visitor would drop in as well: inexplicably gloomy types who spoke to no one, spent a great deal of time thumbing through all sorts of books, and always gradually made their way over to the shelves holding volumes of Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam, Vladimir Nabokov, Andrei Siniavsky-Terts. In the end, they invariably arrive at Solzhenitsyn. Even to me, a naïve first-year graduate student, it soon became obvious that these were "Soviet people,' i.e. embassy personnel, people sent from the USSR for various U.N. functions, or comrades of a more serious profession.
One time I came to work as usual, only to find an extremely odd looking individual sitting at the front desk. His shining face-all I could see were cheekbones and a large smiling eyes and lips-resembled something closer to a creature from outer space rather than an inhabitant of our heavy, fractiously politicized earth. He was light and soft, with very, very short hair and large ears. Only many years later did I realize that he was a wise, kind, educated, witty and grown-up Cheburashka. Cheburashka-- the disarming hero of a favorite Soviet children's story, an amiable creature with big ears who arrived no one knew whence, to gladden and bring out the best in everyone by his very existence.
He was thin, and his age was not at all clear to me-not old and not really young; he was dressed modestly, but normally, not like other emigrants, and absolutely unlike Soviet citizens. His comportment was also entirely different-somehow noble and gallant. If he were a Martian, for instance, then the intelligence and humor emanating from him could only mean that his planet was far more civilized than ours. Moreover, as befits unearthly, marvelous creatures, he had an sublimely magical surname-SUMERKIN, from the Russian word for "twilight." In good, natural, British English, overlaid with a subtle glaze of Russian crème brulée (as though he wanted to establish his sweet tooth from the start), he introduced himself: "Hello, I'm Sasha." The fairy-tale came true, and we became friends.
I didn't realize it at the time, but my real graduate studies in Russian literature took place under Sasha's tutelage, through the constant visits of poets and writers who gravitated toward his kind editorial intelligence once Russica's owners decided to publish books that could not be published in the Soviet Union. At first Russica largely reprinted Silver Age poets, whose slim volumes had long since become collector's items. Eventually, however, contemporary writers were included, many of them then living in and around New York. The door bell would ring, and Sasha and I, working quietly on some catalogue of rare books, would hear the earthy ore of "Russian folk curses" bouncing off the walls and increasing in volume as the owner of the voice moved down the hall. "Oh, it seems our writer has arrived, " Sasha would say with an appreciative grin and that mischievous, raised eyebrow of his, which in this case indicated that Yuz Aleshkovsky had come to discuss publication of one of his books.
Just listening to Yuz talk was a treat, and an unforgettable Russian lesson. Sasha's exegeses of his language once he'd left were equally valuable; by the time I actually read Aleshkovsky's classic Nikolai Nikolayevich, tears dripping from my nose and my stomach aching with laughter, I could appreciate the "bejeweled delicacy " of Aleshkovsky's seemingly rough language. There were many such moments, some of the more notable being when "our Edik" would appear. Russica, quite controversially, published Eduard Limonov's scandalous, autobiographical first novel, translated and published in English as It's Me - Eddie, under the thinly disguised name of a non-existent publisher, so as not to antagonize the conservative émigré community. It was all Sasha's doing: he felt Edik's was a new, distinctive voice in Russian letters, a voice that deserved to be heard. With an equal sense of regard for the genuine voice of the people, he published Vladimir Kozlovsky's book, The Censored Russian Limerick, which provided all of us with hours of hilarity, and me with a political and linguistic education unavailable in any dictionary or at any university.
Once the poet Sergei Petrunis came to Russica, work began in earnest on Sasha's ambitious plan to issue the first collected works of Marina Tsvetaeva-and to make it as complete as humanly possible without access to her closed archives in the USSR. I played a small part in this, researching, checking French, English and German spellings, and spending hours scouring émigré publications on microfiche to locate works published in European émigré newspaper and journals during Tsvetaeva's lifetime, for the two volumes of prose with which Russica inaugurated the collected works. Eventually Sasha published five more volumes of the poetry, plays, and other works, a truly heroic accomplishment for the time. It was my introduction to Tsvetaeva, and the beginning of a passion.
Sasha shared that passion, and as I began trying my hand at translating Tsvetaeva's prose, he generously supported me with tea, sympathy, and his own vast erudition, which was rigorous yet practical, and refreshingly unsentimental. He was devoted to Tsvetaeva's work (and Brodsky's, and others…), but never built pedestals, never saw the poet as anything other than supremely human, and thus fallible. He loved poetry and "our poets", but was constitutionally incapable of participating in any cult of personality. "Love--" as we often reminded each other, quoting "our Marina Ivanovna" while trying to tease out the meaning of some obscure, contradictory passage or disentangle a piece of overly convoluted syntax, was " to see a person as God intended him, and his parents failed to realize him." Sometimes we'd have to finish the quote: "To not love-is to see a person as his parents made him." "To fall out of love-is to see instead: a table, a chair. [Over the years I published Tsvetaeva translations in Partisan Review and elsewhere. Some twenty-odd years later Yale University Press published my collection of Tsvetaeva's prose, Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922; there was not a word of those translations that Sasha and I had not discussed many, many times.]
There were birthday parties and just parties, poetry readings, dinners, concerts; to our amazement, the time came when we were even able to take giddy strolls through the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg together, a thing neither of us would have thought possible that first day at Russica. There were other writers (sometimes I helped decode Sasha's "Baptists," his bread and butter for many years), decades of late night phone calls about this and that, marathon reading sessions in his run-down, cozy den on St. Marks Place or at my house a few blocks away. Sasha would supply the wit, the inimitable aura of coziness that followed him everywhere, and music, always music; I would provide "something, sweet, tasty, soft, maybe with apple or raisins, or perhaps cream…" Our conversations would range from Mandelstam and Mayakovsky to Hart Crane and Rimbaud, or our favorite Edith Piaf and Georges Moustaki songs; I occasionally sang him old English ballads or Mexican sagas like La Llorona, and Sasha was delighted by the haunting melodies and inevitably tragic twenty-five-verse narratives. This all took place in a seamless, multilingual flow of cross-cultural, cross-linguistic puns and allusions that makes it almost impossible to speak of Sasha using only one language.
He was never Al, Alex, or Alexander (except the latter, in print, on formal occasions), much less Alexander Evgenevich. Sasha, Sashenka, Sashulya, Sash. English, as Sasha and I often lamented, just doesn't seem to want people to be too affectionate, though even English could not mute the sweetness and softness of "Sasha." We compared diminutives in French, Spanish and Russian, I became Dzhemechka, Jemm, Jemma, Zhenia, Dzhemka, Dzhemulya; occasionally, after the poet Dmitry Prigov began to visit New York in the late '80s, the equally affectionate if droll "Yevgenia Yakovlevna."
If English was not, we thought, sufficiently affectionate, Sasha admired and appreciated its precision; we both spoke French fluently and loved French literature, but had to agree with Tsvetaeva who said, speaking of Rilke's late verse, that it was the "the most ungrateful language for poets." Working on translations together, we both found the Russian sense of time frustratingly vague. Only one past tense and that very annoying issue of aspect…. "Well, what do you want, ma chére , just look at the Russian attitude to time," Sasha would say, -- "no one arrives when they're supposed to, or when they do show up, they never leave-- no wonder few Russians master English tenses."
Sasha, of course, knew and used English tenses perfectly. "You're suspiciously un-Russian, Sash," I would joke every now and then. "You don't have hysterical fits or create scenes in public, you don't swear, I have never observed any particular passion for vodka on your part, and you don't accuse your friends of ignoring and disrespecting you… You are completely, in fact excessively, sober, in all senses of the word. What kind of Russian are you anyway?"
Sasha's eyebrows, cheekbones and eyes would crinkle in a smile…
"Hmmm… yes, " he'd say."Quite suspicious."
New York, 2009
Edythe C. Haber
An Inner Compass
Although I am an American, I first heard of Sasha Sumerkin when I was in Moscow in 1978 and he was in New York. While on an IREX exchange I met and married a friend of his, Timur Djordjadze, then a student at GITIS (the State Theater Institute). When I returned to Soviet Union the following year I also got to know others in Sasha’s Moscow circle. Although he was absent physically, Sasha was still a palpable presence among his old friends, who spoke of him frequently and with great affection.
When Timur and I came to the United States in 1980, he immediately contacted Sasha and my friendship with him began. During the first unsettled period, when Timur, a director, was trying to gain a foothold in the American theater, he often came to New York and stayed with Sasha. Later Timur found a teaching job in New York, at Pace University. Since I was working in Boston, he saw Sasha more often than I, especially after we became his neighbors on 8th Street. I do, however, have memories of many quiet dinners together (usually savory Georgian fare, prepared by Timur) and also of numerous noisy (sometimes drunken) parties, the guests consisting mostly of flamboyant Russians and Georgians with a sprinkling of opinionated and talkative New York natives thrown in. In the midst of the hubbub Sasha’s was a quiet, somewhat detached presence, but when he did speak, his words invariably got to the core of the matter and cut through all the heated rhetoric. A person with a steady inner compass, he engaged with others, but quietly maintained his own views, which could be unfashionable, quirky, but when articulated in his eminently reasonable voice, seemed irrefutable.
In Sasha’s personal life, which I do not pretend to know well, he also seemed to be guided by an inner compass. He did not appear to care about money or advancement, so long as he had enough to pay for his small apartment on St. Mark’s Place, to eat out at the neighborhood Polish and Ukrainian restaurants, to buy books and recordings, to take periodical trips to visit his friend Serezha in Paris and his mother in Moscow. By limiting his material needs he was able to pursue his passions for literature and music professionally as well, and as translator, editor, reviewer, and as all-around supporter of writers and other artists, he enriched incalculably Russian literary and cultural life in the United States – and not only the United States.
My own professional association with Sasha began in about 1981, when he asked me to write the introduction to Russica Publisher’s reprint edition of Teffi’s 1927 collection, Gorodok. I sent him a revised copy of a conference paper of mine on Teffi, which he gladly accepted, with the proviso that I add a few paragraphs on Gorodok. I complied and the book with Sasha’s outstanding translation of my essay came out in 1982. I was struck by his complete understanding of the nuances of the English language and was gratified when Russian friends (who, as all too often happens, didn’t notice the translator) were in ecstasy about my superb writing style in Russian. (I was sorry to have to disillusion them.)
After Timur’s death in 1994 my contacts with Sasha became less frequent, but our relations remained warm and our professional ties were renewed from time to time. Perhaps the most interesting instance was also the most telling with regards to Sasha’s deep involvement not only in the technical aspects of the translator’s art, but also in the content of the work he was translating. I was invited to contribute my article, “Nabokov’s Glory and the Fairy Tale,” which had previously come out in English, to a volume of Pro et Contra that was to mark the Nabokov centenary and asked Sasha to do the translation. He liked the article so much that he urged me to submit it not only to Pro et Contra, but to other publications. When I objected that this was not usually done, he replied ruefully that with the Russians you need to send a manuscript to three places if you expect it to come out in one – a remark that proved close to the truth. Sasha contacted the editor of the New York journal, Slovo/Word, where it appeared quite promptly in 1999 in a bilingual edition. But then the troubles began. Sasha had sent the piece to the editor of Literaturnoe obozrenie (not Novoe) and it was accepted, but, much to our chagrin, when the Nabokov issue came out, the article (reportedly the victim of various internal and external machinations) wasn’t there. As for Pro et Contra, the diskette that I sent with a traveler to St. Petersburg mysteriously disappeared. And so Sasha’s warning was prophetic – but not quite. On a trip to St. Petersburg in 2000 (1999 ?) I delivered another diskette (although not directly to the editor of the volume, Boris Averin, who was out of town). Somewhat to my surprise, the volume, including my article was finally published in 2002. An greater surprise awaited me during my next trip to St. Petersburg. While browsing in a bookstore I came across a journal with the curious title, Staroe literaturnoe obozrenie (apparently the last gasp of the older periodical), where, lo and behold, I found my article.
It was not long after, as I recall, that I found out that Sasha was seriously ill. I visited him a couple of times, but he seemed reluctant to have me come and see him in his condition. We did, however, speak on the phone and I occasionally ran into him on the street with Marina Georgadze, whose death, shockingly, preceded his own. Then approximately a year before he died he asked me to come and visit him. He had earlier asked for copies of plays that Timur had adapted and I had translated (Ostrovsky’s Balzaminov’s Wedding; Dostoevsky’s Uncle’s Dream), hoping to find a theater that would stage them. Now, evidently concerned that he not leave behind any unfinished business, he was returning the plays to me. Even when facing the end, however, Sasha, characteristically, continued to offer help, suggesting that I contact the Pearl Theater Company, which is dedicated to producing classic plays. (I never did write.)
My final collaboration with Sasha was in September 2006. I was preparing a paper for a conference in Tallinn in October, and I asked him if he could do the translation. It was obvious that he was very ill, but I knew that he would all the same do an excellent job, and I suspected that he could use the money. He did his usual fine work and at the conference I was once again praised for my excellent Russian. The editor of a local Russian language journal, Vyshgorod, asked if she could publish it, and it has since come out, with Sasha named as translator. I wrote Sasha in late November that his fame was about to spread to Estonia, and he answered: “I am truly glad to hear it. Love, Sasha.” This was our last communication.
Sasha in Moscow
I first met Sasha in January, 1977. I was in Moscow helping with a visa problem. My then future husband was fearful of revealing his good fortune until we had made it through the elaborate ÇÀÃÑ maze and into the garish red velvet registration room, but he made an exception in the case of Sasha, who was also actively preparing for emigration to the states.
I don’t remember by what convoluted route we arrived at Sasha’s place, but I know that it was in an older building, close to the center. It was dark and crooked. Everyone we passed seemed to be avoiding us, and we certainly avoided them. The stairs weren’t lit. By the time we got to Sasha’s door, my “Russian soul,” fortified by an excess of Russian novels, was imagining Raskolnikov’s êàìîðîêà. All the greater surprise then, when I actually met Sasha.
During our visit, Sasha sat on a low stool. He was surrounded by piles of books. Books on all sides. They overwhelmed him. Occasionally, with only a brief glance away from us, he would pick up a book from one of the piles, caress it briefly, and then set it down onto some other pile. He must have been sorting what to take with him, what to sell, what to send out through my now ex-husband’s diplomatic connections. All the while, Sasha’s broad toothy smile rarely left his face. Sasha radiated joy and good spirits.
Sasha was a gracious host. I was most struck by his buoyant speech. Sasha expertly modeled the exuberant “Intonation Construction Number Three.” As all teachers of the Russian language know, “IC #3” is characterized by a sharp rise in pitch only on the stressed syllable of the stressed word in an interrogative sentence that doesn’t already contain a question word. That same raised pitch can also be used to pause between and separate a series of incomplete syntactic units. “IC #3” tends to convey energy, engagement, and familiarity.
A not uncommon side effect of the foreign-born “Russian Soul” is to have an acute memory of distinctive intonation patterns, perhaps because they reveal so much about a person. Before meeting Sasha, I had never met a speaker of Russian whose generous and loving heart showed through even in his intonation patterns. For me, Sasha was an oasis of good karma and courtly demeanor. I knew that I had met a rare and fine person. I suspect now that he was a major reason why I got married.
Fast forward to 2003. Sasha spent a few days as the guest of Mount Holyoke College. It was the last time I saw him. He was in especially fine fettle. Picture this: Sasha the Bard of the Russian romance accompanying himself on a baby grand in an intimate performance space, enchanting his audience with witty stories and torrid songs. He was effervescent, channeling joyfulness about the human condition. And with great intonation patterns.
“Pronto, Signor Tramonto!”
“…I feel/ Most at home with what is Real”.
(W.H. Auden, “Doggerel by a Senior Citizen”)
“Pronto, Signor Tramonto!”—that was one of the ways I frequently greeted him whenever the temptation to dial his number proved beyond resistance. It was a bit silly of me to repeat the pun all over again, even if what I was hoping to hear in return was one of the most rewarding sounds for the ear: Sasha’s hearty laugh at the other end of the wire. A reasonable amount of silliness, however, went down well with him; so did any number of plays on words, to which he was always very receptive. Not incidentally, Brodsky was “Sasha’s poet.”
I met Sasha fairly late in his life, when a certain type of a youthful intimacy of friendship can no longer be achieved: there is simply not enough life expected to be shared with another person. Yet I doubt that had the circumstances of our encounter been different, anything would have changed. Despite Sasha’s total lack of pretence and pompousness, there was yet something very aristocratic, very discriminate, at the core of his being—something which resented familiarity. Thus, although he soon talked me out of addressing him by his patronymic—I had tried to deal with the age gap of thirty years between us by calling him “Alexandr Yevgenyevich”—and to use “Sasha” instead, I still would never dream of substituting the Russian “polite” pronoun “Vy” with its “matey” variety. Sasha did accordingly, though he half-jokingly called me by the slightly old-fashioned version of my own name, “Zakharii.”
I met Sasha for the first time in the summer 2000 in Berlin, a city where I had by then lived for ten years. He was travelling from New York to Moscow to visit his mother and stayed for a week with our mutual friend Olga Radetzkaja. A relentlessly beautiful German woman, a talented translator of Russian literature, and an incredibly capable cook, Olga had worked with Sasha many years prior at the New York publishing house Russica. A great speaker and lover of everything French, Sasha indulged in French conversations with Olga’s Franco-Britannic husband Roderick and equally enjoyed the authentic mousse de chocolate the latter prepared for him. It’s really hard to tell whether Sasha was more linguistically or gastronomically susceptible. At Olga’s home he was given a real treat on both fronts.
Having been invited to one of their dinners, I was struck by Sasha’s unique sense of humour and perspicacity: he found one of those marvellously absurd Russian jokes laughable even after I seemed to have irretrievably killed it by a partly inaccurate, partly over-detailed retelling. Later it turned out that we shared at least four manias: we worshiped Italy, Britain, Brodsky, and poetry in general. The next day I promised to show Sasha some of my Berlin.
Sasha liked Berlin. Looking at the passers-by in the underground station Uhlandstrasse, he observed that Berlin reminded him of New York in the democratic unpretentiousness of the general dress code: he felt at home. I told him about my studies of English and Italian (Sasha himself spoke Italian quite well and loved Italian opera). I told him of Brodsky being my guide in the discovery of both Western poetry and civilisation as well as in my flight from my Russian roots. Sasha told me, on the other hand, how for him the initial “centrifugal” tendency radically changed after his emigration to America: everything Russian became all of a sudden quite precious to him. I asked him about Brodsky. Reticent, Sasha said nothing more than some version of “Meeting him had been one of the main blessings of my life.” It was not until several years later that I discovered that alongside his unwavering admiration for the deceased poet and friend, Sasha led his own sort of inner polemic with Brodsky.
I showed him the surroundings of Nollendorfplatz, a place of residence of many famous Russian writers in the 1920s and 30s—Nabokov included—as well as that of my favourite British writers Christopher Isherwood and Stephen Spender. Once we were in my tiny apartment, I naively tried to impress Sasha with my library, which held such rarities as Brodsky editions in Catalan. Sasha assured me that his place in New York, though not dissimilar in size, was even more filled with books and discs. Luckily I had the foresight to have prepared some Italian antipasti, which impressed him far more. At the end of his visit, I called for a taxi and unwittingly annoyed him by giving directions to the driver: it turned out that Sasha spoke German quite decently himself and did not want to be deprived of any opportunity of practicing it.
I did not see him for five years. There were of course occasional phone conversations: I made inquiries about his health when Olga told me he was ill, and he always gave benevolent and encouraging reactions to the news of my academic progress.
In June 2005 Brodsky research brought me for five months to Connecticut. It was my first time in the United States and almost every weekend I took a two-hour trip from New Haven to New York. I was very lucky to have Sasha as my guide to the city.
When I called him from a public phone in my first hour in New York I must have sounded particularly overwhelmed by everything around me, for he proposed to meet me at the Eighth Street subway station (his stop). I saw him advancing slowly towards me, with the help of a cane, in the scorching heat of the early June afternoon. When I had last seen him in Berlin I did not find him particularly plump, but now he looked very thin indeed—there could be no doubt that his health condition was rather serious, and I tried hard to conceal this first shock. We went to a Japanese bakery around the corner and he ordered his favourite French quiche—one-half each. I ordered a hot tea and he commented that he was no longer “as Russian” for that and ordered instead its American iced equivalent. We talked for a while, and then I was shown his legendary bachelor apartment full of books and music recordings, a place that had a strong but misleading feeling of being in Russia. He had reached his daily walking limit, so it was established that I would come another time and we would have another stroll.
So for twelve or maybe fifteen times during that summer I came on weekends to New York to see Sasha. Our routine comprised a walk in the park in the East Village, often with short gastronomic excursions to get some fresh Polish ham from Baczynsky or some chopped liver from the Second Avenue Deli. On his better days we walked as far as Greenwich Village and Little Italy; twice we visited Tribeca, where he made a point of introducing me to his friends in the neighbourhood who used to host Brodsky. (On these two occasions, however, we took a bus—Sasha had become a sworn enemy of the subway because of its hustle and many steps). It was during those longer excursions that Sasha showed me such Brodsky sanctuaries as Cafe Rafaella and Cafe Reggio, Morton Street, and the Hudson River view. Despite the slow pace and many stops we made on various shady benches, we walked a great deal: doctors had told him he needed exercise and he obeyed.
My memories of the stories Sasha told me—of Brodsky, of the Russian emigration in the 1970s, of Berberova (whose secretary he was for a short while when fame suddenly came to her in her nineties), of Gennady Shmakov, of numerous squabbles in the literary world of the Russian emigres—are mingled with impressions of blazingly hot Manhattan. With the benefit of hindsight, I’d say that the most precious aspect of those stories was that inimitable ironic tinge which Sasha invariably gave them. His irony had a unique quality which combined both benevolence and detachment. Sasha hardly spoke of himself; his self-effacement, which is, I am sure, now becoming quite legendary, was indeed amazing. Were it not for Herbert List’s Italian Diary, a book of photographs which I brought him from Berlin, I would not have heard about his short, albeit very adventurous, trip to Naples in his first weeks after the emigration, and of how he spent a night there on a public bench because he could not afford a hotel. Sasha loved Naples, both its beauty and the humanity of its inhabitants. This humanity, or as he called it in Russian, zhivost (vivacity)—which he perceived from his short stay in Italy during his emigration and knew from films by his favourite directors Pasolini, Fellini, and Visconti—was what he believed distinguished Italians from other Europeans.
Sasha suggested that probably the best way for me to get to know such a place as New York was to take it slowly and in small portions, and have it illuminated by some personal history. I agreed. Presently I pointed to this or that beautiful building along our way: I was in absolute rapture about New York’s architecture, especially as it came as a total surprise to me. Before I arrived in America I had ingenuously imagined that while exceeding in beauties of nature, the country had nothing to offer in terms of architecture but hideous skyscrapers. I had been wrong. Sasha shared my excitement about the architecture, but added, on a somewhat less exciting note, that he had started to discover it fairly recently—from the time that his disease compelled him to slow down his pace. Before that he had been very active, he said, running down the streets on various errands like a meteor and, like most the New Yorkers, barely heeding what was around him. This made me aware of how little I actually knew of “normal” Sasha.
It goes without saying that eventually we would stop at his favourite bakery, Patisserie Claude, whose devout customer Sasha had been for many years. When he fell ill, the conditeur Claude sent Sasha his favourite sweets directly to his home, challenging the theory that in such huge and anonymous city as New York “nobody wants you when you are down and out.” Utterly devoid of self-pity Sasha did his utmost (even to an absurd degree) to avoid “bothering” other people with his condition and never ceased to count his blessings. He accepted his plight with what a poet called an “unsentimental dignity of resigned kingship.” On the other hand, outward displays of sympathy irritated him quite a bit. I caught the drift and tried to be as light-hearted and “normal” as I could, eventually starting to believe myself that death might simply be dissuaded from following him by its being merely ignored. Sasha played along in sustaining this illusion. There was something very British about his composure, his irony, his “stiff-upper-lipness,” and his delicacy, which never let him betray how he really felt. He was never gloomy and could be easily turned to a playful mood. In fact we actually laughed a lot when we met. But as with most irony, especially the British brand, it also had its cruel side, when one fell prey to one’s own wishful thinking or was simply too gullible and failed to get it. Around the end of November 2006 I called Sasha and announced to him with joy that in a fortnight I would be coming to the U.S. again—I had been awarded a one-month travel grant—and said how glad I was that I would see him again. He seemed to share my joy and added that by then he would probably most completely (“okonchatelno”) recover. I arrived in New York on December 14, 2006, the day of his death. The grim irony behind that last remark makes me shudder whenever I think of it again.
I soon fell under Sasha’s influence. Delicacy, composure, his brand of irony being his natural qualities would be hard to emulate. But his most enduring impressions on me were his common sense, his sobriety, his sense of measure, and his aesthetic tastes. He was not necessarily opinionated, but he had some strong opinions. Sasha possessed both the plasticity and waywardness of a cat—it was Brodsky who immortalised his feline features in a birthday poem for Sasha which is so precise and renders him justice in so many ways. Despite his apparent softness, he was a sworn foe of cliche—he refused to accept commonplace opinions, be they in matters of art or politics. In art he was on the side of “what is Real,” to quote the poet Auden. Everything that had a sparkle of life in it, or a divine sparkle for that matter, everything direct, uncouth, irreverent, shocking, politically incorrect, or unconventional was Sasha’s cup of tea. His taste was very discriminate. There were a lot of works, even by Brodsky, which he would not value because he found them too didactic. On the contrary, he singled out all the provoking, irreverent pieces. For example, he particularly favoured Brodsky’s poem “Piazza Mattei,” and even the essay “Homage to Vertebrae,” which the Farrar, Straus & Giroux editors had found too politically incorrect and tried to take out of Brodsky’s last collection, On Grief and Reason. This last example is rather characteristic and I have no difficulty imagining why Brodsky would very much value Sasha’s opinions, despite their inevitable disagreements.
This predilection for the irreverent in art could be further traced in Sasha’s love of such different works of arts as the films of Luis Bunuel and Monty Python, songs of Georges Brassens—Sasha knew all his texts in French by heart—and Tom Lehrer, books by Evelyn Waugh. Not that his tastes were limited to similar authors. Sasha’s beloved Russian poet, for instance, was Pasternak. As to the Russian prose classics, Chekhov was his favourite. According to Sasha, Chekhov was the only writer in Russian literature who did not succumb to the temptations of the two Russian sirens zapadnichestvo and slavianofilstvo (Westernizers and Slavophiles). I suspect that Sasha identified strongly with Chekhov. It was really touching to see how he expressed sympathy with him on the conditions of his trip to Sakhalin and the lack of decent food and tea on route, which Chekhov lamented in his diaries.
I do not think it would be wrong to dub Sasha’s position as an aesthetic, but he was most certainly a very humble and generous aesthete. He was on the side of the work of art and tried to fight everything which stood on the way of it and the reader, listener, or spectator. He had a Real taste for literature, which means that he was able not only to form his attitude to the already established works of art, but most importantly to appreciate what was being done by his contemporaries. Scores of Russian artists on both sides of the Atlantic, who would not be known except for Sasha’s endorsement, are indebted to him. Sasha did not try to affirm his talent at the expense of the other authors: he did not consider himself to be an author. And yet it was precisely because of this humility that Sasha’s obituary of Brodsky remains the best memoir of Brodsky which has so far been written either in English or Russian—the only piece which restores “life” as it were to the deceased poet. The same could be said about his obituary of Marina Georgadze, although as again with Sasha, there is a certain tragic irony about the genre of these two prose pieces.
Another trait of Sasha was his Jane Austen-like sense of measure and proportion (I guess that therein laid the roots of his irony). One characteristic example was a story with Brodsky’s famous four-page-long reading list, which the poet had proposed to his students. At one point in his life Sasha considered a possibility of embarking upon an academic career in America and asked Brodsky, who had taught in the system from his first days in the U.S., for advice. Brodsky suggested that Sasha start with his reading list, but when Sasha saw it he was horrified and decided once and for all that an academic career was not for him. Brodsky’s list was good, but it was excessive. Excess was not Sasha’s cup of tea, no matter from whence it came.
Usually our meetings were tete-a-tetes, but on several occasions I met Marina, who had a key to the apartment and helped him a lot. There was something of a married couple in their attitude to one another. It was quite touching to see this intelligent young person worship Sasha the way she did. But she was as self-effacing as he was: it was not until I read the obituary that Sasha had written for her that I learned she was a poet. I did not have many chances to speak to her and she was not easily amused as Sasha. But on one occasion I read to both of them Auden’s light verse poem “Doggerel by a Senior Citizen,” and all three of us laughed. Marina and Sasha died within months of each other.
When the time of my first American visit drew to a close, Sasha gave me his parting wishes. He knew that our parting was likely to be final. I still hoped it was not. On top of the usual things such as that I should not change, etc., he said these farewell words to me: “Liubite sebia, Zakharii!” (Love yourself, Zachariah!). I thought that it was particularly ironic that of all persons, he should say that. I thought that he was either the most ascetic of hedonists, or the most hedonistic of ascetics.
* ‘Tramonto’ is the Italian equivalent of English ‘twilight’ and of Russian ‘zakat’ – a younger brother of ‘sumerki’ (in English ‘dusk’, in Italian ‘crepuscolo’), which so ‘poetically’ dawns inside Sasha’s surname. Sasha used the word ‘tramonto’ in his e-mail address.
New Haven, CT
Mitchell W. Miller
Having Sasha Over
Sasha came to our apartment, normally for dinner, every year on his birthday, and some years as frequently as once a month. Years later, at the time for Sasha's visit, I still believe that any moment he will come quietly through the door. He would sit, gently smiling, in the same chair, at the same place, squeezed inelegantly into a corner of our long oak table, its leaves always extended but always far too small for the number of sitters. "I'm fine here," he told people who suggested a more comfortable seat. "I take up very little space."
In later years he was chaperoned, and thus further isolated by an often-scowling Marina.
Nonetheless, Sasha was the silently acknowledged nexus of every conversation during those salon-like evenings, sentences settling around him as if caught in some magnetic field. Our long-time friends cast a quick look at him before every toast and with the opening of every new subject. The newly-acquainted turned to him with their first words.
This was hardly by design, and surely not Sasha's. Every circle has an organizing figure, but normally not one who so rejects the title, who so much prefers the role of counsel to director.
Not that Sasha lacked strong positions. He was assertively nostalgic for the Great Russian empire, even during the 1990s before it became, in some quarters, fashionable. One night during a contentious exchange with someone who happened to be Georgian, he expressed a very defined view about the role of Erekle II, Georgian king of Kartli-Kakheti (I wrote it down), who Sasha approvingly described as "annexationist."
However, outside of those sharp, but rare declarations, his role during those evenings was supremely eclectic. He brought music on CDs ranging over the years from Lisa's Brahms recordings, to the Beatles, to Brazilian dance and Charles Aznavour. During one evening, he and I once spent some amount of time in front of the DVD player, listening to and watching a version of the Peggy Lee crooner "Hey, Big Spender" performed by cartoon characters in the movie "Roger Rabbit."
Above all, Sasha was always ready for a long hug and sweet stroke of my hair at the beginning and very end of each of these visits. "Mititchka," he said, "we never get a chance to really talk." This ritual continued even as, month to month, Sasha's skin slowly collapsed around his never-robust skeleton, beginning to feel too warm and too firm to my touch.
Sasha was the first of Sonia's friends to whom Sonia introduced me. I knew--because I overheard chatter in the background of our long-distance phone conversations--that at least one of her other friends were skeptical of "the foreigner." I fervently wanted to make a good impression.
We ran into him outside Claude's one night.
"What's that?" he said, peering at my jacket.
"It's a dreamcatcher."
"What does it do?"
"It catches bad dreams before they reach you."
Sasha, as I discovered later, had lost more than a single person and had been served more than his share of painful memories. I came to marvel at his ability to remain, or seem to remain, at a little distance, plucking from life its occasional pleasures, and encouraging his friends to do likewise.
"Yes. I see," he answered me mildly. "As for my bad dreams, I don't pay attention."
Sasha was a cat, or at least as catlike as one can get. Starting from his grin, which became more or less accentuated, depending to whom he was listening and what was being said. He was the sort of quiet, warm, witty and dignified presence one would always want near, someone who had interesting things to say about everything, always to the point but never predictable.
The first time I met Sasha was in the fall of 1990, in our Morton Street back yard. I had just come back from Zito’s bakery when Joseph called me saying he wanted me to meet someone. Sasha gave me a handshake, as reassuring as the loaf of bread I was carrying and said: “ äà, ïîíÿòíî.”
He immediately started asking me questions, where in Italy did I come from, was it true that I had studied music… no barrier whatsoever. This is when I learnt about his formidable collection of CDs and LPs –, what I didn’t know then, - was how essential this detail would become later in our relationship.
Sasha would come from time to time to our house in order to assist Joseph with his Russian mail or with the compilation of the Russian editions of his poems and always stayed for lunch, tea or dinner. His love of sweets was legendary and we always tried to honor it with some pastry, often from Claude’s – a tradition I kept up even after Joseph’s death, always taking him some of Claude’s pastries when going to visit him on St. Mark’s Place or running to West 4th just before one of his visits to Brooklyn. Sasha’s name is also associated to Caffe Maurizio, on the corner of Hudson and Morton Streets. This cafe had the best cappuccinos in Manhattan and no longer exists, but the number of hours spent there in his company and Joseph’s can’t be deleted as easily.
Sasha loved our daughter Anna, and Anna loved him back. As a baby she would greet him with huge smiles, – when older, she enjoyed going to his apartment crammed with books and records. He always had some “êîðîâêè” for her, which he obtained god knows where from and would always sneak some extra ones into her pocket without telling me. A visit to Sasha’s house and Marina (Georgadze), who often stayed with him in the last years of his life, became mandatory when going to the East Village.
Sasha was of a great help to Joseph and continued being extremely helpful for his Estate. He worked with Ann (Kjellberg, Joseph’s Literary Executor) on the translation of Joseph’s poems, providing interlinears for the translators and always giving advice. He also helped with the Joseph Brodsky Memorial Fellowship Fund and with numerous cultural events, the last one having taken place at Lincoln Center in honor of the Russian Underground; his knowledge of both music and literature made his help invaluable for this event in which he took active part.
Sasha would sometimes show up at our house with a CD or two, be it his friend Lizka (Elizaveta Leonskaya)’s latest recording or something else he thought we might enjoy.
I can’t even count the number of CDs he’s given me. It was enough to mention something – that I liked Maureen Forrester’s interpretation of Mahler’s Lied von der Erde – that I would sooner or later receive it. When he didn’t have something he’d make sure to find it – he was full of resources.
It was a tacit agreement that in “return” I’d give him something he loved to eat – I still owe him a plate of êîòëåòû and can’t forgive myself for this.
After my daughter and I moved to Italy, I only saw Sasha once a year, when visiting New York, but his presence was continuous and his advice just a phone call away. He has given me ideas about which books to translate and publish, he even helped me with the Symposium honoring Joseph that took place in Milan in 2006. To this day, I have the reflex of calling him whenever I need advice about something and I miss him.
Sasha remembered every anniversary, every birthday – and on those days I’d inevitably receive an e-mail from him. May he always be remembered the same way he remembered others.
Milan - New York