The first time I saw him he was about twenty-four and I was eleven and studying at the gymnasium with his younger brother. His appearance rather shattered my image of a ‘decadent’. Instead of some naked dead-beat with lilac hair and a green nose (pace cartoons in the Daily News) I saw an unexceptional young man with a clipped moustache and a crew-cut, wearing a jacket cut from the most ordinary material and a paper collar. He looked like the sort of youth who sells haberdashery on the Sretenka Boulevard. This is the Bryusov of the photograph in Volume 1 of the Sirina edition of his poems.
Later, when I thought back to the young Bryusov I felt that the real bite in his poetry at that time came precisely from this mixture of exotic decadent with simple Moscow bourgeois. The cocktail was very crude, the flavour very sharp, and the dissonance very harsh, but this was the reason that Bryusov’s early works – up to and including Tertia Virgilia – are his best books and the most pointed. All those tropical fantasies were dreamed up on the towpath of the River Yauza. He the re-working of all values was done in the vicinity of Sretenka Street. To this day I like the ‘unknown, strange, object of ridicule’ who wrote chefs oeuvres far more than the famous Bryusov. I like the way this insolent young man was ready to let drop in passing, “I hate my country,” at the same time, apparently, as he was capable of picking up a mangy kitten from the street and devoting lavish attention to it in his pocket, while he was sitting his final examinations.
Bryusov’s grandfather, Kuzma, came from a peasant family and made a fortune trading in Moscow. He owned a fairly large business. His trade was overseas, in bottle corks. From him the business passed to his son Aviv and then to his grandsons, ‘the Avivoviches’ The sign over his premises, in one of the alleys between Ilyinka and Varvarka Streets, was still there in the autumn of 1920 . Almost window-to-window, diagonally opposite this business, stood P.A.Sokolov’s notary firm. Here at the beginning of the 1900’s, spiritualist meetings were held, at Bryusov’s initiative. I went to one of the last ones, in early 1905. It was dark and boring. When everyone was leaving, Bryusov said: “In time spiritual forces will be the subject of research and perhaps even applied in technology, like steam and electricity.”
His interest in spiritualism, incidentally, had by that time cooled and, I think, he had stopped writing for the Rebus journal.
I don’t know now why Kuzma Bryusov’s bottle-cork business passed to Aviv only. What made Kuzma Bryusov decide to cut his second son, Yakov Kuzmich, out of his will? I think he had somehow offended his father. Yakov Kuzmich was a free-thinker, horse-lover, and fantasist who been to Paris more than once, and even wrote poetry. He used to pay heartfelt tribute to Bacchus in the process. I saw him when he was already an old man, with unkempt grey hair and a stained frock coat. He was married to Matryona Alexandrovna Bakulina, a very good, rather stupid woman, who was the doyenne of lacemaking and playing Preference. The story of the engagement and marriage of Yakov Kuzmich is described by his son in the story “Dasha’s betrothal”. Valery Yakovlevich Bryusov himself sometimes used to sign his articles with the pseudonym V. Bakulin, after his mother’s maiden name. These were mostly polemical pieces, which people used to say were composed of argumenta baculina.
Having cut Yakov Kuzmich out of his business, Kuzma Bryusov also cut him out of the part of the will that concerned the small house on Tsvetnoy Boulevard, opposite Solomonsky’s Circus. This house passed directly to Kuzma Bryusov’s grandsons, Valery and Alexander Yakovlevich Bryusov. The whole Bryusov family lived there right up to the autumn of 1910, and that is where Yakov Kuzmich died in January 1908. Matryona Alexandrovna outlived her husband by nearly thirty years.
The house on Tsvetnoy Boulevard was old and ill-proportioned, with mezzanines and extensions, gloomy rooms and creaky wooden staircases. It had a little hallway whose middle section was separated from the side parts by two archways. Semi-circular stoves pressed up against the arches. The stoves’ tiles reflected the looming shadows of the huge deep blue panes of the windows. These xxx, stoves and windows provide the key to the meaning of one of Bryusov’s early poems, which in its day was hailed as the height of meaningless: xxx
In the hall to one side stood a piano. Along the walls were Viennese chairs. Two or three blackened paintings hung in gilt frames. The hall also served as the dining room. In the middle of it, on a loose-leaf table covered in a checked tablecloth, a tureen used to appear and the room would smell of cabbage soup. Yakov Kuzmich would come out of his darkened bedroom with his famous decanter of cognac. Holding his glass over his bowl with a trembling hand, he used to spill cognac into the soup. Turning the cabbage over with the spoon, he would stir it in, muttering guiltily: “It’s not wasted, it all goes down the same way.”
And he would take a mouthful, chinking glasses with his son-in-law, B.V.Kalyuzhny, who is now also dead.
Valery Bryusov did not often appear in his parents’ half of the house. He had a flat in the other half where he lived with his wife, Ioanna Matveyevna and his sister-in-law, Bronislava Matveyevna Runt, who at one time worked as a secretary for the Vesy and Scorpion journals. The design of the flat was close to ‘modern’. Bryusov’s small office was lined with bookshelves. Exceptionally attentive to visitors, Bryusov would keep matches on his desk, although he himself did not smoke at that time. In anticipation of the visitors’ absent-mindedness, incidentally, the metal matchbox was fastened to the desk with a string. Pictures by Shestyorkin, one of the earliest decadents, and others, hung on the walls of the office and the dining-room, along with drawings by Fidus, Brunelleschi and Feofilaktov and others. Valery Yakovlevich was not a bad judge of art, but he had prejudices. For some reason of all the artists of the Renaissance he liked Cima da Conegliano most.
At one time famous ‘Wednesdays’ used to take place in this flat, during which the careers – if not of all Russia’s, then at least of all Moscow’s modernists were made. In my early youth I knew about these Wednesdays by hearsay, and never dared even to dream that I would penetrate such a holy of holies. It was only in 1904 as a fresher at university that I received a written invitation from Bryusov to come. As I took off my coat in the entry way I heard our host’s voice say:
“It is very likely that each question has not only one, but several true answers – perhaps eight. When we assert one truth, we are straightaway ignoring the other seven.”
This thought greatly disturbed one of the guests, a good-looking student with blue eyes and a cloud of fair hair. When I came into the office, the student was moving round the room with a flying, lilting walk, speaking in a voice gripped with exultant emotion, that slipped between a rich bass and thin treble, one moment nearly sitting down, the next, rising up on tiptoe. This was Andrey Bely. I saw him for the first time that night. Another guest, also a student, was a solid red-cheeked young man with brown hair, who sat in an armchair with one leg crossed over the other. He was S.M. Solovyov. There were no other guests: the ‘Wednesdays’ were already tailing off.
In the dining room over tea, Bely read – or more accurately sang – poems, that would subsequently appear, re-edited, in Pepel: ‘Behind me stands a growling city’, ‘The Arrestees’ and ‘The Mendicant’. There was something unusually appealing about his manner of reading at that time, and about his whole demeanour. After Bely, S.M. Solovyov read a poem he had been given by Blok called ‘I look forward to death near dawn’. Bryusov was extremely critical of the last line. Then he himself read two new poems: ‘ Adam and Eve’ and ‘Orpheus and Euridice’, and S.M. Solovyov read out his verse. Bryusov painstakingly analysed what was read out to him. His analysis was purely on the level of form. The meaning of the poems he simply did not touch upon and he even emphasized that he regarded them as student exercises, no more. This didactic attitude to poets as established as Bely and Blok already then were, astonished and repelled me. However, as far as I could observe, it remained with Bryusov all his life.
The conversation over tea continued. It was not done, I noticed, to analyse Bryusov’s own poems. They were to be accepted as revelation. Finally, the thing I had been dreading happened: Bryusov suggested that I read ‘mine’. Alarmed, I said no.
In the 1890s Bryusov was the leader of the modernists. As a poet many rated him lower than Balmont, Sologub and Blok. But Balmont, Sologub and Blok were far less literary than Bryusov, and none of them cared so keenly about their position as writers. Bryusov wanted to create ‘a movement’ and be its leader. And so the creation of ‘the falanga’ and its leadership, the burden of the struggle with its opponents, and all the organisational and tactical work – fell predominantly on Bryusov.
He founded The Scorpion and Vesy journals and ran them like an autocrat; he waged polemical battles, struck up alliances, declared wars, brought people together and drove them apart, made friends and fell out with them. Manipulating many visible and invisible threads, he felt he was the captain of some literary ship and carried out his work with great vigilance. Apart from his native instincts, he was driven to overbearing dominance by the awareness that he was responsible for the fate of the vessel. Sometimes the crew would begin to mutiny. Bryusov would quell it with an imperious shout. Another time he would be forced to make concessions of a ‘constitutional’ character. Then, by exploiting intrigues within his own ‘parliament’, he would break it up and neutralise it. From this his own power only grew.
A sense of equality was alien to Bryusov. It is possible, by the way, that his mercantile background played a role here. A businessman is no keener to put his shoulder to the wheel than an aristocrat or a workman. But, the desire to do down a rival whenever possible sweeps over a successful businessman more powerfully than it does a workman or an aristocrat. ‘Every man should know his place’ and ‘respect where respect is due’ were ideas Bryusov brought into his literary relationships straight from Tsvetnoy Boulevard. Bryusov knew how to command, or how to submit. Any display of independence would make an enemy of him once and for all. Any young poet who did not go to Bryusov for his evaluation and approval could rest assured that Bryusov would never forgive him: Marina Tsvetaeva, for example. A sympathetic publishing firm or journal, not under Bryusov’s leadership, just had to make an appearance and immediately there would be a decree forbidding Scorpion contributors from working with it. This is how they were banned successively from contributing to The Griffin, then to Art (Iskusstvo), and The Interval.
Power needs honours. And it gives birth to abject flattery. Bryusov tried to surround himself with a circle of slaves, and, alas, found suitable people. His appearances were always arranged for dramatic effect. When he received an invitation, he never answered it with a yes, or a no, but left people to wait and hope. At the appointed hour he would not be there. Then people from his entourage would begin to appear. I remember well one occasion in 1905 when the hosts and guests at one ‘literary’ household, spent one-and-a-half hours guessing in whispers: “will he or won’t he come?”
Each new arrival was asked:
- You don’t know if Valery Yakovlevich is coming?
- I saw him yesterday. He said he would.
- But he told me yesterday morning that he was busy.
- And he told me yesterday at four o’clock that he would be coming.
- I saw him at five. He won’t.
And each person would try to demonstrate that he knew Bryusov’s intentions better than anyone else, because he was closer to Bryusov.
Finally, Bryusov appeared. No one would strike up conversation with him first: they would speak if he spoke to them.
His departures were equally mysterious: he would suddenly vanish. There was one famous case when, before leaving Andrey Bely’s, he suddenly put out the lamp and left everyone in darkness. When the light was turned back on, Bryusov was not in the flat. Next day Andrey Bely received verses: “To Loky Balder”:
But last ruler of the universe,
Darkness, darkness – take me! xxx
He had a curious way of offering his hand. It produced a strange movement. Bryusov would extend his hand to someone and they would extend theirs. At the very second when their hands should have touched, Bryusov would quickly withdraw his, curl his fingers into a fist, press his fist to his right shoulder, and, with slightly bared teeth, fix his eyes on the acquaintance’s hand, dangling in mid-air. Then just as fast, Bryusov’s hand would come down and seize the outstretched hand. The handshake would be accomplished, but the awkwardness that accompanied it, though fleeting in itself, produced a lingering sense of discomfort. I noticed that Bryusov employed this strange technique only at the early stages of an acquaintance, and used it particularly often when he was meeting young poets at the start of their career, or people who had come to Moscow from the provinces, or with newcomers to literature and literary circles.
Somehow, he managed to combine a recondite courtesy (i.e. in a formal sense) with a liking for jolting, disciplining and terrifying people. People who did not like this moved to one side. The others willingly formed an obedient entourage, which Bryusov did not disdain to use to reinforce his influence, power and appeal. Their servile flattery would reach anecdotal proportions. Once, somewhere around 1909, I was sitting in a café on Tverskoy Street with A.I. Tinyakov, who had written mediocre poetry under the pen name of “The Solitary One”. Slightly inebriated, he delivered a long speech at the end of which he exclaimed literally:
“Vladislav Felitsianovich, I spit on the Lord God – spah!” (Here he spat far from symbolically on a green square of the stained-glass window). “We need only Valery Bryusov. To him be glory, honour and respect!”
The poet Nikolay Gumilyov used to tell me how this Tinyakov was once sitting with him on a barge in St Petersburg when he looked at the River Neva and shouted in the grip of a holy vision:
“Look, look! Valery Bryusov is coming towards us from the other side, walking on the water!”
Bryusov did not like people because, more than anything, he did not respect them. This, at least, was true in his mature years. In his youth, it seems that he liked Konevsky, and he did not get on badly with Zinaida Gippius. His frequently emphasized love for Konstantin Balmont could hardly be called love. At best it was the awe Salieri felt when he was with Mozart.
He liked to call Balmont his brother. The poet Maximilian Voloshin once said that this tradition of fraternal feeling went right back to antiquity: to Cain. In his youth, perhaps he also liked Alexander Dobrolyubov, but subsequently when Dobrolyubov moved over to Christianity and peasant socialism, Bryusov could no longer abide him. Dobrolyubov led the life of a wanderer and sometimes he would come to Moscow to stay with the Bryusovs for a few days: he had some religious views in common with Bryusov’s sister, Nadezhda Yakovlevna. He was a vegetarian, walked with a big stick, and called everyone brother and sister. Once I found Bryusov at the Literary-Art Circle. It was two o’clock in the morning and he was playing chemin de fer. I was amazed.
“What can you do?” Bryusov said. “I am homeless now: Dobrolyubov is staying with us.”
He would not go home until Dobrolyubov had gone.
Boris Sadovsky, a fine, intelligent man, whose dry, reserved manner concealed a very good heart, used to feel embarrassed by Bryusov’s love lyrics, which he called ‘bed poetry’. On this point he was wrong. Bryusov’s eroticism has something deeply tragic about it – not in an ontological sense, as the author himself liked to think, but psychologically. Since he did not like or respect people, he never once fell in love with any of the women he happened to ‘go to bed with’. The women in Bryusov’s poetry are all identical, like drops of water: this is because there is not one of them that he loved, singled out, or really knew. It is possible that he really did respect love. But he did not notice his lovers.
We, like servants of the divine,
will perform our ritual –
These are terrible words, because if it is a ‘ritual’, then it is absolutely immaterial who the other person is. “Vestal virgin of love” is a favourite expression of Bryusov’s. But the virgin’s face is concealed, and it is not a human face. One Vestal virgin could replace another, and the “ritual” would be the same. And, because he cannot find, and does not know how to find a human being among all these “Vestal virgins”, Bryusov cries out in terror: “Trembling, I clasp a corpse!”
With him, love always turns into torture:
Where are we? On a bed of passion
Or on the wheel of death? xxx
Bryusov loved literature, and only literature. His own self he also loved only in the name of literature. Truly he was fulfilling the testaments given to him in the years of his youth: “ do not feel love, do not feel sympathy, revere only yourself without limit” and “bow to art, and only to art, without distinction and without aim”. This blind art was an idol to him, to whom he sacrificed several living people, and, one must admit, himself. Literature for him was a pitiless deity which perpetually demanded blood. It was personified for him in a textbook on the history of literature. He was capable of doing obeisance to such a weighty academic tome, as though it was the holy stone of Mitra. On his thirtieth birthday in December 1903, he literally said to me:
“I want to live in such a way that there will be two lines about me in the history of world literature. And there will be.”
Once, the now dead poet Nadezhda Lvova told him that she didn’t like some his poems. Bryusov bared the half-sweet, half-malicious smile, that so many people remember so well, and replied: “But schoolchildren will learn them by heart and little girls like you will be punished for learning them badly.”
He did not want a “spontaneous” memorial in people’s hearts. Damn those, he wanted to be etched in “eternity”: with two lines in the history of literature (in black and white), with the crying of schoolchildren, punished for not knowing their Bryusov, and with a bronze statue on his native Tsvetnoy Boulevard.
His love-affair with Nina Petrovskaya was a trial for both of them, but the party who suffered especially was Nina. When he finished The Fiery Angel he dedicated the book to Nina, and called her “ one who has loved much, and suffered much from love”. He himself, however, did not want to suffer. Once he had exhausted the subject, both for its real-life and its literary potential, he wanted to withdraw, and return to his domestic comforts, to the carrot pastries – risen, golden and prepared by a loving hand – to which he was particularly partial. He expressed his wish to end the relationship with deliberate callousness.
Nina and I were very great friends. Moscow gossips were certain that we were more than just friends. We often laughed at their certainty, and, to be honest, sometimes deliberately reinforced it – just from mischief. I knew and could see how much Nina was suffering, and twice spoke to Bryusov about it. During our second conversation I said such an offensive word that it seems he did not repeat it even to Nina about it. We stopped speaking to each other. Actually, six months later Nina settled our quarrel and we pretended that it had never happened.
In autumn 1911, after a serious illness, Nina decided to leave Moscow forever. The ninth of October, the day of her departure, came. I went off to the Alexandrov Station. Nina was already sitting in her carriage with Bryusov next to her. On the floor there was an uncorked bottle of cognac (you could say this was the “national” drink of Moscow Symbolists). They had been drinking it straight from the bottle, crying and hugging each other. I had a mouthful too, my tears rising. It was like a send-off for new conscripts. Nina and Bryusov knew that they were parting forever. They finished the bottle. The train moved off. Bryusov and I walked out of the station, boarded a sleigh, and went together in silence to the monastery on Strastnoy Boulevard.
It was about 5 o’clock in the evening. Bryusov’s mother, Matryona Alexandrovna, was holding her Name Day party that same day. About eighteen months earlier the famous house on Tsvetnoy Boulevard had been sold and Bryusov rented a more comfortable apartment at 32, First Meshchansky Street (where he died). His mother moved with a few other members of the family to Prechistenka Street, near the Church of the Dormition on the Graves. In the evening, after I had said good-bye to Nina, I set off to celebrate her Name Day.
I arrived at around 10 o’clock. Everyone was sitting in a group. The hostess was playing Preference with Bryusov, his wife and sister.
Homely, comfortable, the height of benevolence, and having managed to snatch a haircut between the railway station and the party, Bryusov was smelling faintly of Vegetalis and gleaming in the gentle glow of the candles. Looking me in the eyes with a smile, he said:
“You see in what different circumstance we now meet!”
I said nothing. Then Bryusov suddenly fanned his cards and, as though he was saying “Can’t you take a joke?” asked sharply: “And what would you do in my situation, Vladislav Felitsianovich?”
The question appeared to be directed to the card game, but it had a metaphorical meaning too. I glanced at Bryusov’s cards and said:
“In my view you should play low diamonds.” And after a moment’s silence, I added: “And thank God if your hand works out.”
“Well, I shall play the seven of clubs.”
And he did.
In my time I have played a lot of cards and seen many gamblers, both amateur and professional. I think one can get to know people very well through a game of cards; at least no worse than through handwriting. And it is not just a question of money. People’s very manner of conducting the game, even the way they put down cards and pick them up from the table, and the whole style of their play – tells an experienced eye a great deal about a partner. I must just say that the notion of a “good partner” and a “good person” do not completely coincide. Something in the one contradicts the other, and some characteristics of a good person are unbearable in a card game. On the other hand, when you observe a perfect partner, you sometimes think that in real life you should keep as far away from them as possible.
At gambling games Bryusov played very – how should I put it? – not timidly, so much as dully, poorly. He revealed lack of imagination, inability to anticipate, and insensitivity to that irrational element which a gambler must learn to use and control, the way that a magician learns how to control spirits. When it came to the spirits in a game, Bryusov passed. The mysticism of play was inaccessible to him, like all forms of mysticism. His game had no inspiration. He always lost and always got angry – not because of the money, but because he was blundering about in a forest where other people were able to see something. He envied a lucky gambler with the same kind of envy that he once felt for the admirers of the “Beautiful Lady” in Alexander Blok’s poem.
They can see her! They can hear her!
But he could do neither.
At “commercial” games, like Preference and Vint, on the other hand, he played superlatively well – with daring, invention and originality. In the whirl of mathematical calculation, he could be inspired. The arithmetic process gave him pleasure. In 1916 he admitted to me that sometimes ‘for pleasure’ he would solve algebraic and trigonometric problems from an old secondary school textbook. He loved logarithm tables and delivered a ‘paean of praise’ to the chapter on ‘substitutions and combinations’ in an algebra textbook.
In poetry he liked the same ‘substitutions and combinations’. With remarkable doggedness and diligence he spent years working on a book which was never finished, and which hardly could be: he wanted to create a series of poetic forgeries, and stylisations, that would contain models ‘of the poetry of all ages and of all peoples’. The book was supposed to contain several thousand verses. He wanted to stifle himself several thousand times on the altar of his beloved Literature, in the name of “ exhausting all possibilities” and out of piety for substitutions and combinations.
After he had written a cycle of poems about different forms of suicide for a book called All Melodies, that was constructed on the same lines, he painstakingly asked everyone he knew if they knew of any other methods that he had ‘missed out’ of his catalogue.
In accordance with his system of “exhausting all possibilities” he wrote a terrible book called Experiences, which was a lifeless collection of examples of all poetic meters and strophes. Oblivious to his own rhythmic poverty, he was proud of this outward metrical wealth.
How delighted he was to ‘discover’ that Russian literature contains no poetry starting with a pure xxx! And how disingenuously upset he was when I told him that I had written a poem like that and had it published, only it had not gone into my collections of verse.
“Why not?” He asked.
“It’s a bad poem,” I said.
“But it would have been the only example in Russian literature!”
Another time it was not I who upset him. To the commonly-used rhymes – smert’, zherd’, tverd’ – he had added a fourth – umiloserd’ – and immediately written a sonnet using all four. I congratulated him, but S.V. Shervinsky came up and said that Vyacheslav Ivanov had already used ‘umiloserd’ ‘. Bryusov immediately stopped speaking and his face fell.
Perhaps everything in life is but a means
For creating brightly-singing poetry….
This couplet of Bryusov’s has been quoted many times. I shall recount one incident that is connected not directly with these lines, but with the thought they express.
At the beginning of 1912 Bryusov introduced me to Nadezhda Grigorievna Lvova, a new poet, whom he was starting to court shortly after Nina Petrovskaya’s departure. If I am not mistaken, he himself had been introduced to Lvova by a lady of a certain age who had figured in his poetry in the 1890s. She was determinedly fuelling Bryusov’s new past time.
Nadya Lvova was no beauty, but she was not completely unattractive. Her parents lived in Serpukhovo to the south of Moscow and she was taking courses in the capital. Her poems were very immature, and very much under Bryusov’s influence. It was hardly likely that she had a great poetic gift. But she herself was an intelligent, unpretentious, warm and quite shy girl. She stooped badly and suffered from a minor speech defect when she tried to say ‘k’. Instead of ‘kick’ she would say ‘ik’; ‘ite’ instead of ‘kite’; ‘ettle’ instead of ‘kettle’.
She and I became friends. She tried every way she could to bring me closer to Bryusov, bringing him to my place more than once, and turning up with him at my dacha.
The difference in age between her and Bryusov was very great. He self-consciously became younger and sought out the company of younger poets. He himself wrote a book of verse almost in the spirit of Igor Severyanin and dedicated it to Nadya. He did not dare to publish this book under his own name, and it appeared with the ambiguous title: The Nelly poems. With an introductory sonnet by Valery Bryusov. Bryusov calculated that the unattributed words The Nelly poems would be constructed as “The Poems written by Nelly”. And so they were, and the public and many writers were taken in by the deception. In fact, the word Nelly was intended in the dative and not the genitive form. The poems were to Nelly, dedicated to Nelly. This was Bryusov’s name for Nadya when they were alone.
To some extent Nina Petrovskaya’s story repeated itself with Nadya: she could not reconcile herself to Bryusov’s double life, split between her and his family. From the summer of 1913 onwards she became very sad. Bryusov systematically introduced her to thoughts of death, and suicide. Once she showed me a revolver, that was a gift from Bryusov. It was the Browning with which Nina [?Berberova] shot Andrey Bely eight years later. In late November – I think on the night of the 23rd – Lvov rang Bryusov and asked him to come over immediately. He said that he couldn’t, he was busy. Then she called the poet Vadim Shershenevich and said: “I am really miserable. Let’s go to the pictures”. Shershenevich couldn’t go, he had visitors. At around 11 o’clock she called me, but I was not home. Late that night she shot herself. I was told in the early hours of the morning.
An hour later Shershenevich called and said that Bryusov’s wife was asking us to make sure that nothing untoward appear in the papers. I was not concerned about Bryusov, but I did not want reporters to dig into Nadya’s story. I agreed to go to the Russian Bulletin and The Russian Word.
Nadya was buried in the Miussky cemetery for poor people, on a cold blizzardy day. A lot of people came. Beside the open grave, arm-in-arm, stood her parents, come up from Serpukhovo, old, small and square, he in a worn overcoat with green lapels, and she in an old fur coat with a crushed hat. With forced cheerfulness, whispering something with quivering lips, they shook our hands and thanked us. For what? A small part of the blame for Bryusov’s crime lay on many of us, for seeing everything and doing nothing to save Nadya. The unhappy old people did not know that. When they came near me I moved to one side, not daring to look them in the eyes, and having no right to comfort them.
The day after Nadya’s death, Bryusov himself fled to St Petersburg, and from there to Riga on the Baltic coast, to some sanatorium. After a while he returned to Moscow, his spiritual wound already cured, and some new poems written, many of which were dedicated to a new “encounter” he had had in the sanatorium… At the next Wednesday meeting of the “Free Aesthetic” group, in the dining room of the Literary-Artistic Circle, over a meal attended by “the whole of Moscow” – writers and their wives, young poets, artists, benefactors and benefactresses – he invited them to hear his new poems. Everyone held their breath, and with reason: the very first poem turned out to be a declaration. I do not remember the details, but I remember only that it was a variation on the theme of:
The dead should sleep peacefully in their grave,
The living should make use of life.
And every verse began with the words: “To those who have died – be peace!” After I had heard two verses, I rose from the table and went to the door. Bryusov stopped reading. Everyone began shushing me: everyone understood what was happening and did not want me to spoil their pleasure.
Outside the door, I regretted that I had gone to see The Russian Word and The Russian Bulletin. xxx
Bryusov loved meetings with a passionate, unnatural love, and in particular, he loved chairing them. When he was in a meeting he was doing something sacred. Resolution, amendment, vote, statute, item and paragraph – these words caressed his ears. Opening a meeting, closing a meeting, giving the floor, using the “chairman’s discretion” to deprive someone of the floor, ringing the little bell, leaning over intimately towards the meeting secretary, to ask him “to make a note in the minutes” – all these things were sheer pleasure for him, a “theatre for one”, a foretaste of the two lines approaching in the history of literature. In the period between 1907 and 1914 he chaired three meetings a day, when there was need and when there was not. He sacrificed his conscience, friends and women to meetings. At the end of the 1890s and beginning of the 1900s, as a decadent, renowned for scandalising the bourgeoisie, loving only what was “sinful” and “strange” he took it into his head as a home-owner to stand for the city Duma – the Moscow City Duma of these days! As Chair of the Management Committee of the Literary-Artistic Circle, he would meet for hours with the canteen director, to discuss the menu for the next day.
In autumn 1914 he thought to celebrate twenty years of literary activity. I.I. Troyanovsky and the musician, Mrs Nemenova-Lunts were on the organising commission. Over dinner after a regular meeting of the “Free Aesthetic” Group, Bryusov’s place was decorated with flowers. The anniversary organisers prevailed upon a variety of people to make speeches in turn. No one said a word – the time was not appropriate. Bryusov went off to Warsaw as war correspondent for The Russian Bulletin and left no instructions for the anniversary celebrations.
He was anti-Semitic. When one of his sisters married S.V. Kissin, a Jew, he not only refused outright to go to the wedding, but also would not congratulate the young couple, and subsequently never crossed their threshold. This was in 1909.
By 1914 relations between them had become a little smoother. Samuil Kissin was mobilised and ended up working as a clerk in the sanatorium in Warsaw where Bryusov was living as a war correspondent. They saw each other from time to time.
After the failure of his anniversary celebration in Moscow, Bryusov decided to have it at least in Warsaw. Some Polish writers agreed to take part. Afterwards he told me:
“The Poles are far more serious anti-Semites than I am. When they wanted to honour my anniversary, I would have invited Samuil Viktorovich, but they crossed him off the list and said they would not sit round at the same table as a Jew. I had to forego the pleasure of Samuil Viktorovich’s presence at my anniversary, although I even pointed out that he is a relative of mine and a poet.”
To forego the pleasure of celebrating his anniversary was beyond him.
He nevertheless commemorated this ill-starred anniversary in Moscow in December 1924. The festivities took place in the Bolshoi Theatre. Posters were plastered around the town inviting anyone who wanted to come. In larger print than Bryusov’s own name figured the words: “With the participation of Maxim Gorky”, although the organisers, and of course Bryusov himself, knew perfectly well that Gorky was in Marienbad and was not planning to come to Russia.
How and why did he become a Communist?
At one time he shared the views of the Black Hundreds, a most vulgar violently nationalist movement. During the Russian-Japanese War, he used to talk of masonic plots and Japanese finance.
In 1905 he used to accuse the socialists of absolutely everything, displaying an ignorance that was entertaining when he did so. Once he said:
“I know what Marxism is: grabbing what you can, and wife-swapping.”
I am writing reminiscences and not a critical article, and so I shall demonstrate only briefly that such “left-wing” poems as the famous “Dagger” in fact contain nothing leftist in them. “A poet is always with the people when the thunder sounds” – is a literary, aesthetic charter, and not a political one. In his “Letters of a Russian traveller” the 19th century historian and writer, Karamzin, describes an aristocrat who is drawn to the Jacobin cause. To incredulous questions why, he would reply:
“What can I do? I like t-t-t-trouble.”
(The aristocrat had a stammer).
These words would be a fitting epitaph for all Bryusov’s radical poetry from the 1905 period. The celebrated “Stone Mason” also did not express its author’s views. It is a stylisation, the same kind of artifice, the same kind of poetical exercise as the children’s song about “Palochka-Vyruchalochka” that was printed in the same collection, and as the song of the collectors (“Give money, good people, for a new bell”) and other similar poems. Stone Mason no more expresses Bryusov’s own views than “The Australian Song” which he wrote as part of his process of “exhausting all themes and possibilities”:
The kangaroos were running fast
But I was running faster.
One kangaroo was very fat.
And it was very tasty.
The origin of “Stone Mason” is purely literary. It is no more and no less than a collection of editorial amendments to a poem written before Bryusov was born. It was published under the very same name in “Lyutna”, an old émigré collection of banned Russian poetry. Who its author was, I do not know.
While the essayists were writing articles about Bryusov “the aesthete’s” appeal to “ society”, Bryusov was up in the attic of his house doing firing practice with his revolver “in case the strikers come to loot us”. There were conversations among the Scorpion’s editorial board which Sergey Krechetov captured in doggerel, that is not too brilliant, but hits the nail exactly on the head:
They got together on Tuesdays
From their room in the Metropol hotel
Inciting pogroms with the doorman nicely.
It was so touching how on Tuesdays
In a marriage of different tastes
Valery Bryusov and the doorman
Could agree with indecent haste.
At the same time his younger brother wrote him a poem in Latin with the title:
“Falsus Valerius, duplex lingua!”
In 1913 he was invited to become editor of the literary section of the newspaper Russian Thought, and once said:
“As one of the editors of Russian Thought I am completely in agreement with Pyotr Struve on all questions of politics.”
Subsequently, on the eve of the February Revolution in 1917, when he was in the Georgian capital Tiflis, at a banquet given by Armenians in his honour as the editor of the Armenian Poetry collection, he stood up, and to the great embarrassment of everyone present, raised a toast to “the health of the Lord Emperor, the Autocratic Leader of our Army”. I was told this by the organiser of the banquet, P.N. Makintsyan, who later compiled the famous book Rarities of the All-Russian Secret Police. (He was shot in 1937).
Bryusov held democracy in contempt. The history of culture to which he abased himself, was for him, a history of “creators”, or demi-gods, who stood outside the crowd , who despised it and were hated by it. Every democratic form of government seemed to him to be either utopian, or the rule of the xxx, the dominance of the mass.
Every form of absolutism seemed to him to be a positive force, which preserves and creates culture. A poet, therefore, is always on the side of the existing government, whatever it was, provided only that it was distinct from the people. Like a “trireme oarsman”, to him it was:
All the same
If he rowed for Caesar or a pirate.
All poets belonged to the Court – in the age of Augustus, xxxMetsenat, under the Bavarian Ludwigs, King Friedrich, The Empress Ekaterina, Tsar Nikolai 1 etc. This was one of his favourite thoughts.
Therefore, he was a monarchist under Nikolai II. Therefore, while he had hopes that the Temporary Government would “rein in the hoi-poloi” and show itself to be a “strong government”, he rushed to sit on various commissions, and in the summer of 1917, published a booklet with a red cover, called: How can we end the war?, sub-titled: “ Si vis pacem, para bellum”. The gist of the booklet was “fight on until victory”.
After the Revolution in October 1917, he fell into despair. One lady who used to begin everything she said with: “Valery Bryusov thinks …” met me at the beginning of November, at the house of the Jewish poet Lipskerov. When our host had gone out of the room to make tea, the lady followed him cautiously with her eyes, leant over to me and whispered:
“Valery Bryusov thinks that now we will be governed by Yids.”
That winter I myself did not see Bryusov, but I was told he was in a state of depression and was mourning the passing of culture. It was only in the summer of 1918, after the Temporary Government had been disbanded and the Terror began, that he cheered up a little and declared that he was a Communist.
But this was completely consistent, because he had seen before him a “strong government”, another form of absolutism, and submitted himself to it. For him it represented an adequate protection from the crowd, the hoi poloi, the mass. It cost him nothing to say that he was a Marxist, because he could not care who was in power, provided there was strong government.
In Communism, he submitted to a new authoritarianism, which, from his point of view, was perhaps better than the old one, since the Kremlin was at any rate more accessible to him personally than the Tsar’s residence had been at Tsarskoye Selo outside St Petersburg. Also, there had been no officially-protected artistic policy under the old autocracy, while the new one wanted to be active in this field. Bryusov thought it would be possible for him to have direct influence on literature; he dreamed that the Bolsheviks would give him his long-awaited opportunity to “direct” literary policy with strong administrative measures. If they did, he would be able to control writers without any intrigues, without any forced alliances with them – but with just one shout. And think of the meetings, the statutes, the resolutions! And the chance that history would relate how “in such-and-such-a-year, the course of Russian literature was altered by so-many degrees”. Here his own interests coincided with politics.
His dream did not materialise. Insofar as it was possible to make literature subject to anything, the Communists preferred to keep the dictatorship in their own hands rather than give it to Bryusov, who was essentially alien to them, and whom, despite everything, they did not trust. He was given a few more or less visible “functions”, which were not very responsible. He discharged them with the zealous determination that was characteristic of him, whatever he undertook to do. He “met” and “managed” with every last ounce of his strength.
He cut himself off from other writers much more abruptly than they did from him. When the Union of Writers formed in Moscow, Bryusov’s reaction was much more critical and irreconcilable than the real Bolsheviks. I remember the following story among others. When the Literary-Artistic Circle was disbanded, its library was requisitioned and, as happens, plundered. The library was part of the remit of the Moscow Soviet, and the Union of Writers asked for it to be transferred to them. Kamenev, then Chair of the Soviet, agreed. No sooner had Bryusov heard about this than he immediately protested and asked for the books to go to the Lito, the completely moribund institution that he ran. I was a Board member of the Union, and I was delegated to try to persuade Bryusov to give up his claim. I picked up the phone and called him straightaway. After he had listened to what I had to say, he answered:
“I do not understand you, Vladislav Felitsianovich. You are speaking to a serving official and trying to persuade him to betray the interests of the institution entrusted to him.”
When I had heard the “serving official” and the “entrusted institution”, I did not try to prolong the conversation. The library was transferred to the Lito.
His eagerness to serve unfortunately xxx. In March 1920 I fell ill with malnutrition and from living in an unheated basement. After I had been in bed for about two months, and felt ill all through summer, I decided at the end of November to move to St Petersburg, where I had been promised a dry room. In St Petersburg I was again confined to my bed for a month, and as I had nothing to eat there either, I started to agitate for my writer’s rations to be transferred there. This required about three months of unbelievable effort, during which I constantly came up against some invisible, but obviously significant impediment. Only two years later, I learned from the writer Maxim Gorky, that this obstacle was some piece of paper lying in an academic centre in St Petersburg. In this paper, Bryusov wrote confidentially that I was an unreliable person. What is remarkable is that even “in the line of duty” this was not one of his obligations.
Despite all his efforts, the Bolsheviks did not appreciate him. Sometimes they reproached him for his past affiliation with “bourgeois” literature. His poetry, written fully in accordance with administrative prescription, was still no use to them, because it was unsuitable for direct agitation.
The thing was, that Bryusov remained free in the area of poetic form, even when he was writing common slogans on commissioned subjects. I think that careful study of the form used by Bryusov in his Communist poems would reveal intense internal effort aimed at an attempt to destroy the old harmony and “invent a new sound”. Bryusov approached this goal through conscious cacophony. Whether he was right to do this, and whether or not he succeeded is for someone else to judge. But the very presence of this effort made his verse hyper-refined to the point of fossilisation, hard to grasp and inaccessible for the naïve understanding. They were unsuitable as agitation material, and so Bryusov-the-poet seemed essentially superfluous. There remained Bryusov-the-official, who was also driven from “post” to “post”, at times to the point of intentional, or unintentional, humiliation. In 1921, for example, Bryusov combined some high post in the Narkompros – the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment – with a no less important function in the Gukon, that is… in the State Administration for Horse Breeding1. What? He worked diligently there too, and, keeping in step with NEP – the New Economic Policy that encouraged a limited free market economy after 1922 – he appeared in print, campaigning for the return of the tote.
Bryusov, of course, was aware of his total isolation. One person close to him told me at the beginning of 1922 that he was very alone, very gloomy, and under great pressure.
It seems he had been a morphine addict since way back in 1908. He tried to break the habit but could not. In the summer of 1911 Dr G.A. Koyransky succeeded in weaning him off for a short time, but nothing finally came of it. Morphine became essential to him. I remember how once when I was talking with him in 1917, I noticed that he was gradually falling into some kind of stupor and was almost asleep. Finally, he stood up, went into the next room, and came back, looking younger.
At the end of 1919 I had to replace him in one of his functions. Glancing in the empty drawer of his desk I found a syringe needle, and a scrap of newspaper with bloody stains on it. In his last years he was often ill, evidently from intoxication.
Alone and tormented, he nevertheless discovered an unexpected happiness. Towards the end of his days, he undertook to take in his wife’s small nephew, and looked after him with the same gentleness that he once devoted to the kitten. He used to come home laden with sweets and toys. Spreading out a carpet he would play with the boy on the floor.
When I read the news of Bryusov’s death, I thought that he had committed suicide. Perhaps in the final count that was the case, if death itself did not get to him first.
1 Strange though it may seem, there was a kind of logic in this: Bryusov’s first published works were two articles on horses in one of the specialised journals: either The Trotter and Galloper or Horse-breeding and Sport. Bryusov’s father, as I pointed out, was a horse-lover. Once I saw Bryusov’s childhood letters to his mother and they were full of his impressions of horse races.
Marjorie never finished this long translation, as is indicated by “xxx” in the text, marking words, phrases or lines of verse that she intended to come back to.