Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Очи черные (dark eyes)

Olga. O-llll-ga. The O is round, the L soft, the GA trails off into mysterious, distant realms. And her voice—it issues from some hidden, bubbling spring deep beneath the earth. Olga, late-week hostess of the Samovar, who are you, what secrets lie veiled behind your dark eyes (in this photo modestly averted)??

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Roman Kaplan's Birthday

To do justice to Roman Kaplan's birthday party, held in the upper ether of the Samovar this past Wednesday evening, I turn to that surprising 18th-century Russian poet, Gavrila Derzhavin. Derzhavin, known to most as the witty singer of the praises of Empress Catherine II (herself credited with bringing an age of so-called Enlightenment to Russia, begun with the apparent murder of her despised husband, Peter III, at the hands of CII's lover, Count Orlov [pictured here because his plumage is much more colorful than Derzhavin's]), is [the subject is still "Derzhavin"]

fascinating in his own right. May I recommend Derzhavin's biography written by another amazing Russian poet, Vladislav Khodasevich? If you don't read Russian, you'll be glad to know that a very nice translation by Angela Brintlinger was published in 2007. According to Khodasevich, the young would-be poet Derzhavin «soon forswore the high style of famed poets. For ceremonial odes and weighty themes he had neither the erudition nor the practical knowledge. He confused the Olympians and had seen the tsar only during sentry duty. He decided that in future he should not strive for Pindar but should rather sing simply, as in:

What more could I desire? I write and kiss

My dear Anyuta—bliss.» (Brintlinger, pg. 14)

And I, my friends, am—alas!—in a similar position. Except that even the simplest words presently fail me. Therefore, as I hinted above, I will now turn to Derzhavin himself to evoke for you what it felt like to be at Roman's XX'rd or XX'th (who's counting?) birthday celebration. I quote from the opening of Derzhavin's «Philosophers, Drunk and Sober»:

Сосед! на свете всё пустое:

Богатство, слава и чины.

А если за добро прямое

Мечты быть могут почтены,

То здраво и покойно жить,

С друзьями время проводить,

Красот любить, любимым быть,

И с ними сладко есть и пить.

Как пенится вино прекрасно!

Какой в нем запах, вкус и цвет!

Почто терять часы напрасно?

Нальем, любезный мой сосед!

Without Derzhavin and Karamzin, Pushkin would be nothing! Nothing!

For those who do not read Russian, I'll try here to give a rough idea, with interpolation:

My neighbor! [this is the drunken philosopher speaking] All on earth is empty:

All wealth, and glory and high rank. [Roman can wax similarly Ecclesiastes-esque, but he usually does this in French: “Dans ma vie toutes les choses sont perdues. Ma vie est futile.”]

But if dreams can be regarded

as a good in and of themselves,

Then it is sensible and peaceful to live,

To pass the time with friends,

To love beauties, and to be beloved,

And sweet to eat and drink with them. [This is the story of Roman's life.]

How beauteously the wine doth foam!

What fragrance in it, taste and color!

Wherefore ought we to waste our time?

Let's go ahead and pour, good neighbor!

In short, it felt something like this at the Samovar last Wednesday. Toasts were heartfelt and yet not too lengthy, the faithful staff kept bringing more and more pork-based delicacies from the kitchen, the company was scintillating, good-hearted and altogether delighted to celebrate yet another rather amazing year of the Russian Samovar in the person of Roman Kaplan.

Here are the impeccable Moon (see prior post) and the Mysterious Olga handing out slices of Napoleon. And here is Roman, acknowledging a toast from Alexander Genis.

Looks like American poet Mark Strand in the background, what do you think?

More to come soon, dear readers! I feel I've sadly neglected you of late…

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Petrushevskaya sings cabaret! November 6, 8pm

Her press agent wrote about this unmissable upcoming event better than I could hope to:

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is one of the most highly acclaimed Russian authors working today. Her brand new collection of stories, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby (Penguin Books), has just made the uppermost “Highbrow Brilliant” quadrant of New York Magazine’s Approval Matrix, and excerpts have appeared in Harper's and the New Yorker. But little do her U.S. fans know that, back home, Petrushevskaya is also an accomplished, quirky and unique cabaret singer.

Now, thanks to the efforts of Moscow’s Snob Magazine, she is taking her act on the road to NYC. "A Writer's Cabaret" is a show conceived, written, and performed by the author herself. Petrushevskaya, who is 71 and a classically trained singer, will sing a selection of classics from the European cabaret, including her own Russian versions of such songs as "Lily Marlene" and "Ma Vie en Rose.” There could be no better setting for it than
the Russian Samovar, whose bohemian air and vodka infusions have long made it a favorite destination for writers and bon vivants of all stripes.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Still going up the down staircase: Bel Kaufman

In 1965 Bel Kaufman published a novel based on her up-and-down experiences teaching in the New York City public school system. That novel was called Up the Down Staircase. It became a ripping bestseller and a film followed in 1967, starring Sandy Dennis as the idealistic young teacher who ultimately (spoiler here) refuses to be defeated by the bureacracy. I like to think that if all or even many New York City public school teachers made regular visits to the Russian Samovar as do Bel and her husband Sidney, students would somehow indirectly benefit by the inspiration imbibed there. Could said inspiration be enough for a new novel drawing public attention to the struggle of students and teachers with the massive monster that devours over a million New York City children every day and just as routinely spits them back out? How about it, Ms. Kaufman? Anybody?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Art Opening! Ksenia Golubkov (Ксения Голубкова)

Image lifted from this online article

The Samovar is not just about literature and food! Tomorrow, October 1, from 6 to 9pm you can begin your month festively by stopping in at the opening of Ksenia Golubkov's latest art exhibit. Come enjoy her beautiful batik-on-silk designs, or whatever it is she is working on lately. Here's a link to her site, where you can get a preview of her work…

Aleksandr Kabakov tonight at 7:30!

If you don't already know and enjoy Aleksandr Kabakov's funny, satirical, big-hearted stories, or even if you do, you will surely enjoy his appearance in person (in Russian) tonight at the Sammy. A successor to Zoshchenko? You tell me.

Here's an excerpt from a story called «Миллион», about a man who soothes his insomnia thinking about what he would do with a million bucks, to whet your literary appetite:

Да: живет Н.И. Огоньков, конечно, в Москве – где же у нас, кроме Москвы, человек получает тысячу долларов в месяц и ещё о чем-то мечтает?

О, Москва, Москва, поразительный город! Кто только не живёт в нём, кто только не вдыхает жадно его несвежий, но прекрасный воздух, выдыхая вместе с азотом или чем там ещё свои страстные желания… Его колеблющиеся в горячем мареве башни и висящие в огненных закатах мосты, его слишком широкие, но непроезжие проспекты и изрытые тружениками благоустройства тротуары, его пыльные парки и памятники, размножающиеся, как кролики…

Всё это, отвратительное и чарующее, окутано жаждой обладания, исходящей от коренных и, главным образом, от приезжих жителей.

Все хотят её, эту блядскую Москву, наутро забывающую, что она обещала случайному обладателю ночью, когда он, горячечно вертясь на ложе бессонницы, планировал долгую совместную жизнь и отдалённое счастье.

Будь моею, Москва! Отчего же нет, дорогой? Пожалуйста. С удовольствием. Утро вечера мудренее, ты проснёшься и удивишь всех своим проектом (проект, проект, как же иначе! всё и у всех теперь проект), и они понесут тебе деньги, а ты отдашь эти деньги мне, Москве, и мы станем с тобой жить вечно, во взаимной любви… Спи.

И он спит, а утром – хрен ему вместо денег за проект! И бредёт он по Москве, все его толкают, и нет ему здесь места.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Reading This Tuesday: New Russian Fiction!

Come hear it for yourselves, for free, in Russian and English: CEC ArtsLink and Tin House Books are launching a new, bilingual volume called Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia. Finally, we're beyond "post-Soviet"! Authors and translators will read with their own lips! Reception! Tuesday, September 22, at 7pm. You can read more about this and related events here, and even RSVP on facebook to ensure they order enough zakuski for the reception.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

More Beautiful Women at the Samovar!

These women refused to be identified by name, because they were having Too Much Fun on Ladies' Night Out. Same goes for the lovely lass celebrating her birthday. She hadn't counted on Tort po-Kievsky and a rousing table-side birthday song! Note the photo in the background, in which founders Joseph Brodsky and Mikhail Baryshnikov seem happy to join in celebrating. By the end of the evening, everyone spoke flawless Russian.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

But what about the food, you ask?

Recently, I tried to wrest from Roman Kaplan the Samovar's recipe for the delicious beet soup spelled in our pathetic Latin letters variously as borsht, borshcht, borscht, or really however you want, but economically lettered in Russian as борщ. O, борщ! Your color so deeply pink, your taste so rich and hearty in winter, so refreshing in summer! You vary seasonally, you are endlessly attractive, you can be eaten (in Russia) or drunk (in America) hot or cold. Борщ, you are an ethnographic history of central and eastern Europe and Asia—from our family recipe we can trace (forgive the pun) our roots.

Roman was—there is no better word—cagey. Lynn Visson's The Russian Heritage Cookbook: A Culinary Heritage Preserved in 360 Authentic Recipes, newly updated and republished in 2009, happened to be lying on the table. He picked it up and said, «Sometimes we use this one.» I looked. There were several pages of recipes. I glanced over them and picked one out. «This one?» He looked. «Yes,» he replied. «But we don't use meat…we make our own stock, from beef…no celery…potatoes, yes…» And so on.

I'll keep trying, folks. And in the meantime you can't go wrong with Visson's truly authentic recipes—a lifetime of experience and research has gone into the making of that book. Or try Please to the Table, a delightful literary and gastronomical exploration of recipes from across the former Soviet Union. For the Samovar's own recipe, we may ultimately have to content ourselves with having the борщ onsite. But Roman did promise to share some vodka recipes soon…

Clearly, the poison was not in the glass in front of him!

If you remember William Goldman's classic fairytale film, The Princess Bride, you will recognize here (photo copyright by Alexander Izbitser) the multi-talented Wallace Shawn, who played the lovable and ill-fated villain Vizzini. Vizzini lost the duel of wits with the masked hero over a poisoned glass of wine. At the Samovar the other night, Shawn appears to have chosen the correct glass, with the result that the evening was probably more like My Dinner with Andre. Or maybe it was reminiscent of Vanya on 42nd Street (just 10 blocks away!), another of Shawn's collaborations with Andre Gregory. In the end, it may turn out to have been the raw material for a new work from Shawn's own pen. Cheers, Mr. Shawn! Na zdorovie!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

More animal sightings

If, as Pushkin said, translators are the posthorses of enlightenment, F. D. Reeve is the fleetest, sweetest of the breed you could ever hope to see kicking up his heels at the Samovar. Early on a recent Friday evening, there he was.

At 80+ years of age, Reeve has done and continues to do more than perhaps any single translator to bring 20th- and 21st-century Russian poetry and prose into English—in spite of being gifted enough simply to roam the earth in the guise of an animal much sleeker than a posthorse, namely, the Blue Cat, Reeve's poetic alter ego.

Far to the left are F.D. Reeve with his wife,the scholar and childrens' writer L.C. Stevenson. To the middle and right, the elusive muses of many, many Russian and/or Ukrainian cultural projects S.K. Harris and G.K. Warnecke (whose photos these are), and right of them all Reeve's fellow cat, Roman Kaplan, looking as if he just ate the canary. Was that on the menu?

You can find out more about F. D. Reeve from his very own website. Hear him read his poetry if you possibly can. F.D., when and where will that be?

Monday, August 3, 2009

Book Party for Michael Idov

Michael Idov is that rara avis who, having failed in the so-called «real» world, has been forced back into his day job as a novelist. Ground Up, loosely based on Idov's Lower East Side coffeehouse dream-turned-fiasco, has its release party at the Russian Samovar this Tuesday, August 4th, at 7pm. The lessons of failure must taste sweet to Idov, though, as his novel already basks in lots of praise, including that of a sort of literary uncle, Gary Shteyngart, who claims he «drank it right up» and found it «charming, manic and delicious.» Although I haven't yet read the book, I have my own personal theory about why Idov's coffeehouse failed, namely, that he idiotically called it «Café Trotsky,» giving the impression that it was a filthy hole where you would go to smoke a lot of cigarettes and talk revolution for hours over the single glass of tea you and your foul-smelling comrades could afford, when what Idov really hoped the masses would do was grab three or four cappucinos to go, every day. And then there are the depressing associations with Trotsky's untimely and gruesome demise at the hands of an NKVD (precursor to the KGB) agent in Mexico. Bad karma. But what do I know about what's in a name? I was convinced post-911 America would never elect a guy named Barack Hussein Obama to the presidency. Anyway, if you miss what will surely be a fun and elegant book party this Tuesday, Idov's doing a reading at the KGB bar in September.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Tonight at the Samovar!

Poet and prose writer Vadim Mesyats will read his poetry and, who knows, perhaps sing his folk and/or somewhat dirty songs (частушки), at 6pm this evening, Sunday, August 2. For a preview, check out this jazz-infused performance. Probably in Russian.

Friday, July 31, 2009

A Puurrrrrfect Evening!

With unerring instinct, Jocelyn Wildenstein, a.k.a. «Catwoman» (you can google her yourself if you haven't already) promptly curled up next to the warmest man in the house.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Elusive Alaska Violinist Sighting!

Paul Rosenthal, whose violinistic pedigree reads to string players like a list of rare wines: Dorothy Delay, Ivan Galamian and Jascha Heifetz (whose unrealized American dream was that people would address him simply as «Joe»), is in town to bring the great Russian composer Sergei Taneyev to the world's ears at Bargemusic this Friday. Rosenthal, inspired by David Oistrakh's performance, was the first American to perform the Shostakovich Violin Concerto (in New York, many years ago)!

That and

his amazing capacity for the enjoyment of vodka (where does he put it, in his leg?) and literature brought him naturally enough to the Samovar last night. If you miss Rosenthal's old-fashioned violin recital program (with the elegant Doris Stevenson at the piano) on Friday, try for the chamber music program Saturday and/or Sunday, in which he will be matched up-bow staccato for up-bow staccato by the inimitable (and need we say Russian?) Mark Peskanov, the quartet rounded out by Stevenson and cellist Jeffrey Solow.

The cherry was good, but the cranberry delightful!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Six Degrees of Separation: Is It Enough?

Artist Lev Zbarsky, one of the designers of the Samovar’s dark, velvety red interior (have a look at the "Cigar Room" next time you're there), frequently can be seen at Roman’s table, just opposite the white piano. I hope Zbarsky (pictured here with Bella Akhmadulina) will forgive me for skipping over his many accomplishments and credits as an artist and a human being to tell you right away how I learned who he was. The friend I was percolating with at the Samovar gestured in his direction, saying, “See that man over there? His father embalmed Lenin.” That’s right, folks. Zbarsky’s dad invented and perfected the secret formula that has kept Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in good condition since his death in 1924, even in evacuation during World War II. The same formula, we can only assume, was applied to Stalin as well until his abrupt removal from the Mausoleum during the dismantling of the Cult of Personality. But Sergei Dovlatov has been quoted as implying that he thinks Stalin might still be in good shape even in his earthen plot behind the Mausoleum. You can read about that in this pretty interesting article by Keith Gessin about what transpired with the high-level embalming profession during the breakup of the Soviet Union.

For more on this fascinating topic you could read Zbarsky’s brother’s book. Ilya Zbarsky, who worked with his father in the Kremlin embalming lab, wrote an insider’s tell-all in the 1990s, with the help of Sam Hutchinson. The book is called Lenin’s Embalmers and is now out-of-print, but probably still in remarkably good condition.

I’m fairly certain that our Zbarsky, Felix Lev (as Anatoly Naiman points out, the only Russian with two first names), fled to this country to escape constantly being associated with his somewhat macabre family. I imagine he thought he could wipe out the memory of secret-recipe embalming fluid (however magical) with the Samovar’s exquisite home-infused vodkas. Even if this has proven impossible for F.L. Zbarsky, we can demonstrate our heart-felt solidarity with him by raising a glass at the Samovar. My friend Celeste swears by the horseradish infusion…

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Table for Two?

A recent evening in the Petersburg Room at the Samovar. Someone tell me these beautiful ballerinas' names and I will give credit where credit is due!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

How High Moon!

Notoriously, Russians learning English have a tough time figuring out when and where to use (or not to use) the articles “a” and “the” (handy tip for Russian readers: just do the opposite of whatever you think sounds good). However, in the case of this entry’s title, I am referring not to the lunar body that holds sway over the world at night and the Samovar in particular, but to Moon, your server at the Samovar who will make you feel as if you are his royal and truly esteemed guest and friend, deserving of the most caring, unobtrusive treatment. Because after all, don’t we go to restaurants because we want to be, if only for a moment, indulged? And isn’t the magical appearance of food and drink at your table, and the equally delightful disappearance of dirty dishes later, at the core of your restaurant experience? Really, you’ll feel that Moon will be personally disappointed if everything is not just how you would love it. I have heard him gently rebuking a customer for a too-generous tip--when was the last time that happened to you?
Like the moon in the sky, our Moon does what he does so well you might forget to notice. But if you’ve lamented that the era of fine table service has been buried in the sands of time, ask to be seated in his section when you come. All the people at the Samovar are excellent, needless to say. If Liz is working, you can fantasize that Jody Foster is waiting on you! But this and other subjects will have to be deferred to a future post. For now, How High Moon! Secret revealed here: Moon can see your aura! Ask him, if you dare, what it looks like.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

In Brodsky's Corner

Here are Roman and a couple of his friends who dropped by the Samovar. They're sitting in Joseph Brodsky's designated memorial corner. From left to right: Philip Roth, Mark Strand and Roman. Behind Roman is a framed poster of a couple of lines of Brodsky's poetry that at one time adorned the interior of New York City subway cars. The lines read, "Sir, you are tough and I am tough, / but who will write whose epitaph?" Food for thought. But tastier would be a plate of herring and onions, which I am pretty sure Roth ordered (Strand astutely chose the excellent borsht). The Samovar's herring transports Roth back to his Newark, New Jersey middle-class Jewish neighborhood, the only way to get there now except by writing fiction. If you are longing for herring, order some at the Samovar. I have a herring disorder, and even I love it!