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…