Odessa: City of Writerly Love

Walking along Pushkin Street on the kind of dazzling spring day the Odessan writer Aleksandr Kuprin warned visitors to avoid—the smell of acacias in bloom, he wrote, can induce newcomers to fall in love and take foolish steps, like getting married—I crossed Bunin Street, named for the Nobel Prize-winning short-story writer, then Zhukovskogo, a street named after the romantic poet said to have been Pushkin’s mentor. Near the opera, a golden sign announced the Odessa Literary Museum.
Writers fall in love with cities all the time. But ever since Pushkin spent thirteen months here in 1823, Odessa has been a city infatuated with its writers. At the Odessa Literary Museum—housed in a dilapidated palace in the city center, it is one of the largest shrines of its kind in the world—docents can tell you the number of days a given writer was here (Chekhov, who once spent half his paycheck on Odessan ice cream, came four times and stayed a total of sixteen days) and who wrote which chapters of their greatest works while in residence (Pushkin completed the second chapter of “Eugene Onegin” and half of the third here, but despite the popular claim that he began “Onegin” in Odessa, the poet actually rewrote the first chapter here, which more or less counts). They can also tell you who burned manuscripts written in Odessa (Gogol relegated most of the second part of “Dead Souls” to the flames on his return to Moscow after wintering here), whose wife was probably Odessan (Nabokov’s, Vera), which great writers passed through here yet never revisited the city in prose (maybe Nabokov, definitely Leo Tolstoy), who included Odessa in his fiction sight unseen (Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, Balzac), who wrote in a letter to a friend of his intentions to visit but never did (Dostoevsky). And that’s just by the by: the museum’s twenty rooms feature some three hundred writers associated in one way or another with this city on the Black Sea that was, once upon a time, the glittering, cosmopolitan third capital of the Russian Empire.
Dreamed up in 1977 by Nikita Brygin, a red-headed former K.G.B. officer with a passion for literature and drink, the Literary Museum was an extraordinarily difficult project to undertake. At the time, the building was in ruins, and the repressive political climate made opening anything more than a sycophantic showcase for Soviet propaganda literature nearly impossible. Brygin, however, used his K.G.B. connections and persevered, managing to get permission for his dream museum. He engaged a team of enthusiastic young women, who gathered materials for very little pay and set to work. “He was a special character, an adventurer,” said Helena Karakina, the museum’s scientific secretary, who started work here in 1982, two years before the museum opened to the public. “He liked to involve people in business, not for money but for the soul.”
Karakina passed through the gilded green room devoted to Pushkin (who called the city “dusty” three times; today, the superlative phrase “Odessan dust” still pops up on furniture billboards), and led the way through the chronologically ordered exhibits, none of which have been altered since 1984. In a room set up like a nineteenth-century bookshop, she stopped.
“What you see in the museum, in addition to literature, is the mentality of nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties,” she said, pointing out that the museum’s designers, in a between-the-lines protest of the Soviet regime, built the bookshelves in the shape of a large cross. “You could not speak openly, you could speak only with symbols.”
In a room whose centerpiece is a salon table at which Chekhov may have sat, a broken violin on the wall alludes to Aleksandr Kuprin’s short story “Gambrinus,” whose main character is Sashka, an Odessan violinist whom sailors flock to, because he can play any song from any land. During a pogrom, he disappears. When he returns, both his hands are broken. The story ends with the triumph of art over the forces of destruction, as Sashka takes up the harmonica.
Next came Gorky, who spent time observing Odessa’s dockworkers; Akhmatova, who was born here; and Mayakovsky, whose love for a beautiful Odessite was unrequited. In the room devoted to the “Odessa School” of Russian writers of the nineteen-twenties, Karakina pointed at one display after another: “This is the ‘King of the Metaphor,’ ” she said, referring to Yuri Olesha. “Here is Kataev, ‘The Man Who Could Stop Time’—if you want to taste a grape in 1910, open his book and you can do it,” she said, adding, “It was a cruel time, many died young.”
Isaak Babel, Odessa’s most famous native son, has a smaller display than Vera Inber, Trotsky’s second cousin, who survived, then thrived, by praising Stalin. “The authorities said to us, ‘Forget about it, your Ukrainian pride, you can put all of Babel in four small cases,’ ” said Karakina, of the author of “Red Cavalry,” who also created Benya “The King” Krik, the good-hearted Jewish gangster from Odessa’s Moldavanka district. There is no mention of Babel’s death—he was murdered by the secret police in 1940—unless you count the cloudy pair of disembodied glass spectacles, a gift to the museum from his widow, that are displayed as though they are floating above his writings.
While the downstairs rooms devoted to postwar Soviet literature are now closed because, Karakina tells me, “it is not literature,” the next room on our tour is blocked off by chairs because the ceiling is falling in (the state-funded museum has no money for repairs). We walked through, anyway, past walls of smiling workers. The subversive in-house museum designers favored photos taken in gulags (to highlight the irony of the Soviet message), and books lined up “like soldiers.” The bookshelves themselves are brown, while other parts of the exhibit are painted Soviet red. “If you do not read symbols, it was an official wall,” said Karakina. “But the brown stood for fascism, and together with the red, it is to say that both systems are like one another.”
Among the information elided in the cinema display is the fact that the poet Joseph Brodsky, needing work, came to Odessa shortly before he went into exile—a director friend had cast him as a good Communist in a war film. (He was promptly denounced, and most, but not all, of his scenes were cut.)
In one of the last rooms, officially dedicated to a nineteen-seventies writers’ congress held in Spain, the designers almost went too far. “People from K.G.B. came, and they said, ‘What means this red frame and black ropes—like for hanging?’ ” said Karakina, standing beneath an old-fashioned typewriter that looks like a death’s head. “Usually stupid people don’t understand symbolism. But they understood.” The exhibit’s designers pointed to the Guernica reproduction on the wall, and convinced the secret police that the black ropes stood for deaths incurred in the Spanish Civil War, not the Soviet situation.
“In 1983, it was dangerous,” Karakina reflected. “It was not Stalin’s time, we would not be sent to Siberia. But you could lose the privilege to live in the city—in Odessa.”
Today, the Literary Museum holds festivals, readings, concerts, and classes for children—fulfilling an important function in a city which, as the Odessa-born American poet Ilya Kaminsky put it, “in its present incarnation, has more monuments to dead writers than actual living ones in residence.”
More here.


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