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Monday
Aug222011

A Forgotten Poet

What we cannot imagine as citizens of our countries and, to a certain degree, citizens of the world, is not being able to return to our homeland.  Time shows that certain luxuries should not be taken for granted – money, health, appearance, attractiveness, cerebral precision – but we have little opportunity to ruminate the inability to travel.  In fact traveling and reading – the voyage of the soul – are two things we know we can accomplish at virtually any age.  There are few limitations on where we might venture and in this age of globalization, copyright mayhem and internet omnipresence, even fewer things that we cannot read.  Taking one of these liberties away would be odious; removing both would be an abomination.  Yet this is exactly what occurred behind the Iron Curtain under the auspices of New Russia, or whatever it was called.  Travel was generally restricted to other countries of the Socialist Brotherhood, and books were limited to those fine tomes whose protagonists exemplified the dynamic and heroic struggle of the proletariat against the evils of unchecked capitalism.  As dire as the fate of those ensconced within New Russia must have been (the point need not be belabored), there is also the plight of the writers and artists forced to quit their home for fear of violence or censorship.  In their minds Russia lived in a cryogenic state, frozen in the two decades preceding the Revolution when Russian literature had become the most brilliant and magnificent tradition in the world.  Russia may never regain its literary apogee, and in the meantime we must content ourselves with stories such as this minor masterpiece.

Ostensibly we are dealing with a nineteenth-century lyricist named Konstantin Konstantinovich Perov (which may call to mind this minor poet), who "had been styled the Russian Rimbaud" before his untimely drowning at age twenty-four – not that, of course, any form of drowning might be termed "timely."  It is now 1899, the semicentenary of the poet's demise.  In honor of his recently rehabilitated position near but not quite in the Russian pantheon, a celebration is had in "ponderous, comfortable, padded St. Petersburg."  The momentous occasion in "one of the best halls of the capital" indeed involves the true immortality of a writer, his reputation and readership after his decease; but other motives are present:

The hall was well packed with literary people, enlightened lawyers, schoolteachers, scholars, eager university students of both sexes, and the like.  A few humble agents of the secret police had been delegated to attend the meeting in inconspicuous spots of the hall, as the government knew by experience that the most staid cultural assemblies had a queer knack of slipping into an orgy of revolutionary propaganda.

This last observation is perhaps not as trenchant in retrospect even though, in the late nineteenth century, many promised and predicted mutiny against the Tsars; what they did and could not foresee was the empire that rose from the ashes of Imperial Russia.  In this literary hall an old man appears from the crowd, passes in front of the portrait of Perov hung centrally in his honor, and introduces himself as the poet in question, now a wizened greybeard of, however, acute taste and sensibilities.  He is not believed.  A delightful pantomime ensues with the man's feverish attempts to remain part of the conversation (he drags a piano bench towards the table of Amphitryon-like luminaries), as if he were attending his own wake.  Perov's poetry, praised by the omniscient third-person narrator at the story's onset, contained some elements that might be loosely termed incendiary.  There is a "veiled but benevolent allusion to the insurrection of 1825"; he is labeled "Russia's first experience in freedom"; he is exalted for his prescience, even if this insight could not possibly have been conscious at the time (such is, alas, the fate of authors whose works outlive them).  Throughout these proceedings awkward tension builds, as if the corpse were twitching in his coffin or as if all too many of the guests came to realize that the body resting in peace inside the half-open pall was not the person being feted.  Is that person really the old Perov lurching behind the hosts, retaining "a remarkable dignity of demeanor," and explaining away his fifty-year hiatus as an impulsive display of Christian hermithood? 

What is and what is not resolved by the end of the story will not, of course, be revealed here.  Some readers might take exception to Nabokov's intentional vagueness regarding the origins of the "imposter," as he is called, but these readers need simpler ways to pass their time.  In all fairness, it might be worth pointing out that 1899 was also the year of Nabokov's birth and "the early twenties" the first years of his prodigious literary output.  The "lifespan" of our old, forgotten poet is precisely the period between Nabokov's creation and his becoming a published creator, so that he is an imposter insofar as his own voice has not been discovered until that point.  I fear these comments are as vague as the tale itself.  Another sidelight: A Forgotten Poet was composed in 1944, a year in which Nabokov was safely distant from his homeland and the bloodbath that used to be his Europe.  On the other ruthless hand, Russia at the same time was lurching towards a hegemony that would plague the world for almost another half-century.  No, still quite mystifying.  Perhaps Perov – derived from the Russian word for "feather" or "plume," a very appropriate name given his vocation – might furnish a better summary:

If metal is immortal, then somewhere
There lies the burnished button that I lost
Upon my seventh birthday in a garden. 
Find me that button and my soul will know
That every soul is saved and stored and treasured.  

That this is doggerel if nobly intended should be one hint; that Perov was seen to have "tears trickling from under his glasses" may well be another.  There is also a museum, a bench, and a text called The Georgian Nights, which is praised repeatedly and which may be understood as the watershed in Perov's truncated career.  Lastly I should mention that posthumously Nabokov in his homeland did not suffer the same cruel fate as Perov.  Who of his countrymen knew him as he walked the earth, however, is another matter entirely.

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