Recalled by Vsladislav Khodasevich
The following essay, by the great poet Vsladislav Khodasevich, was published in the book `Necropol'', a copy of which I found by chance at Leiden University Library. It provides a revealing portrait of a woman who enjoyed having mysterious bonds with influential people of her time, and sheds new light on a relationship that was indeed of vital importance to the creation of Rachmaninoff's songs, but that more than a few biographers have tended to romanticize just a bit too much.
I was twenty. I lived in Moscow, wrote decadent poetry and was not suprised about anything, really, rather did I like to surprise others. One day, at the Circle of Writers and Painters, an unknown, older lady approached me, handed me a letter and asked me to read it and answer it at once. This is how the letter went: `You suppress M. and you beat her. I love her. I challenge you. For a weapon I suggest a foil. Tell my messenger where and when she can meet your seconds. Marietta Shaginian.' I acted as if I was not surprised. Just to be sure however, I asked:
- `Is this serious?'
I knew Shaginian by face only. Then, in 1907, she was a dark-haired young lady, a frequent guest at concerts, lectures and the like. They said she wrote poetry. Shaginian did not know M., of whom she spoke in the letter, either. She just annoyed her with ecstatic letters, declarations of love and her willingness `to defend her to the last drop of blood'- of which M. was not in the least needy, of course.
I put the letter in my pocket and said to the second: `Tell miss Shaginian that I do not go to duel with ladies' Some three months later, the door-keeper handed me a bunch of violets.
`They were delivered by a deaf young lady, who asked me to give them to you - she did not reveal her name.' And thus we declared peace, but still did not know one another. Only a few months later we met and consequently became friends.
I rather liked Marietta. She was, as you may call it, an eighteen years old mess of all kinds of ideas; all sorts of `-isms' and `-hoods', that she picked up and made her own hastily, only to abandon them just as hastily. Apart from that she wrote poetry, studied music theory, fenced and even busied herself with mathematics, I believe. Little did she understand about ideas, theories, schools, sciences and movements, yet she was always gripped by something. Just as little did she understand about people and their personal relationships, but she had a good heart and, waving her paper sword, she was continually defending or attacking someone. Somehow or other, she however, always managed to attack `the good' and defend `the bad'. Yet all of it happened in complete sincerity and with all the best intentions.
Since she unvaryingly lived in the ecstatic condition of a person who found `the truth' in the end, she invariably pitied someone like me who enjoyed the most hopeless wanderings of the soul. Shaking her head, she would always say:
- `A, poor Vladya! What do I have to do with you?'
- `Thanks Marietta, but I think I can save myself'
- `No, you cannot be saved. It is very sad indeed, but that is the way it is.'
In the end I refrained from contradicting her: I understood she liked to play that I was irretrievably lost, and that she saw it, but was unable to do a thing. Thus it remained for ever.
She was always completely taken by someone. At times these were persons she did not know at all, like M. for whom we had to duel. When we just met, S.V. Potresov-Yablonovsky was her idol.
- `It is a special human being, Vladya. You really should know him the way I know him.'
- `I very much respect Sergei Viktorovitch...'
- `No, you cannot appreciate him at all. Shut up.'
- `Please shut up. You cannot be saved, poor Vladya. What do I have to do with you?'
The most difficult part came, when the place of S.V. Yablonovsky was taken by Z.N. Hippius.With immediate effect it became clear that I:
1. Was desperately uninformed in religious matters.
2. Aimed at destroying Christianity - and , worst of all -
3. Set up a plot against Z.N. Hippius, such was my hatred of her.
Marietta did not wish to hear any kind of justification. As soon as I opened my mouth, Marietta said, as if accusing me:
- `Remember, Vladya. Remember the things that await you. It is terrible, but you are irretrievably lost.'
Only after long confirmations and repentant sighs, she permitted me to look from afar at the little box with letters from Z.N. and her portrait. Suddenly, I believe it was at the end of 1909, Andrey Bely took the place of Z.N. Hippius. Marietta knew him barely, or, perhaps, did not even know him. Still, during winter nights, she sat for hours on end on a post in Nikolsky's Alley, just next to Bely's front door, dressed in a fur mantle and wearing a fur cap - that she took off in a men's fashion when someone greeted her - with a thick stick in her hands.
- `Imagine, yesterday they held me for the door-keeper.'
I was allowed to speak about Bely, until she met him. From then on, it seemed that there existed between them such a very special bond on `the ultimate' that every hint to that theme on my part was blasphemy. And, once again:
- `Vladya, you are irretrievably lost.'
The number of her letters to Bely was infinite. The secret of their talks complete. I came to Bely, and he came to me. However, it was the greatest care of Marietta that we should not meet at her place. She received us separately and all that concerned Bely was veiled in darkness and whispers.
Indeed, for some reason or other it was a period of mystery. Marietta had a room in an enormous, sinister, half-ruined house somewhere tucked away on a church-yard. To visit her, one had to pass through kitchens, rooms and little corridors in which, most probably, bats lived. In any case there were veritable troops of rats. The landlady was an old, shabby woman with a beard, a gipsy, an Armenian or a Jew who was continuously drunk. One day, I knocked on Marietta's door. She popped her head out:
- `Oh it's you? You cannot come in now. You have to wait. Walk through the corridor and take the second door on your right. There is a lumber room. It is dark in there. Next to the door there is an old trunk. Go and sit on that and do not move, otherwise you might knock down something. I will fetch you later.'
Groping, I found the door, went in there. On the trunk one could vaguely discern a kind of bag, most probably a bundle of clothes. I mounted it, and there I sat. It was dark. All of a sudden something started moving under me, and a drunk women's voice bralled out:
- `Who is sitting on my...?'
Under such circumstances there is no real need of introducing oneself. I was put out, so to say, and looked at my student's coat and, without dismounting the lady, said, generally:
- `A student.'
Marietta came to fetch me. I told my story. She made a sad face.
- `That is not at all something to laugh about. You are irretrievably lost, Vladya. But the worst thing is that Borya (Andrey Bely) is lost too. For you, I will plant a fir-tree.'
And so she did. She treated me to bitter macaroons and wailed:
- `You do not understand a bit of it, dummy.'
After Andrey Bely, Rachmaninoff came. Marietta gave me a whole lecture on music, she shook her head in despair:
- `Poor Vladya, poor Vladya!'
After Rachmaninoff E.K. Medtner came. So we talked about Goethe. Marietta sorrowed:
- `Poor thing, you are irretrievably lost, you do not understand a single thing about the second part of Faust.'
Thus we saw one another till 1911 and suddenly somehow lost contact. At the end of 1920, already in Petersburg, someone showed me a copy of the regional `Pravda' with a most despicable charge against all intellectuals who `sabotaged themselves' to take it out on the bolshevists, hoarded soap and food, hungered and wasted themselves away out of grudge against the bolshevists, while they indeed could have an easy life. Signed: Marietta Shaginian.
A few days later, I met her. I asked whether she was not ashamed of herself. I said it was time for her to grow up. She grabbed her hair:
- `A charge? Oh, what have I done! That is horrible! I have only just returned from Rostov, I have no idea of how it is around here. I wanted to convert the intellectuals for their own good, you see. We all are in the debt of the people, we should serve the people. The masses... Marx... Jesus Christ... Comrade Antonov...'
It transpired she wrote patriotic articles in the south. Yet the bolshevists came and she had met the honourable comrade Antonov (I believe), a kind of bolshevist Robespierre, absolutely unbribable. And, of course, she had become a bolshevist herself. The wisdom of the Ispolkom were mixed by her with Christianity, the 'narodism' and all odds and ends of bygone days. About her article she sadly remarked:
- `Well, that is a tactical mistake. But in the end I am right. O, my poor Vladya, what a pity you did not turn communist too!'
Shortly after that she took up her abode in the House of Arts, where I, too, lived. She went to the bolshevists to proclaim Christianity. She came to me to praise A.L. Volynsky. She put Volynsky aside. She fell in love with the most honou-rable L.G. Deytsh. Her deafness became much worse. To talk to her, you had to sit right next to her. For hours on end, she and Deytsh sat in her enourmous, chilly room. Marietta remarked:
- `The old man is a Saint! He teaches me Marxism and I tell him about Christianity! And you, poor Vladya, you are irretrievably lost!'
In those days I composed many poems. Sometimes, as of old, I showed them to Marietta. She read them, shook her head:
- `Your poems are greater than you are. You do not even begin to understand what it is you write. I will explain it to you sometime...'
As usual she was completely taken by defending the suppressed, helping the needy - and, as always, mistaken. When she had got a great number of rations, she shared them with the same maid-servant who had a reputation for robbing the inhabitants of the House of Arts - the hungering writers. In the end she stole everything from Shaginian too.
There were in Petersburg twenty-five rations for writers. When I arrived there, they all had been assigned already. They decided to give me the ration of Blok or Gumilyev, and to put one of them under `the learned', since they taught at the institutions. The choice fell on Gumilyev, to his advantage, since the learned got clothing that was not given to the writers. A few days later, Shaginian and I sat, at the reception of World Literature, on bamboo chairs next to the window. Gumliyev came in, he took a few brushes with him. I asked:
- `What kind of brushes do you have there?'
Gumilyev smiled and answered:
- `Those are distributed in the House of the Learned. They took off my writer's ration, so now I have to put up with brushes.'
That was shortly after Marietta's arrival in Petersburg. She listened to the talk and as Gumilyev walked out she asked excitedly:
- `Vladya, who is that?'
- `And why did they take his ration from him?'
- `To give it to someone else.'
- `To whom ?'
- `To me.'
- `Vladya, are you not ashamed! And you took it?'
- `That is the way it is, Marietta; the fight for one's existence.'
- `That is unprincipled, Vladya !'
She immediately wanted to look into the matter, to protest, to defend Gumilyev. With much difficulty, I explained to her how it all came to be. Reassured she caressed my hair and said:
- `Poor Vladya, you still are the same strayed person.'
When Gumilyev was murdered she did not shrink from forcing his widow, through the administration, to move out, and then moved into Gumilyev's rooms herself after she made her own relatives live there... All of it with much fuss and no thinking.
All of this crossed my mind as I read a line, recently published by Shaginian, in a Soviet magazine:
- `Many of us, who do not understand that we simply lost readers, think we lost freedom.'
In reaction to that line, I have heard many unfavourable comments. The line itself is, of course, appalling. Yet when I think of its author, I have to smile. Not without a certain bitterness, but still, smile.
Poor Marietta! She probably thinks she came to that thought in a specific way, and put it to paper for a specific reason. Yet I know there were no `ways' or `reasons': her head was a mess and it still is. She did not `put to paper' that unlucky line, she just `blabbed it out', and as usual she was mistaken, as usual they were someone else's words, words that she can repeat and develop quite cleverly. Who knows the name of her present idol? And how does she herself understand that idol? Under whose dictate does she, unintentionally, write her articles. Under whose dictate will she write tomorrow?
Vsladeslav Khodasevich, 1924
Translation by Elger Niels