By: Khochbar Ramazanov
Georgy Adamovich: ‘Creative work is truth in the word together with truth of feeling’
Georgy Viktorovich Adamovich, the Russian poet of the Acmeist school and a literary critic and translator, was born in 1892, in Moscow. He was born into the family of a senior military officer; an ethnic Pole with the rank of a major general who served as head of the Moscow military hospital.
‘We were a military family; two of my elder brothers were army officers. If family legend is to be believed, my Dad said: “This boy’s got nothing of the officer in him – let him be a civilian”. And so it was to be,’Adamovich later remembered.
Georgy studied at Moscow’s Second Gymnasium but, after his father’s death, the family moved to Saint Petersburg where Georgy joined the First Gymnasium.
‘I became part of my mother’s family circle; it was a very ordinary middle-class family. They were far from politics and wished everything to go on in an ordinary way,’ Adamovich recounted.
At the Gymnasium, Adamovich started to take a serious interest in literature, he was especially drawn to French and Russian poetry. In 1910 he entered the History and Philology Faculty of St. Petersburg University.
During his university years, Adamovich was closely linked to the Acmeists. In 1913 he was invited to join meetings of the first ‘Guild of Poets’ and soon became a member of its inner circle which included, among others: Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelshtam and Georgy Ivanov. At that time Adamovich’s poems first appeared in publications in Petrograd (now St Petersburg, ed. note). In 1915 he published his poems: ‘Baltic Wind’ in Golos zhizni, No.12; ‘Elegy’ in the Almanac Zelyony tsvetok; ‘Abandoned’ in Ogonyok, No.17; ‘All that I Remember Are Bridges and Stones’ in Novyi zhurnal dlya vsekh, No.6, and ‘How Merciless the Eternal Pact’ which was dedicated to Anna Akhmatova in Novy zhurnal dlya vsekh, No. 8. He also published the stories: ‘Merry Horses’ in Golos zhizni, No.8 and ‘Light on the Stairs’ in Ogonyok, No.40. Later he published his poems and stories in Severnye zapiski, Birzhevye vedomosti, and Apollon, and he contributed to the almanacs and collected works: Evening of the Trireme V… (1916), Thirteen poets (1917), Pipe (1917), Poets’ Spring Salon (1918) and others.
In January 1916 the publishing house Hyperborean issued Adamovich’s first collection of poetry: Clouds which included 25 poems. Reviewers noted the irreproachable style of the author, however they said that there were examples which, rather than show originality, were a skilful rendering of existing forms (specific to Blok, Annensky, Kuzmin, Akhmatova and Verdern). V.F. Khodasevich said that it would be premature to give an evaluation of the poems saying that ‘you could not begin the work of critiquing Mr Adamovich’s work until you had first mentioned his teachers.’ Reviewing new poetry books of the Acmeist school, Gumilyov said that Adamovich was the ‘poet who has not truly established himself’, but whose poems sometimes ‘reflect a way of thinking which may grow into an individual style and even a personal philosophy’.
Adamovich graduated from the University at the height of the revolution in 1917. These dramatic events, for which there was no analogy in terms of their savage rage, and about which Ivan Bunin wrote for posterity with such sorrow and disappointment in his diary Cursed Days, could not be passed over by a young student, even in spite of his attempts to focus on literature exclusively. ‘I have to confess, I had no interest in politics even in my youth. My interests were literary. Very early on I became acquainted with the poetic circles of St. Petersburg where politics was also discussed very little. But I remember, for example, 9 January 1905, those anxious days, I remember the war with Japan which scared a lot of people. And some kind of liberal inclination developed in me that was in opposition to my family. But when the war of 1914 began, of course, everything changed. My elder brother was a senior officer of the life guard of the Keksgolm regiment during the war. I remember how he came from the front line to see us in 1916, nearly eight months prior to the revolution. I asked him how he thought the war would end. He was a dedicated monarchist, with no thought for revolution, but if he did think of revolution, it was with fear. And I was shocked by his answer: ‘In the end they will string us up.’
In his interviews and memoirs Adamovich often mentioned those times and events which led to great changes in Russia: ‘I remember the months before the revolution, the extraordinary agitation of the public. The war dragged on, we felt that Russia may not survive the war due to the underestimated power of Germany. But I remember well 1 November 1916 when Milyukov gave his speech to the Duma in which, for the first time, the empress Alexandra Feodorovna was mentioned in a not altogether positive tone. According to Russian tradition, it was prohibited to publicly criticize representatives of the imperial family. But in a speech in which he asked several times; ‘is this stupidity or treason?’, Milyukov said that ‘Russia is ruled magnificently by a titled hysterical woman.’ We were absolutely shocked by this phrase. It was not published in the press but, as so much of what the Duma does, it became instantaneously famous.
After such events society was agitating and it became clear to us day by day that something important would happen very soon.
My aunt was a rich woman, she had a carriage. A couple of weeks prior to the revolution she took her carriage out somewhere and returned pale and frightened. ‘I do not know what people are like these days, but once I was in my carriage, and some man stopped me and said: “Well, sit down, sit down – you won’t be riding about for long.”’ That was the mood in the streets.
I visited the University on the 24th or on the 23rd. There was a guard, perhaps a former soldier, a veteran. He knew me well and talked to me quite often. And he suddenly said to me: ‘We will tuck Nikolashka upside down soon.’ It was unbelievable to hear that. The old attendant at the University actually said these words to a student; – it really was the end of the empire, the dissolution of the country.’
Like his contemporary writers and poets, Adamovich felt deeply the dissolution of the empire. The financial difficulties that faced him and his family accompanied the desperate feeling that this was not reality, that everything was a dream. Three months prior to the revolution, his sister Tatiana Viktorovna Adamovich got married, and the young family needed to find somewhere to live. In late 1916 the city was so full of refugees from the frontline regions that it was simply impossible to rent a flat. Not only houses but also streets were full of people. Having broken up posters depicting Nikolay and other imperial symbols, crowds of 50-100 people gathered around a street agitator. But even this did not alert Adamovic’s mother. On 26 February 1917, at the height of street disorders and shooting, she decided to go to the theatre. Adamovich remembers that in spite of attempts to keep her at home, she went out. ‘I told her that it was dangerous, they were shooting in the streets, but she answered: “Yes, but I have booked the seat, I have to go!’”
But on the next morning, 27 February, an armed rebellion by part of the Petrograd garrison began. Interns of the reserve battalion of the life guard of the Volynsky regiment numbered 600 people. Soldiers decided not to shoot protesters but to join the workers. The chief of command headquarters, staff captain, I.S. Lashkevich, was killed by his own subordinate.
Adamovich remembered that on that frosty February morning his sister, who managed to rent only half of an apartment which belonged to the prison governor who was awaiting imprisonment in Shpalernaya (the first detention centre of the future KGB), came running to him wearing only a nightie: a crowd had destroyed the prison and threatened to kill the governor, and also the sister and her husband, who all had to run for their lives.
After the October revolution Adamovich translated the works of French poets and writers (Baudelaire, Voltaire, Heredia), as well as poems of Thomas Moore (The Fire Worshippers) and Lord Byron, for the publishing house ‘World Literature’, and later, while living in exile, he translated works by Jean Cocteau. In cooperation with G. Ivanov he translated Anabasis by Saint-John Perse and The Stranger by Albert Camus.
The poems written in 1916-1922 were included into Adamovich’s second book of poetry Purgatory (1922). Like Clouds, here we can feel the dominance of loneliness and melancholy, but with the essential difference that behind the 47 poems is the real experience of his ‘first banishment’: Adamovich had to leave for Novorzhev (near Pskov) in the early spring of 1919, during the very hard times of “War Communism”, where, for almost two years, he taught pupils in the local school. Adamovich left Russia rather late in comparison with the first wave of emigrants. It was only in 1923, six years after the revolution, that he moved to Berlin, and then settled in Paris.
As a critic he is published in the magazine Sovremennye zapiski, the paper Poslednie novosti, and then in Zveno and Chisla thus, step by step, earning the reputation of the ‘first emigrant critic’. He wrote little poetry and yet it is precisely to him that poetry in emigration is indebted for the development of the Parizhskaia Nota – his extreme and sincere expression of spiritual pain; – ‘truth without embellishment’. Poetry is meant to be the diary of human sorrows and sufferings. It should reject formal experiments and become ‘un-artificial’ because language is incapable of expressing all the depth of the soul and the ‘unlimited mystique of day-to-day life’. Pursuit of the truth becomes the emotional centre of gravity in Adamovich’s poetry during his period as an emigrant. The Russian thinker, G.P. Fedotov, called Adamovich’s path: ‘ascetic wandering’.
According to Adamovich, creative work is the truth in the word together with truth of feeling. To the degree that the personality exists completely free from the world; from will and desires; from its consideration of needs or incentives, a feeling of metaphysical loneliness can predominate. The traditional meaning of poetry; as an embodiment of a harmonic, individual and unique view of the world, seems no longer attainable. Poetry goes beyond the role of lyrics, the diary and chronicle which communicate with factual veracity man’s position in the midst of reality. Adamovich called the article in which his early generalised thinking and the artistic credo of the poets of the Paris Note are set out: ‘The Impossibility of Poetry’ (1958).
Adamovich’s opinion was challenged by his major literary antagonist V.F. Khodasevich. A discussion widely opened by them in 1935 which focused on the priority of aesthetics or the truth in a modern literature became one of the most important developments in the history of the culture of émigré community. Adamovich proceeded from the conviction that poetry had to express, first of all, the “heightened feeling of a person” who cannot find a support among old religious and artistic traditions. And Adamovich matched the ‘clarity’ of Pushkin with the ‘concernedness’ of Lermontov which were more suitable for the modern sentiment. His own poems are full of melancholy for St. Petersburg (for Adamovich ‘there was only one capital on earth, the others were just towns’). There is a sense of emptiness which surrounds life, and the artificiality of the spiritual values which life offers. There is the consciousness of the joy and bitterness of freedom which was achieved by the generation of emigrants who left Russia, but who have found nothing to take her place. Arguing that the poetry is no more able to turn into a career, a precept or a philosophical concept, Adamovich however often challenged these points in his own works.
At the beginning of World War Two, Adamovich became a volunteer for the French army. After the war he collaborated with the newspaper New Russian Word. His sympathy for Soviet Russia led to discord within certain circles of the emigrant establishment. Adamovich’s latest collection Unity was published in 1967. The poet turns to his eternal themes: life, love, death, loneliness and exile. The themes of love and death unite the poems into a collection and explain its title. Turning to metaphysical issues did not mean the rejection of ‘beautiful clarity’ and ‘simplicity’. According to the poet and critic, Yu.P. Ivask, Adamovich continued Acmeism in his own way. He was continuously feeling for the form which was the body of the poem, the poetic existence of the word. Answering his own question: ‘what should poems consist of?’, Adamovich wrote: ‘So that everything should be clear, poetry exists only in that space between thoughts which is penetrated by a transcendental wind.’ It was the creative grand purpose which was formulated by the poet as below:
To find the words which do not exist in the entire world,
Ignore the image and the colour,
To let white eternal light flash
But not a little lamp fed with cheap oil.
In 1967 the ultimate collection of critical essays Commentary was issued. The same word was used by Adamovich to describe his literary articles which were regularly published from the middle of the 1920s (initially in Paris in the magazine, The Link, and, since 1928, in the newspaper The Latest News, in which he wrote a weekly book review). Adamovich had a very wide range of interests. As a critic he did not miss any significant development in either émigré or Soviet literature. Many of his remarkable essays are focused on the Russian classical tradition, and also on Western writers who had a reputation in Russia. Being free of a strict literary methodology, and revealing his antipathy to ‘systems’, Adamovich constantly preferred the form of a ‘literary discussion’ (this was the common title of his regular column in The Link). He also preferred articles which were about a personal topic that was simultaneously important for a general and detailed understanding of the author’s aesthetic views.
Commentary (in which the drama of a Russian literature that was divided in to two camps was printed), to a great extent, was responsible for the selfidentity of the young émigré literature in the nineteen twenties and thirties.
Gaito Gazdanov spoke about Commentary with great respect. What follows is from a private letter sent by Gazdanov to Adamovich: ‘Dear Georgy Viktorovich, do you remember, I told you on the telephone that I would like to write a letter regarding your book. And now, sitting at the table and starting the letter, I realise that I have accepted a challenge which is, if not unbearable, then at least extremely difficult. Because it is necessary to write a lot about this book and in detail; and, if I did so, it would probably be tiresome, and unlikely to be interesting.’ However, we must not forget that at that time, Gazdanov headed the Russian editorial team of Radio Liberty, and there he had enough time, and did speak about Commentary. On 18 December 1967 Gazdanov dedicated airtime to Adamovich in general and to Commentary in particular: ‘Georgy Adamovich is a poet and a literary critic. He is a contemporary poet to Gumilyov, Mandelshtam, Georgy Ivanov, Blok and Akhmatova whom he was close to. He spent his life in exile in Paris where he is living now. He is one of the best experts in the field of Russian poetry and literature, and a man of European culture – in the same sense of ‘European culture’ to which all the best Russian writers of the 19th century and the early 20th century belonged. His book Commentary shall be recognized as one of the most beautiful examples of that field of literature which the French call: ‘Essai’. This is not criticism in a literal sense, or a literary survey, and it cardinally differs from so-called literary analysis which is published widely both in the Soviet Union and abroad and which involuntarily recalls the damning words by Tolstoy: ‘Critics are those stupid people who write about intelligent people’. The Commentary by Adamovich represents discussion about the fate of religion, about Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, about everlasting topics and about Russian and European culture. What should be specifically noted: Adamovich was a strongly cultured person who had a pure literary taste and such a degree of freedom of conviction and ideas that their development would be impossible in the circumstances of Soviet censorship.He wrote on everything that attracted his attention, and in such a manner that it could only belong to a person with strong analytical skills and a literary expertise which is not limited by any restrictions and rules, and which is nowadays very rare. As you know, the history of Russian literature – according to its teaching during the Soviet and tsarist periods– is full of gross errors. Gogol is called: ‘the founder of realism’ and Belinsky the ‘great critic’, and so on, till the ill-fated socialist realism. The history of Russian literature, according to Adamovich, represents something completely different. ‘I think, in comparison with what was written about literature in the Soviet Union, that literature opens up new horizons – I say this having no fear of falling into overstatement.’
There is little information about the friendly relationship between Gaito and Georgy. Maybe it arises from the fact that both literary men are still underestimated. However, it is possible to glean some information. Adamovich actually wrote about Gazdanov in the magazine Russian Mind 45 years ago, in December 1971: ‘I became close friends with Gazdanov not that long ago, and in recent years he called me almost daily, we talked a lot, at least while we both lived in Paris. So, at that time, I valued his quick original mind and sharp wit, and even his natural kindness which had formerly escaped my understanding – or my attention. During the pre-war period of life in exile something prevented me from associating with Georgy Ivanovich. He was always bombastic, especially when it came to public meetings which were held in Paris very often at that time. He did not accept any influence, and ignored any opinions except his own. I would like to stress that we built friendly relations and drew close much later, and I understood much later how good and true Gazdanov was in his kindness, how truly human he was. We discussed literature, often mentioned Lev Tolstoy whom he revered deeply. He put Dostoevsky almost on the same level but with some reservations. Mostly, I remember the mood of our communications – neither here nor there, nothing special, just our day-to-day life which formed our existence over the years…’ (Russkaia mysl′, No. 2875, 30 December 1971, p.10).
They often discussed literature on Radio Liberty. Adamovich called his friend: the most dedicated follower of Ivan Bunin, and Gazdanov highly appreciated Adamovich writing the following words in private letters to him: ‘I hope, a certain number of people will read Commentary, but how many of them are able to understand this book? I know personally three or four individuals who may benefit from reading it. But what about the rest of the people? Of course, in this it is impossible to blame the author. But, believe me, Evtushenko, Voznesensky or Akhmadullina are not capable of understanding the content, not to mention references to Pascal, Montaigne or Alain. I do not want to say that the book should be written differently – God forbid! But Russian culture is in a sad state now, particularly its Soviet section. It is too sad. Commentary is a luxury product which it can’t afford…’
Adamovich died on 21 February 1972, just three months after Gaito Gazdanov. The death of two literary friends marked the end of an extensive literary period in Russian émigré art whose influence and importance cannot be overestimated.
Images from “Ogonyok”, “Niva”, “L’Illustration” (1917) and the album “The history written by the lens” (История пишется объективом) have been used in the article.