Baudelaire in Russia

Baudelaire in Russia

Hokanson, Katya

BALDa.AIRE IN RUSSIA. By Adrian Wanner. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996, xi, 253 p.

Adrian Wanner’s book, Baudelaire in Russia, sets out to answer ambitious questions, such as how influential Baudelaire was in Russia and whether his poetry had a real impact on Russian letters and society. These are good questions, and the book itself is extremely interesting, but ultimately such questions elude answers and may well be unanswerable. Wanner closely follows individual poets’ and cultural figures’ interpretations of Baudelaire.

Warmer offers a fascinating window on translation issues. His discussion of the various ways in which a core group of Baudelaire’s poems have been translated (and mistranslated) over time is insightful and illuminating, not only with regard to the reception of Baudelaire but also with regard to the various Russian literary schools’ approaches to the arts of writing and translating poetry. Presumably one could choose from a number of poets frequently translated into Russian and come up with an interesting account of how a particular poet’s work fared over time. As Wanner points out, however, Baudelaire holds a special place in poetic mythology as the “father of modern poetry,” as a major influence on later poets and as a revolutionary poet-a mythology Wanner sets out to test. Throughout, Wanner’s translations into English are well done, revealing to English readers the nuances of the various Russian translations. Needless to say, readers who know both French and Russian will get the most out of the book and are no doubt its primary target .

Wanner provides an overview of Baudelaire’s reception in the West, pointing out that the Russians were the first to translate him and to read him as a social critic. Baudelaire’s earliest admirers and translators in Russia were, in fact, revolutionaries and radicals of the 1860s and 1870s. The first Russian edition of Baudelaire, published in 1894, was translated bv a convicted terrorist, P. F. Yakubovich, who emphasized Baudelaire’s social critique and minimized the erotic, decadent, and necrophilic aspects of his poetry. In Russia, over time, Baudelaire was viewed as, and translated as, a “social critic, decadent, symbolist, revolutionary, reactionary, aestheticist, pornographer, nihilist, and religious prophet” (Wanner, p. 2).

An important difference between Baudelaire’s reception in France and his reception in Russia was that while he became a revered figure in France (and therefore ceased to be considered provocative), his work was banned under Lenin, Stalin, and Kruschev. For that reason, the poet who had started out as a controversial and scandalous figure in both countries remained so (at least officially) in Russia, thereby retaining a certain status among Russian poets and readers that he had lost in France. This status was enhanced hv the fact that, as Wanner notes, quoting Victor Terras, in Russia there has been a “persistent claim to a social function” for literature. Literature provided almost the only forum for the discussion of politics, and so the name or aura of a banned writer was always useful for getting across political or social critique. This kept Baudelaiz-c’s image, if not his poetr,’, alive and well for Russians for quite a long period of time.

Following the social radicals’ version of Baudelaire, which emphasized revolttionary rhetoric and social critique, came the decadent reading of Baudelaire, which emphasized a stance against the materialism, positivism and utilitarianism of nineteenth century bourgeois culture. In Russia, decadence was also zz response to the “sterile dogmatism of the radical intelligentsia,” as Warmer puts it (p. 56), which was known for its “religious” zeal and pious proclamations. French critics such as Bourget and Gautier, who were accessible to the Russian educated class, (which followed French literature, politics, and society closely) established a decadent reading of Baudelaire. Qualities of artificiality, morbidity, and “the beauty of evil” were trumpeted in opposition to bourgeois ideals of naturalness, health, and morality

Russian decadents of the 1880s and 1890s, such as Balmont, Minsky and Merezhkovsky, translated Baudelaire in st decadent style. More accurate than Yakubovich’s revolutionary style, it nonetheless rendered Baudelaire in the most negative and solemn way possible. For example, Balwont translated the line “Des divans profonds comme des tombeaux” (“Divans, deep like tombs”) from Baudelaire’s poem “La Mort des amants,” as “Like greedy coffins opening for us” (“Kak zhazhdye groba, raskroiutsia dlia nas”). In changing the divans into beds in the previous line, and in turning the image of divans that are deep like tombs into that of bed-coffins greedily opening, Balmont renders the image in a far more aggressively morbid way than the original did.

Both Russian decadent poets and Baudelaire’s poetry suffered from the antidecadent backlash brought on by Max Voz-dan and his ilk in the 189Os. Nordau’s 1892 book, Degeneration (Entartung), became an international best-seller, criticizing contemporary art, music, and literature as psychopathologically aberrant Though Baudelaire was eventually rehabilitated as a serious writer, the characterization of his work as decadent was to remain solidly in place, later to be used by Soviet detractors.

Baudelaire’s heyday in Russia coincided with the symbolist movement, which followed that of the decadents. What is probably Baudelaire’s most famous poem, “Correspondances,” took on a life of its own during the reign of symbolism, and the Russian word for correspondences became “an omnipresent slogan, a catchword.” Between 1900 and 1910 there was a huge growth in the demand for Baudelaire; between 1907 and 1909 four Russian editions of Les Fleurs du Mal (which had been previously banned) were published. Once again, a new version of Baudelaire had been formulated, in this case one that fit the Russian symbolist mold, which decreed that art was a revelation of a higher, transcendental truth.

After the symbolist generation, there was less interest in Baudelaire’s poetry among Russian poets, although they continued to appropriate him for their own causes, this time as a poet of modernity. The Acmeist Lev Gumilyov and the Cubofiuturist Benedikt Livshits actively read Baudelaire, the latter creating a postsymbolist translation of “Correspondances” that demystified it by Using concrete, practical imagery. Attention was paid to the “modern” features of Baudelaire’s poetry, such as fragmentation, shifting perspectives, and fast pacing. For successive generations of Russian poets, Baudelaire came to be a symbol of modernity.

Wanner concludes that the impact of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, while difficult to assess, was probably not great. The best Russian poets, such as Akhmatova, Blok, and M/andelstam had the least to say about Baudelaire, while his most prominent supporters were either poets of little note or good poets who thoroughly rewrote his poetry to suit their predilections. Baudelaire’s influence, Wanner concludes, was most important as the image of a provocateur who challenged doctrines and as a poete maudit who was an inspirational figure. In the final analysis, Wanner argues, Baudelaire continued to be venerated more for what he represented- a mythical presence, a poetic icon, an anti-establishment figure-than for what he wrote.


University of Oregon

Copyright Comparative Literature Fall 1997

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