At the grave of Khodasevich

Khodasevich is buried in Paris – not with Oscar Wilde and other illustrious figures in the romantic hillside cemetery of Père Lachaise, but in the pleasant but undramatic Boulogne-Billancourt nouveau cimetière on the other side of the city, a flat site beside the Seine but with no view of it. ‘Billankursk’ was one of the areas inhabited by the Russian émigrés, where many worked in the nearby Renault factory: refugees from the Bolsheviks were trusted to be non-unionised workers. Nina Berberova wrote a cycle of stories Biankurskie prazdniki (Billancourt Holidays) when they lived at 10 bis rue des Quatre Cheminées. A few blocks south of there, another street where she and Khodasevich lived was renamed in 2005 ‘rue Nina Berberova’.

I admit I have not yet made pilgrimages to the places where they actually lived, but I have visited the cemetery. The first time I went, I found information on the burial place on the internet, as you do, and then realised when we were in Paris and making the visit that I hadn’t brought any of that with me. Never mind, although the lodge at the gate was unstaffed there was a computer screen on which to search for the name of the deceased. I tried every transliterated version of his name I could think of, but nothing came up, so we wandered around inspecting graves on the offchance. In fact when I got home I found that he was in the 2ème division, in front of which I had by chance been photographed.


Back in Paris two years later, I knew only too well that he was in the 2ème, and took with me the picture of his grave from the internet. I tried looking for a precise location on the computer screen but failed again, even with the spelling from the website

Le poète postsymboliste russe Vladislav KODASSEVITCH (1886-1939), qui vécut à Berlin, à Prague puis à Paris. Il fut le compagnon de la poétesse Nina Berberova. S’il occupe une place importante dans la littérature russe, il est peu connu en France (2ème division).

At any rate, there he was, with some evidence of grave-tending though only one of several plant pots had anything living in it (a sedum, tough little things as they are). Someone had also left a small porcelain bouquet sitting on the granite slab – not there in the photo on the website, so evidently quite recent. I hadn’t thought of the transliteration Hodassevitch, as carved on the slab: it doesn’t look to me as if the mason was very confident with the cyrillic though that’s perfectly adequate.

I showed the poet his new book – or at least an image of the cover, as it was still at the printers – and I also felt I needed to read the translation of his poem ‘Gold’. There’s some danger here of self-aggrandising, as the poem tells of how ‘after many many years of darkness / a stranger will come and dig my skeleton up’. I wasn’t going to do that, but in my three years of translating his poems I could hardly avoid finding myself in the role of the man digging up this poet’s buried reputation in the West (he was also ‘buried’ in the Soviet Union, though he did circulate in samizdat, and in present-day Russia his reputation is secure). When he wrote the poem in early 1917, he was translating Polish literature and coming into his prime as a poet, a vocation he took seriously in a very Russian way. His biographer David Bethea must have felt rather like me when he was writing in the early 1980s:

The poem’s title is taken from a passage of Krasinski’ s Irydion, which Khodasevich cites, in his Russian translation, as an epigraph. It refers to the traditional gold coin placed on the mouth of the deceased. What will always shine among the poet’s remains is this piece of gold, this “solntse maloe” (little sun). Then one day some stranger (a future poet) will stumble upon the gold coin and cherish it. Khodasevich’s point appears to be that a small part of him, a psychic core, will never die; it will survive in his verse and continue to be found by later explorers. As Krasinski’s gold was Khodasevich’s find, so Khodasevich’s gold will be a find for someone else. (Khodasevich: his life and art, p. 153).

Next time I’ll bring another sedum, and go to the streets where he and Nina lived. No sign of a rue Khodassevitch yet – but maybe I just haven’t looked up the right spelling.