A Week in Culture: Barry Yourgrau, Writer


The Culture Diaries


7:15 A.M. Istanbul. A bleary departure from the Pera Palace Hotel after three nights of its punctiliously restored Orient Express–era fineries. We own a sixth-floor walk-up nearby in Cihangir (an arty neighborhood dear to Orhan Pamuk), but my girlfriend Anya decided to rent it out. So we’ve stayed in a “Greta Garbo” suite here, with photos of GG on the wall and a view not of the Golden Horn but of a minor soccer stadium named for Tayyip Erdogan, the moderate Islamist prime minister, a former semipro football player from the poor neighborhood close by. “Footballer” on a politician’s CV is not to be slighted in soccer-mad Turkey. Hakan Sükür, the country’s iconic player, now retired, will run on Ergodan’s party ticket in the June elections.

Last night, döner and leg of lamb for au revoir dinner at Beyti, a sprawling palace of meat. Anya recounted dining beside Ralph Fiennes the night before. The ex–investment banker now at our table (“We like you anyway,” I told him, grinning hostilely) told a cute story about Ralph’s cousin Ranulph Fiennes, the preposterously adventurous explorer. Some financial analysts were inspecting a Tesco supermarket in London, and in the main subzero storage freezer they came across a tent. Ranulph Feinnes was staying in it, prepping for the Antarctic. “Any pictures of Garbo?” I asked, to mostly puzzlement.

Pamuk’s name came up, with the inevitable Istanbul confidence-sharing about how admirable a writer he is, but such a tedious read.

7:40 A.M. Our cab to the airport has functioning seat belts, a rarity in Istanbul’s rocketing traffic. We’re en route between pearls: from the Pearl of Istanbul—the Pera Palace—to the Pearl of the Black Sea—Odessa. In the new book Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams by Charles King, which I’ve been studying for the trip, the following observation: “As the saying went, cheats learned their profession in Pera … but practiced it in Odessa.”

4:00 P.M. Odessa, Ukraine. We’ve settled into our grandly high-ceilinged—if sparsely furnished—rental in a pleasantly grubby courtyard on the main drag, Deribasovskaya. The Pearl of the Black Sea is famous for its courtyards. The surgarplum neobaroque Viennese State Opera house rises bang around the corner. Odessa, sprucing up after a rough post-Soviet transition, was considered the Paris of Russia in the late nineteenth century, a gush of Europe on the steppes, with its wide avenues and candy-colored neoclassical edifices. It was a tremendous wellhead of Russian culture and humor, renowned for its Jewish character. (It was the largest city in the old Pale of Settlement.) Anya, a Moscow-born food critic, is doing a long overdue piece on the restaurants. My interests: Isaac Babel, an early writer-hero of mine; the Potemkin Steps and their movie; and Vladimir Jabotinsky, the fervent father of ultranationalist Revisionist Zionism, who was a son of Odessa, too, so I’ve learned.

I’ve developed a sudden, strange fascination with Jabotinsky. His politics and ongoing political legacy are anathema to me. I’m Jewish save for a Catholic paternal grandfather, but I was raised and remain antireligious (across the board). I’m beyond the Woody Allen position, as I don’t really self-identify as a Jew. My Berlin-born, assimilated father lived in Palestine in exile from the early thirties until it became Israel. But he was a vocal anti-Zionist, publishing a magazine of commentary that was put of out business by a right-wing bomb. My mother worked as a secretary at the King David Hotel; she was sneaking a day at the beach when it was blown up.

But Jabotinsky possesses a lurid, arty aura, I find, like Mussolini (whom he admired early on) or perhaps d’Annunzio. He was a novelist, journalist, poet. That he and the Cossack-accompanying Red, Babel, were both Jews from Odessa I find a fabulous historical irony.


11:00 A.M. At the Bristol Hotel, its grand rose-colored edifice spankingly refurbished, a theme is born: no photographs allowed. Another theme: the crudely tie-and-jacketed muscle-bound goon stationed “urbanely” by the front desk.

1:00 P.M. Anya takes my picture by the plaque on the former Babel family residence on Rishelyevskaya Street, where Babel lived as a teen. I clutch in hand the paperback of his collected stories in Walter Morison’s translation that I stole from the Swarthmore College bookstore as a teenager decades ago … and that I finally read, thunderstruck, after graduating.

9:00 P.M. Dinner with Savva, the owner of Dacha restaurant, a nobleman’s neoclassic dacha breezily restored in buttery yellow and white on the old outskirts of town. It’s part of Savva’s savvy-charming group of eateries. Ukrainian dumplings and honey-and-red-pepper vodka; nostalgic Soviet tunes on the sound system. Beloved Stalinist jazzman and crooner Leonid Utyosov hailed from Odessa. Russia’s most haunting song from WWII, “Dark Night,” was sung by the archetypal Odessan movie character, played by Mark Bernes (who somehow wasn’t from Odessa himself). Savva laughs at how the ex-Odessites in Brighton Beach—Brooklyn’s “Little Odessa”—are lost in a time warp. They imagine the Odessa just as they left it. “They scratch out a life on welfare and feel superior,” he says. “While I just got back from two weeks vacation in the Piedmont.”


11:30 A.M. Anya’s elderly mom, Larisa, has arrived. Born in Odessa, she lives near us in Jackson Heights, Queens. As we plod the seaside promenade toward the mid-nineteenth-century pile of Londonskaya Hotel, I ask if she’s stirred, being back. “Not at all,” she snorts. She hated every minute in the USSR. Anya spent Brezhnevian childhood summers here and loved it.

It’s Palm Sunday. Instead of palm fronds, people carry little sprays of pussy willows.

12:15 P.M. At the Londonskaya. Eisenstein, all of twenty-seven years old then, stayed with his crew in these vast-ceiling rooms while filming Battleship Potemkin:

“Can I take photographs?”

On the second floor I sneak snaps of the displays of memorabilia of Eisenstein, Mayakovsky (he’d read his poems aloud here), Mastroianni, Bernhardt—etc, etc. (What, Hemingway didn’t stay here?) I mull explaining the concept of “tourism” to the post-Soviet hotel staff.

6:00 P.M. Yevgeny Golubovsky, dean of local cultural journalists and vice president of the culture-boosting World Odessit Club, eeriely resembles Miles Malleson, the jowly old English comic actor in The Thief of Bagdad and A Christmas Carol. In his apartment thick with brave but humdrum “modernism” from the Soviet sixties and seventies, he describes the statue of Babel finally to go up, in July, in a playground across Rishelyevskaya from the Babel residence. Babel will be gazing at his old home. His surviving daughter Lydia will attend the dedication. Golubovsky has supplied the intro to a special edition of Red Cavalry and Red Cavalry Diaries which the World Odessit Club will shortly publish, with illustrations by the venerable Yefim Ladyzhensky.

I show Evgeny Mikhailovich my shoplifted paperback from college. He grins, grins wider when I tell him how my younger brother Palle loves Babel, too, so much that when teaching philosphy in Madison, he himself gave a class on Babel because the university didn’t provide any. I make a joke about searching in vain for the house where Mark Bernes, that arch movie-Odessite, was born. Golubovsky shows us a still from a film where Joseph Brodsky, just back from exile, played a WW2 soldier defending Odessa. Then authorities discovered his presence and most of his scenes had to be reshot.

11:30 P.M. Palle e-mails back his delight and surprise that they’d actually known of his old Babel class in Odessa!! I have to explain that he misunderstood my e-mail. He has just published a new critical biography of Simone Weil (speaking of non-Jabotinskian) and is on a hairtrigger for reviews coming out. Anya demands I knock off the lame Mark Bernes jokes (she has to translate them). And quit my endless crooning of the first two words of the “Dark Night” song on the street. Anya’s mom pleads with me to stop going on about Jabotinsky.

Barry Yourgrau is author of Nastybook and The Sadness of Sex, in the movie version of which he starred. Check back tomorrow for the second installment of his culture diary. On May 19, in London, Yourgrau will be reading with Dan Rhodes at Idler Academy.