A Week in Culture: Barry Yourgrau, Writer, Part 2


The Culture Diaries

This is the second installment of Yourgrau’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.


11:00 A.M. To the Privoz, Odessa’s signature sprawling bazaar market, alas now overly spruced up. Anya and her mom want to talk to the babushkas. Most of the stalls seem run by women—huge-girthed, older, sharp of tongue (famously), sporting flowery headscarves and preposterously frilly French-maid aprons even while sawing lamb carcasses. The scene suggests a chaotic operetta with edible props. I sample five homemade Bessarabian wines from plastic water bottles, then a scrumptious brownish baked yogurt.

One massive dame, a vast beauty like some folkloric monument to Ceres, asks if I’m Anya’s dad. When told I’m her boyfriend she wisecracks that I must be very rich to be with someone so young and pretty. Anya and her mom guffaw at this notion (me and wealth). Anya compliments the lady on her looks, and the woman sighs, Nyet, she’s too fond of moonshine. With a few friends, she says, she can put away four liters. (That’s a gallon and we’re not talking pinot grigio.) Anya gasps in amazement.

7:00 P.M. At the opera: a great gilded proscenium echoed by ranks of smaller gilded prosceniums, the boxes and balconies. Tchaikovsky’s Iolanthe is the offering. The male voices are fine, but the lead soprano playing the blind princess has a vocal wobble of seismic intensity. Jabotinsky’s 1935 novel of Odessa, The Five—only recently translated into English and supposedly an excellent portrait of the city a century ago—opens with a scene here. Jabotinsky: “The beginning of my Zionist activity is connected with two influences. Italian opera and the idea of self-defense.” I think of Walter Benjamin’s line about fascism as the aesthetization of politics.


1:30 P.M. In the World Odessit Club’s comfy clutter to meet Alexander Rosenbaum, literary ethnographer and Babel authority. His nose is long and prominent; his air, agreeably haughty. He wears a suave tweed jacket (five pens peep from a pocket) and smokes super-slender cigarettes, tapping the ash off with a finger. I haul out my shoplifted paperback. “Good,” he approves. “You needed it more than the bookstore did!” He cites the famous line about the power of a period from Babel’s “Guy de Maupassant.” I respond with another “Guy de Maupassant” line about warming the sentence in hand like a lever. Glubovsky is with us, and we all break into shared grins.

Rosenbaum is putting together a sequence of essays on Babel, including interviews with folk who knew Babel personally. Working title: The Magician of Odessa. He suggests Babel wrote his Odessa tales of gangster Benya Krik and the like in part to soothe himself after the horrors he experienced with the Cossacks. Also, he sensed the character of his old raffish neighborhood, Moldavanka, disappearing with the Soviets.

I forbear with my Mark Bernes gag. Rosenbaum, however, sees out with a sudden stream of corny jokes, turning from literary scholar to borscht belter. E.g., Waiter: Soda with syrup or without? Customer: Without. Waiter: Without cherry syrup or without peach syrup?

5:00 P.M. I finally track down Odessa’s former prestigious high school, the Academy of Commerce, just off the promenade heights. A quota on Jews was in force a century ago, making for hellish entry competition. Babel got in. Jabotinsky, according to my guidebook, tried four times but failed. Anya’s mom pleads with me to quit with the constant Jabotinsky references and wisecracks.

7:30 P.M. Bulletin from another life. The new ranking of the world’s fifty best restaurants is out. Number one, again, is our friend René Redzepi from Copenhagen. The list is thick with the chefs and philosophy Anya has long championed as a critic. I figure I’ve eaten at seven of the list’s top ten. I want to boast about this (being a gastro-amateur, Anya’s “plus one”); I settle for mentioning it here.

Then I scan the tart piece on the best-fifty competition in the Times by our friend Lisa Abend, who’s just brought out The Sorcerer’s Apprentices, an account of the kitchen apprentices at Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli. Ferran is really the father of all that’s been happening in the chef world, even when it appears opposed to him. We’re supposed to eat at El Bulli a last time before it closes this summer. Question: who’d play Ferran in the movie? Anya thinks Javier Bardem. But he’s got the wrong nose, I think.


11:00 A.M. Tears in my eyes at the excellent Literary Museum, an old aristocratic cream-yellow manse near the Opera. Here, in the Babel display, are his iconic rimless eyeglasses, the ones he so heartbreakingly is without in his last photo, taken during his tortures at the Lubyanka. He would be murdered shortly after. Photographs show him as a new father, grinning with an infant in arms (Nathalie? Lydia?), and by grazing horses. There is an early copy of Red Cavalry, before it was banned: a single black horseman on a white cover. A succession of guardian-babushkas naturally warn me not to take photos. Our guide turns up and upbraids them that I’m a “zhournalist.” In the museum’s garden of comic sculptures, Babel crouches happily in a comic angel-winged group of litterateurs—without his eyeglasses. No need for them in heaven, I’m told.

3:00 P.M. Potemkin Steps. I do a solo restaging (as director, cameraman, and actor) of the legendary movie’s massacre scene—on the very steps themselves. Bewildered looks from general public. The steps were originally named the Boulevard Staircase. They’re much wider at the bottom than the top—not just to give the illusion of not diminishing, but also to provide support against landslides. Eight of the original two hundred steps have been lost to the avenue below, along which traffic goes blasting. A hideous eighties hotel tower rises on the wharf beyond. A large statue there depicts the city as a lumpy baby being hatched from some kind of egg. The kid is called little Nikita, after Khrushchev. The sculptor famously was harangued by Khrushchev at an art show decades before, but then was invited by the Khrushchev family to do the graveyard statue after Khrushchev’s death.


A further Odessa connection per Battleship Potemkin: Grigori Aleksandrov, Eisenstein’s assistant director who also played one of the naval officers, later directed the first Stalinist movie musical comedy in the mid-thirties, the rollicking Jolly Fellows. The picture earned prizes at the Venice Film Festival and was lauded by Graham Greene, among others. It’s star: Odessa’s jazzman Leonid Utyosov. Stalin joined in singing one of Jolly Fellows’ hit songs at a famous congress of Stakhanovite workers.

I sit by the statue of Utyosov lounging on a bench in the City Garden and place my hand familiarly on his knee.


2:00 P.M. An au revoir meal at Dacha, a table in the garden trees with Soviet oldies lilting through the still leafless trees. It’s our third time here; we’ve fallen in love with the place. Owner Savva tells us nobody cares anymore about Moscow with its glitz and brutality; if they travel, they go elsewhere. Great, we’re headed to Moscow for three weeks. Anya is working on a book on the Soviet experience through all its decades, told via a family-food memoir.

3:30 P.M. At Odessa’s pocket airport, I decipher the Cyrillic sign at a poky area of café tables: Business Class. Chuckling, I snap a picture as a linguistic trophy. The lady attendant immediately descends. “NYET.” I apologize, turn away. Not good enough. She angrily demand-mimes that I erase the photo! “Are you joking?” I demand in English. She isn’t. I try to leave again. She grabs my arm. “Kontrol!” she cries, threatening to haul me to security. I erase the photo under her scrutiny, seething. Cursing in English, I storm along to find Anya. She learns from the attendant that the business-class café is private property: no pictures allowed by the non-business class! She laughs with delight.

11:00 P.M. Moscow. Our rental is on the twenty-third floor of a Brezhnevian skyscraper. Below, across a bend of the Moscow River blazes the Hotel Ukraina, one of Stalin’s seven “wedding cake” skyscrapers. To the right, Russia’s White House parliament building, where Yeltsin first faced down a coup and later fired shells at his political opponents. Our tower block is pretty shabby on the outside, but the wide sidewalk in front is jammed with luxury SUVs.

Tomorrow, Anya meets the chef at the Central House of Writers restaurant around the corner. From a balcony of the establishment’s English neo-Gothic Oak Hall, Stalin’s NKVD henchman Lavrenty Beria would scan the scene for girls. Beria oversaw Babel’s execution in 1940. Jabotinsky died the same year, it turns out, of a heart attack, while inspecting one of his youth-movement martial camps in upstate New York. In the Catskills.

Barry Yourgrau is author of Nastybook and The Sadness of Sex, in the movie version of which he starred. On May 19, in London, Yourgrau will be reading with Dan Rhodes at Idler Academy.