Barry Yourgrau’s story “Sand” appeared in our Spring 1985 issue. It appears (in slightly different form) in his collection Wearing Dad’s Head, reissued this month by Arcade Publishing along with another of his books, Haunted Traveller. Read More
“The only Russian writer whose works will be read all the way through”—that’s what Joseph Brodsky called Sergei Dovlatov. This prophecy has proved true (at least, one work at a time) for some of us here at the Review. To read Dovlatov is to love him, whether he’s telling stories of his Armenian-Russo-Jewish family, rediscovering the 1960s in the contents of an old suitcase, or relating the misadventures of an alcoholic docent at a Pushkin museum. He writes short, he writes sad, he writes funny. Dovlatov was born in 1941 and grew up in Leningrad. Although he could not get published at home, his early creative work found an audience in the West after friends helped smuggle it out of the USSR. Facing a campaign of harassment by the KGB, the writer emigrated to Queens in 1978, where he wrote books, stories, and journalism. He died in 1990.
Tomorrow there will be a celebration of Dovlatov’s work at the Frants Gallery in Soho, with readings by Lara Vapnyar and Barry Yourgrau (whose essay on Dovlatov, “The Troubadour of Honed Banality” appeared on the Daily). The night will mark the opening of an exhibition of Dovlatov illustrations by Alexander Florensky. For details on the event, see the Frants Gallery Web site.
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.
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.
As the late Édouard Levé once wrote, “I like watching anything shot on Super 8, even though that is in such predictable good taste.” We feel the same. So imagine our delight to discover this video of the melifluous and virtuosic Barry Yourgrau reading one of his recent Gangster Fables—shot on an iPhone using the “8mm” app.
Here endeth the ad.