A book to look forward to this year: Portraits Without Frames by Lev Ozerov, to be published by NYRB Classics, with translations from the Russian by Maria Bloshteyn, Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski. Ozerov (1914-1996) was born Lev Adolfovich Goldberg in Kiev. Like Vasily Grossman, he served as a front-line journalist during the German invasion, and after the war published a long poem about the massacres at Babi Yar. In six months the Nazis shot at least 100,000 people, most of them Jews, in a ravine near Kiev.
Six of Ozerov’s poems, translated by Chandler, are included in The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (2015). In his introduction to Ozerov, Chandler says Portraits Without Frames was published posthumously and “comprises fifty accounts, told in a variety of tones and with deceptive simplicity, of meetings with important figures, many – though not all – from the literary world.” Among the subjects are Boris Pasternak, Nikolai Zabolotsky, Isaac Babel, Shmuel Halkin and Varlam Shalamov. The poem about Shalamov (1907-1982), author of the brilliant Kolyma Tales, describes a man still “battered by Kolyma.” Ozerov meets with Shalamov in a café, and asks him to read his poems. Shalamov, who spent fourteen years in the Gulag, opens his knapsack:
“Inside it a wooden spoon
hobnobs with crusts of bread,
death, after all,
can creep up
on you any moment.”
On an American street, we might mistake Shalamov, one of the last century’s great writers, for one of the faceless, homeless mentally ill. Shalamov reads his poems and Ozerov thanks him. Shalamov replies:
“`No, it’s for me
to thank you. Who
nowadays asks anyone
to read poems?’ he says
hoarsely, with feeling.”
When they are finished in the café, Shalamov puts away his manuscript. “Out we both go / into the winter outside. / `It’s a cold day,’ I say. / `What do you mean?’ he says. / `It’s warm.’” Here is one of Shalamov’s poems, translated by Chandler:
“Snow keeps falling night and day.
Perhaps some god, now turned more strict,
is sweeping out from his domain
scraps of his old manuscripts.
“Sheaves of ballads, songs and odes,
whatever now seems bland or weak –
he sweeps them down from his high clouds,
caught up now by newer work.”