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Sophia Parnok: The Life and Work of Russia's Sappho

Copyright Date: 1994
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 382
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  • Book Info
    Sophia Parnok
    Book Description:

    The weather in Moscow is good, there's no cholera, there's also no lesbian love...Brrr! Remembering those persons of whom you write me makes me nauseous as if I'd eaten a rotten sardine. Moscow doesn't have them--and that's marvellous." - Anton Chekhov, writing to his publisher in 1895 Chekhov's barbed comment suggests the climate in which Sophia Parnok was writing, and is an added testament to to the strength and confidence with which she pursued both her personal and artistic life. Author of five volumes of poetry, and lover of Marina Tsvetaeva, Sophia Parnok was the only openly lesbian voice in Russian poetry during the Silver Age of Russian letters. Despite her unique contribution to modern Russian lyricism however, Parnok's life and work have essentially been forgotten. Parnok was not a political activist, and she had no engagement with the feminism vogueish in young Russian intellectual circles. From a young age, however, she deplored all forms of male posturing and condescension and felt alienated from what she called patriarchal virtues. Parnok's approach to her sexuality was equally forthright. Accepting lesbianism as her natural disposition, Parnok acknowledged her relationships with women, both sexual and non-sexual, to be the centre of her creative existence. Diana Burgin's extensively researched life of Parnok is deliberately woven around the poet's own account, visible in her writings. The book is divided into seven chapters, which reflect seven natural divisions in Parnok's life. This lends Burgin's work a particular poetic resonance, owing to its structural affinity with one of Parnok's last and greatest poetic achievements, the cycle of love lyrics Ursa Major. Dedicated to her last lover, Parnok refers to this cycle as a seven-star of verses, after the seven stars that make up the constellation. Parnok's poems, translated here for the first time in English, added to a wealth of biographical material, make this book a fascinating and lyrical account of an important Russian poet. Burgin's work is essential reading for students of Russian literature, lesbian history and women's studies.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2504-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-x)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
    Karla Jay

    Despite the efforts of lesbian and feminist publishing houses and a few university presses, the bulk of the most important lesbian works has traditionally been available only from rare book dealers, in a few university libraries, or in gay and lesbian archives. This series intends, in the first place, to make representative examples of this neglected and insufficiently known literature available to a broader audience by reissuing selected classics and by putting into print for the first time lesbian novels, diaries, letters, and memoirs that are of special interest and significance, but which have moldered in libraries and private collections...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xix-xxii)
  5. Author’s Note
    (pp. xxiii-xxvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    The first thought of many prospective readers of this biography will probably be: “Who is Sophia Parnok?” The simplest answer explains why the question arises and why this book exists.

    Sophia Parnok is a Russian poet and the only openly lesbian voice in Russian poetry.

    From the standpoint of her traditional Russian poetic family, Parnok was an outsider and a “fair stranger.”¹ From her own perspective, however, she was an insider, the possessor of esoteric, elemental knowledge. She believed that communicating that knowledge through her lyrics, “from one soul straight into another soul,” had the power to bind and unbind...

  7. 1. “That Marvelous Female Tenderness …”
    (pp. 15-43)

    At the turn of the twentieth century, the sleepy, whitewashed southern town of Taganrog on the inland sea of Azov had a population of about 61,000 inhabitants, the majority of whom were involved in trade and commerce. A century earlier, Taganrog had been a major Russian port, but its economic importance had steadily declined until it ranked only tenth in exports and eighth in imports among the port cities of imperial Russia.¹

    The city’s multinational population included many Greek and Turkish subjects whose cultures contributed to Taganrog’s exotic, un-Russian atmosphere. In the port area, with its ever-present Turkish feluccas and...

  8. 2. “Love Summons Me, and I Won’t Contradict Her …”
    (pp. 44-88)

    After Parnokh’s comic poem of farewell, all traces of her vanish for two years. It is unlikely that she stopped writing during this time, but whatever she did write has been lost. It is equally unlikely that she spent the whole two years in Taganrog, but where she might have gone is also a matter of supposition. Since she had an uncle in St. Petersburg, it is possible that she spent some time visiting him in the capital.

    She may also have lived in Moscow during part of those two years. Toward the end of her life she once happened...

  9. 3. “Oh, Steal Me Away from My Death …”
    (pp. 89-138)

    Parnok wrote this to Gurevich at the beginning of January 1913 after she had received a letter from Lyubov Yakovlevna that “made a very strong impression” on her. Gurevich had once again expressed her faith in Parnok’s poetry and had asked why she had decided to leave Petersburg and the career she had finally begun to make for herself there. Parnok replied that she had become aware of a profound change in herself. Almost without her noticing it, her “consciousness had been reborn,” and everything that had seemed necessary to her before had now become unnecessary. She linked the change...

  10. All illustrations
    (pp. None)
  11. 4. “There’s No Way Back, for You, Me, or Us …”
    (pp. 139-191)

    At the end of the year Parnok and Tsvetaeva went to Petrograd for about two weeks, and stayed at the home of Chatskina and Saker. It was Tsvetaeva’s first trip to the capital and her introduction to literary society there. Among the many new people she met were the Kannegisers, the family of an eminent naval architect. They took her on a whirlwind tour of the city that left her with lasting impressions of “freezing cold, multitudes of monuments, fast-driving sleighs … and huge marble fireplaces,” where it seemed “whole groves of oak” were incinerated. But the main thing that...

  12. 5. “While My Other Self Roams in the Wilds …”
    (pp. 192-240)

    After Eugenia Gertsyk left Moscow in September 1922, Parnok went into a prolonged physical and spiritual decline. Illness forced her to stop working for the last two months of the year. She described her state as a “fainting fit of the spirit” that made it impossible for her to see or hear anything. “Even music doesn’t reach me!” she wrote to Gertsyk. “I haven’t written a single line of poetry since the day you left. I am dead andmalevolent,repulsive. I’m sick almost all the time—bronchitis and constant stomach problems. I’m utterly miserable about the poverty and exitlessness...

  13. 6. “Into the Darkness … the Secret Drawer!”
    (pp. 241-269)

    The New Economic Policy was terminated in 1928, and radical changes in Soviet economic, political, and cultural life followed. By the beginning of the thirties, Stalin had prevailed over his main political opponents and had ascended to absolute power. Stalin’s program of “building socialism in one country” led to the forced collectivization of agriculture and the forced industrialization, through five-year plans, of the Soviet Union’s still only minimally recovered and backward economy.

    From 1927 government and party control of the arts and literature became similarly centralized and dictatorial. All remaining cooperative publishing enterprises were curtailed. A representative of the censor...

  14. 7. “Hello, My Love! My Grey-Haired Eve!”
    (pp. 270-306)

    The major and often only source of information about the last eighteen months of Parnok’s life is the poems she wrote to her last lover, Nina Yevgenyevna Vedeneyeva. Born in Tiflis, Georgia, in 1882, and educated in part abroad, Vedeneyeva was a physicist at Moscow State University and a colleague of Tsuberbiller’s. Her brother was a prominent engineer, one of the builders of the Dnieprostroy hydroelectric dam, which meant that she had family connections at the top of the Soviet intelligentsia, a class of people whose lives were ruled by outward conformity, discretion, and meticulous observance of propriety. When she...

  15. Epilogue
    (pp. 307-310)

    The Karinskoye druggist, who was married to a local acquaintance of Tsuberbiller’s and Parnok’s, came to Tsuberbiller’s aid as soon as he heard that Parnok had died. He contacted all the people whom Olga Nikolaevna needed, obtained the official documents required to transport the poet’s body back to Moscow, and made arrangements with a carpenter to make a coffin, a long, wooden box with only a mordant on the exterior for decoration.

    At seven in the morning on August 28 the procession of those friends of Parnok’s who had managed to gather in Karinskoye began its seventy-five kilometer trek to...

  16. Appendix
    (pp. 311-312)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 313-340)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 341-344)
  19. Index of First Lines of Poems by Parnok Cited in This Book in This Book (in the order of their appearance)
    (pp. 345-350)
  20. Index
    (pp. 351-356)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 357-357)