From Necropolis, which will be published this month by Columbia University Press. In the book, Khodasevich (1886–1939), a Russian poet, profiles Symbolists who lived in Russia in the early twentieth century. Translated from the Russian by Sarah Vitali.
On the night of February 22, 1928, in a wretched little hotel in a wretched little neighborhood in Paris, Nina Ivanovna Petrovskaya turned on the gas and took her own life. When the newspapers reported her death, they called her a writer. Somehow, though, the appellation doesn’t quite suit her. To be frank, her writings were insignificant, both in quantity and in quality. She didn’t know how to—and, more importantly, certainly didn’t want to—“waste” what little talent she possessed on literature. She did, however, play a conspicuous role in the life of literary Moscow between the years of 1903 and 1909. Her personality exerted an influence over certain circumstances and events that might seem entirely unconnected to her name. Before I offer my account of her, however, I am obliged to touch upon what is often called the spirit of the era. Without such explanation, Nina Petrovskaya’s story would be incomprehensible, and perhaps even uninteresting.
The Symbolists had no desire to separate the writer from the human being, the literary from the personal biography. Symbolism was not content to be merely an artistic school, a literary movement. It was constantly striving to become a means of life creation, and therein lay its deepest and possibly most unmanifestable truth. However, to all intents and purposes, its perpetual striving toward that truth formed the backdrop to Symbolism’s history. This history consisted of a series of attempts—at times, truly heroic ones—to discover the proper alloy of life and art: a philosopher’s stone of art, if you will. The Symbolists stubbornly sought out the genius in their midst, the one who would be capable of fusing life and art together into one. We now know that such a genius was never to appear and that such a formula would never be discovered. In short, the story of the Symbolists turned into a story of broken lives, and their art remained, as it were, incompletely manifested: only a fraction of their artistic energy and inner experiences was expressed in their writings, while another part leaked out into their lives, just as electricity leaks out when it lacks sufficient insulation.
In the first edition of Let Us Be Like the Sun, Konstantin Balmont wrote (in the dedication, no less): “To Modest Durnov, an artist who has fashioned an epic poem from his own personality.” At the time, such words were far from empty. They were deeply ingrained with the spirit of the age. Modest Durnov, an artist and versifier, did not leave his mark on the world of art. A few feeble poems here, a few inconsequential covers and illustrations there, and it was all over. But his life, his personality, were the stuff of legend. The artist who created an “epic” not in his art, but in his life, was a legitimate phenomenon at the time. And Modest Durnov wasn’t alone. There were plenty of others like him—Nina Petrovskaya was among them. She composed the “epic poem of her life” with greater skill and decisiveness than anyone else could have.
Nina concealed her age. I think that she was born around 1880. We met in 1902. When we first became acquainted, she was already an aspiring fiction writer. I believe that she was a bureaucrat’s daughter. She had graduated from gymnasium and then taken courses in dentistry. She had been engaged to one man and married another. Her youthful years were accompanied by a drama she did not care to recall. As a rule, she didn’t like to look back on her early youth, the time that had come before the “literary period” of her life. Her past seemed poor to her, pathetic. She found herself only after falling in with the Symbolists and the Decadents, the Scorpio and Griffin circles.
The Symbolists led a singular sort of life there, unlike the one that she had previously known—perhaps unlike anything else at all. They were attempting to transform art into reality and reality into art. As a result of the blurriness, the tenuousness of the lines that delineated reality for these people, life events could never be experienced as life events, pure and simple: they would immediately become a part of one’s inner life, a part of one’s art. Conversely, anything written by anyone at all would become a life event for everyone else. Thus, reality and literature were both shaped by what seemed to be collective forces.
I am incapable of making a sketch of Nina’s inherent character as a memoirist ought to do. Alexander Blok, who came to meet the Moscow Symbolists in 1904, wrote to his mother that Petrovskaya was “very sweet, rather smart.” Such labels don’t even begin to describe her. I knew Nina Petrovskaya for twenty-six years: I saw her kind and cruel, yielding and stubborn, cowardly and brave, submissive and willful, faithful and false. One thing remained constant: in both her kindness and her cruelty, in her truths and in her lies, always and in everything, she wanted to take things to their limit, to their very edge, to achieve a certain sort of fullness—and she demanded the same thing of others. Her motto might have been “all or nothing”—and that was to be her undoing. But this quality was not born in her of its own accord; it was instilled in her by the era. This was Symbolism’s exclusive, fundamental doctrine. One could exalt both God and the devil alike. One could be obsessed with anything at all, so long as the obsession was absolute.
Hence the Symbolists’ feverish pursuit of emotion of all sorts. All “experiences” were venerated as blessings, just so long as they were plentiful and strong. Hence, in turn, the coherence and practicality of these experiences became a master of indifference. The “personality” became a piggy bank for experiences, a sack into which one could pour one’s indiscriminately hoarded emotions—“moments,” as the novelist Valery Bryusov called them: “We gather moments in their loss.”
The eventual consequence of this emotional tightfistedness was the deepest imaginable void. The miserly knights of Symbolism died of spiritual hunger while sitting atop sacks of hoarded experiences. But this was only the final consequence. The most immediate consequence, the one that made itself known much earlier, practically right from the start, was a different one. The constant striving to reorganize one’s thoughts, life, relationships, and even one’s very manner of being in order to rack up yet another experience forced the Symbolists into constantly posing for themselves—into playing out their own lives as if they were performing in a theater of fervid improvisation. They knew that they were acting, but the act became their life. Nina immediately conceived a desire to act out her life—and to this (essentially false) mission, she remained faithful, true to the end.
To the Symbolist, love opened up the most efficient and direct line of access to an inexhaustible warehouse of emotions. All one had to do was be in love and he or she would be furnished with all the objects of primary lyrical importance: Passion, Desperation, Exultation, Madness, Vice, Sin, Hatred, and so on. And so everyone was always in love, and even if they weren’t actually in love, they at least convinced themselves that they were; if they discovered the tiniest spark of something resembling love, they would fan it with all their might. They were obligated to derive the maximum number of emotional possibilities from each and every one of their loves. If they didn’t manage to make a love “eternal,” they could fall out of it. But each time they fell out of love and back into it again, the process had to be accompanied by profound upheavals, internal tragedies, and even a complete revision of their worldviews. In fact, that was precisely why they did it all in the first place.
In 1904, Andrei Bely was still very young, with golden curls, blue eyes, and a tremendous amount of charm. The journalistic back alleys were in stitches over his poetry and prose, which were striking in their novelty, audacity, and occasional ashes of true genius. People would go into raptures over him. It was only natural that Nina Petrovskaya should succumb to these general raptures as well.
Oh, if only it had been possible in those times to simply love, to love for one’s own sake and for the sake of one’s beloved! But in those days, one had to love for the sake of some abstraction, against the backdrop of it. In this particular case, Nina was obliged to love Andrei Bely for his mystical vocation, which both she and he forced themselves to believe in. And he was required to appear before her in nothing less than the full splendor of his halo—I won’t say that it was a counterfeit halo, but perhaps a symbolic one. They adorned their tiny truth, their human, simply human love, in the garb of a truth that was immeasurably larger. A black strand of wooden prayer beads and a large black cross appeared over Nina Petrovskaya’s black dress. Andrei Bely wore a cross of the same sort . . .
Oh, if only he had simply fallen out of love with her, simply betrayed her! But he didn’t fall out of love; he “ran from temptation.” He ran from Nina so that her all-too-earthly love would not besmirch his spotless raiment. He ran from her to shine all the more dazzlingly in the presence of another, one whose name and patronymic, and even whose mother’s name, came together to make it symbolically obvious that she was the harbinger of the Woman Clothed with the Sun. And his friends, those lisping, badger-legged mystics, would visit Nina to reproach, denounce, and abuse her: “Madame, you have nearly defiled our prophet! You are driving knights away from the Woman Clothed with the Sun! You are playing a very dark role! You have been motivated by the beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit!”
And so they played with their words, mangling meaning, mangling lives. Meanwhile, Nina found herself cast off, and, what’s worse, insulted. It became all too clear that she wanted both to take revenge on Bely and to win him back at the same time. But their story, having fallen into the “Symbolist dimension,” was destined to continue and develop in its depths.
The novelist Valery Bryusov had pointedly refused to take notice of Nina. But he changed his tune just as soon as her break with Bely became public knowledge, because he could not, in his position, remain neutral.
He was an ambassador of demonism. It behooved him to “languish and gnash his teeth” before the Woman Clothed with the Sun. Thus, it was at this moment that Nina, the Woman’s rival, was transformed into something significant, clothed in a demonic aura. He proposed forming an alliance against Bely. This alliance was immediately shored up by mutual love. Again, this is all quite understandable and true to life: this sort of thing happens all the time. It is understandable that Bryusov, in his own fashion, should begin to love Nina and it is also understandable that Nina should unconsciously look to Bryusov for consolation, a balm for her injured pride, and, through their alliance, a way of “taking revenge” on Bely.
In those days, Bryusov took an active interest in occultism, spiritualism, and black magic—probably without believing in any of these things as such, but rather feeling that the acts themselves were gestures that gave expression to a specific spiritual current. I think that Nina felt precisely the same way. It is unlikely that she believed that the experiments in magic she was carrying out under Bryusov’s guidance would actually restore Bely’s love to her. But she experienced them as if they represented a genuine association with the devil. She wanted to believe in her own sorcery.
Incidentally, lacking any particular faith in magic, Nina also attempted to avail herself of other options. In the spring of 1905, Bely was giving a lecture in the small auditorium of the Polytechnic Museum. During the intermission, Nina Petrovskaya went up to him and tried to shoot him with a Browning at point-blank range. The gun misfired and was immediately snatched from her hands. It is worth noting that she never made a second attempt. She said to me once, much later, “The hell with him. After all, truth be told, I killed him that day in the museum.” It goes to show how muddled, how mixed-up, reality and imagination had become in their minds.
The drama that was to become the main focus of Nina’s life was just another series of “moments” to Bryusov. After he had harvested all of the situation’s resultant emotions, he found himself drawn to the pen. He described the entire story in the novel The Fiery Angel, though he took advantage of certain literary conventions, rechristening Andrei Bely as Count Heinrich, Nina Petrovskaya as Renate, and himself as Ruprecht.
In this novel, Bryusov hacked apart all of the relationships that tied the characters together. He whipped up a denouement and wrote “the end” under Renate’s story before the real-life conflict that the novel was based upon was actually resolved. Nina Petrovskaya did not die upon the death of Renate; on the contrary, her romance stretched hopelessly onward. What remained real for Nina was now just a used-up storyline to Bryusov. He found it tedious to be constantly reliving the same chapters over and over again. He started to distance himself from Nina more and more. He began cultivating new love stories, less tragic ones. He began devoting more time to his literary activities and to all manner of meetings, which he greatly relished. To a certain extent, he even found himself drawn to home and hearth (he was married).
This was a fresh blow for Nina. By that time (it was already around 1906), her heartache over Bely had subsided, dulled. But she had already come to identify herself with the role of Renate. Now she faced a formidable danger: that she might lose Bryusov as well. Bryusov had cooled toward her. Occasionally, he would attempt to use her infidelities as an excuse to break things off with her altogether. Nina would pass from one extreme to another, sometimes loving Bryusov, at other times despising him. But in both extremes, she would abandon herself to despair. She would lie on her sofa for two days at a stretch, neither eating nor sleeping, her head covered with a black scarf, weeping. Her meetings with Bryusov seem to have taken place in an equally charged atmosphere. At times, she would be gripped by fits of rage. She would break furniture and smash things, hurling them “like cannonballs from a mangonel,” as a similar scene is described in The Fiery Angel.
She sought comfort in cards, then in wine. Finally, in the spring of 1908, she tried morphine. Then she made a morphine addict of Bryusov, and this was her true, albeit unacknowledged, revenge. In the autumn of 1909, she became seriously ill from the morphine; she nearly died. When she had partly recovered, it was decided that she should go abroad, “into exile,” as she put it. Bryusov and I accompanied her to the train station. She was going away forever. She knew that she would never see Bryusov again.
I do not know the details of her peregrinations abroad. I do know that from Italy she went on to Warsaw and, after that, to Paris. It was there that, one day (I believe it was in 1913), she threw herself out the window of a hotel on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. She broke her leg, which healed badly, and was left with a limp.
The war found her in Rome, where she would live until the autumn of 1922 in the most appalling poverty. At times, she would be gripped by paroxysms of desperation, at times by fits of resignation, which would then give way to even more violent forms of desperation. She lived on charity, begged for alms, sewed undergarments for soldiers, wrote screenplays for a certain film actress, and periodically starved. She drank. At times, she would sink to utterly abysmal depths. She turned to Catholicism. “My new and secret name, written down somewhere in the indelible scrolls of San Pietro, is Renate,” she wrote to me.
She returned to Paris in the spring of 1927, after leading a wretched existence in Berlin for five years. She arrived completely destitute. She found more than a few friends there. They helped her in every way that they could, and sometimes, it seems, more than they could. Sometimes they would manage to find her work, but she wasn’t capable of working anymore. Perpetually intoxicated, though she never lost her reason, she was squarely on the other side of the border of life by then.
In Blok’s diary, there is a strange entry for November 6, 1911: “Nina Ivanovna Petrovskaya is ‘dying.’” Blok put the word “dying” in quotation marks because he approached this news with an ironic disbelief. He was well aware that Nina Petrovskaya had been vowing to die, to take her own life, on a regular basis since 1906. For twenty-two years, she lived in the ceaseless contemplation of death.
I am looking over her letters now. February 26, 1925: “I don’t think I can take it anymore.” April 7, 1925: “You probably think that I have died? Not yet.” June 8, 1927: “I swear to you, there can’t be any other way out.” September 12, 1927: “Just a little while longer, and I won’t need a position, any work at all.” September 14, 1927: “This time, I must certainly die soon.”
So what was holding her back? I believe I know.
Nina’s life was a lyrical improvisation in which, simply by adapting to the similar improvisations of other characters, she strove to create something coherent: “an epic poem fashioned from her own personality.” The end of her personality, like the end of the poem that had been written about it, lay in death. That poem had been completed in 1906, the year in which the narrative of The Fiery Angel breaks off. From that time forward, a torturous and terrible, unnecessary and motion-starved epilogue had begun to stretch relentlessly onward, both in Moscow and throughout Nina’s travels. Nina wasn’t afraid to cut it short, but she couldn’t. The instinct of an artist who shaped her life as she might shape a poem hinted to Nina that her end should be connected with some other final event, with the rupture of some other thread connecting her to life. Finally, such an event took place.
Beginning in 1908, after the death of their mother, Nina had been charged with the care of her younger sister, Nadya, who was both mentally and physically underdeveloped (she had been scalded with boiling water in an unfortunate childhood accident). In 1911, when Nina left Russia, she took her sister with her, and, from that time on, Nadya shared in all of the miseries of Nina’s life abroad. She was the last and only creature who possessed a true connection with Nina, and she was Nina’s only connection to life.
Throughout the autumn of 1927, Nadya flailed as meekly and as noiselessly as she had lived. She died just as quietly on January 13, 1928, of stomach cancer. Nina went to the morgue of the hospital where Nadya had been a patient. She pricked her sister’s small corpse with a safety pin and then pricked her own hand with the same pin: she wanted to infect herself with ptomaine, to share in her sister’s death. But, though her hand swelled up at first, it subsequently healed.
Nina would sometimes come to visit me during that period. Once she stayed with me for three days. She spoke to me in that strange language of the Nineties, the language that had once connected us, the one that we had once shared, but that, since then, I have almost completely forgotten how to understand.
With Nadya’s death, the last phrase in the drawn-out epilogue was finally committed to paper. In a little over a month, Nina Petrovskaya would punctuate it with her own death.