Homeward from Heaven
by Boris Poplavsky. Translated by Bryan Karetnyk
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Pub Date 28 Feb 2023 | Archive Date 16 May 2023
Columbia University Press, Russian Library
Homeward from Heaven is Boris Poplavsky’s masterpiece, written just before his life was cut short by a drug overdose at the age of thirty-two. Set in Paris and on the French Riviera, this final novel by the literary enfant terrible of the postrevolutionary Russian diaspora in France recounts the escapades, malaise, and love affairs of a bohemian group of Russian expatriates.
The novel’s protagonist and sometime narrator is Oleg, whose intense love for two women leads him along a journey of spiritual transfiguration. He follows Tania to a seaside resort, but after a passionate dalliance she jilts him. In the cafés of Montparnasse, Oleg meets Katia, with whom he finds physical intimacy and emotional candor, yet is unable to banish a lingering sense of existential disquiet and destitution. When he encounters Tania again in Paris, his quest to comprehend the laws of spiritual and physical love begins anew, with results that are both profound and tragic.
Taken by Poplavsky’s contemporaries to be semiautobiographical, Homeward from Heaven stands out for its uncompromising depictions of sexuality and deprivation. Richly allusive and symbolic, the novel mixes psychological confession, philosophical reflection, and social critique in prose that is by turns poetic, mystical, and erotic. It is at once a work of daring literary modernism and an immersive meditation on the émigré condition.
Boris Poplavsky (1903–35) was born in Moscow to a wealthy family and fled Russia in the wake of the October Revolution, settling in Paris in 1921. Although he published only a handful of excerpts from larger works and a single book of poetry during his lifetime, he was hailed by his peers as one of the leading writers of his generation. His works in English translation include the novel Apollon Bezobrazov (2015).
Bryan Karetnyk is the translator of Alexander Grin’s Fandango and Other Stories (Columbia, 2020) as well as works by Gaito Gazdanov, Irina Odoevtseva, and Yuri Felsen. He is the editor and principal translator of the anthology Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky (2017). is the translator of Alexander Grin’s Fandango and Other Stories (Columbia, 2020) as well as works by Gaito Gazdanov, Irina Odoevtseva, and Yuri Felsen. He is the editor and principal translator of the anthology Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky (2017).
"[Poplavsky] was, after all, the first hippy, the original flower child."
"[Poplavsky] was, after all, the first hippy, the original flower child."
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 5 members
Existential Malaise, Russian Style.........
Unrelievedly dark and hopeless, this novel really puts the "lost" in lost generation. It establishes, beyond argument, the Russian mastery of gloom, doom, and melancholy. None of that is a criticism. There are lines of piercing insight and honesty here, and many scenes that cut to the very heart of the tortured soul. Poplavsky was perhaps the greatest of the Russian emigre writers of the Paris School, and this book is widely considered to be his masterpiece. It can be hard going to the extent that it is confessional, in large measure autobiographical, and essentially plotless, but when read as something akin to the intimate journal of an aware and awakened, but still lost, soul there is much here to savor and appreciate.
The book is prefaced by a remarkably clear and compelling treatment of Poplavsky's life, as well as a crisp summary of the historical and social milieu in which Poplavsky worked. The discussion of "Homeward from Heaven" is especially insightful and valuable, and puts the reader in an excellent position to appreciate the overall structure and the subtleties of the work.
(Please note that I received a free advance ecopy of this book without a review requirement, or any influence regarding review content should I choose to post a review. Apart from that I have no connection at all to either the author or the publisher of this book.)
I had never before read Poplavsky or his russian emigrant contemporaries, but I skimmed through the description on netgalley and it seemed quite interesting, so I decided to give it a go. I'm quite happy I did and the publisher obliged my request.
Homeward from Heaven is hard to describe. In a superficial sense, it's the story of a young Russian living in Paris, dealing with life in a peculiar way, quite hedonistic but very carpe diem when considering work or money, extremely overwrought and analytic when dealing with romance. The experience of reading it is further from a contemporary romantic book than this description might point to. Poplavsky wrote one of the best depictions of an anguished inner monologue I have ever read.
If this is as autobiographical as we are led to believe, we are offered a way to empathize with the weird life of someone who can't stop being a young man, an artist and an outsider while his Russian existentialist mind constantly works on him.
The prose is often quite beautiful, sometimes almost overdone, but never bothersome. The pace is all over the place and the plot is mostly non-existent (beyond the sequence of romantic or sexual affairs) as expected from an author of his surrealist time and a work that wasn't even published before he died.
I wouldn't recommend this book blindly, but for people with particular interest in the European 1920s, on the Russian emigrant experience at the time of the revolution and on the origins of existentialist or counter-culture, this is a good bet.
This is a genuinely strange book in some ways, following the activities of a Russian emigre in France in the 1930s. He is not a happy man, and it is not a happy book--though it can be quite engaging and entertaining at points. I'm not sure it would have a great deal of appeal to a general reader, but someone who likes this style and this type of character likely will enjoy it.
As for the translation, it does a very good job of rendering a text I don't think would be easy to translate. And as with most of these Columbia University Press Russian Library editions, the introduction is a fascinating look at the context in which Poplavsky wrote the novel and the equally fascinating context of Poplavsky himself.
…Want your bad romance…
“That morning, Lucifer bared his horns. They quarreled the whole day, proud like barbarians, doubting the body and its simple deep attraction. In diabolical fury, amid plumes of smoke, they cursed each other cruelly in that cramped hotel room. Proud and playing at abandonment, they suddenly turned on each other, like foes, all the while inwardly, at their own peril, refusing to believe that any of this could possibly spell the end…” (p.175)
This book was both what I had expected and not what I had expected. There was a lot more love chaos and drama than I had anticipated, I was expecting more pretentious vagabonds (there was that too) and not so much real and relatable feelings. I wasn’t expecting the grittiness of Oleg’s internal life and struggles.
“Life had denied him everything, and so he had created everything for himself…” (p.269)
About halfway through this book I was starting to feel ridiculous because I had made so many bookmarks (at least 30), I couldn’t possibly mention it all, but there were so many phrases and long passages that stood out to me as exquisitely written.
When I read the intro I feel a shiver of fear at the mention that Poplavsky was actually a poet… but lo and behold, that paid off well in terms of writing. Not so much in terms of story.
I would give five stars to the writing, because I feel like I could just lose myself and re-read passages simply for the joy of reading them. But the story was a bit of a slog to me, it didn’t appeal to me even though I found Oleg’s turmoil interesting at certain times, it was mostly the narrative descriptions that tickled my interest. The story is a 3 or 2 star book for me, but as the text that carries it is pure joy, it all evens out.
I seriously can’t stress the writing enough. This was one of my first bookmarks:
“Serenely and tranquilly the sun took charge of the street, for, despite the chaos and neurasthenia of the cosmos, summer was once again returning, serene and blinding. Many-winged time has swept over our group of melodeclaimers, familiar from the previous act. Each of them has changed, all except Apollon Bezobrazoff who, not alive, ergo, not changing, not suffering, ergo, not partaking in anything, archaic and aloof, has continued to journey from one end of the city to another, like a serpent, slithering his way unhurriedly across the railwaytracks.” (p.28)
I think this is a good indicator whether or not one might like this book. The style is bit idiosyncratic and both choppy and longwinded. A lot of sentences run on for some time, but most descriptions are strikingly beautiful and poetic.
The narrative style also shifts and you, as the reader, are invited into the emotional and spiritual upheavals and trials of the characters, sometimes as they are directly addressed. There is also some French, but it’s all translated in footnotes on the same page.
I’m in agony right now because I really do want to cite all the bookmarks I’ve made, because I think they’re really special, but I’ll settle for just a few more. This is already quite long.
“Now the memory of the day, which had been too long, too tortuous, awash with a thousand desperate outbursts of excitement and dejection, fire and fear, overflowed, spilled and floated downstream, breaking away from him […] His soul had died and risen again, so that, were it not for the tremendous fatigue that he felt, it might have seemed as though he had read it all in a book – as after a full day of sweaty, stifling summer reading, when, with head disheveled, he would suddenly rouse himself from one of Dostoevsky’s novels, and for a few seconds he would be unable to tell wht time it really was, whether he had eaten, and what yet remained for him to do.” (p.258)
“Thus do memories, clumping together in groups, worlds, départements, divisions, thus do they cast off together from the shore.” (p.258)
Again, one can see how the sentences run on, in a truncated manner, and they flow through whole passages in a way that makes it difficult to cut them down as the reader really needs the whole flow of the page. It is very much the work of a poet. Sometimes the Russian realism novels have been said to prefer portraiture over plot (pretty accurate) and in this case there is a preference for style over plot.
I would recommend this to anyone who likes the style. But I think people with more fiery passions, vagabond tendencies, and who are spiritually seeking, may also really love the story and following (mainly) Oleg through this journey. It felt like a early to late twenties type of book. I never liked On the Road, but I can imagine there’s a crossover in readership here, but I could be wrong, it’s been a while since I read Kerouac.
Oh, and the poetry lovers out there will surely fall in love with Poplavsky’s writing.
“Slash and scrape, O aquiline nights, at the glow and radiance of fallen lights. The icy drowse, the dream of slumber’s gauge. Learn not to live, but to revive, to thrive, to glow alive to life, to deprive the silent of the clarion’s rays.” (p.261)
I don’t even like poetry, but this is beautiful.
Ok, a final one.
“She loved Tolstoy and Chekov, had grown sick of Dostoevsky, which, as far as Oleg was concerned, was always the mark of a good head.” (p.143)
And I took that personally.
No, kidding of course. This felt very much of its time and I think this comment is a good indicator of that, Dostoevsky wasn’t much for nature-descriptions, and for the spiritually struggling émigrés he was probably both too nationalistic, too moralizing, and too Orthodox.
All in all, this is a striking book and I feel very grateful to Columbia University Press and NetGalley for this ARC. All opinions are my own.
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