Portraits without frames by Lev Ozerov
Edited by Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk
Translated by Maria Bloshteyn, Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski

There are some books that you spot on the horizon and just *know* that they’re meant for you; and “Portraits without Frames” was one of those for me. I’m well-known for my love of Russia and its arts, and yet poet Lev Ozerov was a new name to me. I spotted the book in the NYRB catalogue, and the fact that it was rendered by such an esteemed list of translators would be recommendation enough. However, the subject matter sounded essential too, and I knew I had to read this book. Unfortunately, NYRB don’t have the rights for the UK; very fortunately, Granta *do* and they’ve been kind enough to provide a review copy.

This poor book has been carted around in my bag for days, I got so attached to it, so it has taken a bit of a battering…. 😦

Lev Ozerov was born Lev Goldberg in 1914; of Jewish Ukrainian origin, he made his name as a poet and literary critic, and was an important figure in Soviet literature. The verses in “Portraits…” were written towards the end of his life, and not published until 1999 (three years after his death in 1996). In this long and profoundly moving cycle of poems, Ozerov recalls his meetings with the great and notable in Russian arts over the Twentieth Century, and the results are breathtaking.

And I recalled
…the wall of books,
all written by a man
who lived
in times that were hard to bear.

The collection has been edited by Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk (which is frankly recommendation enough!) and is divided into categories, such as “The Poets”, “The Prose Writers” and “Music, Theater and Dance”. The format is free verse – readable, beautifully lyrical and haunting – and each pen portrait brings the subject vividly alive. Ozerov certainly mixed with just about all the great and good in Soviet art, and the fifty accounts of his meetings with them reminded me just how many incredible artists the country and the era produced – even if they had to write for the drawer a lot of the time. Each poem is preceded by an introduction outlining the life and work of the subject; each translation is individually credited; notes are provided when necessary to illuminate the poems; so this really is an exemplary volume and a flawless reading experience.

As for the poems themselves, they really are something special. Each verse brilliantly conjures place, character, atmosphere; each subject exists in their own right and emerges fully formed from their word portrait. The parts build to a whole which is a wonderful primer on Russian creatives but also an incredible work of art in its own right. The stunning imagery of Ozerov’s verse is lyrical and often profoundly moving, never shying away from the harsh reality many of these artists faced. There was torture, exile, imprisonment, murder – yet the art survived and the book is a lasting testament to the power of words.

But nothing in Russia lasts
like a damaged reputation.

The book opens with Akhmatova; it takes in the likes of Pasternak, Platonov, Babel, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Tatlin, Meyerhold – so many familiar names, and yet also many new to me. And the outside world impinges; there are chinks in the Iron Curtain, when “with a painful grinding” it would part and let an artist in or out for a visit; for example, Andre Malraux makes a memorable appearance (and I may well have gone off down a rabbit hole looking up his work..)

One of the most powerful sections was that of the Yiddish poets. Boris Dralyuk has written movingly about the “Night of the Murdered Poets” and it’s chilling to see how many artists were wiped out on that one night on trumped-up charges. As well as painting portraits of the subjects, the poems gradually bring Ozerov himself to life for the reader; in his relationships with the subjects we see hints of the actions he took to help and support his fellow artists. The introduction sets out Ozerov’s life and work, and the impact and legacy of what Dralyuk calls his “quiet activism” is immense.

How does it start –
the mad day, the mad life
of a writer? What whim,
what overwhelming force
presses a pen into some poor fellow’s hand
and lead him down
through all of Dante’s
twisting circles?

Really, I can’t recommend this book enough. Even if you think you don’t like poetry, well, you can read this as poetic prose. If you think you don’t know enough about Russia and its culture, there is supporting material enough for any novice. And you’d be reading the results of work by a collection of stellar translators; no messing about with Russian books which have been rendered in English in umpteen versions already. Instead, they’re bringing us groundbreaking translations of new and wonderful works, and I for one can’t thank them enough.

Lev Ozerov – unknown photo studio, possibly before or soon after the end of World War II [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s funny how I seem to stumble on works that will be standouts of my reading year as we edge closer to the end of that year; it happened in 2017 and I suspect the same may happen again in 2018. Certainly “Portraits without Frames” is an outstanding book, a haunting work of remembrance and celebration, and a book I’ll return to. I’ve ended up with a long list of poets and artist to research and explore, which will be good for my soul though bad for the bookshelves. But as well as introducing so many artists new to me, this book has also acquainted me with Lev Ozerov, a poet I really want to read more of. I do hope there are other works by him in translation…

(Review copy kindly provided by Granta Books, for which many thanks!)

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