An imprint I always follow with interest is the Russian Library arm of Columbia University Press. They’ve released all manner of wonderful titles, many of which I’ve covered here on the Ramblings; and so I was intrigued when I saw they were issuing a work by an author new to me, Boris Poplavsky. “Homeward from Heaven” was his final work, considered his masterpiece, and here it’s translated by Bryan Karetnyk, who’s been responsible for bringing so much Russian emigre literature into English (particularly the marvellous Gaito Gazdanov).

Poplavsky sounds like he was something of a character, to say the least: from a wealthy Moscow family, he fled Russia after the revolution and settled down in Paris in 1921. He died tragically young, at the age of 32 from a drug overdose, and has been described as an ‘enfant terrible’. Certainly, on the evidence of this work, he sounds like a man drawn to extremes and also one with a divided self.

“Homeward…” actually follows on from an earlier work, “Apollon Bezobrazoff”, and that character does appear in this novel However, the focus here is mainly on a young man called Oleg; a Russian emigre in Paris, he’s following religious study yet is drawn to the darker, seamier side of life. His most regular companion is the aforesaid Apollon and the two men travel to the south of France where they live rough over the summer, existing on what they can beg borrow and steal, while Oleg pursues his obsession with the beautiful Tania.

…Oleg did not forget the sea, he would never forget it, although after Tania‘s betrayal, it sung to him not of happiness and life, yet sing it did, unrelenting and unembraceable, without words, the blinding witness to so many summer dramas and pointless confrontations. The footprints that Oleg left in the sand were washed away before all the others.

She’s somewhat unreachable, however, with a succession of boyfriends, and Oleg returns to Paris in the autumn where he then pursues a relationship with another woman, Katia. Despite this being a more successful liaison, Oleg seems unable to settle, constantly wracked by existentialist doubts. The return of Tania sees a rupture with Katia; but will his reunion with Tania be any more successful.

As translator Karetnyk’s excellent introduction clarifies, “Homeward…” was actually unfinished at Poplavsky’s death, and he explains how he drew on the original typescript for his translation. It’s a fascinating, if sometimes challenging read, and combines Oleg’s inner mologues with Apollon’s gnostic-style deliberations, set against vividly conjured backdrops of the Paris and south of France of the period, with its bohemian cast of emigres. Oleg’s conflicted nature is strongly on display, and the narrative focuses on his divided self, travelling from exalted regions of religious thought to a more prosaic, down to earth daily life. At one point close to the end, Apollon asks how his journey homeward from heaven has gone, and if the book is at all autobiographical (which I suspect it is), the answer might well be ‘not very well’….

The corners of the room slowly vanished amid the darkness. The window was a perfect pale blue, and across the street golden specks appeared as lights in the neighboring building were switched on.

Oleg, it has to be said, is not always a particularly likeable character. Oscillating between bullish masculinity and the febrile emotional state of an adolescent, he seems to struggle to come to terms with the world. He’s immature, often overwrought, and his treatment of women, as evidenced in some of the more explicit passages, leaves much to be desired. Nevertheless the book is compelling reading, with some beautifully lyrical writing, stream-of-consciousness prose sections and a most marvellous sense of place. The feeling of dislocation so common in emigre fiction is strongly present, and I kept being reminded of what those Russians who chose to flee had been through; which no doubt strongly influenced their art and their mindset.

As with all Russian Library editions, there is the previously mentioned introduction and excellent supporting notes to shine a light on any of the more obscure references in the text. “Homeward…” is a vivid, sometimes dark yet often exhilarating read, and I did finish it saddened that Poplavsky’s life ended when it did so that he was not there to carry on the story of his protagonists. The translation by Bryan Karetnyk reads beautifully and it must have been quite an undertaking to render some of the more complex passages into English! I’m happy to have finally been able to make the acquaintance of Poplavsky and his writing, and may have to nip off and see if anything else is available for the Anglophone reader…. ;D

(ARC kindly provided by Columbia University Press, for which many thanks – the book is out today!)