The Black Sea city may lack the pedigree of St Petersburg but it was home to Isaac Babel, and has a storied past as a stopping point for globe-trotting intellectuals
A slow-moving procession of 500-odd people stretch from the grand, if worn, Literary Museum along to the Opera House, one of the biggest and most opulent concert halls of the former Soviet Union.
Clutching hardback books, e-readers and paper printouts, the group – young and old, male and female – read passages aloud from Odessa’s literary past, sending up a gentle hum into the warm evening air. Behind, the sun slowly dips into the sea.
The literary flashmob, “Odessa Reads. Odessa Is Read”, is celebrating this complex Black Sea city’s vibrant literary past. Isaac Babel – Jewish chronicler of Odessa and victim of Josef Stalin’s purges – takes centre stage. One Ukrainian woman reads passages from Babel’s Red Cavalry in Japanese, a book describing the Polish-Soviet war of 1920; nearby a man reads the same book in Russian. Other languages fill the air – Norwegian, Mongolian, French, Kazakh. A woman in a sundress reads from Odessa Tales, short stories in which Babel reimagines the city as a criminal hub filled with flamboyant gangster Jews. Only here, in freewheeling Odessa, could a Jew become “a lion … a tiger … a cat … [who] can spend the night with a Russian woman”.
Reading as they walk, the group moves over the Hollywood-style stars embedded in the street, carved not with the names of actors but with Odessa-born writers and poets, such as Anna Akhmatova, Sasha Cherny and the Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky (“But Odessa – that’s another matter: arriving at the Razdelnaya Station, I would already begin to be joyfully excited”). They reach a statue of a whimsical looking Babel, spectacles balanced on his nose and notebook in hand, across from 17 Rishelyevskaya Street, where he once lived.
“The cult of Babel is a real religion here,” says Vladislav Davidzon, editor of the Odessa Review, a local magazine with a literary angle. “Odessa’s intelligentsia still cares about the historical identity of the city, and it sees that identity through the lens of literature and literary myths.”
Odessa may not exactly leap to mind as a hotbed for book lovers – it is perhaps better known globally for its “mail-order bride” industry. And although it lacks the literary pedigree of St Petersburg, Edinburgh, Paris or Tangier, it has a storied past as a stopping point for Europe-trotting writers and intellectuals.
Founded by Catherine the Great in 1794, and designated a free port in 1817, the city’s louche, polyglot atmosphere attracted merchants, Greeks, Turks, Tatars and Jews – and many celebrated writers. Anton Chekhov visited, as did Leo Tolstoy. Alexander Pushkin spent a year of political exile in Odessa in the 1820s cavorting with Countess Vorontsova, the wife of the governor, while doodling nudes in the margins of his notebook and rewriting the first chapters of Eugene Onegin. Mark Twain arrived at the end of summer in 1867 and wrote about Odessa in his travelogue Innocents Abroad. “It looked just like an American city; fine broad streets,” he wrote. “There was not one thing to remind us we were in Russia.”
Today, this can be hard to see. Odessa is a Russian-speaking city, filled with boxy Russian-made Lada cars, and despite the Italian-style baroque buildings on grander roads such as Pushkinskaya, the side streets mirror St Petersburg, with crumbling pastel mansions and faded neo-classical architecture. On touristy Deribasovskaya street, the cafes smell of unaired Russian teahouses: all brine, kompot and perfumed jam.
But the city’s enduring literary nature is there, if you look. Every shopkeeper is ready with an anecdote or wisecrack, and every street corner seems to have a plaque dedicated to a writer. At the bottom of Nekrasova Lane, the large peach-coloured house looks like any other decaying mansion in the city, but it was here, in 1850, that Nikolai Gogol worked on his fantastical prose-poem Dead Souls. As the building deteriorates more with every passing year, locals pack the benches of the rickety cafe Gogol Mogol across the street for salted herring sandwiches and rough “cabernet”, ordered from a menu in a hardback book.
Despite appearances, Odessa is not completely time-warped. It is home to a high number of technology graduates and IT programmers, and a shiny new airport terminal is due to open any day soon. Yet despite a well-established tourism industry – Ukrainians flock to the city’s beaches in the summer – it has a long way to go to rival the European capitals of literary tourism.
Edinburgh, the world’s first Unesco City of Literature, has a Writers’ Museum, a world-class book festival and a long literati list from Robert Louis Stevenson to Ian Rankin. Paris is starrier still; Hemingway, Joyce and Sartre wrote, drank and smoked at Les Deux Magots, and the art deco Cafe de Flore next door counted Truman Capote as a regular. The city is full of museums dedicated to writers, from Honoré de Balzac to Victor Hugo.
Odessa is also overshadowed by its nearest big literary neighbour. St Petersburg has dozens of literary sights, such as the historic Stray Dog Cabaret (once a hangout for Vladimir Mayakovsky, Boris Pasternak and Osip Mandelstam), Dostoevsky’s Memorial Museum, and Nabokov House, the museum in the childhood home of Vladimir Nabokov.
But cities don’t necessarily need a formal literary trail to be a magnet for writers and their readers. Tangier attracted many radical authors, from Paul Bowles to Tennessee Williams, and today draws many tourists who inevitably stop at the Tangerinn, next to Hotel El Muniria, where William S Burroughs got high on Eukodol, a morphine-based medicine, and wrote Naked Lunch. Then there’s the historical bookshop Librairie des Colonnes, which Samuel Beckett visited.
Well-meaning, if slightly self-conscious literary PR stunts aside, Odessa has a long way to go before it can compete. But it is making headway. In 2015, the International Literature Festival Odessa brought together 24 writers from 17 countries, and the event will take place again this September, with an equally impressive global mix. In August, the international book fair Green Wave will take place on Deribasovskaya Street.
On the other hand, there is a demotivating brain drain to contend with. One of Odessa’s most famous working poets, Ilya Kaminsky, whose book Dancing in Odessa won the Whiting writer’s award in 2005, was born in Odessa but was granted asylum in the US in 1993. The Odessa native Boris Dralyuk, who worked on award-winning English translations for Pushkin Press of Babel’s Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories, now also lives and works in California.
At the flashmob, local writer Irina Fingerova admits opportunities are limited. “I sometimes hang out with a group called the Green Lamp, which is mainly made up of writers over the age of 70,” she says. “The literary scene here is small and underground, so we take what we can.”