The illustrated Lermontov : the October 2014 Slavonic item of the month

The 200th anniversary of the great Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov’s birth falls this month, as marked by library and literary blogs the world over.  In this post, we look at books produced a hundred years ago to mark the first centenary of his birth, focusing in particular on a illustrated set of his complete works.

Illustration for Lermontov's Aul Bastundzhi by Martiros San'ian (S756.b.91.6)

Illustration for Lermontov’s Aul Bastundzhi by Martiros San’ian (S756.b.91.6)

The earliest book by Lermontov held by the University Library was published in 1842; this is the first half of a two-volume set of his poems (8757.d.7-8).  The poet had already died the year before, killed outright in a duel in the Caucasus at the age of 26.  Only one collection of his poetry was published in his lifetime, in 1840; his poems had otherwise been printed in larger, shared publications.  A great deal of Lermontov’s work came out only after his untimely death, although Geroi nashego vremeni (Hero of our time), the prose novel for which he is possibly best known to Anglophone readers, had already appeared in 1840.

One hundred years ago, the centenary of Lermontov’s death was celebrated in print by a number of special issues of and about his work.  Among them was the set which is our Slavonic item of the month.  Illiustrirovannoe polnoe sobranie sochinenii M.Iu. Lermontova (The illustrated complete works of M.Iu. Lermontov; S756.b.91.1-6).  Five of the six volumes which make up this lovely set contain works by Lermontov himself.  The last contains recollections of the poet by his acquaintances and a section of critical articles on his work.  All six are liberally illustrated with pictures by a large number of various artists, including the poet himself.  Minor illustrations are printed directly on to the page, with more significant ones printed on to individual plates.

The plate shown in the illustration here is one of the relatively few in full colour.  Its surface is protected by a thin tissue sheet on which the lines of poetry it corresponds to are printed.  The poem in question is Aul Bastundzhi (Bastundzhi aul (‘aul’ is defined in the OED as ‘a Caucasian or Tartar village or encampment’)), one of Lermontov’s many works set in the Caucasus.  Aul Bastundzhi is 80 eight-line stanzas long and tells the story of two brothers, Akbulat and Selim.  Selim falls in love with Zara, Akbulat’s wife, and the tragic tale of the three ends with the destruction of the aul.

 The painting illustrates stanza 23 from the second part of the poem.  Akbulat has discovered that Zara and his favourite horse have gone missing and charges out into the night to find them.  The quotation on the tissue sheet gives the three lines which describe what he suddenly catches sight of – a horse racing like light smoke, its mane whipping over its neck, and something white twisting above it (its rider, Zara).  Both horse and rider are ultimately doomed.

The illustration is by Martiros Sar’ian, an Armenian painter who was a member of the Moscow Symbolist group.  Oxford Art Online has an article on Sar’ian.  Its description of his style strikes a clear chord with the illustration above.  ‘Like the other members of the group, Saryan painted fantastic themes, sometimes based on folk tales, although in brighter colours and with stronger rhythmic patterns than were typical of the other Symbolists. [His 1906/7 works] indicate a growing interest in exotic places and an increasingly stylized treatment of figures and animals.’

Oxford Art Online lists Sar’ian under the anglicised form ‘Saryan’, and this is also the form used in the Library of Congress name authority file; his authorised form of name is ‘Saryan, Martiros, 1880-1972’.  The University Library currently holds 6 books by or about him – a list can be seen here.

While this illustration is in volume 6 of the set, facing page 192, the actual text of the poem Aul Bastundzhi appears in volume 2, starting at page 44.

The Library holds three other books from the 1914 centenary of Lermontov’s birth.  Vienok M.Iu. Lermontovu : iubileinyi sbornik (A wreath for M.Iu. Lermontov : a jubilee collection; F191.b.14.4) contains nine pieces about the poet’s work by eight authors.  The remaining two books are also critical works about Lermontov, but each wholly by an individual author.  M.Iu. Lermontov: k stolietiiu so dnia rozhdeniia velikago poeta (M.Iu. Lermontov : for the centenary of the great poet’s birth; 756:34.c.90.55) is by Dmitrii Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii, M.Iu. Lermontov (756:34.c.90.73) by Aleksandr Borozdin.

The Slavonic item of the month feature aims to celebrate, through examination of particular pieces, the diversity and riches of Cambridge University Library’s Slavonic collections.  It has been running since April 2013.  Items featured in previous months can be found here on the Slavonic webpages.

Mel Bach

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