Anna Akhmatova: Memoir on Modigliani

When you're drunk it's so much fun --
Your stories don't make sense.
An early fall has strung
The elms with yellow flags.
We've strayed into the land of deceit
And we're repenting bitterly,
Why then are we smiling these
Strange and frozen smiles?
We wanted piercing anguish
Instead of placid happiness. . .
I won't abandon my friend,
So dissolute and mild.

1911 (Paris) -- translated by Judith Hemschemeyer Originally published (in Russian) in the book Evening, 1912

‘In 1910, I saw him very rarely, just a few times. But he wrote to me during the whole winter. I remember some sentences from his letters. One was: Vous êtes en moi comme une hantise (You are obsessively part of me). He did not tell me that he was writing poems.

I know now that what most fascinated him about me was my ability to read other people’s thoughts, to dream other people’s dreams and a few other things of which everyone who knew me had long since been aware. He repeatedly said to me: On communique.. (We understand each other). And often: Il n’y a que vous pour réaliser cela. (Only you can make that happen).

We both probably failed to realise a crucial point: everything that was happening was for both of us but the prehistory of our lives – of his very short life, of my long life. Art had not yet ignited our passions, its all-consuming fire had not yet transformed us; it must have been the light and airy hour of dawn. But the future, which announces its coming long before it arrives, was knocking at the window. It lurked behind the lanterns, invaded our dreams and took on the frightening form of Baudelaire’s Paris which lay in wait somewhere in the vicinity. And Modigliani’s divine attributes were still veiled. He had the head of Antinoos, and in his eyes was a golden gleam – he was unlike anyone in the world. I shall never forget his voice. He lived in dire poverty, and I don’t know how he lived. He enjoyed no recognition whatsoever as a painter.

At that time (1911) he lived in the Impasse Falguière. He was so poor that in the Jardin du Luxembourg we sat on a bench and not, as was usual, on chairs since you had to pay for them. He complained neither about his poverty nor about the lack of recognition, both of which were clearly apparent. Just once in 1911 he said that the previous winter had been so tough for him that he had been unable to think even of that which was dearest to him.

He seemed to me to be encircled by a girdle of loneliness. I cannot recall him ever greeting anyone in the Jardin du Luxembourg or the Latin Quarter even though everyone knew everyone else there. I never heard him mention the name of an acquaintance, a friend or a fellow painter, and I never heard him joke. I never once saw him drunk, and he never reeked of wine. He evidently did not begin drinking until later, although hashish had already cropped up in his stories. He did not appear to have a steady girlfriend as yet. He never recounted amorous episodes from the past (which everyone else did). He never discussed mundane matters with me. He was communicative, not on account of his domestic upbringing but rather because he was at his creative peak…..

He used to rave about Egypt. At the Louvre he showed me the Egyptian collection and told me there was no point I see anything else, ‘tout le reste’. He drew my head bedecked with the jewellery of Egyptian queens and dancers, and seemed totally overawed by the majesty of Egyptian art.’
From Happiness is an Angel with a Grave Face

Song of the Last Meeting 

My heart froze helplessly.
But my step was light.
Absent-mindedly I put a left glove
On my right hand.

It seemed that there were so many steps,
Though I knew – there are only three!
The autumnal whisper of maples Pleaded,
“Die with me!

I’m deceived by my cheerless
Changeable, wicked fate.”
I answered, “Dear, dear!

Me too. I’ll die with you…”
I looked at the dark house.
Only the bedroom was lit by Indifferent yellow candlelight.


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