Irina Odoyevtseva (real name Iraida Heinike) was born in 1895 in Riga into the family of a successful attorney of Baltic-German descent. At the start of the First World War the family moved to St Petersburg. In 1919 Odoyevtseva joined the Guild of Poets (a society founded by Nikolai Gumilyov, one of founders of the Acmeist movement in Russian poetry and Akhmatova’s husband, that brought together aspiring poets and writers) where she soon became Gumilyov’s favourite student. Her Ballad of Powdered Glass was admired even by Maxim Gorky and Leon Trotsky. In 1921 Odoyevtseva married Georgy Ivanov, one of the most talented Russian poets, and following Alexander Blok’s tragic death and execution of Gumilyov, Odoyevtseva and Ivanov left for Paris. Having spent a mere 27 years in St Petersburg prior to her emigration, Odoyevtseva still managed to depict the demise of the Silver Age and record it all in her memoirs for all eternity. In her book On the Banks of the Neva-River (1967), Nikolai Gumilyov, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Andrei Bely, Alexander Blok come alive as if by magic.
Paris at the time was described by Dovid Knut as the ‘capital of the Russian literature’, and Odoyevtseva joined enthusiastically the life of the Russian diaspora, frequenting Sunday matinees at Dmitry Merezhkovsky and Zinaida Gippius’ as well as their ‘Green Lamp’ salon. However, unlike other authors of memoirs (Nina Berberova, for one) Odoyevtseva never made herself the pivotal point of her recollections, preferring a fly-on-the-wall approach. Nikolai Gumilyov used to tell her, ‘God sent me your ears as a precious gift for you are forever ready to listen to what I have to say. It is so nice. The thing is, everyone is eager to talk about themselves, not me. No one is prepared to listen to anyone.’ This ‘gift of listening’ enabled her to present in her unbiased memoirs numerous revelations offered by Ivan Bunin, Andrei Bely, Igor Severianin and Marina Tsvetayeva, their comments on the Russian literary life in Paris (On the Banks of the Seine, 1981), while her phenomenal memory allowed her to reproduce conversations and discussions of the bygone days.
Odoyevtseva never fitted the standard image of a Russian writer. She was too feminine, too beautiful and too well-dressed. She never followed the common dictum of imitating Akhmatova, loved fashion – a thing considered undignified for a Russian poetess, and was constantly reinventing herself – in the epoch of ‘Jugendstil’ she would dress in the style of Art Nouveau: ‘This oval-shaped face of hers, framed by cascading hair that somehow evoked this image of water lilies and water grass. In the time of Art Deco we see her, hair styled à la medieval page, sporting a pixie haircut, wearing a brimless hat, her face “pale and wicked”, dancing away the cancan or Charleston in the spirit of Marlene Dietrich…’ (as remembered by Igor Chinnov). She would recklessly gamble in casinos and always win. All this might have been the reason why many of her contemporaries couldn’t take her seriously as a poet and writer and would ask, incredulously, ‘Was it really you who wrote this? I beg your pardon but looking at you it’s hard to credit…’ (Georgy Ivanov). ‘I would never expect this from you…’ (Dmitry Merezhkovsky). Vladimir Nabokov whom she met in New York was blunt, ‘She is so pretty, what does she need all this writing for?’
Irina Odoyevtseva’s first novel, The Angel of Death, came out in 1927 to huge acclaim from both the reading public and influential foreign press: ‘The novel creates a sophisticated and charming ambiance that defies description’ (The Times). ‘The book by Odoyevtseva bears an unmistakeable stamp of real genius. We would even dare place her besides Chekhov…’ (Gastonia Gazette). Her second novel, Isolde, was published in 1929, and the third one, The Mirror – in 1939. After the Second World War Odoyevtseva found fame. Here she was, working herself into the ground, composing plays, scripts, novels in French, and publishing in 1948 a book in the genre of the social novel – Abandon Hope Forever (came out in French in 1948, in English and Spanish – in 1949, and in Russian – in 1954). The author was saying in an interview, ‘My writing career includes, among others, a political novel whereby I described, among other things, Stalin’s death and the reaction of the nation. Events of the March of 1953 proved me right in my forecasts.’ Her last novel – A Year in Your Life – was published in 1953.
After her husband’s demise Odoyevtseva lived for 20 years in the old people’s home near Paris where quite a few Russian writers were spending their twilight years. She was found there, in 1987, at the age of 92, by a Russian journalist Anna Kolonitskaya. In the same year Odoyevtseva returned to the city of her youth – St Petersburg. She died in 1990, aged 95. Her memoirs served to make her, in the eyes of our contemporaries, a ‘mirror of our century’.
Regrettably, by the time Odoyevtseva’s books started coming out in many-thousand-strong print-runs in Russia her name had been profoundly forgotten in the West – along with many other Russian authors whose names are only now making their gradual return to the reading public (Gaito Gazdanov, M. Ageyev’s Affair with Cocaine, Boris Zaitsev, Alexei Remizov, Mikhail Osorgin, Mark Aldanov and many others).