I am attracted to the memorials of the dead writers who have had an impact on me.
Monuments, which do not claim any personal presence of the dead writer, can be very moving, or can make the visitor feel that the monument is less a memorial to the dead writer, lucrative as that may be, but merely a site to generate income, without a meaningful association to the dead writer. The latter for example might be a house where the dead writer had the slightest of links.
Iran has produced many inspiring poets, and the tombs of many of the Persian poets are considered holy by Iranians. In fact Iran is said to be the Land of Poetry.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit several of the dead poet’s tombs in Iran.
Saadi was born in Shiraz , and died there in 1291. Saadi is said to be one of the greatest poets of the classical Iranian tradition. Gulistan and Bustan are among his most notable works. When I visited, people were reading his poetry at the tomb. Restoration of the tomb was completed in 1952.
A carpet, bearing a poem from Gulistan, Bani Adam, can be found at the entrance to the UN in New York.
Hafez was born in 1315 and died in Shiraz in 1389. He was a prolific poet and a religious scholar. Apparently his collected works, The Divan, are said to be found in most Iranian homes. People were reading his poetry at the tomb. His marble tomb is engraved with versus including “On the day of my death, give me a minutes time to set eyes on thee, Then from this world and life I shall be set free”. I wish I felt as philosophical about death.
The longest epic poem written by one person is the Shahnameh – the Book of Kings. It was written by Ferdowsi over a period of 30 years. Ferdowsi was born in 940AD and died around 1020, in Tus, near Mashad. His current tomb was built between 1928 and 1934 and remodelled in 1969.
My favourite part of the tomb is a frieze of life size sculptures depicting scenes from the Shanameh. I was contemplating, with revulsion, a depiction of Zahhak (a bad king) who had serpents growing out of his shoulders. To keep the serpents calm they had to be fed children’s brains. At this point, the Iranian guide, with a straight face, said “of course there was quite a brain drain during this period”. Of course there was.
Omar Khayyam was born in 1048 and died in 1131. His mausoleum is in Nishapur, about 40 miles west of Mashad. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a collection of hundreds of quatrains. It was first translated from Farsi to English in 1859. There are numerous quotes which I love, but with Covid-19 raging, “Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life” is one which resonates with me.
I was hissed at in the garden near the mausoleum. A group of elderly men took exception to something about me – maybe my headscarf was too far back. The rest of me, other than my hands and face were totally covered. I was hissed at once before at the Siwa Oasis in Egypt by a group of young men, when I inadvertently took my jacket off, and exposed my arms from the elbow down, so at least I knew what the hissing was about.
Russia has many famous writers. The memorials I visited were not architectural or artistic gems such as those in Iran, but I was very moved by most of them. I have enjoyed reading Russian literature for a long time and visits to the places where some of the books and poems I love were written were very meaningful.
Anna Akhmatova lived in rooms of the former Sheremetev Palace, in St Petersburg. These rooms now form her memorial by way of a museum. She documented the suffering and hardship of the Stalin terror and the Second World War. I felt the cold terror of a dawn knock on the door when coming up the stairs, I saw the candle holder, which would have illuminated the Mother of God Icon, and the icon. A couple of lines from her poem, Requiem came to mind “He was taken away at dawn, a candle flares, illuminating the Mother of God.”
After the visit, a friend recited the Requiem in the courtyard, which bought tears to my eyes.
Alexander Pushkin was born in Moscow in 1799 and died in St Petersburg in 1837.
There is a Museum and memorial apartment in St Petersburg, honouring Alexander Pushkin. I did not find the museum particularly inspiring. Pushkin only lived in the apartment in 1836-37 until his untimely death in a duel. The apartment is apparently an example of a nobleman’s residence of the 1830’s. I did not feel Eugene Onegin or the Queen of Spades. I did like his monument in the Square of Arts.
Pushkin married in Moscow in 1831, and took an apartment at No 53, the Arbat. There is a memorial Apartment at no. 53, but as he only lived there for around 3 months, I did not venture in. Arbat Street is one of the oldest streets in Moscow, and was home to writers such as Tolstoy and Gogol. It was the subject of a novel, Children of the Arbat by Anatoli Rybakov which is set in 1934, the period just prior to Stalin’s great purges. I found the novel chilling, dark and depressing, but essential reading to help understand the time. In the novel Arbat Street is the intellectual and artistic centre of Moscow.
Yasnaya Polyana is now a house museum, and a memorial to Tolstoy. It is in the Tula Region, around 200km from Moscow. Tolstoy was born there in 1828 and died there in 1910. His 13 children were all born there. Tolstoy’s unmarked grave is in a pretty glade, a short walk from the house through woods.
War and Peace and Anna Karenina are long time favourites. Bald Hills Estate in War and Peace was modelled on Yasnaya Polyana. A visit to the estate, where those two novels were written between 1862 and 1869 was a moving experience. The simply furnished house, the huge library, and the idyllic park bought his books to life for me.
Peredelkino Writer’s Colony is about 15km from Moscow. It is set among the most glorious silver birch forests and contains the house museum of Boris Pasternak. Pasternak died there in 1960. Most of Dr Zhivago was written at Peredelinko. The soviet authorities did not approve, and Dr Zhivago was not published in Russia until 1988. The novel was first published in Italy in 1957 and won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1958, which Pasternak was required to decline. Pasternak was “rehabilitated” in 1987, and his son accepted the Nobel Prize in 1989. While visiting the house, the first two lines of Lara’s Theme “Somewhere my love there will be songs to sing/Although the snow covers the hope of Spring”, came to mind, and reflected the history of the book. Sad that Pasternak died before the spring.
I shocked myself for being knocked out by Bulgakov’s novel, The Master and Margarita, written between 1928-1940, during Stalin’s regime. Bulgakov was born in 1891 and died in 1940. The Master and Margarita was not published as a book until 1967, in Paris, although a censored version was published in a Moscow magazine in 1966-67.
A memorial to him in Moscow is the Bulgakov House Museum, in an apartment in which he lived for a period. There is a mural of him, and the cat on a side wall of the apartment, and a couple of interesting sculptures at the entrance. It was closed when I visited.
Why was I shocked to be totally enthralled by the novel? The various genres have been described as satire, romance novel, farce, fantasy fiction and occult fiction, all of which I generally avoid. Thank goodness I did not avoid The Master and Margarita.
Who could not be knocked out by the description of Berlioz slipping onto the tram line “the tram car went over Berlioz, and a round dark object was thrown up on the cobbled slope…..it went bouncing along the cobblestones of the street. It was the severed head of Berlioz.”
Bulgakov was buried in the Novodevichy cemetery in Moscow.