I’m finally getting around to Elizabeth Klosty Beaujour’s Alien Tongues: Bilingual Russian Writers of the “First” Emigration, which I was excited about getting and couldn’t wait to read… a decade ago (sigh), and was struck by this passage about the largely forgotten émigré poet Boris Poplavsky (only Russian Wikipedia has an article on him):
It is illuminating to compare briefly Marina Tsvetaeva’s essentially nonlinguistic rejection of French with the choice of another Russian poet of the first emigration who seemed predestined by all objective factors (age, linguistic training, and literary tastes) to become a French writer, but who instead insisted on writing only in Russian. Boris Poplavskii (1903–1935) might have been a major, if not great, French writer in the Surrealist vein. […] Linguistically, Poplavskii was much more than half French and nowhere near half Russian. He had had a German nurse and French governesses, had gone to live abroad with his mother when he was three, and had some schooling in Switzerland and Italy. According to his father, when Poplavskii and his brother returned to Russia they had forgotten Russian to such an extent that their parents enrolled them in the French lycée of Saint Philippe Néri, where Poplavskii remained until the Revolution. After his arrival in Paris in 1921, what further education Poplavskii had was, of course, also in French. His literary tastes inclined him toward French poetry, so that Karlinsky, one of Poplavskii’s strongest supporters, can quite reasonably declare: “I did not know then, as I know now, that Boris Poplavsky was in a sense a very fine French poet who belongs to Russian literature mainly because he wrote in Russian.”
But why did he write in Russian? Aside from the elements mentioned above, all of which would have seemed to incline him to write in French, there are still other factors that should have encouraged Poplavskii to write in French rather than in Russian. His control of Russian appeared to many to be sometimes shaky, and there was really nothing specifically Russian in the content of Poplavskii’s poems and prose that might have demanded or justified their being written in Russian,rather than in French. In fact, although they are written in Russian, his poems frequently have French titles.
That Poplavskii wrote in Russian was the result of a quite deliberately paradoxical choice: how better to be a poète maudit (and be one up on Rimbaud) than to write in the wrong language! This choice also continued the linguistic anomalies of Poplavskii’s earlier life. For as Vladimir Padunov has rightly noted, Poplavskii’s life in Russia took place in French, whereas his intellectual and artistic life in France took place in Russian. The resultant tension is attested to by those passages in Poplavskii’s diaries where identical entries are made first in Russian, then in French. […]
One factor that had surely influenced Poplavskii to choose the apparently least appropriate language is what might be labeled the lycée français syndrome, whose symptoms are seen in adolescents who have been molded into caricatural little Frenchmen: they have French intellectual tastes but cannot fully identify themselves as French emotionally; at the same time, they have lost or have never developed any mental and linguistic fluency in their native cultures. However idiosyncratic Poplavskii’s fate was in some respects, one should not forget that he was also in many ways a quite typical, almost commonplace, product of the colonial lycée system. […] Poplavskii’s life was a curious compound of drugs, various forms of spiritualism, outrageous behavior, poverty, and hard work on his poetry and prose. It is difficult to make any causal judgments, but one might hazard the hypothesis that, in large part, there was no solid psychic ground beneath Poplavskii because he had no dominant language — or, rather, because he did have a (technically) dominant language and did not wish to recognize and capitulate to the fact that it was not Russian but French.
Isn’t that fascinating? (Incidentally, one of the ambiguities of English is revealed in “might have been a major, if not great, French writer in the Surrealist vein”: I have no idea if she means he might or might not have been great.)