Zdanevich’s Zaum.

We talked about Ilia Zdanevich back in 2010, but I’ve learned more about him from Elizabeth Klosty Beaujour’s Alien Tongues (see this post), and it’s so interesting I’m going to copy out most of the section here:

The career of Il’ia Mikhailovich Zdanevich [Iliazd] (1894-1975) integrated several languages and the visual arts in a way that enabled him to solve the problem of artistic expression without deliberately abandoning either language. His first published work, in 1913, was a commentary on Larionov and Goncharova (with whom he was closely linked), written in standard Russian under the pseudonym Eganbiury (a bilingual pun [a footnote explains that it is the name Zdanevich in the dative case, Зданевичу, written in longhand, as it would be interpreted by a French letter carrier who knew no Russian]). As a very young man, Zdanevich was involved in the beginnings of Futurism in Russia and himself wrote and published a series of dras (zaum, or “transrational,” dramas with increasingly complex typographical layouts) already actively using visual as well as linguistic elements. With its echoes of regional Russian speech and dialects, and occasionally of Georgian, Zdanevich’s zaum is not entirely arbitrary as was Aleksei Kruchenykh’s. But while it is securely based in “natural language,” it is certainly not simply Russian. One would therefore either have to consider that Zdanevich’s dras are in a new idiolect or to say that he is already a bilingual writer, the two languages he practices being Russian and zaum. One should also note that these two languages are already presented in a form that privileges visual over standard, and therefore quasi-invisible, typographic form.

In Paris in the 1920s, Zdanevich, now definitively become Iliazd (again, the pseudonym is a bilingual pun [Il y a Zd(anevich), ‘There is Zdanevich’]), wrote lectures in French, which he spoke well, his father having been a teacher of French in Tiflis. But he also continued to write novels in Russian — subliminally marked by zaum, but now purified to the point of being easily comprehensible to any native reader of Russian. […] Iliazd’s greatest novel is Voskhishchenie [Rapture], which, despite a rave review from D. S. Mirsky, was more or less ignored when it was published in Paris in 1930. Voskhishchenie, a mountain novel, draws on the Zdanevich’s Georgian roots; it combines sociological accuracy, mythic imagination, and a primitivism subsumed and transformed by modernist techniques. Voskhishchenie stands out almost as a lone peak among Soviet and emigre Russian prose of the late 1920s. […]

By the end of the 1920s, Zdanevich, who did not belong to any of the factions of the fragmented “first” Paris emigration, felt isolated and without a Russian audience. The lack of attention to Voskhishchenie was a particularly severe blow. Still, he did not simply abandon Russian for French. At first, largely for economic reasons, he turned instead toward the visual arts, designing textiles for Chanel and other couturières. He then began to create splendid, but totally unprofitable, livres d’art. […]

For the latter part of his career, designing the interplay of the visual and the verbal became Iliazd’s primary means of expression. This allowed him to continue to balance, with a minimum of psychic strain, his own writing: critical and architectural studies in both French and in Russian; translations from various languages into French; studies on the relationship of the Georgian and Arabic alphabets; some French poems and some Russian ones; parts of novels in both French and Russian; and, perhaps most interesting of all in our context, a final book that encompassed almost all of Iliazd’s artistic interests. This is Boustrophédon au miroir [The mirror of Boustrophedon], produced in 1972, just three years before his death. Boustrophédon is an elegiac musing on Iliazd’s past, on painters he had known (his brother Kiril Zdanevich; Niko Pirosmanashvili [Pirosmani], the Georgian primitive whom he and his brother had discovered; and Mikhail Ledentu) and on the authors of the texts he had “brought to light” [with his typography]. Boustrophédon is written in French, but each line of the French verse is then repeated backward, with the word boundaries placed differently to produce a striking, clever, and touching French zaum.

Quite a guy! Of course, it helps if your father was a teacher of French in Tiflis.


  1. Is initial zd felt as a tightly bound cluster in Russian (or perhaps I should be asking about Georgian) such that he would naturally refer to himself as Zd rather than simply Z?

  2. No, it was a quirk. (I initially typed “quird,” and now I’m sad that there’s no such word.)

  3. J. W. Brewer says:

    And today must be high-school Latin nostalgia day for me at the Hattery. A few years ago at a college reunion, one of my two college classmates (out a total >1300) who was also one of my high school classmates decided for some reason to tell an anecdote about our high school Latin class which I had totally forgotten, except that the punchline involved me looking up from some trashy sci-fi paperback I had been semi-surreptitiously reading in the back of the classroom, uttering the single word “boustrophedon!” (which was somehow salient in context) and then going back to my book.

  4. Another semi-surreptitious reader of trashy sci-fi in class here.

  5. No, it was a quirk. (I initially typed “quird,” and now I’m sad that there’s no such word.)

    Thir’s nae reason tae be dowie: QUIRD

  6. Hoot, mon!

  7. Variant of tnrd? I doubt that was an error.

  8. It’s a turned turd.

  9. I take “major, if not great” to mean “at least major, perhaps even great”.

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