This is another in my occasional series of posts bringing to light unjustly forgotten inhabitants of the byways of history (see, for instance, Sofya Engelgardt). Reading Catriona Kelly’s excellent A History of Russian Women’s Writing 1820-1992, I got to her discussion (pp. 152-3) of the disjunction a century ago between the Russian feminist movement (supported by writers in the realist tradition) and the Symbolist/Acmeist modernist crew (“not one Russian woman author of modernist prose or poetry manifested any interest in, or sympathy for, the debates around female emancipation in the feminist movement itself”); in a footnote she says “The critic and writer Zinaida Vengerova, one of those most instrumental in introducing Western modernist ideas to Russia, was another example of how the supporters of ‘new arts’ also had little interest in feminism.” I was intrigued, and did a little digging; my main source of information is the invaluable Dictionary of Russian Women Writers (thanks to Look Inside, since I can’t afford $234.60 even with FREE Shipping).
Zinaida Afanasievna Vengerova (Russian Wikipedia) was born in 1867 in Helsinki (then, of course, part of the Russian Empire). She attended the Bestuzhev Courses in St. Petersburg and studied French literature at the Sorbonne; she also took courses in Vienna, England, and Italy, and met many of the leading lights of European literature. One of her first publications was the article “Poety-simvolisty vo Frantsii” [The symbolist poets in France]; Bryusov said it was a “revelation” that sent him to the bookstore to buy Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Maeterlinck. She lived in London from 1908 to 1912, lecturing on Russian literature (and again in 1914, when her nephew, the director Alexander Tairov, stayed with her); she wrote articles in French («Lettres russes») for the Mercure de France (1897—99) and the Revue des revues and in English for the Saturday Review (1902—1903), introductions to the collected works of Schiller and Shakespeare, and a number of entries for Brockhaus and Efron (available at Lib.ru); her collected critical articles appeared in three volumes (titled Literaturnye kharakteristiki [Literary characteristics]) from 1897 to 1910, covering the pre-Raphaelites, Oscar Wilde, Ruskin, Ibsen, Gerhart Hauptmann, Emile Verhaeren, and of course the French symbolists, among others. And back in Petersburg she was an intimate part of the Gippius–Merezhkovsky circle; it was presumably around this time that she visited the Nabokov household on an occasion commemorated by VVN in the Paris Review interview:
H. G. Wells, a great artist, was my favorite writer when I was a boy. The Passionate Friends, Ann Veronica, The Time Machine, The Country of the Blind, all these stories are far better than anything Bennett, or Conrad or, in fact, any of Wells’s contemporaries could produce. His sociological cogitations can be safely ignored, of course, but his romances and fantasias are superb. There was an awful moment at dinner in our St. Petersburg house one night when Zinaïda Vengerov, his translator, informed Wells, with a toss of her head: “You know, my favorite work of yours is The Lost World.” “She means the war the Martians lost,” said my father quickly.
(Note his characteristic refusal to use the feminine ending on Russian names.) Via Gippius and Merezhkovsky she knew the terrorist/novelist Boris Savinkov, and her translation of his 1909 novel Конь бледный appeared in 1917 as The Pale Horse. I’ll let the Dictionary of Russian Women Writers take it from there:
The height of Vengerova’s career as a critic and literary historian came in 1913 with the publication of the first volume of a projected ten-volume Collected Works. English Writers of the 19th Century. (SS: Angliiskie pisateli XIX v.) This intention was interrupted by World War I, which Vengerova spent in Britain, where she gave public lectures on Russian literature and culture. During this time she became familiar with the English imagists—Ezra Pound and W[y]ndham Lewis in particular—and in 1915 she was the first to write about them for the Russian public. After the 1917 revolution, Vengerova returned to Russia only to emigrate to the West in 1922. In 1925 she married the poet and philosopher Nikolai Minskii, whose first wife had been her niece, Liudmila Vil’kina. They lived in Berlin and then London in the 1920s, and finally in Paris. From the end of the war through the 1920s, Vengerova’s literary activities mainly involved translation work, including […] two books by Leon Trotsky. After Minskii’s death in 1937, Vengerova moved to New York City to live with her sister Izabella. She maintained contact with the Soviet Union, writing a memoir of Eleanor Marx (whom she had met in London in 1896) which she sent to the Institute of Marx and Engels in M[oscow], and a final article for Literary Heritage (LitN) in 1939. She died in New York in 1941.
What a life!
Oh, and her younger sister Izabella (1857-1956; also known as Isabelle) was a pianist, among whose many students were Leonard Bernstein and Nicolas Slonimsky—who was their nephew! The connections, the connections…