Issue 5, 2014. October-November

   

Tbilisi, the Caucasus Muse

For centuries, Tbilisi - and the rest of the country - has served as a muse for foreigners. From Pushkin to Dumas, Tbilisi has been a gateway to the exotic. Russian writers and poets used to flock to the city's ancient walls and bewitching culture in search of a safe haven to work. Today, writers and poets from Germany and the Netherlands, Great Britain and beyond are discovering Tbilisi and finding their own inspirations.

Tbilisi, with its bewitching streets, exotic smells and ageless hospitality, has been luringwriters and poets to come and seek inspiration in its ancient walls for centuries. From Pushkin and Dumas to John Steinbeck (he came twice) and Boris Pasternak, giants of the literary world have found their muse, and sometimes even sanctuary, in the city's ancient streets. And that legacy is continuing today as more foreign writers and poets are discovering Tbilisi's quiet charm.


"The Fabulous Land"

For Alexandr Pushkin, one of Tbilisi's most exalted expat writers, Tbilisi was a gate from Europe to Asia. Today, there are even tours around the country inspired by his writings about Tbilisi and Georgia, which he famously referred to as "the fabulous land."

Pushkin was far from alone: Waves of Russian writers and poets have come to Tbilisi since the 19th century, seeking safety, inspiration, or simply the foreignness of the near abroad, Ilia State University Professor Bela Tsipuria told Investor.ge.

There was Mikhail Lermontov, who reportedly wrote Mtsyri in Tbilisi. There was also Alexander Griboedov, and Lev Tolstoy, to name a few.

Not only Russian writers fell under Tbilisi's spell: French novelist Alexander Dumas famously documented his stay in the city in Tales of the Caucasus - and spent enough time in Tbilisi to fall in love with the local ritual of going to the baths.

Some expat writers, like Dagny Juel-Przbyszewska, left their mark on the soul of the city. Juel-Przybyszewska, the Norwegian writer who was just as well known for her liasons with famous artists as for her writing, was killed in Tbilisi in 1901. Her death has inspired its own books, including the novel Dagny or a Love Feast by Zurab Karumidze.

The days of the Blue Horn

Writers and poets who were drawn to Tbilisi wrote about the city's culture and traditions, Tsipuria said, adding that the writers and the poets also drew inspiration from Georgian food, wine and women.

As Georgia embraced its independence after the Russian Revolution, Russian avant-gardists flocked to Tbilisi to escape the brutal war and revolution hardships at home and they found kindred spirits in the Blue Horn movement of the time, she added.

"During the period of the first Georgian democracy, 1916-1921, Tbilisi was a real safe haven - the whole generation of Russian avant-gardists came to Georgia," she said, noting that the love affair continued in the Soviet era, through the repression of the 1930s and on. The state even sponsored the close relations between Russian and Georgian writers.

"In 1950s and 1960s there was another wave of Russians coming to Georgia and getting inspired by Georgia...For this generation - Georgia was kind of a resort...they were coming here and finding some relaxation and warmth, some wine and some sun, and they were all writing...and some friendships were also struck," she said.

Alexander Dumas

The Soviet state even paid for Russian writers to travel to Georgia's rich sanatoriums and soak up the local color, allowing them to create, translate, and publish their works while enjoying the country's resorts.

The close relations did not last in post-Soviet times, however, Tsipuria noted. "They could not accept Georgia's will for freedom. So when the Soviet Union collapsed, this kind of friendship also collapsed," she said.

"An extraordinary history of cultural amalgamation and defiance"

In the waning days of the Soviet Union, and during the heady years of new independence and conflict, a new wave of writers, journalists and poets fell under Tbilisi's spell.

Peter Nasmyth first came to Georgia as a tourist and journalist. His writings about Georgia - and his love of the country - have gone much deeper than the chaotic political turmoil of the 1990s, however.

"I first came as a tourist in 1987, when I was a journalist. Two years later I came again with a publisher and through one of those lengthy commissioning processes ended up writing 'Georgia, Rebel in the Caucasus' (1992)," he told Investor.ge.

"My trip timed itself one month after the 9th April and I was witness to those huge Soviet-era demonstrations on Rustaveli.

After that I was hooked - it seems for life!"

He added: "It's hard not to be inspired by Tbilisi - which is the natural byproduct of these magnificent mountains and an extraordinary history of cultural amalgamation and defiance. I view the city in breaks of about three months so receive the changes more powerfully than most."

Former First Lady Sandra Roloefs has also watched Tbilisi change with a writer's eye. A published author, Roloefs wrote her first book, an autobiography, in Tbilisi and she has already started a second one, also inspired by the country.

"I like to write about Georgia, about its customs, traditions, culture and about its health system. I like to share my experiences from Georgia and usually do that in the form of blogs or articles. I have only written one autobiographic book (back in 2004-2005) which I enjoyed a lot doing," she told Investor.ge in an email interview.

"I have been thinking of writing a second book (even started a sketch) about a woman in Darkveti (region of Chiatura). She has really existed and fell in love with her foreign neighbor honored years ago (a Belgian)."

Roloefs added that she writes mainly in English but also in Dutch and Georgian.

Katie Davies was also already writing when she came to Tbilisi. She first started writing books while living in Spain and has self-published two volumes of her five-book series Blood Omen, writing under the name KR Davies.

But Tbilisi was the city that appreciated her writing talents the most: a local publishing house is republishing the first book of the series in Georgian, Vampire Wars. (The original English title is Blood Omen Book I: The Vampire Wars (Blood Omen Saga 1). It will be out this fall with an official launch on October 31 at the Museum of Theatre, Music, Cinema and Choreography.

Roloefshas also helped bring more European writers to the city through the EU's City Books project.

One, Stefan Hertmans, captured the essence of the city in a short story about trying to track down the knife sharpener who captivated his imagination during an earlier trip to the city.

"I descended the steps to the shadowy, subterranean underpass that takes pedestrians to the other side of the traffic-choked square - a shadowy world of undefined stench in which musicians, lace-making widows, needy woodcarvers and impoverished booksellers importuned the clacking heels of every-hurrying women," he wrote in The Knifemaker of Tbilisi, a tale so full of the color that, as a reader, you feel as if you were in Hermans' back pocket as he jostles around the glorious -and grimy - moments of street life that make Tbilisi great.

The streets of Tbilisi have inspired other expat writers, as well.

Tara Isabella Burton first came when she was in college, and eventually started to write and establish herself as a freelancer from Tbilisi.

Now widely published, Burton still returns to Tbilisi when she has work in the region.

Tbilisi, she said, is a writer's city.

The streets, smells and sounds of Sololaki played a starring role in her latest book, currently at the on submission with her agent, The Snake Eaters, a novel that features Machabelis Kucha.

"I love all of Georgia, of course, but for me there's something quite special about Tbilisi. The art nouveau buildings in Sololaki, the sense of faded grandeur, the way public and private spaces are not quite so strictly delineated (i.e., courtyards that emerge just off streets, gorgeous entry halls you can just peer into, like the one on Machabeli St. that inspired the novel I've recently completed) all give walking through the city a sense of magic," she said in a skype interview with Investor.ge.

"I love the carved angels you find above doors, the wrought-iron mermaids you find on balconies. Culturally, it is that blend of influences that you find in Tbilisi that excites me most. It's certainly a writers' city."

An excerpt from The Snake Eaters by Tara Isabella Burton:

Maia went on talking, but Rebecca hardly heard her. She was caught up in the heart of the labyrinth, now, in the warren of old streets she could have sworn she had taken that morning but which were now newly revealed. The angels with their pockmarked cheeks and chiseled eyes stared down at her; the griffons beat the remnants of their wings. The light spackled and shimmered down on the tails of the wrought-iron mermaids, and in the cicada fullness of the silence surrounding them Rebecca felt at last that she knew on what ground she stood.

Yes, that smell in the air - she remembered, now; that was tone bread, dough hot-thrown against the sides of the oven - mixed with coriander and the curious and acrid sweetness of aubergine left too long in the sun. The signs - yes, by this light Rebecca could read them now - were for bakeries, market-stalls, churches, the shops of icon-makers.

It was real; it was unreal; it was dream-like and unfathomable. Once it had been a palace, in the old Moorish style, but time and fate had stretched out the stucco and weathered the stained glass; the carved ceiling curled with plaster tendrils; purple and pink, yellow and pale green. Above these carvings, a kaleidoscope of stained glass - shot through by holes through which the sky seeped in - rained down rays of many colors, dappling the marble staircase with shadows dense and dark as stones.

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