The poet's daughter.
By Ariadna Tsvetaeva. Edited and translated by Diane Nemec Ignashev
Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2009, 318 pp., $24.95
The life of the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) coincided with many of the most dramatic, tumultuous upheavals of modern history: the Russian Revolution of 1905, World War I, the October Revolution of 1917, civil war, famine, Lenin's brutalities, and, with Stalin's rise to power, manufactured famine and the Great Purge of 1937-1938, a time of nearly unimaginable misery and constant terror. Trauma and tragedy, with the consequently heightened passions of romantic love and friendship, were the materials of her life, from which she shaped a poetry that has, against all odds, outlasted the Soviet Union and survived into the twenty-first century.
Tsvetaeva published her first book of poetry when she was eighteen, having devoted herself to literature despite her mother's desire to see her become a pianist. The poets Aleksandr Blok and Andrei Bely, and their Symbolist movement, represented the kind of work she hoped to produce. In 1912, at nineteen, she married the eighteen-year-old Sergei (Seryozha) Yakovlevich Efron. Later that year her first daughter, Ariadna (Alya), was born.
And here we arrive at the book at hand. No Love without Poetry comprises Diane Nemec Ignashev's translations of previously uncollected material by Tsvetaeva's eldest daughter, herself something of a literary prodigy, who lived from 1912-1975. The result is stunning. Professor of Russian and the Liberal Arts at Carleton College in Minnesota, Ignashev has produced translations from the original Russian that are not simply astute; they convey Alya's voice and psychology. This is in large part why the book is so vivid and memorable. Both mother and daughter were pawns of the Soviet Union's brutal tactics, but the relationship between the two women created its own quandaries. Of course, this has always been true of mothers and daughters--but this particular relationship was also between two writers, who recorded their private lives in literature for public consumption. The daughter may have been disadvantaged by her belatedness, and yet it is the daughter who has the last word.
At first, Marina assigned subjects for composition to the precociously verbal Alya, who wrote in her notebook daily. Are we to believe that the six-year-old Alya remembered in detail the narratives of poems recited by Blok at the Palace of Arts in Moscow? That at eight she remembered a party at which a man presented, specifically, peonies to a woman unknown to her? That her mother described the poet Anna Akhrnatova as "perfection, and that, alas, is her limit"? Alya's memory is a marvel, and perhaps Marina's strictures and demands trained that memory to capture detail and keep it intact. We must imagine a little girl who desperately wants to please her mother--although Alya observed that her notebook descriptions of Marina and her adult friends "gave Marina pause: she found them unduly perspicacious." (One wonders how she felt in later years when it was she who had to keep her mother's work alive.)
Sergei, having joined the White Guards during the civil war, was, upon their defeat, sent to Turkey and thence to Czechoslovakia and France, by then thoroughly disillusioned about his participation in the war. Marina was persuaded to place Alya and their younger daughter, Irina, born in 1917, in an orphanage that turned out to be no protection against malnutrition; Irina died in 1919. In Berlin, Marina and Alya lived in poverty--sometimes helped out by friends. She rose early to drink black coffee as she sat at her table, working on the poems that made her reputation. "Pressing her forehead against the palm of her hand, running her fingers through her hair, she focused herself instantly," writes Alya. "She wrote using a simple wooden quill with a fine metal point."
By the time Sergei and Marina were reunited, first in Berlin and then in Czechoslovakia, Alya was nine. She recorded the moment of reunion in Berlin exactly: "Marina! Marinochka!" ... [A] tall thin man came running toward us.... For a long, long time [Sergei and Marina] stood locked in a deathly still embrace and only later began slowly to wipe the tears from each other's cheeks." After much discussion, the little family settled in Czechoslovakia, where Sergei attended Charles University. Alya writes:
Our day passes as follows: we get up around eight, Marina makes breakfast, I put away all the bedding and clean the two tables and the two windowsills and sweep the floor using the landlady's broom. Then I go for milk, take out the trash, and bring water from the nearest well. After breakfast I wash the dishes, while Marina puts on dinner and sits down to write. I also sit down to write my four pages. After dinner I go out for a walk; sometimes Marina takes me with her. In the evening I read and draw and go to bed early. Sometimes we have guests, and sometimes Marina goes out. [Sergei] usually spends four days a week in Prague.... The rest of the time he lives here. In the morning he refuses to eat and gets angry when Mama gives him cocoa instead of tea or makes him butter his bread or boils one egg for him alone, even though it is absolutely essential that he eat because he is so thin and exhausted.
Through all their travels, Marina remained productive, even prolific. Yet for a poet, exile to another language can be paralyzing, and a letter from home salvation. On June 17, 1922, while she and Alya were still in Berlin and Sergei was a university student in Prague, a letter arrived from Boris Pasternak, forwarded by the journalist Ilya Ehrenburg. As Alya puts it, "The relationship that formed between both poets never knew and would never know anything comparable: it was unique."
An American might take a colder look at the relationship--how much was fantasy, how much flirtation, and how did it affect their spouses and children? Yet one cannot deny the intense depths of friendship in a society that has been crammed into restrictive moral quarters, that offers no choice but that between obedience and death. And often enough, obedience was beside the point, meaning there was no choice, only Stalin's bizarre and murderous whim. In such a society, you can be known only by your friends; no one else can be trusted. Alya writes that when Pasternak and Marina finally met in Paris in 1935,
His aloofness and enchantment with someone other than her stunned and wounded her profoundly, all the more so because her long-distance relationship with Pasternak had been her only stronghold and shelter from the real failures and insults of her last years in emigration. [Italics hers.]
Marina's mature poetry, with its "intensifying complexity," was, Alya says, written for and to Pasternak, "focused on him and addressed to him, like a prayer." Marina compares a letter with a heartbeat: "The strength of a heartbeat is equal to the duration of its resonance." Alas, resonance weakens with distance and time. Pasternak's wife bears him a son; Marina is carrying Sergei's son, whom she and Sergei will name Gyorgy.
In his letters, Pasternak applauds Marina's "genius." Alya suggests that his applause, which certainly helped Marina through the night, nevertheless rang hollow to her ears. "Who knew better than she," Alya asks, "that poets write not for other poets...It]hat anything authentic is created for the masses, to quell their hunger for the daily bread of creativity?" [italics in the original]. Marina felt that exile had cheated her of the reputation her work deserved and would have received from Russian readers.
Exile continued for fourteen years in Paris. Marina, who had once written in praise of the White Guard, had become, as had Sergei, pro-Red, and the emigre community in Paris was not happy about this. Although she was probably unaware of it, Sergei had become a spy for the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. He and Alya (in a late rebellion against her mother) returned to the Soviet Union in 1937, though not together. Lonely and homesick Marina returned there in 1939, taking Gyorgy with her.
In 1941 Sergei was shot for espionage. The evidence against him included statements by Alya, who had been tortured: the man to whom she had been engaged turned out to be an NKVD agent, who had been directed to spy on her and her family. Alya was sent to the gulag for eight years. In August of that year, Marina hanged herself; she had petitioned for jobs but had not been granted one; she had no money. She may have had a fight with Gyorgy shortly before she hanged herself. She may have been pressured into suicide by the NKVD, whose agents visited her that afternoon.
This is not the book in which to find those stories, since they postdate Alya's diary and reminiscences. Nor is it, understandably, a place to gather information about Marina's many lovers, male and female. It is also not a book in which to learn about Marina's second daughter, Irina, who died during the Moscow famine, because Alya, although she knew her sister, rarely mentions her. It is a book though, wherein one can experience the crowded, energetic lives of these Russian writers and artists, many of them illustrious, all of them pursuing their art against a political regime that distrusted their every word, musical theme, drawing. It is a book in which the characters are as alive as if that world never ended.
The book's explanatory apparatus fills in much of the larger picture and orients us to history and the personae. The editing is superb. The material is gripping. The reader will be led to Tsvetaeva's poems: Elaine Feinstein and Nina Kossman are two of many who have translated them. Others have translated her plays and essays, although unfortunately much of Tsvetaeva's work has been lost. There are a number of biographies and even a play about her, and Feinstein herself recently published a highly inventive and interesting novel, The Russian Jerusalem (2008), in which Tsvetaeva plays a large role. The reputation Tsvetaeva thought she had forfeited is now celebrated worldwide, and the Nobelist Joseph Brodsky said of her,
Tsvetaeva is the unique case in which the paramount spiritual experience of an epoch (for us, the sense of ambivalence, of contradictoriness in the nature of human existence) served not as the object of expression but as its means, by which it was transformed into the material of art.
In her introduction, Ignashev points out that Alya was a "poet and skilled translator in her own right," who "embellished her prose with linguistic play--from alliteration to extended metaphors and even occasional song melodies hidden in her syntax." Readers will be enthralled by Alya's lively, intelligent voice in No Love without Poetry, which gifts us with one of the most vibrant portraits of Marina Tsvetaeva we have yet received, and we can, and do, hope for more from her daughter's own well-wrought urn.
Kelly Cherry is the author of nineteen books and eight chapbooks of poetry, long and short fiction, memoir, essay, and criticism and translations of two classical plays. In late 2009 she published Girl in a Library: On Women Writers & the Writing Life and The Retreats of Thought. Poems.
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|Title Annotation:||No Love Without Poetry: The Memoirs of Marina Tsvetaeva's Daughter|
|Publication:||The Women's Review of Books|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2010|
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