Study Guide

Bella Akhmadulina

Bella Akhmadulina Essay - Critical Essays

Akhmadulina, Bella

Introduction

Bella Akhmadulina 1937-

Full name Bella Akhatovna Akhmadulina; also transliterated as Bella Axmadulina or Isabella Akhatovna Akhmadulina. Russian poet, short story writer, and translator.

Akhmadulina is considered one of the foremost contemporary Russian poets. She is a member of the Russian New Wave literary movement, a group of writers who embraced Western ideology during the 1960s. Her poetry is traditional in form but distinguished by inventive use of rhyme, syntax, and metaphor. Akhmadulina's verse is characterized by her exploration of identity, the limits of personal and artistic freedom, and the place of the poet in society.

Biographical Information

Akhmadulina was born in Moscow, Russia, April 10, 1937, of Tartar, Italian, and Russian descent. Before attending the A. M. Gorky Institute of World Literature in the mid-1950s, she studied in the literary circles of the Stalin car plant mentored by the poet Yuri Vinokurov. She married poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 1954. In 1960, she completed her education at the Gorky Institute, preceding an expulsion due to her overly apolitical verse. That same year, she also divorced Yevtushenko and married short story writer Yuri Navigin. In 1962 her first book of poems, Struna (The String) was published. She divorced Navigin in 1968. In 1974 she married the artist Boris Messerer. She has served as secretary to the Soviet Union of Writers and is an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Major Works

Influenced by the Acmeists, a Russian poetic movement established in the early twentieth century in reaction to the dominant symbolist school of poetry, Akhmadulina began to publish poetry in the early 1960s as part of the Russian New Wave. Her first two collections, Struna and Uroki muzyki (1969; translated as “Music Lessons”), contain what many critics regard as her finest poems. A selection of these early works was translated into English in Fever and Other New Poems (1969). Two of Akhmadulina's best-known poems are “Oznob” (“Fever”) and “Skazka o dozhde” (“Fairytale about the Rain”). In “Oznob,” the narrator's inspiration to compose poetry is likened to a strange illness that makes her a social outcast. In “Skazka o dozhde,” the poet's creativity and special place in society is symbolized by the rain that follows her wherever she goes. The narrator is initially embarrassed at being singled out from the dry world around her, but when a group of friends conspire to eliminate the rain, the narrator defends herself and learns to embrace her unique identity. “Moya rodslovnaya” (1964; “My Family Tree”) is a poem that alludes to a work by Aleksandr Pushkin, and “I Swear,” is a poetic vendetta against the social forces that drove the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, an early influence on Akhmadulina's writing, to suicide in 1941. Children, flowers, animals, and rain are dominant poetic symbols in Akhmadulina's early works, but in later collections, including Stikhi (1975; translated as “Poems”), Sny o Gruzii (1977; translated as “Dreams of Georgia”), Metel (1978; translated as “Candle”), Taina (1983; translated as “Secret,”) and Sad (1987; translated as “Garden”), Akhmadulina has explored graver themes including death, eternity, and the transitory nature of existence.

Critical Reception

Struna was criticized by the then-Soviet government for being too personal and emotional and caused Akhmadulina problems in publishing later poems. Critics have compared Akhmadulina's poetry to that of Acmeist poets Anna Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva, and have noted her acknowledged literary debt to her predecessors Pushkin and Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov. Scholars have praised Akhmadulina's distinctive poetic voice, lively style, and original use of themes. For example, in Taina, Akhmadulina skillfully manipulates structure and poetic voice to depict the gradual aging of the narrator throughout the poem and creates a circular pattern through the “secret” located at the end of the poem. Although relatively little has been written in English or Russian about her work, critics are in general agreement in their high regard for Akhmadulina's stylistic and thematic variety. They also commend her witty use of metaphor to comment on society and the natural world, and her ability to create and sustain her personal perspective in her poems.

Principal Works

Struna 1962

Oznob 1968; also published as Fever and Other Poems [translated by Geoffrey Dutton and Igor Mezhakoff-Koriakin] 1969

Uroki Muzyki 1969

Stikhi 1975

Sny o Gruzii 1977

Svecha 1977

Metel 1978

Three Russian Poets [with Margarite Aliger and Iunna Morits] 1979

Taina: novye stikhi 1983

Three Russian Women Poets [with Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva, translated by Mary Maddock-Trumansburg] 1983

Izbrannoe: stikhi 1988

Stikhotvoreniia 1988

The Garden: New and Selected Poetry and Prose [edited and translated by F. D. Reeve] 1990

Clear Ponds [with Yuri Navigin] (script) 1965

Criticism

Christine Rydel (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Rydel, Christine. “The Metapoetical World of Bella Akhmadulina.” Russian Literature Triquarterly 1 (1971): 326-41.

[In the following essay, Rydel discusses Akhmadulina’s approach to writing and the inspiration for her poetry.]

The subjectivity of Akhmadulina's poetry leads us not to her life, but to her art. In many of her poems she gives us clues to the mysteries of her feelings and her thoughts, but never discloses her biography. Even when Akhmadulina overtly sets out to tell us the story of her past, she deflects interest from herself to a time well-buried in the past: “… [since my birth] is in no way distinguished from any other births, I turn my grateful memory to the real people and events on which in one way or another it depends.”1

However, in spite of Akhmadulina certain biographical information is known. She was born in Moscow in 1937 to a middle-class Russian family. She studied at the Gorky Institute of Literature where she met and married Evgeny Evtushenko in 1954. Certain circumstances, the nature of which is not clear, led to her expulsion from the Institute and to her travels to Central Asia. She experienced difficulty both in being accepted into the Union of Soviet Writers and in having her own poetry published. Akhmadulina translated many poems, especially from Georgian, and in this way gained admittance to the Union. Finally, in 1962, String (Struna), her first collection of poetry, was published. It is composed mainly of short lyrics of various subjects: love, inspiration, interesting places, the past, and even soda water.

By the time of her first major publication, Akhmadulina was married to the prose writer Yury Nagibin, with whom she collaborated in the writing of a film scenario based on one of his stories—Clear Ponds. In 1963, in Literary Georgia, she published fragments of her favorite (and probably her best) poem, “A Fairytale about the Rain” (“Skazka o dozhde”). Almost simultaneously, in Youth, Akhmadulina published her second long poem, “My Genealogy” (“Moia rodoslovnaia”). Since then she has been translating and writing, with a greater emphasis placed on translation.

The fact that Akhmadulina is translating more than creating her own poetry may be the reason why her second collection, Music Lessons (Uroki muzyki, 1969) contains practically no new poetry. Almost all of this collection appeared earlier in String or scattered publications. Akhmadulina is beginning to write again now and seems to be becoming active in Moscow literary life once more. In December 1970, together with the older poet Pavel Antokolsky, she gave an evening-long reading of her poetry in Moscow's House of Friendship.

At present Akhmadulina is married to the playwright and children's writer Gennadi Mamlin. With an adopted daughter they live in the Aeroport section of Moscow—a notably literary region of the city. The apartment is typically Soviet—with the exception of Akhmadulina's sitting room. It is somewhat reminiscent of her poem “An Old Portrait” (“Starinnyi portret”) with its green velvet loveseat and grand piano. This is the one old-fashioned corner of Akhmadulina's real world.

Akhmadulina has been almost as reluctant to describe her physical features as she has to indulge in autobiography. The one feature which she mentions often in her poems is her red bangs. She still has them. Akhmadulina is as beautiful as her pictures show, but is now much thinner than most of them depict her. She has about her an air of fragility which encompasses an intelligent, witty, clever, aware and whimsical interior—very much like her own poetry.

Akhmadulina's whimsical relationship with her Muse shows through in all of her lyrics on varied themes. Even when she is writing about the construction of a new blast-furnace, she sees it as a circus and the construction worker as an acrobat walking on a tightrope. Akhmadulina's relationship with her own poetic inspiration is the subject of many of her poems. This, together with love lyrics, forms the main portion of her first collection.

Akhmadulina's love and metapoetical poems share a recurrent symbolism.2 She finds refuge from her alienation from the crowd either in poetry or with her lover. In most cases the man she loves shares her inspiration. Where most poets look to love for inspiration, Akhmadulina looks to inspiration for love. It is ironic that it is inspiration which alienates her from the crowd and also consoles her when she feels this isolation. An excellent illustration of this symbiotic relationship between love and inspiration is the poem “December.”3 She and her lover are building a snowman and the people crowd around them to watch their actions. The two lovers answer the questioning glances of the crowd with the words, “We're building a snowman, that's all.” The dialogue between the two as they build their snowman clearly shows how love and inspiration are integrally related:

You say, “Look, how I am sculpting.”
Really, how well you sculpt,
And how you create form out of formlessness.
I say, “Look how I love.”

In the second half of this poem she describes her beloved. She sees his “child-like face” (detskoe litso). Here the snow is a variant of rain, an important symbol of inspiration. In Akhmadulina's symbolic system children also represent poetry, or creative literature in general. She is aware of her calling as a poet and celebrates it in a number of her poems. In “An Alien Craft” (“Chuzhoe remeslo”) she tells us of the power that writing has over her. But even though it treats her cruelly, she is loyal to it.

An alien craft orders me about,
Beckoning me to follow, it leads me to sin.
My work doesn't help me
But vindictively shuns me.
I will always be loyal to it.

She further tells us that she is not only jealous of other writers who can create, but greedily covets the right to produce poetry and is glad that she can also participate in the joy of creation. Akhmadulina combines this greed with an awe for creation and even feels unworthy to soil clean paper with her handwriting. She almost gives a religious feeling to her reverence when she says in the poem “A New Notebook”:

I am confused and I quail before a sheet
of clean paper.
Thus a pilgrim stands
at the entrance of a cathedral.

Her reference turns into an almost Pushkinian scorn for the crowd when she describes the phenomenon of Poetry Day.4 She feels that the public does not understand poetry and therefore cannot fully appreciate it. They are confused. But she does not feel that this Poetry Day has been celebrated in vain. Although the children who are listening do not understand all of the poetry, they are enraptured by it:

Not in vain do words come over poets,
Not in vain when their voices ring out,
Do the eyes of the boys and girls shine
With ecstasy and ignorance.

Here the children benefit from the recitation of poetry.

Children as well as rain, flowers, and dogs are the main symbols of poetry and inspiration in Akhmadulina's symbolic system. When inspiration takes hold of her, she flies, thus escaping from the real into the fantastic. Many poems such as “With the deep voice of a prophet” (“Glubokim golosom proroka”), “Flowers” (“Tsvety”), “There's the sound of rain” (“Vot zvuk dozhdia”), “In that month of May” (“V tot mesiats Mai”), and “Your House” (“Tvoi dom”) contain these main symbols and themes—which have their full development in “A Fairytale about the Rain.” In “With the deep voice of a prophet” nature calls her to drink the water meant for the flowers. She lingers behind, and even when the water springs up to meet her longing, she delays, does not drink and therefore does not quench her thirst. This foreshadows the first half of “A Fairytale” where the Rain is following the poetess and she chases it away:

—Shame, you good-for-nothing,
Kitchen farmers call out to you in tears,
Go to the flowers!
What have you found in me?

“Flowers” can be viewed as a lyrical description of flowers and their need for rain. But viewed in total perspective, the flowers can represent poetry—which cannot be stifled in a house where rules and regulations are enforced, but needs the freedom and nourishment of the rain (here clearly poetic inspiration). At first the home seems to be beneficent, with all care given to the flowers; however, the picture is different at the end of the poem:

People give them festively as a remembrance,
But as for me—I'm afraid of their fate,
You know, they never smell as nice
As they do in gardens.
It's not for them to stay on the lips,
It's not for them to have bees shake them,
Nor ever will they guess,
What wet earth means.

And so, these flowers caught in the greenhouse will never feel rain.

In “There's the sound of the rain” Akhmadulina tells a little boy to go play tricks and to be naughty (stanza two) and to free all of the thread from a tight green ball. In “A Fairytale” the Rain also acts like a naughty child: “It tickled my ear with a child's finger” (“On detskim pal'tsem shchekotal mne ukho”). The connection of a boy with a tight ball that is to be set free corresponds to “A Fairytale” (X, 3). The children, here representing poetry, are contained in round or oval objects, somehow straining to be set free:

What if in him, as in a nacreous egg,
There slept a spring of bent music?
Like a rainbow—in a bud of white?
Like a secret muscle of beauty—in his face?

In “There's the sound of rain” Akhmadulina next equates a dog with a comrade: “And with the understanding glance of a friend / The dog looks at me for a long time.” In “A Fairytale” Rain actually becomes a dog (“rain—washed my lips with the scent of a puppy”). The dog looks at her with the glance of a friend, but in the last stanza, the “lyrical hero” of the poem notices the wonder of the passers-by looking at her. In “A Fairytale” the alienation is more intense. She says, “It was dry all around. Only I was drenched to the bone” and “The passers-by were frightened by the look of my misfortune.”

Akhmadulina is most alienated when she is under the control of her Muse—at this time she leaves the confines of the earth and flies out over the city. In “In that Month of May” inspiration takes hold of her, and “spreading out over the land / flying weather attracts me.” She dips her feathers as she flies “in a happy foretaste of singing.” But now every flight is costing her more, and while she is flying:

And somewhere, piping on his pipe,
Not noticing the flower beds and plots,
a strange child is running about
and destroying their order.

And so, while inspiration has taken hold of her, somewhere a poem has been produced, one which violates an established order.

In “A Fairytale about the Rain,” when a guest asks her to describe how inspiration works, she says:

And further—you fly above and below,
Smashing your elbows and knees until they are
                                                                                                                                                      bloody,
On snow, on air, on the corners of Kvarengi,
On bedsheets of hotels and hospitals.
Do you remember that sharp cupola
of St. Basil's, with jagged edges? Imagine—
Against it with all of your body!

Poems in the form of airplanes, not Akhmadulina, fly in (“Oh, how painful are all those other troubles”). They keep coming to her in dreams (“Mne malen'kie samoletv vse sniatsia”) and nip at her nose the way that fish tickle the toes of children (“rybeshka tak khodit vozle nog rebenka, shchekochet”). The airplanes dog her like children and dachshunds. Before she lets the airplanes off into the sky, she calls them “my little one” and “child” (moi malen'kii, ditia). Here she combines the symbols of the plane, children, water and dogs into a representation of her creative works.

In contrast to the themes of inspiration and freedom, the poem “Your House” portrays the stifling atmosphere of a house that the poetess visits. When she enters the house she is greeted with a loud kiss (note the parched onomatopoetic quality of shcheku chmokal [“smacked my cheek”]). The house is good and delicate, but dry—the tea service looks out of the mirror “as if it were a fish out of water” and only a cactus is growing in the window. When she enters, a dog runs up to her, but unfortunately the people in the house kill him. When she leaves the house, it is with a bitter goodbye: “Don't comfort me with a lie.” This poem contains the germ of the scene at the house in “A Fairytale.”

The atmosphere of the house in “A Fairytale” is also dry, simply because rain cannot enter. This atmosphere and an unfortunate experience with the children prompt Akhmadulina to call the Rain to herself. She wants it, and it comes to her. But when it enters the house, everyone tries to capture it in wash basins and the men drive their heels into it, thereby killing it. The departure of the poetess from the house is more intensely bitter than the departure in “Your House”:

He was alive, like an animal or a child.
Oh, you my children live in poverty and pain.
Blind people, not knowing the secrets,
Why did you plunge your hands into the blood
                                                                                                                                                      of the Rain?
The host whispered:
—Take note,
You will still answer for this meeting!
I laughed out loud:
—I know I will answer!
You are hideous.          Let me pass.

“A Fairytale” solidifies the connections between symbols hinted at in the other poems; flowers become poems, the house turns into a place where inspiration is lacking, and the Rain, animals and children are identified as poetic inspiration. In this poem children are a double image. When the children are outside, they dance around Akhmadulina trying to soak up water. Here they represent poetry derived from pure inspiration. But when the children appear in the house, the song they sing is one of crass materialism—a song opposed to Akhmadulina's aesthetic viewpoint This is another example of the stifling atmosphere of the house, even children are not safe there. Akhmadulina says to the hostess: “You spill your poisoned breast / Into his lips, into the thirsty wound.”

The various symbols and themes of the lyrics and of “A Fairytale” act together to give form to the latter work. “A Fairytale about the Rain” is a highly subjective poem in...

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Elaine Feinstein (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Feinstein, Elaine. “Introduction.” In Three Russian Poets, pp. 9-16. Manchester, England: Carcanet New Press Limited, 1979.

[In the following essay, Feinstein briefly compares Akhmadulina's poetry to that of Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetayeva.]

Bella Akhmadulina was born in Moscow in 1937, with Italian and Tartar ancestors. Her striking beauty and her warm, affectionate presence hide an almost febrile intensity. In Pavel Antokosky's Introduction to her 1975 collection he speaks of Akhmadulina's ‘strong masculine talent … I don't mean in the craftsmanship, or technique … but where it really matters, at the root; in the moral tension of a human being...

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Vickie Woodbury (review date autumn 1980)

SOURCE: Woodbury, Vickie. Review of Three Russian Poets, by Margarita Aliger, Anna Mortiz, and Bella Akhmadulina, translated by Elaine Feinstein. World Literature Today 54, no. 4 (autumn 1980): 301.

[In the following review, Woodbury compares Akhmadulina with her contemporaries and concludes that through time her poetry actually decreased in originality.]

Elaine Feinstein, a poet and a novelist herself, has brought out one previous book of translations of Russian poetry: the Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva, published in 1971. In the present volume [Three Russian Poets] Feinstein has selected nine poems by Margarita Aliger (b. 1915), eight poems...

(The entire section is 767 words.)

Rochelle Stone (review date autumn 1984)

SOURCE: Stone, Rochelle. Review of Taina: Novye stikhi, by Bella Akhmadulina. World Literature Today 58, no. 4 (autumn 1984): 624.

[In the following review, Stone offers a positive assessment of Taina: Novye stikhi, giving special praise Akhmadulina's imagery and variety of themes.]

A member of the “new wave” writers, Bella Akhmadulina started to publish poetry in the early sixties. Still, relatively little has been written in English, or even in Russian, about her work, despite her acknowledged status as a major contemporary Soviet poet and that country's most popular woman poet. Her verse collections, from String (1962), to Chills and Other...

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Nancy Condee (essay date summer 1985)

SOURCE: Condee, Nancy. “Axmadulina's Poemy: Poems of Transformations and Origins.” Slavic and East European Journal 29, no. 2 (summer 1985): 176-87.

[In the following essay, Condee explores some of the sources of Akhmadulina’s creative energy.]

I

In the long poem “Skazka o dožde,” the poet confides that she has taught her husband sorcery. At the poet's instruction, her husband has learned to transform inanimate objects of material value back into natural things of no material value:

Igо y naucila коldоvstvu—
vо mni byla taкay оtкrоvinnоsts—
оn razоm оbratit lybuy iinnоsts
v кrug na vоdi, v...

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Sonia Ketchian (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Ketchian, Sonia. “The Wonder of Nature and Art: Bella Axmadulina's Secret. New Studies in Russian Language and Literature, pp. 185-98. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica Publishers, Inc., 1986.

[In the following essay, Ketchian asserts that the theme of poetic creation is intensified in Tajna: novye stixi. In a slightly altered form this article was republished as chapter 3, “The Key to the Secret,” in Sonia I. Ketchian, The Poetic Craft of Bella Akhmadulina, University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1993.]

The latest collection of verse by Bella Axmadulina Tajna: novye stixi (Secret: New Poems), typifies the artistic...

(The entire section is 7075 words.)

Bella Akhmadulina and Valentina Polukhina (interview date 1990)

SOURCE: Akhmadulina, Bella, and Valentina Polukhina. “An Interview with Bella Akhmadulina.” In Brodsky's Poetics and Aesthetics, edited by Lev Loseff and Valentina Polukhina, pp. 194-204. London: The Macmillan Press, 1990.

[In the following interview, Akhmadulina discusses the influence of Joseph Brodsky on her work and on Russian poetry as a whole.]

[Polukhina]: Bella Akhatovna, it seems to me that you are one of the few Russian poets who does not suffer from a ‘Brodsky complex’. How do you explain this apparent complex? Do you feel other poets suffer from it, or is it just my own fantasy?1

[Akhmadulina]: Valya, my...

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Bella Akhmadulina and Inger Thorup (interview date 1990)

SOURCE: Akhmadulina, Bella, and Inger Thorup. The Beat Generation and the Russian New Wave, pp. 91-8. Ann Arbor, Mich: Ardis Publishers, 1990.

[In the following interview, Akhmadulina recalls the New Wave movement in Russia and discusses some differences between Russian poets and their American Beat counterparts.]

[Thorup]: Bella Akhatovna, why did the poetry renaissance happen in the late fifties, that is, a little earlier than the rest of the New Wave?

[Akhmadulina]: Well, you know, such a phenomenon in the arts always takes place as a certain period is drawing to a close. They are tied together, and so, at that time, after Stalin's...

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John Bayley (review date 1991)

SOURCE: Bayley, John. Review of The Garden: New and Selected Poetry and Prose, by Bella Akhmadulina. London Review of Books 13, no. 2 (January 1991): 12.

[In the following review, Bayley briefly discusses Akhmadulina’s poems from The Garden: New and Selected Poetry and Prose and comments on the Russian poets who influenced her.]

Bella Akhmadulina, a still comparatively young Soviet poet, identifies strongly with Akhmatova's outlook and personality [in The Garden: New and Selected Poetry and Prose]. ‘The Photograph’ and ‘Anna Akhmatova’ celebrate this slightly ambiguous hero-worship. ‘Anna Akhmatova’ is in six-line stanzas carefully...

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Sonia Ketchian (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Ketchian, Sonia. Introduction to The Poetic Craft of Bella Akhmadulina, pp. 1-7. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Ketchian presents an overview of Akhmadulina’s background and of the influences on her poetry.]

The poetry of earth is ceasing never.

—John Keats

Ot strannоj liriкi, gdi кazdyj sag—siкrit.

—Anna Akhmatova

Bella Akhmadulina is Russia's premier contemporary woman poet. In her poetry the Russian language attains a sophisticated symbiosis of meaning, dazzling imagery, rhythm, and sound in articulation that conveys to...

(The entire section is 3100 words.)

Sonia Ketchian (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Ketchian, Sonia. “The Moon as Medium for Art.” In The Poetic Craft of Bella Akhmadulina, pp. 69-98. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Ketchian explores Akhmadulina’s use of the moon as a theme in her poetry.]

Inspiration
I waited
Pen in hand
For the Muse
To visit me …
Meanwhile
I penned
These words
To kill time!
Whereupon the Muse
Arrived and said:
“I see you did not
Need me after all …”

—Mischa Kudian

Anyone who reads or writes on the moon in literature may well wonder whether there is anything left to be said on...

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Christine A. Rydel (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Rydel, Christine. “Bella Akhmadulina's Literary Odyssey.” In Critical Essays on the Prose and Poetry of Modern Slavic Women, edited by Nina A. Efimov, Christine D. Tomei, and Richard L. Chapple, pp. 195-215. Lampeter, Wales: Edwin Mellen Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Rydel explores Akhmadulina’s childhood and sense of place as inspiration for her poetry.]

In the first poem of her 1983 collection Tajna (The Secret), Bella Axmadulina informs her readers that she “has a secret of wondrous blooming” (“U miny tajna cudnоgо цvitinsy”) and will reveal it to them only when the lilies-of-the-valley appear.1 She goes on...

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Raoul Eshelman (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Eshelman, Raoul. “Axmadulina and the Female Minimal Self in Early Russian Postmodernism.” Die Welt Der Slaven, 44, no. 2 (1999): 307-28.

[In the following essay, Eshelman explores how Akhmadulina’s postmodern sense of self grew out of Axmatova’s poetry.]

1. THE MINIMAL SELF

The minimal self as I am using it here refers to a literary persona who seems to be of limited mental capacity or competence. The appearance of such a self is normally accompanied by some sort of irony, since we must assume that there is a difference between the limited self presented in the text and the persona of the real author. In contrast to narrative...

(The entire section is 10751 words.)