The abiding impression produced by this admirable study of the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) is of an archaeological discovery performed under the reader’s eyes. No matter that Tsvetaeva is almost a contemporary, twentieth century poet whose lifetime might overlap with that of the reader. Her life was lost—she committed suicide in the Soviet Union in 1941—and her work was almost lost too. Many manuscripts were destroyed during World War II or are still missing, probably permanently, both in the Soviet Union as well as those she left behind in Paris, prior to her return to the Soviet Union in 1938. Much of her work is still unpublished and unwelcome in the Soviet Union itself. In addition, she was at odds with many in the Russian émigré community in Paris, where she lived for thirteen years. More important, however, several of the major events which occurred during Tsvetaeva’s life were not understood as they were happening, nor are they well understood to this day; this applies both to the Soviet Union and to the West. As this study shows repeatedly, the present moment is far from being privileged; people today are the heirs of misrepresentation and ignorance as well as of knowledge. This book highlights in a dramatic form what creative scholarship can do. In 1966, Simon Karlinsky wrote his first book about Tsvetaeva. So much new information has come to light in the intervening period that he has written a second and very different book about her. Marina Tsvetaeva: The Woman, Her World, and Her Poetry is not a revised edition, as some critics have suggested; a completely different work has been written, and the reader is able to see a new, fascinating poet, vividly and accurately described against her contemporary background.
It is not for nothing that the concerted resources of the literary bureaucracy in the Soviet Union have hindered publication of information about Tsvetaeva. She was hostile to the revolution in February, 1917, and even more hostile to the second revolution in October. She was explicit about her attitudes in her poetry and openly expressed her allegiance to the cause of the White Army; she assumed the role of “chronicler of the White Army” and even wrote a narrative poem about the war entitled “Perekop,” the name of the isthmus that connects the Crimea to the mainland. On the other hand, her views do not easily fit those of Western readers either. As Karlinsky writes in his foreword, “Some of the historical issues I felt compelled to emphasize. . . are extremely unpopular with some Western readers today.” Tsvetaeva was a remarkably critical and unprogrammatic poet. For example, she could write (in 1921):
MigratingTo what kind of New York?With universal enmityLoaded on our backs,What bears we are!What Tatars we are!Devoured by lice,We bring conflagrations.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .’In the name of the Lord!In the name of reason!’What a fester we are,What a leprosy we are!With a wolfish sparkleThrough the snowstorms’ fur,The Star of RussiaAgainst the World!
The irony of the last four lines of this poem, “Sidestreets,” and its critical nature probably did not endear Tsvetaeva to either side of the struggles of the period known as “War Communism.” Her irony indeed alienated both sides as well as puzzled those readers of poetry who expected it to be consistently elevated, euphoric, or noncritical.
Tsvetaeva was writing in the sharp, mordant tradition that came to be associated with the later poems of Osip Mandelstam, who wrote: “I’m being conscripted still/ for new plagues, for seven-year massacres.” Tsvetaeva’s poem, however, was written sixteen years before that of Mandelstam. In some ways, Tsvetaeva was far ahead of Mandelstam in her poetic evolution. These poems give a glimpse of the tantalizing possibility of a critical or even adversary contemporary Russian poetry, and it is precisely this which has not been permitted. After a brief existence in the 1960’s, the dissident movement in the Soviet Union has been totally eradicated, the writers in the movement either imprisoned or exiled. The poems by Tsvetaeva and Mandelstam represent one of the interesting might-have-beens of Russian literary history: a biting, extremely powerful kind of poetry, critical but ultimately patriotic and positive, which could have put Russian poetry at the forefront of twentieth century literature. It was not to be.
What kind of a woman was Tsvetaeva, and what was her...
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