Nightingale Fever

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Ronald Hingley’s insightful study of four of the greatest twentieth century Soviet poets—Anna Andreevna Akhmatova (1889-1966), Osip Yemilyevich Mandelstam (1891-1938), Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (1890-1960), and Marina Ivanovna Efron Tsvetaeva (1892-1941)—mixes in just measure biography, criticism, and historical reconstruction. In treating his subjects, Hingley, a professor of Russian literature at Oxford University and a noted translator and critic, examines the four lives and a composite sociobiography, showing how their relationships as friends or lovers, as artistic rivals or supporters, always as embattled dissidents within a hostile environment, united them at last in their tragic destinies.

As a thematic key to the poet’s struggle, Hingley chooses as his title and his epigraph a phrase from Mandelstam: “and there is no hope/ For heart still flushed/ With Nightingale Fever.” Composed in 1918, a few months after the Bolshevik Revolution, these lines are prophetic of the disaster that was to overtake all four gifted poets. By “nightingale fever,” Mandelstam meant Philomela’s self-destructive impulse to sing, to use the powers of one’s art in the face of certain ruin. Like the fabled nightingale of the Greeks, Mandelstam and his three contemporaries were obsessively driven to sing, urged by the “fever” of their art. Hingley shows how the poets deliberately placed their lives in jeopardy, not because they were counterrevolutionary enemies of the Soviet authorities, but because the very act of singing—of writing poetry—was necessary to their existence.

To examine the four poets in a context of political upheaval, Hingley fashions a composite biography, skillfully counterpointing their relationship against a background of twentieth century Russian history. His method has both advantages and disadvantages. A chief limitation, of course, is his need to fragment the story of each poet’s life into arbitrary periods. Certainly a continuous narrative is easier for most readers to grasp than one that intricately weaves into its pattern other lives. Nevertheless, Hingley is able to enrich his study of individual poets by demonstrating their collective fate. Indeed, the four masters were united by common aspirations and suffering, no matter how different their temperaments. As they matured, artistically and emotionally, they continued to influence one another. Even after the deaths of Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva—the former in a concentration camp and the latter a suicide following years of struggle and exile—the surviving poets commemorated through their lives and work a bond of fidelity to their fallen comrades.

Hingley traces three stages in the careers of each poet: “Peace and War” (1889-1921), a time mostly of pre-Bolshevik education, early writings, and first adjustment to the Revolution of 1917; “Between Convulsions” (1921-1930), a difficult period of struggle with the Soviet cultural dictators, usually without much success, to maintain artistic integrity; and finally, “Terror and Beyond” (1930-1966), the dénouement of Stalinist tyranny, culminating in the purges of 1937-1939 and their aftermath, followed by the post-Stalin years up until the mid-1960’s.

During the early years of the century, all four poets shared similar socio-cultural backgrounds: all arose from the middle or upper-middle classes rather than the proletariat; all were well-educated; all achieved precocious success within the advanced literary circles of their day. In spite of the fact that, as a group, the poets were members of a privileged class of pre-Revolution society, they were liberals who either ignored Czarist institutions or wrote from the bias of Western rather than Slavic civilization. Of the four, two were nonobservant Jews—Mandelstam and Pasternak—and consequently were not entirely...

(The entire section is 1578 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The Kirkus Reviews. XLIX, Septemper 1, 1981, p. 1132.

Library Journal. CVI, September 1, 1981, p. 1632.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, December 20, 1981, p. 6.

Publishers Weekly. CCXX, October 23, 1981, p. 56.