Marina Cvetaeva: Her Life and Art
In 1941 the poet Marina Tsvetaeva was living with her sixteen-year-old son in what was to be her last home, in Elabuga in the Tartar Republic. Elabuga was sixty miles from Chistopol, which had, since the war, become the center of a close-knit group of poets evacuated from Moscow: Pasternak did not arrive there until October of that year, but his family was already settled there with his friend, a disciple of Mayakovsky, Aseev, and his wife. In August, Tsvetaeva, unable to find work in Elabuga, decided to join them. She left her son in her rented room in Elabuga, and took the train to Chistopol. But she soon returned home and continued to look for work. She was at last offered a job as a charwoman. Shortly afterwards, she hanged herself.
When Pasternak rejoined his family, he wrote a poem about her:
I will approach the tumulus
And raise my voice in her defense.
But there was no tumulus: she had been buried in a common grave.
Now, twenty-five years after her death, we can see her generation, Pasternak, Mayakovsky, and Tsvetaeva herself, as the romantics they were—young, daring, they were violently at odds with their own century, and finally abandoned it; feeling unloved and lonely they reveled in their loneliness. Simon Karlinsky’s book on Tsvetaeva is an important contribution to our understanding of the life and work of this belated Russian romantic.
As Dr. Karlinsky points out, it is becoming clear today that the burst of Russian verse between 1890 and 1930 was more glorious even than the first forty years of the nineteenth century. Struggling against either a stupid conservatism or an arrogant, and later dangerous, radicalism, modern Russian poetry nevertheless made its way. There were, as Karlinsky says, eighteen great poets in this modern movement, only one of whom lived uneventfully and died a peaceful death. All the others had tragic lives: some were exiled, some suffered starvation, many died violently. Many were unread, misunderstood, persecuted, forgotten. All of this was part of the experience of Marina Tsvetaeva. Before 1917, the poet in Czarist times who had something new to say was considered a buffoon, and was received with sneers or a slap in the face. After 1917, however, he was considered a criminal and received a bullet through the head. Those who left the country, as Tsvetaeva did, were thought to be cripples or monsters; thoroughly ignored, they underwent a slow asphyxiation, “execution by silence.”
Today, however, after ten years of thaw in poetry and five in literary criticism, Tsvetaeva is slowly being revived in the USSR. There are limited editions of her work; she is discussed in unofficial “closed” conferences, and is read and loved by the new generation. Discussion of the official attitude to her work from 1925 to 1960 is being avoided with good reason: if one does not open the closet the skeleton will not fall out.
WHEN TSVETAEVA was fourteen her mother died. At sixteen she had bad taste in literature, but at eighteen she met several “poètes maudits” of pre-World War I Russia. By the age of twenty, she was already torn between a romantic love for the brave and beautiful heroes of the past and her strong feeling for the oppressed, a division her work reflects. At the age of twentyfive, in 1917, she was already a married woman with two daughters, one of whom was to die of hunger in Moscow in 1919. At this time too began her identification with Katerina Ivanovna Marmeladova, the stepmother of Sonia in Crime and Punishment, which was to remain strong for much of her life. In 1921, Tsvetaeva left Russia.
For the last one hundred years the Russian Right has been, with few exceptions, illiterate, obscurantist, and out of touch with the times. Tsvetaeva wrote poems glorifying the dead Tsar and the White Armies, and she asked that her poems be printed in the old pre-revolutionary orthography. The editors of émigré magazines rejected them. There were two exceptions: of the sixtysix issues of the great Russian quarterly in Paris Sovremennye Zapiski, her work appeared in thirty; and Marc Slonim’s Volya Rissii printed a number of her poems.
Emigration from Soviet Russia during Tsvetaeva’s lifetime was primarily a political phenomenon; to have any appeal or value émigré periodicals could not have anything to do with the extreme Right. Certainly they could never have agreed to lament the late Tsar. Of Tsvetaeva D. Mirsky wrote, “although talented, [she] is hopelessly undisciplined”; to Bunin, her poetry was “nonsense and irresponsibility” (his critical faculties, Karlinsky tells us, “were simply unable to cope with any literary developments at that time”). One reputable émigré critic lost his critical faculties completely, and became obsessed with writing about her. The publishers of Sovremennye Zapiski could not grasp what she was talking about: the bridges, the planks, the “links” were missing. In the USSR Mayakovsky persuaded young poets to stop buying her books. There was a conspiracy of silence about her work. When Pasternak came to Paris in 1935, Tsvetaeva asked him whether she should go back to Moscow or stay in Paris. He had no answer for her.
IN THE 1930s everything about Tsvetaeva’s life in exile was sordid. Professor Karlinsky tells how she and her family moved from one gloomy Paris suburb to another, constantly being evicted for not paying the rent. She knew nothing about housekeeping, yet in some fashion she cooked, washed dishes and floors, laundered, ironed, and darned from morning till night. Her daughter at one time had a clerical job with a French communist publication, her son at eight looked fourteen. In their two-room apartment clothes-lines were strung on which rags were always hanging. She had no place to write and no time to think of anything but how to make ends meet. She seldom went to Paris because of lack of clothes, and once she missed an appointment with a friend for lack of shoes. The situation seemed hopeless for years.
There was a special brand of sordidness among Parisian artists and poets between the two wars. George Orwell wrote about it, Jules Pascin, who committed suicide in 1930, knew it well, as did N. Petrovskaya, the woman in Briusov’s life, the Renata of his “Fiery Angel,” who turned on the gas in a garret at the Salvation Army. Not everyone who was poor and unhappy lived in this sordid way—Henry Miller certainly did not, nor did Nicolas de Stael, although he committed suicide in 1955. But Tsvetaeva lived in this unhappy world for many years. Then a ghastly sequence of events occurred. Her husband, a White Russian officer, had become a Soviet agent and played a role in the assassination of Trotsky’s son and of the former communist and defector, Ignace Reiss. He fled with his daughter to Soviet Russia to elude French justice, and was apparently killed immediately. Tsvetaeva’s daughter was sent to a concentration camp. Tsvetaeva remained with her young son in the suburbs of Paris for two more years. She left to return to Moscow two weeks before the beginning of World War II, and two years later found herself in Elabuga.
I last saw Tsvetaeva on June 16, 1939, at the funeral of the poet V. Khodasevich. There were already rumors that she was going to leave Paris. She was standing on the church porch and everybody who passed by looked at her without greeting her, or even recognizing her. She had gray hair, her eyes were gray, her face was gray. Her large hands, coarse and rough, a scrubwoman’s hands, were folded on her stomach and she had a strange toothless smile. And I, like everyone else, passed by without greeting her.
I remember her, too, in the early 1920s in Berlin with Andrey Bely, Khodasevich, dasevich, Shlovsky, Ehrenburg, and Pasternak (who twice visited Germany). And I most vividly remember her on New Year’s Eve, telling me that Rilke had died two days before and reading to me the first lines of a poem about him that she had begun to write.
TSVETAEVA’S ALIENATION started early, and she reveled in it. Her childhood became a “magic region” for her. She deliberately sought the “ici-haut”; rejecting humanity, withdrawing into her private pride and loneliness. Her anti-philistine invectives grew into a violent hatred of the mob. The mob was everything: the “smug and prosperous,” and the “accepted” with whom she was unable to deal. The present was “unbearable” and the century was contemptuous. For the problems of her time she had only one answer: negation of the human condition and escape from it. She gloried in being unloved, different, rejected. She equated the poet (herself) with a hunchback, a stepchild, an orphan, an outcast. But she never tried to seek out others of her kind; there was never a hint in her of “Debout, les damnés de la terre!” Only anarchic independence and pride. Sometimes she toyed with them, sometimes she bragged about them. Her personal life had been a long list of defeats; the men whom she worshipped were mostly either thirty years older or ten years younger. These infatuations brought into her life and verse two main personal symbols: a youth that looks for a mentor and a rejected queen.
Among poets of her generation she was undoubtedly one of the greatest: overflowing with emotions, she recognized and exploited unerringly the possisibilities of the fusion of the phonetic and semantic aspects of the Russian language. The flow of her lines puts her in the midst of modern poetry where the individual word is given new autonomy and each poem has a basic unit of poetic structure. She selected words by shape, sound, and meaning, and in her poems paronomasia becomes no longer a trope or a verbal play but the integral part of thinking. Her blend of binary and ternary meters was unique; her imposition of hyperprosodic stresses on Russian words was a bold, original, and beautiful revolutionary development in Russian versification.
She herself was the focus of her poetry, its dramatis personae, the crux of the whole work. Repudiated, she fell back on her narcissism. Her loneliness fed on egocentricity; pain was bliss and every moment was passionate suffering; life was a string of moments, the subject for verse. Men and women brought her ecstasy, the border between the possible and impossible was obliterated. Empty-handed, she could give a lover a river, a mountain, the Kremlin, the sun as a gift, being herself “like the last trembling leaf of a tree in the fall.” She was carried away by playing with contrapositions: you are the stage—I am the curtain; you are the pen—I am the page; you went to live with plaster (with her)—you used to live with Carara marble (with me); you stay with your gravy—I will stay with my raving; you have your pickle—I have my dactyl; you play with your drums—I play with my dreams. Some of the features of her poetry can be clearly seen even in translation as in the poems printed below.
But in my opinion the most prodigious feature of her poetry was her ability to exhaust an image by working with words. Nabokov sometimes reaches comparable results with other techniques, but in reading Nabokov there is never a feeling that he really has exhausted an image, a symbol, a theme. On the contrary, the more he speaks about it the more we feel we want to know about it and hope that he will continue to play with it. When Tsvetaeva exhausts an image, a symbol, a theme, there is absolutely nothing left; there is an impression of finality as if she literally throttled or strangled it so it will never again be used by anyone else for at least fifty years. She did not foresee Nabokov’s genius, and had not been interested in him. Her relations with writers, after her involvement with Osip Mandelstam in 1916, were never close: she left a charming memoir of her encounters with Andrey Bely; a quiet friendship, in spite of its ups and downs, tied her to Khodasevich in the Twenties and Thirties.
This ability to exhaust an image she combined with her gift for verbal creativity and colloquial diction, and her predilection for the tragic pun. When in her poem to Pasternak she laments their separation (he was the only writer whom she regarded as her peer) she speaks of both of them as being forced to live apart, as having been torn from each other. She exhausts the image by giving every possible aspect of it, and at the same time working with the sound effect of eleven Russian verbs in eighteen lines. Here are these eleven verbs all of which contain the same prefix (raz-zas) and the same ending (-li):
rasstávili they put us in different places
rassadíli they seated us in different corners
raskléili they unglued us
raspayáli they unsoldered us
razvelí they divided us
rassoríli they scattered us around
rassloíli they divided us into layers
rasselíli they dispersed us
rasteryáli they lost us in various places
rassováli they stuffed us off in various corners
razbíli they smashed us into pieces
They, of course, were the unnamed orgres, the werewolves of childhood in their latest incarnation.
Her verse, as R. P. Blackmur said of Ezra Pound, is addressed “not to the general intelligence of [her] time, nor to an unusually cultivated class merely, but to a specially educated class alone.” Professor Karlinsky writes of her affinities with Emily Dickinson and Arthur Rimbaud. And here, as in other instances, he is right; in reading Tsvetaeva one gets the feeling that her verse not only belongs to the modern tradition but firmly binds Russia to the West by its emphasis on the verbalphonetic. This relationship was completely annihilated in the USSR in the 1930s and 1940s and is only now slowly coming to life.