• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Conversations with Akhmatova and Pasternak

She spoke of her childhood, her marriages, her relationships with others, of the rich artistic life in Petersburg before the First World War. She had no doubt that the culture of the West, especially now, in 1945, was far superior to it. She spoke about the great poet Annensky, who had taught her more even than Gumilev, and died largely ignored by editors and critics, a great forgotten master. She spoke about her loneliness and isolation. Leningrad, after the war, was for her nothing but the graveyard of her friends—it was like the aftermath of a forest fire, the few charred trees made the desolation still more desolate. She lived by translating. She had begged to be allowed to translate the letters of Rubens, not those of Romain Rolland. After unheard-of obstacles, permission was finally granted. I asked her what the Renaissance meant to her—was it a real historical past, or an idealized vision, an imaginary world? She replied that it was the latter. She felt nostalgia for it—that longing for a universal culture of which Mandelstam had spoken, as Goethe and Schlegel had thought of it—a longing for what had been transmuted into art and thought—nature, love, death, despair, and martyrdom—a reality which had no history, nothing outside itself. She spoke in a calm, even voice, like a remote princess in exile, proud, unhappy, unapproachable, often in words of the most moving eloquence.

The account of the unrelieved tragedy of her life went beyond anything which anyone had ever described to me in spoken words; the recollection of them is still vivid and painful to me. I asked her whether she intended to compose a record of her literary life. She replied that her poetry was that, in particular the Poem Without a Hero, which she read to me again. Once more I begged her to let me write it down. Once again she declined. Our conversation, which touched on intimate details of both her life and my own, wandered from literature and art, and lasted until late in the morning of the following day. I saw her again when I was leaving the Soviet Union to go home by way of Leningrad and Helsinki. I went to say goodbye to her on the afternoon of January 5, 1946, and she then gave me one of her collections of verse, with a new poem inscribed on the flyleaf—the poem that was later to form the second in the cycle entitled Cinque. I realized that this poem, in this, its first version, had been directly inspired by our earlier meeting. There are other references and allusions to our meetings, in Cinque and elsewhere.

I did not see her on my next visit to the Soviet Union in 1956. Her son, who had been re-arrested, had been released from his prison camp earlier that year, and Pasternak told me that she felt acutely nervous about seeing foreigners except by official order, but that she wished me to telephone her; this was far safer, for all her telephone conversations were monitored. Over the telephone she told me something of her experiences as a condemned writer; of the turning away by some whom she had considered faithful friends, of the nobility and courage of others. She had re-read Chekov, and said that at least in Ward No. 6 he had accurately described her situation, and that of many others. Meanwhile her translations from the classical Korean verse had been published—“You can imagine how much Korean I know; it is a selection; not selected by me. There is no need for you to read it.”

When we met in Oxford in 1965 Akhmatova told me that Stalin had been personally enraged by the fact that she had allowed me to visit her: “So our nun now receives visits from foreign spies,” he is alleged to have remarked, and followed this with obscenities which she could not at first bring herself to repeat to me. The fact that I had never worked in any intelligence organization was irrelevant. All members of foreign missions were spies to Stalin. Of course, she said, the old man was by then out of his mind, in the grip of pathological paranoia. In Oxford she told me that she was convinced that Stalin’s fury, which we had caused, had unleashed the cold war—that she and I had changed the history of mankind. She meant this quite literally and insisted on its truth. She saw herself and me as world-historical personages chosen by destiny to play our fateful part in a cosmic conflict, and this is reflected in her poems of this time. It was intrinsic to her entire historico-philosophical vision, from which much of her poetry flowed.

She told me that after her journey to Italy in the previous year, when she had been awarded a literary prize, she was visited by officials of the Soviet secret police, who asked her for her impressions of Rome. She replied that Rome seemed to her to be a city where paganism was still at war with Christianity. “What war?” she was asked. “Was the USA mentioned? Are Russian émigrés involved?” What should she answer when similar questions were put to her about England and Oxford? For to Russia she would return no matter what awaited her there. The Soviet regime was the established order of her country. With it she had lived, and with it she would die. That is what being a Russian meant.

We returned to Russian poetry. She spoke contemptuously of well-known young poets, favored by the Soviet authorities. One of the most famous of these, who was in England at the time, had sent her a telegram to Oxford to congratulate her on her honorary doctorate. I was there when it arrived. She read it, and angrily threw it in the waste-paper basket—“They are all little bandits, prostitutes of their gifts, and exploiters of public taste. Mayakovsky’s influence has been fatal to them all. Mayakovsky shouted at the top of his voice because it was natural to him to do so. He could not help it. His imitators have adopted his manner as a genre. They are vulgar declaimers with not a spark of true poetry in them.”

There were many gifted poets in Russia now: the best among them was Joseph Brodsky, whom she had, she said, brought up by hand, and whose poetry had in part been published: a noble poet in deep disfavor, with all that that implied. There were others, too, marvelously gifted—but their names would mean nothing to me—poets whose verses could not be published, and whose very existence was testimony to the unexhausted life of the imagination in Russia: “They will eclipse us all,” she said, “believe me, Pasternak and I and Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva, all of us are the end of a long period of elaboration which began in the nineteenth century. My friends and I thought we spoke with the voice of the twentieth century. But these new poets constitute a new beginning—behind bars now, but they will escape and astonish the world.” She spoke at some length in this prophetic vein, and returned again to Mayakovsky, driven to despair, betrayed by his friends, but, for a while, the true voice, the trumpet, of his people, though a fatal example to others; she herself owed nothing to him, but much to Annensky, the purest and finest of poets, remote from the hurly-burly of literary politics, largely neglected by avant-garde journals, fortunate to have died when he did. He was not read widely in his lifetime, but then this was the fate of other great poets—the present generation was far more sensitive to poetry than her own had been: who cared, who truly cared about Blok or Bely or Vyacheslav Ivanov in 1910? Or, for that matter, about herself and the poets of her group? But today the young knew it all by heart—she was still getting letters from young people, many of them from silly, ecstatic girls, but the sheer number of them was surely evidence of something.

Pasternak received even more of these, and liked them better. Had I met his friend Olga Ivinskaya? I had not. She found both Pasternak’s wife, Zinaida, and his mistress equally unbearable, but Boris Leonidovich himself was a magical poet, one of the great poets of the Russian land: every sentence he wrote, in verse and prose, spoke with his authentic voice, unlike any other she had ever heard. Blok and Pasternak were divine poets; no modern Frenchman, no Englishman, not Valéry, not Eliot, could compare with them—Baudelaire, Shelley, Leopardi, that was the company to which they belonged. Like all great poets, they had little sense of the quality of others—Pasternak often praised inferior critics, discovered imaginary hidden gifts, encouraged all kinds of minor figures—decent writers but without talent—he had a mythological sense of history, in which quite worthless people sometimes played mysterious, significant roles—like Evgraf in Doctor Zhivago (she vehemently denied that this mysterious figure was in any respect based on Stalin; she evidently found this impossible to contemplate). He did not really read contemporary authors he was prepared to praise—not Bagritsky or Aseev, not even Mandelstam (whom he could not bear, though of course he did what he could for him when he was in trouble), nor her own work—he wrote her wonderful letters about her poetry, but the letters were about himself, not her—she knew that they were sublime fantasies which had little to do with her: “Perhaps all great poets are like this.”

Pasternak’s compliments naturally made those who received them very happy, but this was delusive; he was a generous giver, but not truly interested in the work of others: interested, of course, in Shakespeare, Goethe, the French Symbolists, Rilke, perhaps Proust, but “not in any of us.” She said that she missed Pasternak’s existence every day of her life; they had never been in love, but they loved one another deeply and this irritated his wife. She then spoke of the “blank” years during which she was officially out of account in the Soviet Union—between the mid-Twenties until the late Thirties. She said that when she was not translating, she read Russian poets: Pushkin constantly, of course, but also Odoevsky, Lermontov, Baratynsky—she thought Baratynsky’s Autumn was a work of pure genius; and she had recently reread Velemir Khelbnikov—mad but marvelous.

I asked her if she would ever annotate the Poem Without a Hero: the allusions might be unintelligible to those who did not know the life it was concerned with; did she wish them to remain in darkness? She answered that when those who knew the world about which she spoke were overtaken by senility or death, the poem would die too; it would be buried with her and her century; it was not written for eternity, nor even for posterity: the past alone had significance for poets—childhood most of all—those were the emotions that they wished to re-create and re-live. Vaticination, odes to the future, even Pushkin’s great epistle to Chaadaev, were a form of declamatory rhetoric, a striking of grandiose attitudes, the poet’s eye peering into a dimly discernible future, a pose which she despised.

She knew, she said, that she had not long to live. Doctors had made it plain to her that her heart was weak. Above all, she did not wish to be pitied. She had faced horrors, and had known the most terrible depths of grief. She had exacted from her friends the promise that they would not allow the faintest gleam of pity for her to occur; hatred, insult, contempt, misunderstanding, persecution, she could bear, but not sympathy if it was mingled with compassion. Her pride and dignity were very great.

The detachment and impersonality with which she seemed to speak only partially disguised her passionate convictions and moral judgments, against which there was plainly no appeal. Her accounts of personalities and lives were compounded of sharp insight into the moral center of characters and situations (she did not spare her friends in this respect) together with fixed ideas, from which she could not be moved. She knew that our meeting had had serious historical consequences. She knew that the poet Georgi Ivanov, whom she accused of having written lying memoirs after he emigrated, had at one time been a police spy in the pay of the tsarist government. She knew that the poet Nekrasov in the nineteenth century had also been a government agent; that the poet Annensky had been hounded to death by his literary enemies. These beliefs had no apparent foundation in fact—they were intuitive, but they were not senseless, not sheer fantasies; they were elements in a coherent conception of her own and her nation’s life and fate, of the central issues which Pasternak had wanted to discuss with Stalin, the vision which sustained and shaped her imagination and her art. She was not a visionary; she had, for the most part, a strong sense of reality. She described the literary and social scene in Petersburg before the First World War, and her part in it, with a sober realism and sharpness of detail which made it totally credible.

Akhmatova lived in terrible times, during which, according to Nadezhda Mandelstam, she behaved with heroism. She did not in public, nor indeed to me in private, utter a single word against the Soviet regime. But her entire life was what Herzen once described Russian literature as being—one continuous indictment of Russian reality.

The worship of her memory in the Soviet Union today, undeclared but widespread, has, so far as I know, no parallel. Her unyielding passive resistance to what she regarded as unworthy of her country and herself transformed her into a figure (as Belinsky once predicted about Herzen) not merely in Russian literature, but in the Russian history of our time.

My meetings and conversations with Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova; my realization of the conditions, scarcely describable, under which they lived and worked, and of the treatment to which they were subjected; and the fact that I was allowed to enter into a personal relationship, indeed, friendship, with them both, affected me profoundly and permanently changed my outlook. When I see their names in print, or hear them mentioned, I remember vividly the expressions on their faces, their gestures and their words. When I read their writings I can, to this day, hear the sound of their voices.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print