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Tsvetaeva: The Tragic Life

Milestones

by Marina Tsvetaeva, translated and with an introduction by Robin Kemball
Northwestern University Press, 272 pp., $24.95

When it comes to the Russian poetry of the last century, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, and Boris Pasternak are reasonably familiar names, but not Marina Tsvetaeva, who is their equal. Because she is extraordinarily difficult to translate, her work is almost unknown, and even when it becomes available it makes little impression. She seems foreign and beyond reach with her elliptical syntax and her unusually tangled metaphors. There’s also the sheer volume and range of her writing. One of her long poems, for instance, celebrates Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, while others derive their plots from fairy tales. She has hundreds of poems, a number of near epic length in addition to a fair amount of prose, including memoirs, diaries, and letters, as well as several plays in verse. Not everything she wrote is, of course, first-rate, but a lot is. Is she as good as Eliot or Pound, one may ask for the sake of comparison. She is as good as they are, and may have more tricks up her sleeve as a poet.

Her life makes for an unusually gripping story, which several fine biographies of the poet published in the last twenty years have recounted in great detail. Tragic lives, of course, cannot be compared in their degree of awfulness. Even in normal times one can’t be sure how much the mess people make of their lives is due to failings of character and strings of bad luck, and how much to the circumstances in which they found themselves. When it comes to men and women who lived through decades of wars, revolutions, and exile, it gets harder to know whom or what to blame. As Tsvetaeva said in a poem, “I fear that for such misfortune the whole of/Racine and the whole of Shakespeare is not enough!…”1

Marina Tsvetaeva was born in 1892 in Moscow and grew up in an atmosphere of culture and refinement. Her father was a classical philologist who taught at Moscow University and was the founder of one of the city’s important museums. Marina’s mother was an accomplished pianist who wanted her daughter to be a musician. In 1902, on the advice of her doctors after being diagnosed with tuberculosis, she withdrew Marina and her younger sister from school and traveled to Italy in search of a cure. The family returned to Russia in 1905, where the mother died a year later. Marina attended school in both Russia and Paris, where she started writing poetry and translating from French. A collection of her poems, Evening Album, was published in 1910 and well received. Her verses were romantic and sentimental, as was to be expected from an adolescent, but she also was said to have brought in this connection a new and bold intimacy to Russian poetry.

In 1912 Tsvetaeva married Sergei Efron, who came from a well-known family of encyclopedia publishers and political radicals. He was younger than she was. That same year she brought out her second book of poems, The Magic Lantern, and gave birth to a daughter, Ariadna (Alya). Money from her family made the newlyweds well-off. They bought a house in Moscow and spent their summers on the Crimean coast. The marriage, however, was not a success. Tsvetaeva had affairs with the poets Sofia Parnok and Osip Mandelstam. In April of 1917, her second daughter, Irina, was born and Efron, wanting most likely to get away from the awkward situation at home, volunteered for the Imperial Army. The October Revolution caught Tsvetaeva in the Crimea. She returned to revolutionary Moscow in late November, while her husband was joining the White Army to fight the Bolsheviks. For the next three years she had no word of him.

Tsvetaeva found herself alone at twenty-five, nearly destitute with no means to support herself and her two small children. She survived with the help of friendly neighbors and by selling her belongings. Here’s a description from the prose collection Earthly Signs of her life in Moscow:

I get up—the upper window is barely gray—cold—puddles—saw- dust—buckets—pitchers—rags—children’s dresses and shirts everywhere. I split wood. Start the fire. In icy water I wash the potatoes, which I boil in the samovar. (For a long time I made soup in it, but I once got it so clogged up with millet that for months I had to take the cover off and spoon water from the top—it’s an antique samovar, with an ornate spigot that wouldn’t unscrew, wouldn’t yield to knitting needles or nails. Finally, someone—somehow—blew it out.) I stoke the samovar with hot coals I take right from the stove. I live and sleep in one and the same frightfully shrunken, brown flannel dress, sewn in Alexandrov in the spring of 1917 when I wasn’t there. It’s all covered with burn holes from falling coals and cigarettes. The sleeves, once gathered with elastic, are rolled up and fastened with a safety pin.

A thief once broke into Tsvetaeva’s flat and was horror-struck by the poverty he found. She asked him to sit down and talked to him. When he got up to leave he offered her money. Nevertheless, in her diary after one such dark moment, she makes a surprising remark:

I didn’t write down the most important thing: the gaiety, the keenness of thought, the bursts of joy at the slightest success, the passionate directedness of my entire being.

Despite the never-ending hardship, this was a productive period for her. She wrote long verse dramas and dozens of short lyrics. She also filled her notebooks with what she saw and heard as she took trips to the provinces in quest of food. Some of these comments are included in Earthly Signs, a marvelous selection from her diaries and essays in an exceptionally fine translation by Jamey Gambrell. They give us a view of the times not very different from that found in Isaac Babel’s stories. Tsvetaeva is an excellent reporter. Despite what historians may pretend, in revolutionary times stealing is more important than ideas. While the leaders of the revolution promise the moon, murder and looting are the only reality the powerless know.

Tsvetaeva’s autobiographical writings and her essays are filled with memorable descriptions and beautifully turned phrases. “The heart: it is a musical, rather than a physical organ,” she says, for example. Or: “Death is frightening only to the body. The soul can’t conceive of it. Therefore, in suicide, the body—is the only hero.” Her views on everything from the behavior of human beings to the nature of poetry are shrewd and original. None of that sharpness of insight was much in evidence in her own life where she made one mistake after another. In the winter of 1919–1920, unable to feed her children, she placed them in an orphanage. The older one, Alya, became ill and Tsvetaeva brought her back home and nursed her to health. In February her younger daughter, who was not yet three years old, died of starvation in the same orphanage. Overcome by guilt for what amounted to her neglect of the child, she only very rarely mentioned her again.

I am an inexhaustible source of heresy,” Tsvetaeva declared. “Not knowing a single one, I profess all of them. Perhaps I even create them.” She didn’t like Chekhov with his sense of proportion; she always took sides. One of the funniest memoirs in Earthly Signs contains her description of a poetry reading with eight other women at which she read poems in praise of the White Army to an audience consisting mostly of Red Army soldiers. The duty of poetry, she believed, was to take the side of the defeated. She also found the word “poetess” applied to herself to be insulting. There are more essential distinctions in poetry, she said, than belonging to the male or female sex. Her courage and independence are remarkable when one remembers that other decent people had to grovel and that most of the other poets—even those who changed their minds later—were welcoming the Revolution. For a long time they could not accept that all that suffering was for nothing.

While Tsvetaeva’s early poetry was admired by her contemporaries, the same cannot be said of her work in the 1920s. This is how her former lover Mandelstam described her poems: “The sorriest thing in Moscow is Marina Tsvetaeva’s amateurish embroidery in praise of the Mother of God.” Complaining about women’s poetry in general and about her specifically, he went on to say that hers is a kind of verse that offends both ear and historical sense.2 Leon Trotsky, in his once widely read and revered Literature and Revolution (1923), agreed, calling it a narrow poetry encompassing the poetess herself, a certain gentleman in a derby hat or military spurs, and finally God, who performs the duties of a doctor specializing in female complaints. In émigré literary circles, it was usually the same story. “She enters literature wearing curlers and a bathrobe as though she were headed for the bathroom,”3 a critic wrote.

Jamey Gambrell sums up well the difficulties of Tsvetaeva’s work in her concise and extremely perceptive introduction to Earthly Signs:

Tsvetaeva is not easy reading, even for educated native speakers of Russian. She confronts readers with a Joycean profusion of idioms and styles, ranging from the metaphorical speech of fairy tales and the circumlocutions of peasant dialect to a high literary diction steeped in Greek and Roman myths, the classics, and German Romanticism. She used almost all the classic Russian meters, adding her own innovations, and she made original use of Russian folk rhythms. Her subject matter draws on an equally diverse range of literary, historical, and folkloric sources. As Voloshin once said, ten poets coexisted in Tsvetaeva.

The linguistic density of her poems can be compared to that of Gerald Manley Hopkins, except that she has many more voices. In a letter to Rilke, with whom she had an epistolary romance, she writes,

I am not a Russian poet and am always astonished to be taken for one and looked upon in this light. The reason one becomes a poet (if it were even possible to become one, if one were not one before all else!) is to avoid being French, Russian, etc., in order to be everything.

A bit later in that same letter, however, she says: “Yet every language has something that belongs to it alone, that is it.”4 Tsvetaeva is the poet of that it. “In an almost biblical sense,” Gambrell writes, “the Word is the vehicle of creation; engendering both subject and emotion, it is the incarnation of the spirit.”

To be a poet of the ear and make sound more important than sight is to make oneself virtually untranslatable. None of the translations of her poetry that I’ve read—and there are a great many of them—are able to convey her full verbal power, though some, like the ones by Nina Kossman and Michael M. Naydan, come close In translation she is too often made to appear painfully awkward and dull when she is nothing of the sort. Here’s how Robin Kemball renders one of her poems in Milestones:

  1. 1

    See Viktoria Schweitzer, Tsvetaeva (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992), p. 275.

  2. 2

    See Simon Karlinsky, Marina Tsvetaeva: The Woman, Her World, and Her Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 128–129.

  3. 3

    See Karlinsky, Marina Tsvetaeva, p. 157.

  4. 4

    See Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters: Summer 1926 (New York Review Books, 2001), p. 221.

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