Marina Cvetaeva: Her Life and Art

by Simon Karlinsky
University of California, 317 pp., $7.25

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…

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