In the Hell of Art

The Life of Aleksandr Blok Vol. I: The Distant Thunder

by Avril Pyman
Oxford University Press, 359 pp., $29.50

The Life of Aleksandr Blok Vol. II: The Release of Harmony

by Avril Pyman
Oxford University Press, 421 pp., $48.00

From the tower there was a way out on to the sloping roof and in that white Petersburg night all we artists, poets, and actors, excited by verses and wine—and in those days we got drunk on verses as easily as on wine—came out under the pale sky and Blok, deliberate, outwardly impassive, young, tanned (he always began to get brown right at the beginning of spring), climbed up on to the large iron box which protected the junction of the telephone wires and, yielding to our clamorous insistence, for the third and fourth time recited his immortal ballad in his restrained, hollow, monotonous, passive, tragic voice.

This is Korney Chukovsky describing an evening with Aleksandr Blok in 1906; the immortal ballad is “The Stranger.” All his life Blok fascinated his contemporaries, through the power of his poetry, but also through his presence, his physical beauty, his voice, his noble bearing. People readily described him as a knight in armor, a prince, or a tragic hero—or else as Don Juan, Faust, or Hamlet (his poetry is indeed full of these figures). Today’s reader, skeptical of the religion of art, may well feel suspicious of such magnification of the poet, and in any case it is easy for yesterday’s matinee idol to lose his glamour and appear as an illusion of the epoch. Trotsky suggested something of the sort in Literature and Revolution when he wrote (virtually quoting Blok) that “the twilight lyrics of Blok are gone into the past and will never return.” For Trotsky, writing very soon after the event, Blok’s poem of the revolution, “The Twelve,” was the only one of his poems that would “live forever.”

“The Twelve” is the culmination of Blok’s work, but it is not all. A great deal of his earlier poetry is as powerful for later generations as it was for his contemporaries; in it we can continue to hear the voice of one of Russia’s greatest poets as well as a witness to the hopes and agonies of an age. It is still hard, after you have immersed yourself in his writings, not to speak of him with the enthusiasm of those who first heard his poems.

I do not know how much of this can come across through translations of the poetry, but Avril Pyman’s monumental biography, which makes admirable use of notebooks, letters, memoirs, and visual illustrations, as well as translated poems, does allow the English-speaking reader to experience much of the fascination. Quite apart from Blok’s poetry, his is a very moving life—moving because of the agony of much of it, and because of his dedication, the deliberate choice of difficulty that would enable him to speak as the conscience of his age.

Blok’s adult life covered the period of the two Russian revolutions, and for all the parallels we may draw with, say, Yeats or Baudelaire, it makes a very Russian story. He was born into a privileged milieu, and the world of his…

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