In Literature and Revolution, published in 1924 and widely translated, Trotsky expressed a special contempt for Russian women poets. The new socialist society had no use for them. All they require, in their lives or in their so-called poems, is a man and God, whom they regard as a convenient friend of the family, capable of performing from time to time the duties of a doctor specializing in feminine complaints. As to God, “How this individual, no longer young, and burdened by the personal, often bothersome errands of Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva and others, manages in his spare time to direct the destinies of the universe is simply incomprehensible.”
On literary matters Trotsky had a certain ponderous wit, but his view of God was as conventional as his view of women. All new tyrannies end by keeping women in their old place, and Bolshevism was no exception. As Professor Karlinsky points out in his admirable and wide-ranging study, by far the most scholarly yet to appear on Tsvetaeva, it was also a technique of Bolshevik cultural propaganda deliberately to distort and misunderstand the writers who were its targets. Neither Akhmatova nor Tsvetaeva have much to say about God, but that was irrelevant. What mattered was that Lenin’s wife Krupskaya, with her husband’s full approval, had launched an attack against her rival Madame Kollontai, who was preaching heady theories about free love and free art. Feminism was decreed irrelevant to the aims of the new Communist society.
Tsvetaeva was not exactly a feminist either. As a poet she had a sort of crazy independence, which made her prepared to celebrate the White Guards and the Red Army with equal fervor, and desire as an audience “a few genuine unprejudiced persons who know that TRUTH IS A TURNCOAT.” As a woman she combined, in extreme forms, maternal impulses and passions—for her children, for her husband—with the wish to lead a wholly independent life, like Peter Pan or the Pied Piper, about whom she wrote a remarkable poem. Such a division is normal enough in either men or women, and she was not one to make any distinction between the sexes. As Karlinsky indicates, she made a bit of a myth out of her “kitchen martyrdom,” running a house singlehanded for her husband and children. In practical terms the martyrdom was real enough though: she never expected her husband or son, on whom she doted, to do a hand’s turn to help her—that would not be “man’s work”—and in the household they were wholly privileged beings. Yet she wrote to her friend Tesková that “marriage and love are destructive to one’s personality…. I’ve lived my life in captivity. And, strange as it may seem, a freely chosen captivity.” “No one,” she wryly observes, “forced me to take everything so seriously,” but that was in her blood—“its German component.” “If I get to live another time, I’ll know what to do.”
She was in fact of mixed German, Polish, and Russian ancestry—her paternal grandfather had been a village priest in the Orthodox church—and as a poet she became a genuine cosmopolitan in the pre-1914 style. In this she resembled her contemporaries and fellow poets Mandelstam, with whom she may have had a brief affair, and Pasternak, who revered and loved her, but at a distance, and who never ceased to reproach himself for having failed her in her last loneliness, when she hanged herself during the war in a godforsaken refugee town in central Asia. Tsvetaeva reciprocated his feelings, as she did those of other young poets, regardless of talent. But she was always true in her own fashion to her husband, whom she met while still a girl, staying at the poet Maximilian Voloshin’s house at Koktebel in the Crimea. He was another young literary aspirant called Sergei Efron, half Jewish, tall and emaciated, with Byzantine features and enormous dark eyes. In a photograph taken around 1912 two solemn and childish young faces gaze at the camera, his lean and hollow, hers chubby and round, a face to which the hairstyle gives a remarkable look of the young Katherine Mansfield.
Efron was to have a sinister history. A friend described him as kind, unintelligent, and wholly naive, and it may be that these were the qualities that appealed to Tsvetaeva’s maternal side; in any case a poetic genius does not require another genius for a partner. She encouraged him in his decision to join the White armies after he had served as an orderly on the Russian front in the First World War; and in her poem cycle “The Swans’ Demesne” she was to write a moving lament for those armies in their defeat. In the aftermath of war one of her baby daughters died of hunger in Moscow, and she escaped with the other to Prague, where her husband eventually managed to join her. Through the young Czech government’s generosity and enthusiasm for international culture she received hospitality and a grant that continued for many years. The family moved to France, where they remained until the Second World War, and where a son was born to Tsvetaeva; but her daughter Ariadne, to whom she had been very close, and her husband too, were estranged from her by their growing devotion to the Soviet system and their desire to get back to Russia.
Efron, indeed, had become an undercover agent for the OGPU, and had helped to plan at least two political murders and abductions. Whether Tsvetaeva knew of his activities is uncertain—she always swore she did not—but she became isolated in consequence from the Russian émigré community in Paris, which knew what was going on. Both her husband and her daughter returned to Moscow, and now her son too, to whom she was devoted, insisted that he and his mother should leave for Russia. Only when they were briefly reunited in 1940 in an OGPU hostel did the poet fully grasp what all her friends had long known: that her husband was a spy and a murderer. Both he and Ariadne were soon arrested; he was shot, she sent to a labor camp, from which she only emerged many years after the war. Having disposed of these two fanatic and faithful servants of the Party the authorities did not bother with the poet herself. Evacuated with her son after the German invasion to the town of Elabuga in Kazakhstan, she came to the end of her tether and hanged herself in a state of utter solitude and hopelessness. She wanted, as she wrote before the end, not to die, but not to be. Her spoiled son had come to hate and despise her, and showed no contrition at her death. Drafted into the Red Army two years later, he was killed in obscure circumstances. Karlinsky investigates and records a rumor that he was shot for insubordination by the sergeant of his own platoon.
A sad story. Tsvetaeva seems to have been one of those unfortunates who pay not only for their genius but for their warmest human qualities with a total failure in human relations. No doubt she was insensitive to the feelings of others. She not infrequently made a bad impression. The novelist Remizov, to whom she had been much attached, spoke of “her extraordinary vanity,” and strongly disliked “her posturings…and her female irresponsibility.” The Nobel Prize winner, Bunin, called her a psychopath with leaden eyes, “gifted, but lacking in shame, taste.” Perhaps these were routine male jealousies and animosities, but certainly her emotional fervors were strangely blind. With Rilke she conducted a one-sided love affair in letters sparkling with wit and with bursts of telegraphic insight about the nature of poetry. Like all the best modernists—Yeats, Eliot, Joyce—she believed that art spoke a single complex language that demanded a lifetime of study from the reader, but that at the same time every true poet (and Poema in Russian means any work of art in words) wrote his own language, which was not French or German or Russian. Rilke might have agreed, but though he enjoyed her unbounded admiration he was reluctant actually to meet her. Impetuous as usual to the point of obtuseness, Tsvetaeva was either ignorant of the fact that he was already gravely ill or chose to disregard it. She was deeply hurt when he gave up writing back to her.
When they were separated by the war Tsvetaeva had sworn that if she ever found her husband again she would serve him “like a dog,” and she kept her vow in her own fashion. Yet she fell in love with both sexes at the drop of a hat. Before the war she had already had a tremendous affair with the notorious Sophie Parnok—rumor had it that the girls sometimes made love together in a cell in a monastery in the town of Rostov—and she was to continue all her life having tempestuous affairs with women like Sonechka Holliday or members of the entourage surrounding Natalie Barney, that famously elegant and rich Amazon of the Parisian Thirties for whose soirees the privileged bought themselves special frocks from the grand couturiers, though Tsvetaeva apparently turned up there looking as if she were wearing an old sack.
In addition to the women in her life she fell frequently for young men, but her passions here were usually brief, ecstatic but probably sexless. As Karlinsky observes, she loved “frail, vulnerable Jews,” like the young publisher Abram Vishniak in Berlin, but she put them in a difficult position and soon became disillusioned herself. Her most promising poetic disciple was Nikolai Gronsky, an eighteen-year-old with whom she formed at Versailles what she called “a military friendship in the royal forest.” She taught him her craft and he meant much to her. Although they had ceased to be close she was deeply grieved when he was killed in a railway accident at the age of twentyfive; she wrote two essays on his life and poetry and dedicated a series of five poems to his memory.
Naive as people thought him, Efron could be perceptive about his wife. In a letter to Voloshin he wrote that she needed “to plunge headlong into a self-created hurricane…. Today it’s despair, tomorrow it’s ecstasy, love, total surrender of self and tomorrow it’s despair again.” A shrewd and yet unsympathetic diagnosis, for it ignores this apparently extroverted poet’s categorical need for the “inner pressure” of which Charles Tomlinson spoke when praising the quality of Elaine Feinstein’s Tsvetaeva translations. Her “very un-English sensibility” can hardly be accommodated in the accents of English poetry, but Feinstein’s versions of, for example, “Poem of the End” (1924), “Homesickness,” and “To Boris Pasternak,” are extraordinarily successful in conveying both the explosive tension and the superb linguistic adroitness of Tsvetaeva’s Russian verses. Her tempestuous accents are more easily caught than are her tough, unexpected humor and her flashes of sardonic, almost Voltairian wit.
Even Russian critics seem divided about her ultimate status as a poet and about the quality of some of her longer pieces, for she wrote lavishly and at almost as great a length as Browning or Whitman. Professor Karlinsky’s research is exhaustive, and he has established the history of her poetic fortunes more definitively than any previous critic. During and after the war Stalin’s Russia consigned her to nonexistence; ironically enough it was a German-sponsored newspaper, For the Motherland, in German-occupied Pskov, that printed a combined obituary and appreciation, giving well-informed praise to her poetic achievement and placing her firmly in the Russian literary pantheon. On the other hand an account of her published in Paris just after the war, and reprinted in 1950, observed that “Marina Tsvetaeva is entirely engrossed in trying to astound the reader with her talent…giving him nothing in return.” Despite its virtuosity her work is “gaping and empty,” with “nothing to say.”
The Russian émigrés in Paris always had it in for her, because her enthusiasms were never nationally directed; and it looks as if the Nazis cynically saw there was no harm in mentioning her in their proclamation of a new-style Europe. But in fact her poetry is far too idiosyncratic to fit into either a national school or an international movement. Its most judicious admirers, like Karlinsky, and like her fellow poet Andrei Bely, dwell on her remarkable technical skills, which make her poetry always seem so spontaneous, and on effects like her cunning use of a choriambic measure as in the famous chord of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. A Russian ear is needed to appreciate her here, although Elaine Feinstein has some success in suggesting the rhythm in her translations of “Epitaph” and “Readers of Newspapers.” Feinstein’s own study, A Captive Lion, is successful in taking a personal and intimate view of the poet, telling her story with intuitive sympathy, and with the aid of conversations with a few surviving friends.
Feinstein’s sympathy is as helpful in its way as Karlinsky’s scholarship, and yet it must be admitted in the end that Tsvetaeva seems more a phenomenon than a person, that her own and her poetry’s frenetic spirit has something dislocated about it. Just by asserting itself so much, and so emphatically, her work can indeed give the impression of having “nothing to say.” Striking as they are, her longer poems—“On a Red Steed,” “The Pied Piper,” “Poem of the Air,” “Poem of the Staircase,” “Poem of the Tsar’s Family” (most of this last still unpublished)—seem to suffer from a discrepancy between the vitality of the manner and the oddly old-fashioned proclamation of the “meaning.” The two seem distinct in a way they never are in the poetry of Rilke, Eliot, Yeats, or Akhmatova. The long poems can strike one as a direct and gallant throwback to the infatuations of German romanticism, to the kind of poem that eulogizes the spirit of man, the ever-womanly, the spirit of enlightenment, with destiny, as in Beethoven’s Fifth, knocking insistently at the door. “Poem of the Staircase” takes the image of a sordid rear fire escape to excoriate the poverty and ugliness of modern living. “Poem of the Air,” inspired by Lindbergh’s Atlantic flight, celebrates the passionate urge to escape physical limitation. The protagonist of “On a Red Steed” is exposed to three temptations, from each of which she is rescued in the nick of time by a knight on a red steed who is, as the poem makes all too clear, Tsvetaeva’s own poetic genius.
There is something engagingly naive and childish about this that goes back to the Schwärmerei of her childhood, her fervor for Napoleon and his son, the “Aiglon” romanticized in the lush verse drama of Rostand, and Nessler’s opera Der Trompeter von Säkkingen. All this is symptomatic of a spirit wholly uncalculating and without guile, in art as in life. She did what the spirit impelled her to do with none of that canny instinct for aiding and abetting the Zeitgeist that Yeats and Pound possessed, and that is found in her great contemporary Akhmatova. Indifference to fashion is an attractive thing in Tsvetaeva’s poetry, along with her sense that “Truth is a Turncoat,” and that fashion is compromised by the fanaticisms of ideology.
Both Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva were extremely personal poets for whom it was nonetheless natural, as Russians, to seem and to write like seers and public figures, expressive of their country’s suffering. In her noble poem “Requiem” Akhmatova states that if her motherland erects a statue to her it should stand outside the prison in which she used to wait to see her son, with the melting snow weeping from its bronze eyes and the ships sailing past it down the Neva. Characteristically Tsvetaeva has a more childlike vision. She imagines a great funeral procession for herself, winding through the streets of Moscow, followed by writers, ministers, the entire populace, attended by the humble folk as Pushkin’s had been. But for such a poet of the air, who wished to escape all physical limitation and in the end “not to be,” it is quite proper that the position of her far-off grave in Soviet Central Asia was never recorded, as if she should never have had any resting place in earth at all.
October 8, 1987