A Moment’s Truth

History: The Home Movie

by Craig Raine
Doubleday, 326 pp., $22.00

The title, for a start, seems accurate. This dense and ambitious narrative poem is indeed constructed along the lines of a home movie: jerky, vivid, impenetrably domestic, alive with unanswerable queries. Why was Aunt Jane carrying that sack of tomatoes? Martha’s little boy is a terror, isn’t he? Is it Windsor Castle they’re all visiting? Or somewhere else? So the crazy procession of shots continues until the group gathered in the living room begins to show, however politely, unmistakable signs of fatigue: and if Uncle George is wise he will bring the show to an end so that his wife can circulate the coffee and the beer. Like Mr. Bennet’s daughter in Pride and Prejudice, the movie has delighted its home audience for long enough.

And yet it has demonstrated all the purposeful aimlessness of truth. A truth of the moment. There was a reason why Uncle Fedya was in Prague the day the Germans marched in. He was probably visiting the mistress who was a secret scandal in the family, and he never managed to make it back home. Mean-while Rosa was trying to pass her exams back in St. Petersburg, and Marfa was worrying about the man Katya had met on holiday, and someone had died on a train, and the Cossacks had dispersed a crowd in Odessa. Domestic affairs begin to merge into the larger absurdities and unknowables of history.

What does all this remind us of? Postmodernism or Eisenstein? Andy Warhol or Dr. Zhivago? A bit of each probably, but the last name gives us the clue. The poet Craig Raine, coming from a working-class family in the north of England, married in Oxford a niece of the great Russian poet Boris Pasternak. It was a coincidence that would have a very considerable effect on the poetry he himself would be writing. It was also a coincidence of the sort from which Pasternak had created the structure and philosophy of Dr. Zhivago. A superb talent for English words merged in Raine, by a kind of osmosis, with a Russian literary inheritance. This was not a question of influence. No poet—and certainly no poet writing in English—could set out to be directly influenced by Pasternak, any more, say, than he would try to imitate Shakespeare or Keats. The connection was not through the abstract world of literature but in the deeper, more random and atavistic, world of family life, where miracles of cross-fertilization and birth are the norm.

Craig Raine has in a sense constructed his poem out of a conscious recognition of this kind of miracle. Except in words themselves, fact is something with which liberties can be taken; and so in drawing up at the beginning of his poem a family tree, with the Pasternaks on one side and the Raines on the other, he makes the connection between the two a generation back from his own, thus distancing himself (and incidentally his wife) from what occurred in consequence. Not that it makes much…

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