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—sawdust—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:
POEM NUMBER 31
A wild old hag told me plainly
Bent like a yoke in her frenzy:
—Not yours to lie idly dreaming,
Not yours to be bleaching linen,
Yours to reign—in some lost outstation,
Yours to kiss, my dearie—a raven.
I went white as a cloud as I listened:
Bring out the white burial vestment,
The black foal’s no more for whipping,
The cathedral pope’s no more for tippling,
Lay me peacefully under the apple tree,
With no prayers, no incense to cradle me.
A low bow is the thanks I say for
The advice and imperial favor,
For those pockets of yours, so empty,
For your prisoners’ songs in plenty,
For the shame half-shared with sedition,—
For your love, for the fierce love you’ve given.
When the bell tolls from the cathedral—
I’ll be dragged away by the devils.
As we sank our glasses together,
I was saying, and I’ll tell the Creator—
That I loved you, my sturdy youngling,
Beyond fame and beyond the sunshine.
This doesn’t sound like the great poet I’ve been praising. Unfortunately, this is the impression one gets from Milestones, a collection of mostly short lyric poems written in 1916. Many of the translations, even when they partially succeed, are marred by an unfortunate, unidiomatic choice of words and phrases. Tsvetaeva translating her poems into French herself did not do much better. She took greater liberties than Kemball does, transposing and changing the tonality of the poems, not only using different words, but also changing images in the hope of preserving the essential, claiming that in another language one has to write something new. This seems like sensible advice, except the translations she made were no good. Still, in my view, taking freedoms now and then is the only way to proceed with translations of her poems and, with luck, pull off the impossible.
In May 1922, Tsvetaeva left Russia with her daughter to rejoin her husband who was then living in Prague. She got as far as Berlin, where, while waiting to be reunited with Efron, she had an affair with her publisher. After two months in Berlin, the family moved to a village on the outskirts of Prague, where they lived for the next two and a half years. Her son, Georgy (known as Mur), was born in 1925. The years in Czechoslovakia were comparatively happy. There were stipends for Russian émigré students and intellectuals generously provided by the government. Tsvetaeva was also writing. Some of her long poems were written at this time, including The Swain and The Pied Piper (both of which are based on fairy tales), and two of the very best, Poem of the Mountain and Poem of the End, were both inspired by another infatuation. In a letter that her husband wrote at that time, he describes what it was like living with her:
Marina is a woman of passions…. Plunging headfirst into her hurricanes has become essential for her, the breath of life. It no longer matters who it is that arouses these hurricanes. Nearly always (now as before)—or rather always—everything is based on self-deception. A man is invented and the hurricane begins. If the insignificance and narrowness of the hurricane’s arouser is quickly revealed, then Marina gives way to a hurricane of despair. A state which facilitates the appearance of a new arouser. The important thing is not what but how. Not the essence or the source but the rhythm, the insane rhythm. Today—despair; tomorrow—ecstasy, love, complete self-abandon; and the following day—despair once again. And all this with a penetrating, cold (maybe even cynically Voltairean) mind. Yesterday’s arousers are wittily and cruelly ridiculed (nearly always justly). Everything is entered in the book. Everything is coolly and mathematically cast into a formula. A huge stove, whose fires need wood, wood, and more wood. Unwanted ashes are thrown out, and the quality of the wood is not so important. For the time being the stove draws well—everything is converted to flame. Poor wood is burnt up more quickly, good wood takes longer.
It goes without saying that it’s a long time since I’ve been any use for the fire.
Her own explanation in a letter doesn’t contradict her husband’s:
I am not made for [this] life. With me, everything is a conflagration. I can be engaged in ten relationships at a time (fine “relationships,” these!), and assure each one from the deepest depth that he is the only one. But I cannot tolerate the slightest turning of the head away from me. I HURT, do you understand? I am a person skinned alive, while all the rest of you have armor. You all have art, social issues, friendships, diversions, families, duty, while I, in the depth, have NOTHING. It all falls off like the skin and under the skin there is living flesh or fire—I’m Psyche. I do not fit into any form, not even the simplest form of my poems.5
Almost all of the poems that make up her greatest single collection, After Russia, were written at that time. Here is a poem from that book which is one of the first I ever read of hers and which I have never forgotten. It comes from The Penguin Book of Russian Verse, published in 1962 in what the editor calls “plain prose translation,” which I still prefer to several other versions in verse.
AN ATTEMPT AT JEALOUSY
What is your life like with another woman? Simpler, isn’t it? A stroke of the oar! Did the memory of me,
a floating island (in the sky, not on the waters), soon recede, like a coastline?…
Souls, O Souls, you will be sisters, not lovers!
What is your life like with an ordinary woman? Without the divine? Now that you have dethroned your queen and have yourself renounced the throne,
what is your life like? How do you busy yourself? How are you shivering? How do you get up [from your bed]? How do you manage to pay the price for immortal triviality, poor fellow?
“I’ve had enough of convulsions and palpitations—I’ll rent a house!” What is your life like with a woman like any other, you, my chosen one?
Is the food more congenial and eatable? Don’t complain if you get sick of it! What is your life like with a semblance—you who have trodden upon Sinai?
What is your life like with a stranger, a woman of this world? Tell me point-blank: do you love her? Does shame, like Zeus’s reins, not lash your brow?
What is your life like? How is your health? How do you sing? How do you cope with the festering wound of immortal conscience, poor fellow?
What is your life like with a market commodity? The price is steep, isn’t it! After the marble of Carrara what is your life like with a piece of crumbling plaster of Paris?
(God was hewn out of a block, and has been smashed to bits!) What is your life like with one of a hundred thousand women—you who have known Lilith?
Have you satisfied your hunger with the new market commodity? Now that magic has lost its power over you,…what is your life like with a woman of this earth, without either of you using a sixth sense?
Well, cross your heart: are you happy? No? In a pit without depth what is your life like, my beloved? Harder than my life with another man, or just the same?
In November 1925, the family moved to Paris in the hope that Tsvetaeva would have more contact with writers. Her first public reading was a triumph she never managed to repeat. After being initially well received by the Russian community, relations eventually soured over the years for both literary and political reasons. Soviet literature was anathema to the émigrés, but not to her. She praised Communist poets like Mayakovsky in public. In the meantime, the family lived in poverty. Her husband had no profession, no practical skill, and no wish to get a regular job. Only Russian politics interested him. In the 1930s he become involved with an organization called the Union for Returnees to the Soviet Union, which was widely and correctly believed to be a front for the Soviet secret service. After his political views took a Stalinist turn, Tsvetaeva, who had supported the family with her writing and with financial help from her rich friends, found herself more and more ostracized because of her husband’s activities.
At home, the atmosphere was tense. Efron talked about going back to Russia and expiating his guilt for having fought with the Whites in the Civil War. The children took their father’s side. Her daughter started working for a French Communist magazine and began moving in pro-Soviet circles. Tsvetaeva with her experience of communism had fewer illusions. It must be remembered that this was the time of Stalin’s Great Terror. Going back was almost as crazy as for a Jew to return to Hitler’s Germany. Efron, she told people, saw what he wanted to see and closed his eyes to what was really happening in Russia. Even after her daughter left for Moscow in 1937, she was reluctant to follow. Then, life became impossible for her in France. Her husband was interrogated by the French police in connection with the murder of a Soviet spy who had refused to return home.
In September of 1937, before they could ask him any more questions, Efron fled to the Soviet Union. Later investigations established that he worked for the NKVD and participated in several assassinations, including that of Trotsky’s son. Not even Tsvetaeva’s closest friends could believe that she knew nothing of her husband’s intelligence work. People avoided her. She was excluded from literary gatherings and was no longer published. She survived with the help of a small stipend provided to her by the Soviet embassy while waiting to receive permission to return. Her loyalty to her husband and children, all of whom wanted to return, overrode any reservations she had. On June 12, 1939, she and her son finally departed. In her last letter before sailing from Le Havre, she wrote to a Czech friend: “Goodbye! What comes now is no longer difficult, what comes now is fate.”
In Moscow she learned that her sister was in the camps. Barely two months after Tsvetaeva’s return, her daughter was arrested and accused of spying for Western powers and shortly after so was her husband. Efron was most likely shot soon after, while her daughter spent some seventeen years in the camps and in exile in Siberia. Tsvetaeva was never to see them again. She had no money and no place to live. Old friends were afraid to have anything to do with a wife of an “enemy of the people” and an ex-émigré. As a writer, for the Communists she did not exist. If she wasn’t standing in some prison line to leave a parcel for her husband and daughter, she was looking for work. She did some translating which brought a little money, and even put together a collection of poems, but it was rejected by the publisher with the explanation that her poems had nothing to say to the Soviet people. Pasternak did what he could to help, but it wasn’t much. When Germany invaded Russia in June 1941 and the bombing raids over Moscow increased, her panic grew. She managed to be evacuated to Elabuga, a small town on the Toima and Kama rivers. Tsvetaeva rented a room in Elabuga from a local couple, and went to a larger town nearby, where a number of writers had already been settled, and tried to get a permit to move there. She even applied for a job as a dishwasher in the writers’ cafeteria.
There was reason to hope that she would get permission, but by this time she herself was beyond hope. On August 31, while her son and her landlords were out, she hanged herself in the entrance way of her room. She left three notes, two of them pleading to friends to take care of her son and the last one to him: “Forgive me,” she wrote,
but it would only have gotten worse. I am seriously ill, this is no longer me. I love you madly. Understand that I couldn’t live any more. Tell Papa and Alya—if you see them—that I loved them to the last minute, and explain that I had reached a dead end.
Tsvetaeva was buried in an unmarked grave in Elabuga’s cemetery. Mur was drafted into the army in 1943 and was killed in combat in July of 1944.
One of her biographers, Victoria Schweitzer, writes:
When she was removed from the noose and taken to the morgue, the undertaker found a tiny (1×2 cm) blue morocco-bound notebook in one of the pockets of her apron. There was a very slim pencil attached to the notebook, but to all intents and purposes the notebook was too small to write in. The undertaker kept this notebook, kept it for more than forty years and, on his deathbed asked for it to be given back to Tsvetaeva’s relatives. In it, like a message from the other world, was one word in Tsvetaeva’s handwriting: Mordovia.
This was the name of the Soviet republic in the Urals where her daughter Alya had been sent to a camp.
“God, do not judge! You were never a woman on this earth,” she once wrote.
February 13, 2003
See Viktoria Schweitzer, Tsvetaeva (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992), p. 275. ↩
See Simon Karlinsky, Marina Tsvetaeva: The Woman, Her World, and Her Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 128–129. ↩
See Karlinsky, Marina Tsvetaeva, p. 157. ↩
See Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters: Summer 1926 (New York Review Books, 2001), p. 221. ↩
Quoted in Karlinsky, Marina Tsvetaeva, p. 135. ↩