Every Slightest Pebble

Clarence Brown

  • The Akhmatova Journals. Vol. I: 1938-1941 by Lydia Chukovskaya, translated by Milena Michalski and Sylva Rubashova
    Harvill, 310 pp, £20.00, June 1994, ISBN 0 00 216391 8
  • Remembering Anna Akhmatova by Anatoly Nayman, translated by Wendy Rosslyn
    Halban, 240 pp, £18.00, June 1991, ISBN 1 870015 41 X
  • Anna Akhmatova and Her Circle edited by Konstantin Polivanov, translated by Patricia Beriozkina
    Arkansas, 281 pp, $32.00, January 1994, ISBN 1 55728 308 7
  • Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet by Roberta Reeder
    Allison and Busby, 592 pp, £25.00, February 1995, ISBN 0 85031 998 6
  • Women’s Works in Stalin’s Time: On Lidia Chukovskaia and Nadezhda Mandelstam by Beth Holmgren
    Indiana, 225 pp, £25.00, September 1993, ISBN 0 253 33860 3

In the late Fifties, in the dusty warren of a Manhattan apartment, the composer Artur Sergeevich Lourié answered my questions about his friend Osip Mandelstam, whom he plausibly deemed to have been by that time irretrievably forgotten. I had turned up at his door out of the blue, led there by an article he had published in an émigré journal. He could not decide which was the more astonishing: intricate questions about a vanished poet, or the questioner himself, a young American speaking army-taught Russian: ‘Someone,’ he said, seeing me off, ‘should write about you.’

I trust that I am not now obliquely complying with this injunction if I recall some of my encounters with the great poet about whom Lydia Chukovskaya and Anatoly Nayman have left records of a fullness and intimacy that my few recollections can hardly rival. But such was the stature of Akhmatova that every slightest pebble lending strength to the aggregate of her posthumous monument must seem valuable.

Whoever sets out to write about her soon wishes that the English lexicon were richer in synonyms for ‘regal’. After ‘queenly’ and ‘majestic’ there are not many left that seem to fit the case. ‘Earthy’, if you want to describe that other side of her nature, revealed only to those who knew her in domestic circumstances, is even more in want of approximately kindred terms. It is better, I suppose, helplessly to submit and to repeat what earlier and more favourably placed witnesses have said: that she produced on most people who knew her the contradictory effect of being both unapproachably remote, so that treason could but peep to what it would, and also ready to let down her guard and plunge forthwith into whatever treason was afoot.

The notes on which I base my recollections of her were made in hot haste on trains and in hotel rooms and then, because their very existence endangered both her and me, sent quickly out of the country. This was the early and mid-Sixties. Brodsky was being sent, for ‘parasitism’, to vegetate in a village near Arkhangelsk; her dangerously disloyal Requiem was being published in Munich; Sinyavsky was being exposed as Abram Tertz and sent to a camp; and her half-hearted rehabilitation, after the spectacular denunciation by Zhdanov just after the war, was shaky at best. I set the notes aside and forgot about them. To have written about Akhmatova then would have imperilled not only her but also a person to whom I was far closer and whose case was incomparably more perilous, Nadezhda Mandelstam. Her manuscript, not yet entitled Hope against Hope, I had read at her kitchen table and then, with her blessing, sent to the West. It was not a time for too many memoirs.

Lourié was my entrée to Akhmatova. Some year or so after the interview in Manhattan, I was arrested by a vision of scarlet socks covering frail white calves beneath billowing Bermuda shorts: not, at that era, a part of the expected scene on Nassau Street in Princeton. It was Artur Sergeevich, now removed from New York to live on Linden Lane, in the Mediterranean villa provided by the philosopher Jacques Maritain, who had moved permanently to France. Every inch of interior wall had been covered in murals by a young French painter, against which Lourié looked finally at home.

He had been one of Akhmatova’s ‘husbands’ for a while. Tenuous communication had not diminished their emotional attachment. ‘All your photographs look at me all day long,’ he wrote to her in 1960, in a letter now in the possession of Chukovskaya. He had briefly been Lenin’s Commissar for Music, but he had also converted to his fervent Catholicism before (about this he insisted) quitting the Soviet Union in 1922 for his long exile in France and America. He had been painfully discreet in maintaining a few links with Akhmatova, anxious lest any contact aggravate her plentiful troubles.

On 11 July 1962, with no more excuse than my ignorance, I travelled illegally on the elektrichka from Leningrad to Komarovo, where Akhmatova was said to be in the dacha provided for her by the Litfond. The sandy track where it was located went by the grand name of Lake Street. Three pedestrians, not all of whom could have been KGB, exhausted the three possible accentuations of the adjective ozernaya (‘lake’) before I located it. She came out onto the porch, lured into sight by Lourié’s name, which the young woman who had answered my knock carried in. It was the same porch pictured in a photograph in Nayman’s book, and I was in his identical position, looking up at a figure that could only seem a more than mortal presence to eyes that had studied it in dim reproductions. A hand descended. I kissed it. She withdrew it rapidly to her throat, looked in quick apprehension at the curtain of scrub pines, and asked me in.

We sat at first on a small, glass-enclosed porch. She immediately said to me that the poet Georgy Ivanov was responsible for many libels against her. It was not true, as he had written, that after her divorce from Gumilev and her non-participation in the second Acmeist group she had lost favour with younger readers. Quite the contrary was true. After we went into her small bed-sitting room, as we soon did, her conversation was so exclusively focused on Mandelstam, with only occasional asides about herself, that this overture struck me, when I looked later at my notes, as the only time when she seemed even slightly a prima donna jealous of her reputation with her public.

Some four years later I was to learn from Nadezhda Mandelstam, widow of the poet about whom I had come to speak to Akhmatova, that she had been a covert witness of the rest of the interview. No one had been prepared for the sudden appearance in Komarovo, off-limits to foreigners, of an American writing about Mandelstam. Akhmatova would have greeted with the same aplomb a white rabbit from a spaceship. She spoke hurriedly and volubly, as though she had prepared for my arrival. My being monomaniacally obsessed with Mandelstam rather than with her must have seemed a nice change. Everything that Georgy Ivanov wrote was a lie. He and Adamovich were younger than the Acmeists, had always been somewhat outsiders, and moreover had soon gone into emigration. Towards Adamovich she was more kindly disposed; he did not write of what he did not know. But Ivanov invented. Osip had never had a daughter. There was a wife. Her name was Khazina before they married. (The very existence of Nadezhda was unknown even to Gleb Struve and Boris Filippov, editors of Mandelstam’s Collected Works in the USA.)

Was Strakhovsky (another memoirist) still alive? Yes? A great pity. He might go on lying about Mandelstam. He had written nonsense about her, also. He had left in 1918 and everything to which he had pretended to be an eyewitness after that was pure fabrication. Why did those in the West not use their freedom to write the truth rather than lies? The influential poet Bryusov had once deliberately insulted Mandelstam by saying that he liked his poems – and then quoted something by Makkaveysky. (The implication, I think, was that deliberate insult was preferable to the furtive slanders of those on her list of liars.)

She had been present when Mandelstam was first arrested, in 1934. The second time was on the first of May 1938. Ehrenburg was wrong: the correct date of death was 27 December 1938. Nadya had even been sent a letter, which was most unusual. She also had a letter from Osya from the camp. (That scrap of paper is now a few hundred yards from where I sit, in the Mandelstam Archive of Princeton University Library.) Lately, the poems had been circulating in many copies; people even made money by copying them.

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