A Captive Lion: The Life of Marina Tsvetayeva 
by Elaine Feinstein.
Hutchinson, 287 pp., £15.95, February 1987, 0 09 165900 0
Show More
The Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva 
translated by Elaine Feinstein.
Hutchinson, 108 pp., £6.95, February 1987, 0 09 165931 0
Show More
Show More

In 1913, when she was 20 and had already published two volumes of poetry, Marina Tsvetaeva wrote the following prophetic lines, translated by Vladimir Nabokov in 1972:

Amidst the dust of bookshops, wide dispersed
    And never purchased there by anyone,
Yet similar to precious wines, my verse
    Can wait: its turn will come.

The turn of Marina Tsvetaeva’s verse and biography has now come forty years after her suicide at the age of 48 in the remote provincial town of Elabuga in the USSR. After the publication of her two volumes of juvenilia in 1910 and 1912, there was a hiatus. During the following decade – with World War One, two revolutions in Russia, civil war and famine – Tsvetaeva wrote a great deal but did not publish her work. At the time of her emigration from the Soviet Union in 1922, a flood of her writings (poetry, plays, essays) appeared, both in her native country and brought out by the publishing houses established by exiled Russians in Prague, Berlin and Paris. Almost overnight, Marina Tsvetaeva was recognised as a major literary figure.

A poet of immense originality and versatility, in her mature work Tsvetaeva expanded the scope of Russian prosody and metrics. She had at her command an amazing range of poetic voices, dictions and styles which she used in her lyrics, narrative poems, folk epics and plays in verse. Her prose essays and memoirs combined a uniquely fresh point of view with an idiom that explored to the maximum the colloquial Russian speech which allows the ellipsis of verbs and nouns in ways that conventional literary Russian had until then avoided.

Contemporary figures such as Rilke, Pasternak and the literary historian D.S. Mirsky without hesitation proclaimed her the foremost poet of the age. But the denunciations of the Soviet system in the poetry and prose she wrote after her emigration made her work unpublishable and, eventually, her name unmentionable in the Soviet Union after the mid-Twenties. Despite her conflicts and disagreements with factions of the Russian exile community, Tsvetaeva remained one of the central figures of Russian émigré literature throughout the Twenties and Thirties. Then, at the end of the Thirties, her husband, Sergei Efron, was exposed as an agent of the Soviet secret police. Efron had been involved in two political assassinations – one of his victims was Trotsky’s son, Andrei Sedov. He fled to the Soviet Union, following his and Tsvetaeva’s daughter Ariadna, who had returned voluntarily in 1937.

Tsvetaeva, who knew nothing of her husband’s terrorist activities, was ostracised by the Russian community in Paris. In the mistaken belief that it would help her husband and secure a better future for their son, Tsvetaeva followed Efron to Moscow in June 1939. On her arrival, she learned that her younger sister Anastasia, to whom she was very close, had been sent to a hard-labour camp two years earlier. Two months after Tsvetaeva’s return her daughter was arrested and, a short time after that, her husband. Tsvetaeva managed to find work as a literary translator, but when the German Army approached Moscow in 1941, she and her son were evacuated to Elabuga. The catastrophe that befell her family and her grim experiences during the evacuation drove her to take her own life.

Unlike the writings of such exiled Russian writers as Bunin and Nabokov, Tsvetaeva’s work was not translated or published in Western languages during her lifetime. For about fifteen years after her death, she was almost universally forgotten. Then, during the liberalisation that followed Stalin’s death in 1953, Ehrenburg and Pasternak, who had been Tsvetaeva’s close friends and champions in the Twenties, published their memoirs and in the course of these reminded her countrymen of her poetry and its exceptional qualities. From then on, Tsvetaeva’s reputation began, slowly but inexorably, to grow. Even so, as late as 1961, no Russian literature specialist at one of the best-known American universities would consent to direct my doctoral dissertation on Tsvetaeva’s work, considering her too minor and peripheral.

That dissertation, done at another university, became a book in 1966. A vast amount of material has come to light since then and the book now be seen to be full of errors and lacunae. Tsvetaeva’s previously unpublished writings, numerous letters (including her correspondence with Rilke and Pasternak), other people’s memoirs, critical studies, bibliographies, collections of her poetry and prose have been steadily appearing year after year, both in the Soviet Union and abroad. In 1978, an association of Tsvetaeva scholars and admirers came into being in Moscow which periodically stages discussions of her life and work, dramatisations of her plays and narrative poems, concerts of music based on her poetry and evenings of recollections by people who once knew her. The early Eighties saw two international Tsvetaeva conferences, one at the University of Lausanne and the other at Yale.

In the Soviet Union, the new recognition of Marina Tsvetaeva’s literary stature was spearheaded by her sister Anastasia and her daughter Ariadna Efron. Both women were released in the Fifites, after decades spent in hard-labour camps and internal exile in the Arctic wastes of Siberia. Anastasia Tsvetaeva’s memoir of her sister and their family was serialised in a Soviet journal of the late Sixties and then appeared in book form in three ever-expanding versions in 1971, 1974 and 1983. Chapters of Ariadna Efron’s account of her mother began appearing in a Leningrad journal in 1973. It was cut short by Ariadna’s sudden death of a heart attack in 1975; it broke off with the description of the birth of Tsvetaeva’s son Georgy in 1925 (the completed chapters appeared as a book in Paris in 1979).

Because they were published in the Soviet Union (before the current glasnost campaign), the memoirs of Tsvetaeva’s sister and daughter had to be tailored to what was acceptable to Soviet censors and publishing houses. Aspects of Tsvetaeva’s thinking as expressed in her poetry and prose had to be minimised or glossed over: her opposition to the October Revolution and her support for the monarchist White Army during the Civil War of 1918-22, for example, or her contempt for Lenin. Other facts of her life were simply unmentionable in the Soviet Union: her numerous love affairs with men and women during her marriage to Sergei Efron; her ridicule of the Soviet system in her magnum opus, the ‘lyrical satire’ in six cantos, The Pied Piper (Krysolov, published in a Prague Russian journal); or the terrorist activities of her husband.

Ariadna Efron was also the co-editor of a large volume of Tsvetaeva’s Selected Works (poetry and plays) which appeared in the prestigious ‘Poet’s Library’ series in 1965. This edition brought Tsvetaeva the kind of acceptance and adulation in her native country that is usually reserved for the classics of Russian literature. After Ariadna’s death, her collaborator on the 1965 volume, Anna Saakiants, became the official Tsvetaeva scholar in the Soviet Union. In 1980, she brought out a two-volume selection of Tsvetaeva’s verse, prose and drama. In the Seventies, however, a pléiade of capable and dedicated younger Tsvetaeva scholars emerged in the USSR – among them, Lev Mnukhin, Viktoria Schweitzer (who later emigrated to the United States) and Irma Kudrova. An outstandingly gifted scholar and writer, Kudrova published some brilliant essays on Tsvetaeva in Leningrad journals. At some point in the early Eighties, she completed a biography of Tsvetaeva, one chapter from which appeared in a special Tsvetaeva issue of a Viennese Slavicist journal. The chapter, describing the poet’s first six months in Paris after she had moved there from Prague in the fall of 1925, suggests that Irma Kudrova may well be Tsvetaeva’s definitive biographer. In the breadth of her knowledge and the depth of her perception and intelligence, Kudrova is superior to subsequent biographers of Tsvetaeva, including – it must be admitted – myself.

Irma Kudrova made two mistakes. In the chapter published abroad, she wrote of Tsvetaeva’s fellow exiles without the revulsion and disapproval which were until the last few months the only acceptable tone in the Soviet Union for writing about émigrés; and in two of her essays she challenged the veracity of Anastasia Tsvetaeva’s memoirs and took issue with Anna Saakiants about her slanted annotations of Tsvetaeva’s writings. These two women’s vitriolic replies to Kudrova’s charges must have alerted the ideological authorities, because nothing more was heard about Irma Kudrova’s biography, she hasn’t written anything in the Soviet press since 1982 and she had to stop corresponding with foreign Tsvetaeva scholars, though she had done so freely in the Seventies. In 1986, instead of Kudrova’s book, a most peculiar (but politically correct) biography by Anna Saakiants appeared: Marina Tsvetaeva: Pages from her Life and Work (1910-1922). By restricting her purview to those 12 years, Saakiants was able to stay clear of the controversy about the difference between Anastasia’s and Marina’s accounts of their childhood and was also able to say almost nothing about Tsvetaeva’s life abroad. It is to be hoped that in the present cultural climate in the USSR – where Vladimir Nabokov is published in Moskva and the Literary Gazette was able to print an interview with the émigré novelist and poet Irina Odoevtseva about her late husband, the bitterly anti-Soviet poet Georgy Ivanov – Irma Kudrova’s biography of Tsvetaeva will see the light of day.

In the meantime, there are biographies of Tsvetaeva in languages other than Russian. In 1981, Maria Razumovsky, the Viennese translator of Tsvetaeva’s poetry, brought out Marina Zwetajewa: Mythos und Wahrheit, a study of the poet’s life. In 1983, an augmented translation of this work into Russian was printed in London on very thin paper, with the transparent aim of making it available to Soviet tourists and thus satisfying the tremendous hunger for factual information about Tsvetaeva’s life in her homeland. My own second biography, Marina Tsvetaeva: The Woman, her World and her Poetry, was published by Cambridge in 1985, and now we have Elaine Feinstein’s A Captive Lion (the title comes from the poet’s description of herself in her poem ‘Homesickness’). This is the first biography written by someone who cannot read Tsvetaeva’s poetry in the original and had to have the sources on the poet translated for her.

Elaine Feinstein has been carrying the Tsvetaeva torch in the English-speaking countries for about two decades. Her volume of Tsvetaeva’s poetry in English, translated from line-by-line cribs, came out in 1971, was revised and expanded in 1981, and has now appeared in a third edition. In Russian, Tsvetaeva’s poems have rhymes and a startlingly original verbal texture. Good rhymed versions of her poetry have been done by Joseph Brodsky and by Robin Kemball, who translated the whole of Tsvetaeva’s collection The Demesne of the Swans. The late Eve Malleret managed in her French translations to convey, not only Tsvetaeva’s metres and rhymes, but also her stylistic range, which can combine within the space of one poem the most solemn oratory with folk dialect and slang. Thus, a stylistically exact English version of her poem ‘An Attempt at Jealousy’ would ideally encompass both the Metaphysical language of Richard Crashaw or John Donne and the invective of a Cockney.

The versions by Elaine Feinstein do not convey the rhymes or Tsvetaeva’s rich verbal texture, but they read very well. With irresistible candour, Feinstein explains in the introduction to A Captive Lion what it was that first attracted her to Tsvetaeva: There is nothing like [her] in English.’ One might also add that there is no one quite like Tsvetaeva in Russian, or, as far as one knows, in any other literary tradition. ‘It is not only the violence of her emotions,’ Feinstein continues, ‘or the ferocity of her expression, but the extraordinary courage of her humanity and honesty. As I learned more of her life, I was astonished by the stamina that must have sustained her achievement.’

This is very well put and it is certainly true. But Feinstein does not mention other things that draw people to Tsvetaeva: the precision of her expression, the intoxicating music of her poetry, the virtuoso play on word stems, which she uses to reveal new, hitherto unsuspected meanings. It is all the more admirable that without being familiar with Tsvetaeva’s verbal magic Feinstein can be so powerfully attracted by human and moral qualities. It isn’t surprising that she tells the story of Tsvetaeva’s life and times in a sympathetic and highly readable manner. She has done her homework well and was helped in her project by a number of British scholars, Soviet poets and Tsvetaeva’s old friends who now live in the West.

A few passages where her narrative rings false occur when her sources or informants have deliberately set out to mislead. In her introduction, Feinstein mentions ‘the distrust felt among the Russian émigré community in the United States for Soviet-published memoirs of Tsvetaeva’. Why only in the United States and only among the Russian émigrés? Any scholar, whatever country he comes from, and any speaker of Russian who has spent some time in the Soviet Union, will know that the rewriting of literary history has been mandatory there since the Thirties.

The narrative of Tsvetaeva’s life is skilfully interspersed with translations of her letters and Elaine Feinstein’s own renderings of her poems into English. Because A Captive Lion is such an attractive book it is a shame that none of the numerous Slavic scholars whom the author thanks in her Acknowledgments read her finished manuscript so as to help her with names and identifications. Literate Russians do not address letters to each other with patronymics alone (‘Dear Ivanovich,’ ‘Dear Antonovna’). Anatoly Lunacharsky, People’s Commissar of Education in Lenin’s Government, is mentioned only as ‘Lunakharsky’ (no first name or identification); another Anatoly, the popular author of historical novels Anatoly Vinogradov, is reduced to ‘a young man Anatoli’; Vladislav Khodasevich, one of this century’s greatest Russian poets, is repeatedly called ‘Vsevolod’. The poet Maximilian Voloshin is given several daughters. The picture facing p. 84 shows Marina and Anastasia not with ‘their mother, Maria Alexandrovna Tsvetaeva’, as the caption has it, but with their governess, Augusta Ivanovna Dobrokhotova (this photograph was previously reproduced in Anastasia Tsvetaeva’s memoirs and in Tsvetaeva: A Pictorial Biography, edited by Ellendea Proffer, with correct identifications): the affectionate pose is quite out of character for the poet’s strict mother. Merzliakov Lane (Merzliakovsky pereulok) in Moscow is cited on p.250 as Merzlik Street, on p.254 as Perzlyakovsky Pereulok, and on p.257 as Merzeyakovsky Pereulok. Such carelessness is probably the fault of the editor or publisher rather than of the author. The same can be said about scrambled annotations. All these things should be corrected in a later printing, because A Captive Lion is a welcome book.

‘I can be grasped only in terms of contrasts, i.e., of the simultaneous presence of everything,’ Tsvetaeva once wrote. ‘I am many poets; as to how I’ve managed to harmonise all of them, that is my secret.’ The four Tsvetaeva biographies that have appeared this decade (by Razumovsky, Saakiants, myself and Elaine Feinstein) have shown various aspects of this protean poet. Still to come are Véronique Lossky’s detailed study in French of Tsvetaeva’s Paris period; Lily Feiler’s psychobiography; the all encompassing book on Tsvetaeva in Russian on which Viktoria Schweitzer has been working for the past decade in Amherst, Massachusetts; and, I fervently hope, Irma Kudrova’s magisterial volume, whose appearance would be a cause of celebration among all those who care about Tsvetaeva and Russian poetry.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences