Alexander Blok’s Beautiful Lady

T.J. Binyon

  • The Life of Aleksandr Blok: Vol. 1: ‘The Distant Thunder 1880-1908’ by Avril Pyman
    Oxford, 359 pp, £12.50, January 1979, ISBN 0 19 211714 9

The appearance of the second volume of Avril Pyman’s life of Aleksandr Blok to join the first, published last year, brings her enterprise, the fruit of some twenty years’ work on the poet, to a triumphant conclusion. Blok’s life is well-documented, and the period is almost too rich in contemporary memoirs. Dr Pyman demonstrates a complete mastery of the sources, both printed and in manuscript, using the original diaries, notebooks and letters in Russian archives to supplement the expurgated Soviet editions. With loving care she assembles detail upon detail to build up what must be the fullest possible account of Blok’s life and immediate environment. At the same time, she analyses the sources of the poet’s inspiration, charts the movements of his psyche, and presents us with a comprehensive account of his development from a hermetic lyricist to a prophet of the Revolution.

There is little here to criticise; it is hardly a major fault if the author’s lens is focused so closely, with such clarity, on the tall, slender, invariably tanned, ‘unbelievably handsome’ poet with his ‘beautiful grey-blue eyes’ and thick reddish-gold hair, that the edges of her picture become, at times, slightly blurred. It’s true that one may occasionally feel that Dr Pyman is almost too empathetic, too closely attuned to her subject; that we are merely exchanging one kind of impressionism, or one set of symbols, for another, rather as was the case – to take a work of a very different kind – when Nabokov wrote on Gogol. Nevertheless, it is difficult to believe that this biography can be superseded: it stands as a fitting monument to the greatest Russian poet of his generation, one of ‘the children’, as he wrote, ‘of Russia’s terrible years’ – ‘the tragic tenor of the epoch’, in Akhmatova’s words.

Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Blok was born in 1880. His father, a professor of law at Warsaw University, was descended from a German surgeon who had emigrated to Russia in the middle of the 18th century. His mother’s family, the Beketovs, were old-established Russian gentry with a history of intellectual distinction and public service. On both sides of the family, however, there was evidence of mental instability. ‘There was something convulsive and terrible about his whole personality,’ Blok wrote of his father on whom, according to family legend, Dostoevsky had thought of modelling a character, and who died in 1909 in a Warsaw flat piled high with the detritus of a lifetime: nothing had ever been thrown away, no room ever cleaned. His mother, Aleksandra Andreyevna, who left her husband immediately after her son’s birth (she later married a pleasant, conventional regular army officer: Colonel Frants Kublitsky-Piottukh), suffered from epileptoid fits and periods of deep, suicidal depression. Blok was very conscious of these elements in his background. To a friend he spoke of feeling ‘the hereditary forces at work within himself’; ‘I am a degenerate from the Blok family,’ he wrote.

Two opposed, contrasting environments were to condition Blok’s life and his verse. On the one hand, the urban scenery of St Petersburg, ‘the most fantastic and intentional city in the world’, as Dostoevsky called it; on the other, the Russian countryside around the Beketov estate at Shakhmatovo, where the poet’s summers were spent. On the one hand, western, intellectual, urban Russia; on the other, eastern, peasant, rural Russia.

Not far from Shakhmatovo lived the chemist Mendeleyev, discoverer of the periodic law, and it was with his daughter, Lyubov Dmitriyevna, ‘plump and golden and full of fun’, that Blok fell in love in 1900. The Verses about the Most Beautiful Lady, written over the next two years, are both a lyrical diary of this love, and an attempt to convey a mystical experience – a revelation of divine harmony. The mysterious Lady, infinitely beyond the poet’s reach, yet at times tantalisingly close, is half-identified with Lyubov, but is at the same time the Eternal Feminine, Hagia Sophia, the Wisdom of God. Later Blok was to look back on these poems with longing and wonder. ‘I once knew something greater than art, not infinity, but the End, not worlds, but the World,’ he wrote.

Away from Shakhmatovo, doubt and disillusion set in. Demonic doubles appeared in the poetry; even the mysterious Lady developed a dark counterpart. There were misunderstandings with Lyubov; she became cold and unapproachable; Blok priced revolvers and wrote a suicide note. But it was not needed: on 7 November 1902, at a students’ dance given at the Assembly Rooms for the Nobility in Petersburg, he proposed and was accepted. They were married the following August. ‘My life is a series of incredibly confused human relationships, my life is a series of broken hopes,’ Blok noted in his diary in 1914. It was true above all of his marriage.

Throughout his life Blok was extremely close to his mother. His many letters to her are long, intimately detailed – perhaps unwisely so – accounts of his life; she always addresses him, right up to his death, as Detochka (‘little child’) or Dushenka (‘little soul’). She, naturally, was jealous of her new daughter-in-law, while Lyuba, equally naturally, took offence when Aleksandra Andreyevna wished to interfere in the couple’s affairs. At times the tension, exacerbated by Aleksandra Andreyevna’s illnesses, became unbearable. She would threaten suicide, claiming that Lyuba was turning her son against her; Blok would lash out at his wife – on one occasion he wrote in his notebook:

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