Women are nicer

John Bayley

  • Marina Tsvetaeva: The Woman, her World and her Poetry by Simon Karlinsky
    Cambridge, 289 pp, £27.50, February 1986, ISBN 0 521 25582 1
  • The Women’s Decameron by Julia Woznesenskaya, translated by W.B. Linton
    Quartet, 330 pp, £9.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 7043 2555 1

Trotsky, who had a certain wit, even in literary matters, thought that women wrote poetry for only two reasons: because they desired a man and because they needed God, ‘as a combination of errand boy and gynaecologist ... How this individual, no longer young and burdened by the personal bothersome errands of Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva and others, manages in his spare time to direct the destinies of the universe is simply incredible.’ Trotsky’s view of God was as conventional as his view of women. All tyrannies with a new spiritual pretension, from Zealots and Anabaptists to the Ayatollah, want to keep women in their old place, and the Bolsheviks were no exception. After the first heady days, with Madame Kollontai preaching free love, and poetry and drama doing what they pleased, the Soviet Government discovered that it needed censorship as much as, or more than, any other repressive system. ‘Dictatorship, where is thy whip?’ inquired Pravda. A charmingly candid demand, which shows, among other things, that the Soviet system was not so hypocritical then as it has since become.

The proletariat’s dictators were not going to put up with nuns and whores masquerading as poetesses. From adolescence Tsvetaeva had the urge to defend anything that was getting the worst of it, whether it was the Tsar or Kerensky, the Communards or Napoleon. An admirable urge in a poet, and – surprisingly – it kept her for many years out of the worst sorts of trouble. She quarrelled with the Russian émigrés over her defence of Mayakovsky and the Soviet poets, and she recited to a Moscow audience, full of party members and Red Army men, her poem-cycle The Demesne of the Swans, a passionate elegy for the White Guards. Faced with such irresponsible independence, the kinds of cultural commissar who turned their heavy guns on Akhmatova, and denounced her as a nun and whore, could only shrug their shoulders. What could they have made of Tsvetaeva’s ironic but also frenetically sincere manifesto to fellow writers: ‘The TRUTH is a TURNCOAT!’ Her daughter, and her husband, became in time convinced and faithful servants of the Party, and as a result her husband was shot and her daughter sent for 17 years to a labour camp. The poet herself the regime didn’t bother to touch. After managing, during the German invasion, to get evacuated with her son to Soviet Asia, she came to the end of her own tether, and hanged herself in a mood of private hopelessness, humiliation and despair. She wanted, as she wrote before the end, not to die, but not to be.

Both Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva were extremely personal poets, for both of whom it was none the less natural – as Russian poets – to seem seers and public figures, through whom was expressed the whole of the country’s suffering, its true being and awareness. No pretension is involved in this, any more than it is when Akhmatova writes in Requiem that the statue her country will erect to her should stand outside the prison where she used to wait, with the melting snow weeping from its bronze eyes, and the ships sailing past it up and down the Neva. Or when Tsvetaeva, whose actual grave was unrecorded, imagines her funeral procession, through the streets of Moscow, followed by writers, ministers, the populace. So Pushkin was buried, with universal mourning. But Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva are none the less very different kinds of poet. It would be possible, even desirable, to read and reread Akhmatova’s complex masterpiece, Poem without a Hero, in a state of complete ignorance about the poet herself, although the poem is full of cryptic intimacies and references to friends and events, both public and private. But Tsvetaeva’s poetic dramas and poem-cycles to friends, or in memory of them, really do require a background of detailed knowledge about her life and personality. It is impossible to imagine the job being done better than by Professor Karlinsky. His knowledge of and research into the period are encyclopedic, and he has the same understanding of his subject that he showed in his brilliant study of Gogol.

She wrote a great deal. One feels it came as naturally to her as could be, and from 1922 to 1940, when she and her family were émigrés in Czechoslovakia and France, she wrote to earn money in the émigré journals produced in Berlin, Prague and Paris. The general effect, however invidious comparisons may be, is of a mixture of Browning, Hugo Von Hofmannsthal and Robert Lowell, with something of Whitman’s breezy effect of easing himself in poetry’s words. If that sounds bizarre – well, she is in many ways a bizarre writer. Her ways with rhythm and sound effects seem too spontaneous to be experimental, though they can have, like Mayakovsky’s, an aggressive quality which has not worn particularly well. A Russian ear is clearly needed to detect and enjoy her best effects. Her sounds can be more subtle than what she says, and there is an absence of an ‘inside’ to much of her verse that can make it disappointing to reread. For most readers she is at her best when most immediate, as in the extraordinarily moving cycle, The Demesne of the Swans, written when she was still very young, though already a wife and mother. It has been well translated by Robin Kemball.

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