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.

Tsvetaeva’s background was as much European as Russian. Her father was a distinguished and absent-minded professor (‘my attentively uncomprehending father’) who came from a family of Orthodox priests: but her mother, his second wife, was from the Baltic, and had Polish and German forebears. All her life Tsvetaeva retained a passionate admiration for things German. In one of her explosively brilliant love letters to Rainer Maria Rilke she was to proclaim that, like all true poets, she wrote her own language, which was neither French, German nor Russian. Be that as it may, in her 1919 essay ‘O Germanii’ (‘On Germany’) she wrote that her passion for German literature and culture revealed two sides of her inmost being which could only be expressed in that language – übermass, a state of excess or extravagance, and the gushing ecstasy of schwärmerei. She adored the German sentiment of Nessler’s opera, Der Trompeter von Säkkingen, which her mother, who had always longed to be a concert pianist, used to sing to her:

Behut’ dich Gott! Es war zu schon gewesen,
Behut’dich Gott, es hat nicht sollen sein!

In the same way the victory of the White Armies was to seem to her something too beautiful ever to be, something belonging to the world of yearning and romance. A friend called her an incorrigible ‘mythomaniac’, creating and half-believing myths about her own life and everything else, and this is true insofar as 20th-century myth-making poets, like Yeats and Blok, are direct inheritors of European Romanticism, giving it a personal and individual life. Tsvetaeva was in a sense a more thoroughgoing, a more absolute romantic, but, like Yeats, she had a tough, practical, earthy side, and a pungent natural style that was never derivative or dreamy.

Yet even the most striking of her longer poems – ‘On a Red Steed’, ‘The Pied Piper’, ‘Poem of the Air’, ‘Poem of the Staircase’, ‘Poem of the Tsar’s Family’ (most of this unpublished) – suffer from a discrepancy between the vitality of the style and the oddly old-fashioned laboriousness of the ‘meaning’. The two things seem distinct in a way that would be impossible for Eliot, Rilke or Akhmatova, and the feeling again is of a throwback to German Romanticism and to the long poem which allegorises the spirit of man, the ever-womanly, the victory of enlightenment, or whatever. ‘Poem of the Staircase’ takes the image of a sordid back-staircase to excoriate the poverty and materialism of modern life; ‘Poem of the Air’, inspired by Lindberg’s Atlantic flight, celebrates a passionate dislike of, and escape from, physical limitation; the protagonist of ‘On a Red Steed’ is exposed to three temptations, from each of which she is rescued in the nick of time by a knight on a red steed who is, as the poem makes all too clear, her poetic genius. Notwithstanding the Germanic weight of the main significances, the texture of the poems can be highly obscure, dense with private reference and the talismanic meaning for the poet of events, places, heroes, like Napoleon’s son ‘l’Aiglon’, romanticised in the lush verse drama of Rostand, which Tsvetaeva fervently admired. All this is very engaging in its way, and symptomatic of a spirit totally uncrafty and uncalculating, in her art as in her life. She did what the spirit impelled her to do with none of that canny instinct for the Zeitgeist, and what they could make of it, which is so marked in great poets like Yeats and Eliot. This almost childlike indifference to fashion is the most attractive thing about Tsvetaeva as a poet, and it goes with her sense that ‘Truth is a Turncoat,’ that fashion goes with fanaticism and all the hardness of ideology.

But that said, it must also be admitted that her frenetic personality has something non-individual about it. It conforms too much to a type, the type of one of her most ardent childhood infatuations, Mary Bashkirtsev, the legendary young diarist who died of tuberculosis in 1884, and the publication of whose journals caused a European sensation. Simone de Beauvoir was to cite them in The Second Sex as the archetypal example of ‘self-centred female narcissism’, but also as the discovery by the female of her independent personal existence. The young Katherine Mansfield worshipped them too, and modelled herself on them, and there is a striking similarity, in the appearance of face and hair, between Mansfield and Tsvetaeva. Although a much greater talent than Katherine Mansfield, the latter, too, never escaped from being the period type, and representing its intensest form.

This is shown in the contradictions of her married life. While still a girl, staying at the poet Maximilian Voloshin’s house at Koktebel in the Crimea, she fell in love with another young literary aspirant called Sergei Efron, half-Jewish, tall and handsome, with Byzantine features and enormous dark eyes. They married and remained married through all subsequent vicissitudes. There is a remarkable photograph taken around 1912, of their two solemn and childish young faces gazing at the camera, his lean and hollow, hers chubby and round. Efron, the perpetual student, had no sooner escaped from Russia with the White Army than he enrolled on an art course at the University of Prague: the generosity and cultural concern of the young Czechoslovak republic was one of its brightest features, and Tsvetaeva and her husband continued to receive an allowance from the Czechs for many years afterwards. When they were separated by the war Tsvetaeva had sworn that she would be her husband’s dog for ever if she ever found him again, and she kept her vow, in her own fashion. Before the war she had had a tremendous affair with the notorious Sophie Parnok, sometimes making love with her in a monastery cell in Rostov, and she was to continue all her life having tempestuous affairs with women, with Sonechka Holliday, even with the famous Natalie Barney, the wealthy and elegant Amazon of the Parisian Thirties, for whose soirées the privileged bought themselves special frocks from the grand couturiers. Tsvetaeva turned up looking as if she was wearing an old sack.

In addition to the women in her life she fell frequently for young men, but her passions here were usually brief, highly maternal and probably sexless. As Karlinsky observes, she loved ‘frail and vulnerable Jews’, like the young publisher Abram Vishniak in Berlin, but she often put them in a difficult position and soon became disillusioned herself. With Rilke she conducted a love affair by correspondence, in a series of letters coruscating with wit and telegraphic insights about poetry. The German poet was cautious, clearly enjoying her unbounded admiration but reluctant to go so far as a meeting; with her usual impetuosity Tsvetaeva ignored the fact that he was gravely ill, and was deeply hurt when he gave up writing back. She was fiercely protective to her own family, however, and looked after them with devotion, through all the ups and downs of poverty and emigration. But in this context, too, things went bad. Her younger daughter died of starvation in an orphanage during the famine of the Civil War. The elder girl, Ariadne, was very close when young to her mother, who confided to her all her griefs and loves, but became estranged at the age of ten, absorbed only in an ideal vision of the Russian Communist paradise. Her son, whom she doted on (Pasternak called him her ‘Napoleonid’), grew up into a spoilt, oafish boy, endlessly complaining and mistreating his mother. When, entirely for his sake, she returned to Russia in 1940, he hated it and accused her of ruining his life. He showed no remorse at her suicide, and there is evidence that his death in the Red Army two years later was not in action but the result of insubordination and cheeking his sergeant.

Tsvetaeva, in short, was one of those unfortunates who pay for their genius, and their generosities too, by a dire failure in human relations. Her swans, whose demesne she had once so movingly celebrated, all turned out to be geese. She was unswervingly loyal to her husband but seems to have had no idea what he was like. He had become, in fact, a fanatic for the Communist cause, and was employed by the Ogpu as an undercover agent, planning as the head of a front organisation in France at least two political murders and abductions. A friend described him as unintelligent and kind, ‘an enthusiast, an idealist, utterly sincere and extremely naive. That, it seems to me, exhausts the subject.’ Only when they were briefly re-united again in 1940, at an Ogpu safe house outside Moscow, did Tsvetaeva grasp what had long been known to the émigré community in France: that her husband was a spy and a murderer. Nor did it do him any good. The legend is that after his arrest he was interrogated by Beria himself, with whom he became violently angry, presumably out of incredulity that one who had become so devoted a servant of the Soviet state should be disposed of out of hand when his job was done.

Naive as he may have been, Efron could be perceptive about his wife. In a letter to Voloshin he wrote that ‘to plunge into a self-created hurricane has become a necessity for her, the air of her life. Who the instigator of this hurricane is doesn’t matter ... everything is built on self-deception ... Today it’s despair, tomorrow it’s ecstasy, love, total surrender of self, and tomorrow it’s despair again.’ That sounds a familiar diagnosis, but ignores not only the fact that her talent as a poet was a necessary part of this psychology, but also that she possessed a hard, penetrating, Voltairean intelligence – humour too – which gave the equally necessary stress and balance to her art. Whatever her fellow émigrés thought, and however much they despised her gullibility and what Karlinsky calls her status as a ‘Dostoevskian infernal woman junior grade’, I would suspect that in a part of her divided spirit she was quite well aware of what her husband was up to, but chose to turn the blind eye of loyalty. It was part of her ‘absolute maternal care’, and it expressed a temperament that – significantly – was apt to repel the more masculine of her fellow artists. Alexei Remizov, author of that remarkable novel The Clock, noted that ‘I strongly dislike Tsvetaeva for her posturings, her ignoble character and her female irresponsibility. And for her extraordinary vanity.’ The Nobel Prize-winner, Bunin, wrote that he ‘couldn’t stand that psychopath with her leaden eyes, gifted, but lacking in shame, taste’.

Great writers not infrequently do lack shame and taste. And to understand Tsvetaeva’s greatness we have to understand how she lived, and sympathise with what she was like. Karlinsky’s study enables us to achieve this. It is a landmark in the scholarship of one of the most talented as well as tumultuous periods of Russian poetry. The paradox is that for all her ‘Europeanness’, her insistence that she wrote no language but her own, Tsvetaeva is for a foreigner actually the hardest of all of her poetic generation to approach and understand as a poet’s voice in the Russian language. Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelstam are all far more accessible, more comprehensible in terms of the poetic art that was going on in their time in Europe.

It is not easy to say what Tsvetaeva would have thought of Women’s Lib. She herself combined, in extreme form, maternal impulses and passions with the wish to lead a wholly independent existence, like a Peter Pan or a Pied Piper. Such a division is normal enough, indeed the mark of sanity in one sense, and she would have thought nothing of it, just as she made no distinction, in her own life, between men and women. As Karlinsky says, she made a bit of a myth out of her ‘kitchen martyrdom’, though it was real enough; she never expected her son or husband to do a hand’s turn to help her – that was not ‘man’s work’ – and she doted on them so much that they were privileged beings in the household. Yet she could write to her friend Teskova that ‘marriage and love are destructive of one’s personality ... I’ve lived my life in captivity, and, strange to say, a freely chosen captivity.’ She wryly remarks that no one asked her to take everything so seriously, but that it was ‘in my blood, its German component’. ‘If I get to live another time, I’ll know what to do.’

Living one’s life in captivity is a state taken for granted by the narrators in The Women’s Decameron, a remarkable book by a writer born in Leningrad and educated in a Siberian labour camp, before being forced to emigrate to West Germany, where she now lives. She was the founder of ‘Maria’, the first Russian Independent Women’s Group, and is the subject of the American feature film, Julia’s Diary. There is a certain comedy, which would have appealed to Tsvetaeva, and perhaps to Boccaccio too, in the idea of Russian Women’s Lib, with all the harsh and elemental experience it is based on, encountering its Western counterpart. Traditionally wives have been more physically abused in Russia even than in other countries – 17th-century Russian books of domestic management actually give wife-beating an official status – and yet in the great flowering of Russian literature from Pushkin to the Revolution women are invariably portrayed as stronger, more enterprising and more dominant than the uncertain and often superfluous heroes. Women’s Lib would probably justly comment that one way of keeping women in captivity is to make out that they are stronger than you are. Certainly the strong Russian woman is a male literary invention, and by the time there are women writers, like Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva, the myth becomes irrelevant, though it is true to say that both poets were very dependent on men, and on being the centre of authority in their family.

Ten young women in the maternity ward of a Leningrad hospital learn that they have been put in a ten-day quarantine, and decide to borrow the Florentine writer’s idea and pass the time telling each other stories. By the book’s end 100 have been told. The device works well, because the Soviet background seems curiously and compellingly similar to that of the actual Decameron – basically Medieval, in fact – and though the stories illustrate the trials, sufferings and ingenuities of women, their greater effectiveness is to show what real life in Russia is like. It has virtues which we have lost or are losing, and this comes out all the more clearly because the women tell their tales without shame or sentiment. One tale, told by an air-hostess, concerns a foreign diplomat who falls in love with a Russian girl when he sees how well she looks after her old grandmother, who lives in the same tiny flat – virtually the same room – as the rest of the family. He is engaged to a Western girl who has put her parents in a nice home, and it occurs to him that she would treat him the same way if the need arose: and so he decides to marry Katenka, ‘a wife with whom I could calmly face sickness and old age’. Another story describes an Othello situation (itself from an Italian novella) in which a tough lesbian zek in a gulag, who has a timid and wholly faithful lesbian ‘wife’, is betrayed by another female zek whom she has ignored. This zek steals and wears the blue scarf the butch Othello has given to her Desdemona, and the girl is too frightened to admit she has lost it. She is stabbed by her jealous lover but survives, and the twist is that when she comes out of the camp hospital her Othello has got another girl and will have no more to do with her. The Desdemona can never prove she is innocent.

These stories are not masterpieces, but they exploit and develop a convention very successfully. They suggest an all too likely world, not necessarily a Russian one, in which human nature does not change, nor the position of women, nor their need to outwit men and protect themselves against them. The Russian background makes these facts stand out more starkly and in stronger moral relief. It may be, too, that the author is deliberately doing what Russian male writers used to do more unconsciously: showing that women are tougher and more resourceful than men, as well as nicer.