Tsvetaeva’s Turn

Simon Karlinsky

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

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.

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