On not liking Tsvetaeva

Clarence Brown

                              One woman
Makes the rest look down.

Wallace Stevens

I’ve never much liked Tsvetaeva. A churlish way to begin: I do so simply because I think that, in not liking her very much, I am at one not only with much of her posterity but with almost all her contemporaries. On the way to hazarding some unpopular views, it is not bad to begin with one that is, if unacknowledged, widespread.

No one realised better the effect she created than Tsvetaeva herself. Emerging from a spoiled love affair with Konstantin Rodzevich, she wrote to a confidant, A.V. Bakhrakh: ‘To be loved is an art that I have never mastered.’ Again, in a brief autobiographical note, she wrote of her much earlier self: ‘of me Mother was proud; the other one she loved.’ She sought love all her life, or wished to believe she did, but her self-absorption amounted almost to contempt for the love of others.

Still, not liking Tsvetaeva is a grave embarrassment. Indeed, part of one’s dislike must surely derive from resentment at her making one feel so guilty. Even more unbearable is finding oneself, however marginally, in the camp of the swinish Zelinsky, who in an ‘internal review’ (a device of the furtive informer in the state publishing empire) denounced her work as unsuitable for Soviet eyes.

Marina Tsvetaeva is one of the three or four very greatest poets of modern Russia – pace the new $125 Columbia Encyclopaedia, where she is not mentioned, even in a list – and one of its most original and discerning critics. She was a woman of extraordinary moral courage, of courage tout court, with a determination to live her own life in hell’s despite that is probably unmatched in recent experience. She reminds one in many ways of Simone Weil. Certainly the combination of poetic genius of this magnitude with these qualities is unique. The aim of Weil’s life was justice on some cosmic scale; of Tsvetaeva’s it was poetry.

Yet it is true that even as one reads of the truly savage treatment accorded her by the Russian émigré community in Paris, one helplessly sympathises with them. If by some miracle one could undo the tragedy of Tsvetaeva’s suicide in 1941 and bring her back to earth to finish her allotted time, one might still, on seeing her approach, cross to the other side of the street. She was simply, in life, bad news. She was a baffling combination of vulnerable and vainglorious woman, with children whom she adored and could hardly feed (an infant daughter died of starvation), with a child-man of a husband to whom she was slavishly devoted – like a dog, in her own words – though it was his muddleheaded political adventurism that brought about her fatal return to Soviet Russia and death; but she wrote like a man.

In the outrageous end of that sentence, you see another reason for disliking her. It is impossible to write about her without risking the fury that will greet such a thought, which half of her readers might silently entertain but only Martians would today express. Like a man? Furious hands will shoot up throughout the audience: how exactly is it that ‘a man’ writes? Explain in detail, even if it means abandoning the present essay. I can’t. I don’t know. But the bone-breaking drumbeat, the hoof-clatter, the verbless, pounding onslaught, the sibilant clash of pitiless nouns, the riflebutt battering at the door, the syntax twisted like the horse’s neck at Guernica, the general deafeningness – this is not, one somehow desperately feels, unmanly.

This is not how Sophia Parnok, the lesbian with whom Tsvetaeva had a passionate brief fling, wrote. Not how Akhmatova wrote, not even in the ‘martial’ poems with which she sought to stiffen Soviet spines during Hitler’s invasion. Not how Karolina Pavlova, a contemporary of Pushkin’s and a forerunner treasured by Tsvetaeva, wrote. Those who write about Tsvetaeva are given to seeking out images of violence and coercion: an excellent recent article by Claudia Roth Pierpont in the New Yorker was entitled ‘The Rage of Aphrodite’. Her prose is collected under the rubric A Captive Spirit; her best translator, Elaine Feinstein, took a line of hers, ‘A captive lion’, as the title of a fine biography.

Tsvetaeva wrote like a man. Now that I’ve written it twice, it seems less scary. She wrote like a violent man, enraged by captivity, as her best chroniclers imply, male and female. What, really, makes the recognition of this so terrifying to begin with? If a musician listening to a tape can tell whether the fingers on the keys are black or white, should one tremble to acknowledge that the live voice, instantly distinguishable as male or female, leaves its imprint on the page? Russian is a language in which, given the laws of grammatical concordance, the lyrical ‘I’ must declare its gender all over the page. I remember Anna Akhmatova’s exasperation when she found, in an American edition of her work that I had just smuggled in and presented to her, an alien poem, not by her. ‘Is muzhskogo litsa!’ – ‘and spoken by a male persona!’ she said. This was too much. Tsvetaeva, who did not share his politics, admired the strength (her expression) of Mayakovsky’s poetry. For my money, Mayakovsky’s verse is a species of nervous, adolescent chest-beating next to her onslaught on the reader’s sensibilities.

But if she wrote like a man, she also wrote like a woman, with a woman’s tenderness, a woman’s clairvoyance and a woman’s strength. That ruined love affair with Rodzevich, who died in 1988 (after a career with the KGB, according to Viktoria Schweitzer), produced the Poem of the End, an anguished memorial to failed love which no one would attribute to a male consciousness and that not even Akhmatova, the poet laureate of doomed affection, could have equalled.

Like a man, and like a woman. Should I make up my mind? Impossible. She never made up her own mind, nor did she see the need. I seem to hear her scorn now for the waffling about, trying to assign her work to gender categories. The attempt is itself, in her terms, a category mistake.

She made a crucial distinction between two realms neatly named in Russian as byt and bytie, and all but untranslatable into English without the clumsiest of periphrases. The original Russian title of Viktoria Schweitzer’s book was Byt i bytie Mariny Tsvetaevoy; in a note to the English translation Angela Living-stone plausibly explains why this was abandoned in favour of the simple name: could it possibly have been translated as ‘The Living and Being of Marina Tsvetaeva’? Or ‘Marina Tsvetaeva: Her Everyday Existence and Her Higher – or Inner – Being’? Or ‘Day-to-Day Detail and the Experience of the Real’? For Tsvetaeva nothing could have been simpler. Byt, the daily grind, where people wrote like men or like women, was something to be endured, detested and railed against; bytie was the place where one was, and wrote, as Dante or Goethe or Tsvetaeva. Byt was what killed Mayakovsky, and we have his suicide note as proof; in the end only Marina Tsvetaeva could kill Marina Tsvetaeva.

One dislikes Tsvetaeva because, no matter in what time one tries to come at her, she has already left that time (and you) behind – it was after all merely byt – and has created for herself one of the futures. Mandelstam held, in his essay ‘On the Interlocutor’, that the only worthy audience conceivable to a poet was the reader in the future. Tsvetaeva wished, and thought it possible, to write from there. Across the typescript of the book that was ‘assassinated’ in November 1940 by Zelinsky, one of whose ritual charges was to accuse her of being a ‘formalist’, she wrote: ‘A man capable of labelling these poems formalist simply has no conscience. I say this from the future.’

Her Tolstoyan fury against all labelling, including gender roles, bristles from a line in The Ratcatcher, a masterpiece of narrative invective based on the folktale of the Pied Piper: ‘girls wear and boys hunt.’ The Pied Piper was clearly a version (male) of herself, saving the children so that they would not be condemned to the dreams of the good burghers, and even their animals: the wife dreams of her husband, the baby of a teat, and the dog not even of a bone but of its collar. She recognised her collar, but never made it the object of sweet dreams. Dog-like she may have been in her devotion to her husband, Sergei Efron, but the only thing that ever truly concerned her was, as she herself wrote, to make human speech convey the inarticulate noises of instinctive emotion. The phatic protolanguage of the groan and the scream and the snarl had to be spelt in Cyrillic letters.

What strikes a reader of Tsvetaeva’s poetry is, first, that it is like no other, and, second, that it is dangerous. You might dislocate your jaw, for one thing, or snap the string of the larynx, but you might also soon come to the end of your Russian vocabulary and your acquaintance with Russian history and above all folklore. ‘Hysteria’ was a common term of dismissal. On one level, it can be easy to translate, though the English, any English, tends to look like pale lemon jelly next to the megaphonic granite and barbed wire of the original. I know: granite and barbed wire have no voice, but in Tsvetaeva they do. In an invaluable note ‘On working method’ by Angela Livingstone, appended to the translations by Elaine Feinstein in the Selected Poems (1983), one finds a litany of lessness: ‘On the whole, the English versions are consciously less emphatic, less loudly-spoken, less violent, often less jolting and disturbing than the Russian originals.’

Readers of Feinstein’s generally splendid versions will often wonder how they could possibly be more emphatic or violent. Poetry itself was a species of suicide before the real thing:

I opened my veins. Unstoppably
life spurts out with no remedy.
Now I set out bowl and plates.
Every bowl will be shallow.
Every plate will be small.
              And overflowing their rims,
into the black earth, to nourish
the rushes unstoppably
without care, gushes
poetry.

If Feinstein’s are the best poems on the basis of Marina Tsvetaeva’s, the best translations are often the plain prose trots by scholars like Simon Karlinsky and Michael Makin which sometimes achieve a rough vernacular rightness by being simply true.

Kto ne prokis – okrys’sja!
If you’re not rotten – turn rat! (Makin)

Tsvetaeva has been as fortunate in her post-humous fate as she was wretchedly unlucky in life. Until the recent dissolution of the Soviet empire it was scarcely possible to write adequately about her on her native soil. In the West, her recovery from obscurity began in 1966 with the magisterial study by Simon Karlinsky, Marina Cvetaeva: Her Life and Art. All subsequent work has been in the debt of this book, reticent though it had to be concerning a few still-living people, and limited though it was by the inaccessibility of some of Tsvetaeva’s poetry. Bowing to a triumphant if less precise transliteration, Karlinsky published a second monograph a score of years later: Marina Tsvetaeva: The Woman, Her World and Her Poetry (1985). This is free of all the rigours and elaborations of priority and can afford the relaxations of urbanity.

Michael Makin’s Marina Tsvetaeva: Poetics of Appropriation is an invaluable answer to what Osip Mandelstam declared the only interesting question to be asked about a poet: where does he come from? The book is like an extended footnote to a remark of Karlinsky’s that the one thing she (like Shakespeare) never attempted was to invent a plot.

In Tsvetaeva’s case the topic of re-writing – essentially endless, given that all literature derives in some sense from earlier literature – demands more tact and judgment than usual. Makin’s study of what she made of what she received from the tradition produces masterful readings of such major works as The Ratcatcher. He ingeniously observes, for instance, that this long poem savages its subjects and literary sources in just the same way that the Piper himself treats the comfortable burghers of Hameln. His book must ex hypothesi illuminate major works of a different kind, such as Poem of the End, which is narrative in tendency, though it has no real plot aside from the emotional trauma of the doomed affair. It is a slight strain to say that this, too, is an appropriation of sorts, if only of the universal metaphor of the journey, yet even about this Makin has highly useful things to say.

One strategy for the Russianless reader might be to approach Tsvetaeva through her prose. This would be a means of encountering the unique voice in a medium that requires less in the way of imaginative acrobatics and intuition from her readers. J. Marin King’s excellent translation of her prose is available in Marina Tsvetaeva: A Captive Spirit, first published by Ardis in 1980 and then in London by Virago in 1983.

Incomparably the best succinct introduction to the poetry is Joseph Brodsky’s extraordinary close reading of one poem, ‘A New Year’s Greeting’, which appeared first in Russian and was then translated for his book of essays Less Than One (1986). Entitled with deceptive modesty ‘Footnote to a Poem’, this is an introduction not only to Tsvetaeva’s work but also to Brodsky’s, and is a splendid monument to the kind of enlightening criticism that is fast becoming extinct.

The best general introduction to Marina Tsvetaeva’s life is that by Viktoria Schweitzer. First published in Russian in Paris in 1988, it has now been thoughtfully abridged and splendidly rendered into English. Every other study of her, whatever its merits, is from the outside. Only Schweitzer deals with the poet and her work from the inside – from the lived experience of a 20th-century Russian woman, and a Muscovite into the bargain. I first met Viktoria Schweitzer in Moscow in 1966, shortly after she had been sacked from her job at the Union of Writers because of her complicity in the Sinyavsky-Daniel affair. So absorbed was she even then in collecting every scrap, every photograph, of Marina Tsvetaeva that her personal troubles scarcely fazed her. No one, not even Karlinsky, can match Schweitzer for an empathy with Tsvetaeva, amounting almost to identity. There could be no coign of vantage like the bowels of the citadel of Soviet literary conformity and repression from which to assess the poet’s perils and triumphs in her native country.

As for her life abroad, Schweitzer tends somewhat magnanimously to exonerate the émigré community from the worst charges, even from its own self-accusation, and points to the plain and far from irrelevant fact that Tsvetaeva published abundantly and, it goes without saying, with much greater freedom than she would have enjoyed in the Soviet Union.

Schweitzer begins with a trip to Elabuga, the town where Tsvetaeva hanged herself. She chats to an old couple who had rented a corner to the strange woman. She visits not the grave but the general area where the grave most likely is. The tone is direct, intimate, the scene quietly registered for a reader who is free to make of it what he will. The authority of the writer is not insisted on. The result is an endlessly absorbing account of one of the most extraordinary literary lives of our time. Schweitzer makes me understand Tsvetaeva better than I ever have. For this I am much obliged. It is a beginning.