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.

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