Anna of All The Russias: A Biography of Anna Akhmatova

by Elaine Feinstein
322 pages,
ISBN: 0297643096

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Anna, The Great
by Patrick Watson

Late in 1988, UNESCO declared that the following year would be known as The Year of Anna Akhmatova, the centennial of the great Russian poet's birth. When she died, early in 1966, having lived through the last years of the Romanovs, through the Kerensky revolution, through Lenin and Stalin and two World Wars, she was recognized not only as one of the greatest Russian poets of the century, but also as one of the really significant poets of the modern world.
Through the worst tyranny of the Stalin years, poets and novelists who dared to speak some version of the truth often disappeared. Akhmatova's first husband Nikolay Gumilyov was shot because his name was associated with an alleged treasonous plot. Their son Lev, an historian, spent years in the Gulag, supposedly because of a conspiracy against the Communist Party head in Leningrad, but probably because he was his father's son-and perhaps his mother's too.
But Anna Akhmatova survived, and strangely, given what happened to so many of her colleagues, was never even sent to prison. As late as 1922, she was celebrated in Pravda as "the greatest living poet" (oddly, Feinstein does not mention this). But later the same year, Trotsky attacked her, also in Pravda, and soon things began to get very nasty. She stood in line for weeks outside the prisons that held her dear ones. She was often desperately hungry. Andre Zhdanov (the Leningrad Party leader whom the poet's son was supposed to have plotted to kill) attacked her work shortly after the end of World War II, calling her "both nun and whore, with her petty, narrow private life, her trivial experiences, and her religious-mystical eroticism."As a result of this attack her ration card from the Writers' Union was cancelled, as was her pension. Her poetry was banned, nobody would hire her, and she slept for months in a corridor of a friend's apartment, often close to starvation. She went through three hideous marriages and dozens, if not hundreds, of wrenching affairs (largely with poets). For years, during the ban, she dared not write down her new poems, but memorized them instead, and asked friends to memorize parts, just in case. She had tuberculosis, a bad heart, and a succession of other disabling diseases. Yet she survived. Half a dozen times she gave up on poetry in despair, yet always came back to it again, calling it "the Word that causes death's defeat." Reading Elaine Feinstein's clumsy new biography of the great poet one feels that in Akhmatova's case it was indeed the poetry, in the end, that held death at bay and conquered many enemies.
She was born near Odessa in 1899, and christened Anna Andreevna Gorenko. Akhmatova was taken from the name of a legendary Tatar princess. Anna had shown early signs of her poetic gifts, and her father insisted that she take a nom de plume as it was not seemly for him to be the father of a female poet. At that time, women just did not write poetry.
Still, this was Russia, a country where men and women who wrote and recited poetry were as much admired as movie stars would later be. Anna Andreevna hung out with poets, actors, and dancers at a sort of literary pub called The Stray Dog. She would, over her long life, become friends with, and win the admiration of, almost every Russian whose name resonated in the literary world: Blok, Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn. She married one eminent poet, and then another, and slept with a great many more. In Paris she became close to, and was drawn in the nude by Modigliani. After the World War II, Isaiah Berlin, on a diplomatic posting to Russia, talked with her nonstop for almost twenty-four hours, a day she later would credit with changing the world and which undoubtedly transformed Berlin himself ("I am in love!" he told a friend). Almost twenty years later Berlin arranged for her to be awarded an honorary doctorate at Oxford (1965). She was permitted to go to the ceremony. It was the year before she died. There is a photo of her there, by then fat, sick, unrecognizable. Siegfried Sassoon is in the same photo, standing just behind her.
In the dreary part of the 21st-century literary cosmos now dominated by the more extreme voices of deconstructionism (voices whose dismissal of the idea of meaning will, I believe, eventually render them meaningless and leave them forgotten), Akhmatova is ridiculed, as is her life-risking determination to keep alive a poetic voice that at least maintained some distance from Stalin's ruthless tyranny. This was a determination that cost her dearly and demanded a spiritually exhausting combination of subtlety and steadiness, but it worked. Stalin had to recognize that she had a huge constituency, and that attacking her might be imprudent. In 1935 her son Lev was arrested for the second time, as was her former lover Nikolay Punin, who had been overheard making a careless joke about shooting Stalin. Akhmatova wrote to Stalin, "Much respected Iosif Vissarionovich," and found a friend sufficiently highly placed to go with her to the Kremlin and get the letter into the dictator's hands. Pasternak wrote a supporting letter the same day. In the archives today is Akhmatova's letter, with Stalin's scribbled note across it, "free from detention both Punin and Gumilyov."
Her life is an inspiring one, and the poems, even in translation, are still inspiring. In Anna of All The Russias Elaine Feinstein has done her own translations of segments of the poems, a few of them fairly extensive, and they are as good as I have read anywhere. Her rendering of Akhmatova's lines on the death of Boris Pasternak begins:

Yesterday a voice no one could imitate
Fell silent; he who spoke to forests has abandoned us.

I find this cleaner than the Hemschemeyer version in the standard Complete Poems, (1990):

Yesterday the inimitable voice fell silent
And he who conversed with the groves abandoned us.

Although I am not a speaker of Russian, Feinstein's versions carry an authentic whiff of what I have come to think of as the Akhmatova voice, convincing, absorbing, evocative in their deceptive simplicity:

I brought destruction on those I loved
and one after another they all died.

This is my sorrow. I foretold
their graves in my own words.
It was as if my wild love songs
Were ravens, circling and smelling out
The hot, fresh blood they desired.

Now it is warm and sweet to be with you.
You are as close as my own heart,
but give me your hands, listen carefully.
I warn you: go far away from me.

And don't let me know where you are.
Given the simple, lucid elegance of the translated poems, it is puzzling that the same writer's prose is so awkward, riddled with redundant shapeless and graceless sentences, and a pervasive carelessness with simple narrative clarity. Here's an example of the kind of thing I feel reveals an indifference to the relationship between words and the events they are meant to represent. Feinstein writes of the Great War in 1917: "Almost a million soldiers began to desert between March and October and added to the general confusion." What does that mean? How do you begin to desert? Did they finish what they began? How do we know that it is just a beginning, and not the whole thing? If they began between March and October, when did they finish?
Perhaps I am being petulant and deliberately provocative. We know what she probably meant. But a little reflection might have produced, say, "In March soldiers began to desert en masse, and by October almost a million were gone." Feinstein had a substantial commercial success with her biographies of Pushkin and of Ted Hughes. Perhaps she intimidates her editors. There are several other points where Feinstein uses 'began' in a similarly confusing way, and it is irritating. There's more: The page dealing with the death of Boris Pasternak, with the lines about that "voice no one could imitate" is a puzzling page because most of is not about Pasternak at all, or about their relationship, but about Akhamatova's rivalry with the other famous woman poet, Tsvetaeva, and her feelings about still another poet, Osip Mandelstam. It's bewildering.
Feinstein is very much given to telling us that things are unclear. Or she will write that while a lot of people feel that Akhmatova was (say) jealous of the poet N, others say that she was not. What the author concludes is, well, unclear. Similarly, Feinstein picks her way through much of the poet's life with notes, such as, on Friday she had coffee with Y, and later that afternoon slept at Z's house, and was seen on Nevsky Prospekt the next day. There are lists of insignificant detail by which the author perhaps hoped to build a sense of texture and of immediacy, but which often end up simply making us question why they are there.
Akhmatova was born on St. John's Eve (June 23rd) 1889, and Feinstein says that the popular practice of jumping over bonfires on that holiday was a purification ceremony "instituted by the Orthodox Church." But we have ample evidence of the St. John's Eve fire-jumping tradition in Britain centuries earlier, long before Britain and Russia had any cultural contact; so probably it's a pagan leftover. This isn't in itself a matter of great consequence, but a bit later when we find Feinstein totally confused and confusing about the Hitler-Stalin pact and how it ended-or indeed whether it ended-we begin to mistrust her historical acumen.
Having said all of this, I will concede that Anna of All The Russias appears to be a useful assembly of detail about the life of a poet who should be much more widely known in the English-speaking world. The account of those oppressive days when poets feared to write anything down and kept their own and their friends' works in their heads is more vivid and compelling than in the massive 1994 biography by Roberta Reeder. (Though it is odd that Feinstein does not include the story of the poet Vinogradov, reciting to the elderly Akhmatova poems that she had once read to him from a notebook. In the terrible secrecy days she had burned the notebook and forgotten those poems, but he had taken the trouble to memorize some of them.)
Readers who have already come to admire Akhmatova will want to take the time to wade through this book, despite the clumsiness. But I suspect those same admirers would be better served if Feinstein would give up on biography and do her own translation of the complete works.

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