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October 19, 1986|Jascha Kessler

MARINA TSVETAEVA: THE WOMAN, HER WORLD, AND HER POETRY by Simon Karlinsky (Cambridge University: 289 pp.; appendix on sources; indexed). The story of Marina Tsvetaeva is finally coming to be revealed. Born in 1892, dead in 1941, she lived through the cataclysms of three revolutions: 1905, February, 1917, and October, 1917. The first galvanized her society, the second delivered her culture from its bondage to the feudal past, the third delivered a civilization into the absolute darkness and hell of Bolshevik horror. Forty years after her (Russian poet's) life of extremes--of deep and fiery emotions, of labor and terrible suffering (not the least of which was her long exile and penury, the mistaken return to the Motherland resulting in humiliation, disaster and suicide--the work of a growing number of scholars and critics has made it possible to say that she is one of the few great poets of her language, even though much that should be available remains either heavily censored, unpublished or sealed up by the Soviets, who still fear and revile her spirit.

Karlinsky's critical biography draws a portrait of Tsvetaeva that places her before us for the first time as a turbulent woman fated to live in a turbulent world. She who said to the object of her last infatuation, "When I do not love I am not I," was driven by violent sexual passions (usually toward women--her choice of men, even such as Pasternak and Rilke, was characteristically unfortunate for her). Yet the poetry she wrote out of her exaltation and despair was, it seems, a triumph of genius: a music that incorporated old and new, novel and even unknown possibilities of the Russian language, linguistically coherent, and intellectually powerful and clear: features that have given her her "victory over time and gravity"--but that remain, alas, mostly unknown and unknowable in the too-few English translations of her work.

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