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Keeping the Voices Alive : UNDER A NEW SKY: A Reunion With Russia, By Olga Andreyev Carlisle (Ticknor & Fields: $24.95; 249 pp.)

March 21, 1993|RICHARD EDER

Olga Andreyev Carlisle, daughter of a family of Russian emigres, and granddaughter of the great writer Leonid Andreyev, made her first visit to Russia during the precarious Khrushchev thaw of the early 1960s. She visited Boris Pasternak, and though the Paris Review had commissioned an interview, that was not the true occasion of the meeting. Its true sense was that of a monarch receiving a long-separated daughter of his tragic dynasty.

In Russia, the notion of a kingdom of letters has always been a tangible one. The czar's kingdom fell, but this one, for all the effort of the 50-year dictatorship to corrupt and assassinate it, never really did. The dynasty went on, even though some of its towering figures--Osip Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetaeva--perished; others--Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova--suffered atrociously and had to keep public silence; still others--Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky--were forced into exile.

A three-fold sense of kingdom is maintained throughout Carlisle's beautiful and moving account of her contact with Russia and Russian writers over the past 30 years. There is the splendor of the domain, which Carlisle conveys by interweaving the poets and their poetry. There is their royal idea of themselves and their mission. And there is the sense of family, so different from the literary world in the West. Family in its intimacy, and also in the quarrels that had the bitterness of kinship and the larger anger of kingly cousins disputing the fate of their realms.

Carlisle's meeting with Pasternak, like so many encounters in the book, was marked by the intimate acceptance and availability that Russians extend to friends or relatives or anyone sent on their behalf. She was Leonid's granddaughter; the daughter of Vadia, a poet and friend; the niece of Daniel, another poet. She was family. She was also, figuratively, an earl's daughter. When a kingdom is under attack, earls' daughters are given missions. Hers was to let the outside world know that Stalin and two generations of official literature had not killed the real thing.

This was 1960. "Doctor Zhivago" had not yet appeared, and Solzhenitsyn had not published. The poetry of Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva, which kept alive the ideals of the dissident writing community even though the poets were dead, was little known in the West. Hardly anybody abroad knew that Akhmatova had kept writing through decades of silence and suffering, and had just produced some of her greatest work.

Delicately, Pasternak indicated that Carlisle should bring the news out. More imperially, seven years later, Solzhenitsyn turned up at an intimate Moscow gathering, walked her home and told her that she should get "The First Circle" translated and published in the United States. Her parents, living in Scandinavia, had a smuggled text. Later, a brother would smuggle out "The Gulag Archipelago."

Carlisle had planned to be a painter. Instead, married to an American book editor, she was to be not only an important agent in bringing Russian writers to the West but also, through her translations and essays, a voice through which they were heard. I am sure I am only one of many American readers who first became aware of Mandelstam through the shock of reading a page of his poems in the New York Review of Books at least 25 years ago, in a joint translation by Carlisle and Robert Lowell.

"Under a New Sky" tells of these things through the visits Carlisle made to Russia between 1960 and 1967, after which her activities on behalf of banned writers, and the ending of the Soviet thaw, made her a prohibited visitor. It was only in 1989, with glasnost in full swing, that she was able to return.

By that time, Pasternak, Akhmatova, Nadezhda Mandelstam and other survivors of the heroic age were gone--and so was the oppression they had stood against. Carlisle found the new times exhilarating. Staying with relatives, she would spend days incredulously watching televised denunciations of the communist era, delivered at the Congress of Peoples Deputies. She took part in an Akhmatova commemoration and symposium, and attended a Jewish film festival that was put on despite resistance. At the Writers and Film Makers Clubs, once the privileged quarters of official hacks, she met long-banned artists.

There was unease as well. There was the anger, the confusion, the chaotic economy. Her nephews and nieces, all intellectuals, were profoundly pessimistic about the reforms. Having no experience of the Terror, they were less grateful for the new freedom than they were furious at its limitations; and depressed, as well, about their own prospects. Carlisle found fear: of deprivation, disorder, a return to dictatorship and, above all, of a nationalistic, quasi-fascist, antisemitic current in some political and intellectual life.

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