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Shards of Russian History : MY HALF CENTURY: Selected Prose, By Anna Akhmatova edited by Ronald Meyer. (Ardis: $39.95; 439 pp.)

March 21, 1993|Susan Salter Reynolds | Reynolds is an assistant editor of Book Review

On the morning of May 13, 1934, Anna Akhmatova and Nadezhda Mandelstam began to clean up the scattered books and papers left by the agents who had arrested Nadezhda's husband, the poet Osip Mandelstam, the night before. While some papers, including the incriminating poem about Stalin ("And every killing is a treat/for the broad-chested Ossete") had already been smuggled out by friends and visitors, one pile still lay by the door. "Don't touch it," said Akhmatova. Nadezhda, trusting the instincts of her friend, left the papers on the floor. "Ah," said the senior police agent, back for a surprise visit, "you still haven't tidied up."

This instinct for survival, what Nadezhda Mandelstam later called her "Russian powers of endurance," kept Akhmatova alive through some of the cruelest decades known to Russian writers. In 1921, her husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilyov, from whom she had been separated for three years, was arrested and executed. Her son Lev Gumilyov was arrested three times, exiled, and spent years of his life in prison for being her son. The great writers of the century, her friends, suffered and died under Stalin. The poet Marina Tsvetaeva hanged herself in 1941; Osip Mandelstam died en route to a labor camp in 1938. Akhmatova herself was "annihilated" in 1919, which meant that she could not publish; resurrected in 1939 by Stalin, only to be annihilated again in 1946 after several visits from Isaiah Berlin in 1945. She was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers with the enduring epithet: "half nun, half harlot."

Los Angeles Times Sunday April 4, 1993 Home Edition Book Review Page 10 Book Review Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
At the end of our Akhmatova roundup (March 21), we mistakenly claimed that Nadezhda Mandelstam's "Hope Against Hope" was out of print. In fact, it is available from Atheneum for $12.95.

This resolution was not rescinded until 1988, when Akhmatova, dead for 22 years, was again rehabilitated, making available, for the first time, much of her prose; previously censored studies, essays, and sketches. Ardis Press, long a faithful friend of Russian literature, has now published the most complete collection of her prose in the volume "My Half Century: Selected Prose."

This is not the relaxed, purgative activity that continental memoir-writing is supposed to be. She was, after all, a lifetime poet, telling Kornei Chukovsky in 1921: "I don't know how to write prose." She believed, as Emma Gershtein writes in the afterword, that "human memory works like a projector, illuminating individual moments, while leaving the rest in impenetrable darkness." What you get is a bit of a difficult read, sustained by curiosity about Akhmatova, and admiration for her. If there is any doubt in your mind about this, or you falter along the way, simply turn to her 1914 collection of poems entitled "Rosary" and consider this quote: "Today I see you," wrote Osip Mandelstam of Akhmatova in 1910, "a black angel in the snow,/and I cannot keep this secret to myself,/God's mark is upon you. . . . "

While Ahkmatova's notebooks contain partial outlines and plans for her memoirs, she did not live to complete them. She wrote that she modeled her effort, however, on the autobiographies of Pasternak ("Safe Conduct," 1931) and Mandelstam ("Noise of Time," 1922-23), both written in a certain fragmentary style. And fragments are appropriate memorials for lives lived in Russia in the 1920s, '30s and '40s, though Akhmatova describes the frustration of this style in a section called "Random Notes": "I notice that what I'm writing isn't quite right: I have almost ten subjects on two pages and everything is very inconsistent, as they like to put it nowadays."

Indeed, the voice throughout the fragments, many of which were written in the late 1950s and early 1960s, is an ornery old-lady voice. Like a real grande dame, Akhmatova repeats herself, tells stories in which she is admired by individuals and crowds, in which her beauty is mythologized, and in which her detractors are drawn and quartered with downright academic precision.

Writing her memoirs was also a historical burden. "I'm surrounded by the past and it is demanding something from me," she wrote in 1957. What it was demanding of her, it seems, was the need to clarify a period in Russia's literary history that was mercilessly and whimsically perverted by various regimes. Of course she sounds defensive! Of course she sounds petty! Who said what to whom in 1919 or 1945, random comments in journals could mean literal or figurative annihilation. Akhmatova labored, as Olga Carlisle writes in her memoir "Under a New Sky" (reviewed on Page 3), to correct the misperception spread internationally by the Stalin regime that Russia's greatest poets (the ones they'd annihilated) had not been heard from because they had simply "lost their poetic voices in the twenties."

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