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'A living soul in a dead noose'

January 05, 2003|Cynthia Haven | Cynthia Haven writes for a number of publications, including the (London) Times Literary Supplement and the Georgia Review.

Earthly Signs

Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922

Marina Tsvetaeva

Translated from the Russian

by Jamey Gambrell

Yale University Press: 248 pp., $24.95

End of a Poet

The Last Days of Tsvetaeva

Irma Kudrova

Nezavisimaia Gazeta: 318 pp., $21.95

Marina Tsvetaeva stands at the cold, wind-swept pinnacle of 20th century Russian poetry. Yet she is the least known among Russia's famous four, a star cluster including Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak and Osip Mandelstam -- least known despite her 1916 love affair with Mandelstam, her euphoric three-way correspondence with Rainer Maria Rilke and Pasternak, and her camaraderie with Akhmatova.

We have scores of translations of her three contemporaries, but for Tsvetaeva, only Elaine Feinstein's Penguin edition is readily available. Why? The poet and artist Maximilian Alexandrovich Voloshin once said 10 poets coexisted in Tsvetaeva: Her syntax is notoriously difficult, her styles and idioms varied and innovative, ranging from fairy tales and folk rhythms to classic Russian meters and a high literary diction. As a result, Westerners must take her poetic reputation on faith. Her combination of narrative intensity, inventive and unpredictable prosody and sheer linguistic exuberance has proved impossible to replicate in another language. Perhaps she prophesied this fate when she wrote: "It makes no difference in which / Tongue passers-by won't comprehend me."

Tsvetaeva's life -- unrepeatable, complex, tragic beyond the usual maudlin cliches -- is little known too. After the revolution, Russian writers endured a suicidal roulette of exile, persecution, poverty, neglect and death. But for her, and her alone, there was a bullet in every chamber.

There was little in her childhood to augur such hardship. Her father was the founder of the Pushkin Museum. Her mother was a gifted musician. She spent her youth in Italy, Switzerland, Germany and France. She married the brooding, tubercular Sergei Efron in 1912. Although both his mother and father were revolutionaries, the idealistic Efron fought the Bolshevik forces with the White Army during Russia's Civil War. The White cause -- a last stand for believers in God and the tsar, as well as for those progressives who were simply anti-Bolshevik -- was a doomed banner. His decision sealed Tsvetaeva's fate.

This is the world of "Earthly Signs," Jamey Gambrell's attempted reconstruction of the prose collection that Tsvetaeva wanted desperately to publish in 1923. At the time, it was rejected as too political, which enraged her ("There's no politics in the book: there is passionate truth ...."). Today it sheds important light on Tsvetaeva's life during the civil war, all the more important since the previous and best-known collection of her prose in English, "Captive Spirit," mostly focuses on childhood memories.

Though Tsvetaeva herself described "Earthly Signs" as "a living soul in a dead noose," it is the life rather than the noose that strikes us here: the high-spirited attempt to make do with a sledful of moldering potatoes for winter food, the symbolic unwillingness to expunge the pre-revolutionary Cyrillic character yat from her alphabet, her reading of White Army poems to a communist auditorium, a gesture at once brave and "obviously insane," as she herself termed it.

After the consolidation of Bolshevik power, Tsvetaeva left Russia in 1922 to rejoin Efron, who had emigrated after the White Army dispersed. She lived in Berlin, Prague and finally Paris. Her foreign sojourn -- during which time she wrote the best of her poetry, including "Poem of the End," "Poem of the Mountain," "New Year's Greeting" and "Poem of the Air" -- ended abruptly in September 1937, when the Swiss police found the bullet-riddled corpse of a Soviet agent who had refused orders to return to Russia. Efron was implicated, even sighted (erroneously) in the car of the assassins. Unknown to Tsvetaeva, Efron, shattered by his war experiences, transferred his millenarian allegiances to the new order and became a Soviet agent. Her response when interrogated by the French police: "His trust might have been abused -- my trust in him remains unchanged."

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