Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, March 19, 2006

ANNA OF ALL THE RUSSIAS

A Life of Anna Akhmatova

By Elaine Feinstein

Knopf. 331 pp. $27.50

"There are four of us," wrote Anna Akhmatova, in one of her last poems. That "four" refers to Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva, Boris Pasternak and herself, universally regarded as the greatest poets of Soviet Russia. Alas, since mere genius could accord no protection, each of them ended up the victim of their evil government. Mandelstam (1891-1938) died of malnutrition, overwork and illness in one of Stalin's camps. A broken Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) hanged herself in despair. The relatively lucky Pasternak (1890-1960) was able to bring out his novel Dr. Zhivago only in the West and was afterwards forced to refuse the capitalist-perverted Nobel Prize. As for Akhmatova (1889-1966), she was simply banned from publishing anything for more than 40 years.

What a waste! What a stupid, terrible waste! After all, between roughly 1910 and 1930 these four, and their equally gifted peers in the other arts, revolutionized poetry, fiction, drama, music, dance -- and not only for Russia, but for the world. And then, almost as suddenly, they were silenced, in some instances permanently by a firing squad, as was Akhmatova's first husband, the great Acmeist poet Nikolay Gumilyov (1886-1921). Moreover, even as purges and terror destroyed the artists themselves, the Communist Party-imposed doctrine of "socialist realism" gradually narrowed the acceptable range of all creative expression to the uplifting, didactic and dull. Not until the 1960s (and later) was Russian literature again worth reading, when much of the best to appear included novels secretly scribbled down during the Stalin years, such as Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita (1966-67), or poems carefully memorized by friends, like Akhmatova's book-length elegy for the 1930s, Requiem (1988). "That was when the ones who smiled/Were the dead, glad to be at rest."

For many, Requiem represents the Akhmatova that we know best -- the voice of suffering Russia, the vilified poet who stood 300th in line "in bitter cold . . . under that blind red wall," to find out news of her imprisoned son, who burned her manuscripts lest they incriminate friends or family, who was there on the evening when the secret police first arrested Mandelstam. Through luck and charity she herself managed to survive near starvation, bouts of tuberculosis, heart ailments, the loss of almost everything that matters in a human life: "So much to do today:/kill memory, kill pain,/turn heart into a stone,/and yet prepare to live again." Only in her old age did Akhmatova grow round-cheeked and matronly, a grandmotherly stada baba , surrounded by young men, like Anatoly Naiman and Joseph Brodsky, who dreamed of becoming poets. By then, history had made her a symbol, the sole relict of a great and doomed literary generation.

But, as Elaine Feinstein shows us in this enthralling, anecdote-rich biography, Akhmatova wasn't this sort of political figure, except by necessity, nor was she always quite so velichavaya (stately or majestic). She was, in Brodsky's fine precis, "essentially a poet of human ties: cherished, strained, severed. She showed these evolutions through the prism of the individual heart, then through the prism of history." Throughout her life, she was very much a passionate woman -- and could even call her young self "the naughtiest girl of Pushkin's town."

Virginia Woolf famously remarked that the world changed on or around 1910. In Russia, the tall and slender, beautiful but somewhat imperious Anna Akhmatova was the leading lady of that change, the finest love-poet of her generation. She could be stunningly direct and sensual, startlingly bold: "Don't you love me or want to look at me?/O, you are so handsome, damn you." "I've put on my tightest skirt/To look even more svelte." "But raising his dry hand/He lightly brushed the flowers:/'Tell me, how do men kiss you, Tell me how you kiss.' " "You are drinking my soul through a straw." "With a hand almost not trembling/Once again he touched my knees."

Alexander Blok (1880-1921), the leading poet of the previous generation, said of this early poetry that Akhmatova "writes verse as if she is standing in front of a man." And not, it would seem, just standing. Sometimes her poems hint at a taste for masochism. Certainly, the artistic crowd at the legendary St. Petersburg cabaret The Stray Dog could rival even contemporary Bloomsbury in its sexual freedoms.

"We're all drunkards, here, and harlots," Akhmatova once proclaimed, just as she later announced that "the institution of divorce was the best thing mankind ever invented." Open marriages, gay couples, bisexuals, strings of lovers, menages á trois -- Akhmatova and her friends tried them all. "Forgive me" she coolly wrote to one lover, "for so often mistaking/other people for you." In Evening (1912), Rosary (1914), and White Flock (1917), the poet transmuted both her serious affairs and passing fancies into lyrics of permanent beauty.

The young Anna (nee Gorenko) was a privileged tomboy, who grew into a free-spirited schoolgirl (losing her virginity at 16), and then an even more free-spirited woman. In 1910 she married the poet Nikolay Gumilyov, keeping her pen name of Anna Akhmatova. The marriage wasn't a happy one, and both soon started affairs on the side. Even on her honeymoon in Paris, the young bride met a then unknown painter named Modigliani, with whom she would walk in the Luxembourg gardens, for whom she would buy roses, for whom she would pose in the nude.

While Gumilyov was away for six months trekking through Abyssinia, his new wife started to work seriously at her poems. When Akhmatova showed her notebooks to her husband, Gumilyov was astonished and immediately found a publisher. Soon the two, in company with their friend Mandelstam, were promulgating a new poetry of clarity, sharpness and simplicity, which they labeled Acmeism. Meanwhile, Anna gave birth to her son Lev in 1912, left him in the care of his grandmother, fell in love with a painter, amicably divorced, married an Assyriologist (who introduced her ex-husband's translation of Gilgamesh), carried on several affairs, lived with a composer and an actress, and wrote, wrote, wrote, even as World War I, the October Revolution and the Civil War were gradually destroying the fabric of society and civility. "By early 1917," Feinstein notes, "the average woman was spending around forty hours a week in line for necessities"; by the 1920s the economy was in ruins and people were starving.

Akhmatova, though tough, was hardly what you'd call handy or competent. She couldn't light a fire and never really worked at anything but the writer's trade. (During her years of silence she earned a little money from perfunctory translation, anything from Rubens's letters to Korean poetry.) In the mid-1920s she hooked up with a married art professor named Vladimir Punin, who confessed in his diary, "I don't know anyone in whom there has lived such a large and pure angel, in such a dark and sinful body." Eventually, Punin gave Akhmatova a room in his small apartment, where she lived not only with him but also with his unhappy wife and young daughter.

About this time, her son suddenly re-entered Akhmatova's life. After years of neglect, it's little wonder that the 16-year-old Lev wasn't especially fond of his mother. And never would be. During the years when he was exiled in Siberia, largely because he bore the name of the traitor Gumilyov, Lev convinced himself that the great poet wasn't doing enough to help alleviate his sufferings. In truth, Akhmatova appealed to officials, wrote letters, stood in queues, threw herself "at the hangman's feet," and eventually (in the early 1950s) produced some blatantly servile poems in praise of Stalin. Despite all this effort, Lev wasn't completely rehabilitated until 1956, after having spent more than half his adult life in exile.

At the end of the 1930s, Akhmatova finally broke with Punin for a doctor, enjoyed a brief respite from critical neglect during the days of the Hitler-Stalin pact, learned that Mandelstam had died (a correspondent cautiously wrote, "Our friend Nadya is widowed") and then chose to remain in Leningrad when the Germans invaded. For some mysterious reason, she was among those the government airlifted out to Tashkent, where she spent the war years. In that central Asian city she drank heavily, wrote about those who suffered during the purges, composed a play (that she destroyed out of fear), and eventually began Poem Without a Hero , a phantasmagorical dream-vision about 1913 and a world that had vanished forever, except in her memory. "Bonfires warmed the Christmas holidays,/And carriages slid off the bridges. . . ."

In the mid-1940s the Russian-born philosopher Isaiah Berlin, "the guest from the future," managed to call on her, and the two spent a night discussing art, poetry and exiled acquaintances. Unfortunately, Stalin decided that this "half nun, half harlot" was now consorting with English spies, and over the next decade she was again blacklisted. Only in the late 1950s, after Khrushchev attacked the excesses of the Stalin era, did Akhmatova find her writings rediscovered and openly honored. She was eventually awarded a government pension and even a little dacha in the country, where she passed sedentary days with a stream of visitors, eager to see the living legend. A late fragment reads "Pray, at night, that you won't/Awake to sudden fame."

Feinstein has written a highly engaging biography of this great poet and determined woman, a fine companion volume to her previous life of Marina Tsvetaeva. It makes a superb introduction to Akhmatova and her world. Nonetheless, Roberta Reeder's Anna Akhmatova: Po et and Prophet remains a fuller, more scholarly life, albeit somewhat daunting in its detail. Readers wishing to explore the poetry will find many different selections and translations, but none can truly replace The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova , translated by Judith Hemschemeyer -- handsomely laid out, prefaced by important memoirs (Anatoly Naiman, Isaiah Berlin), replete with photographs and illustrations. ยท

Michael Dirda is a critic for Book World. His e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com, and his online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com


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