Monday, October 8, 2012

The heart is musical

Marina Tsvetaeva was born 120 years ago today. She struggled through much poverty in her life - indeed a daughter died of starvation - and political turmoil, but today she is considered a major 20th century Russian literary figure. One of her most important poems - The Encampment of the Swans -  was written about the civil war in the style of a diary; and, recently, a collection of her diary notes has been published in English.

Tsvetaeva was born in Moscow on 8 October 1892. Her father was a professor of art history, while her mother was both literary and musical. She had one sister and two half-siblings, the children of her father’s first wife (who had died). In 1902, Tsvetaeva’s mother contracted TB, and this led the family to seek a healthier climate. They lived abroad - near Genoa, for a while, where there were many Russian emigre revolutionaries - until shortly before her mother’s death in 1906.

While still in her teens, Tsvetaeva studied at Lausanne and at the Sorbonne; and around 1911, she self-published a first collection of her poems. This attracted the attention of the poet and critic Maximilian Voloshin who then befriended her. It was at Voloshin’s home, in the Black Sea resort of Koktebel, that she met a cadet in the Officers’ Academy, Sergei Efron. They married in 1912 and lived in the Crimea, and had two daughters, Ariadna (Ayla) and Irina. After the 1917 Revolution Marina returned to Moscow where she became trapped during a famine. Hoping to save her daughters, she placed them in a state orphanage, but Ayla became ill and Irina died.

In 1922, Tsvetaeva and Alya left the Soviet Union and were reunited with Efron in Berlin. They also moved to Prague and its environs, where they had a son, Georgy, before finally settling in Paris. Tsvetaeva’s writing, during this period, in praise of the Tsarist forces, was not published in Russia until much later. In 1939, still a patriot, she returned to Stalin’s Russia, but Efron and Alya were arrested for espionage. Efron was shot in 1941, and Alya served eight years in prison (though both were exonerated after Stalin’s death). When the German army invaded, Tsvetaeva and Georgy were evacuated to Tatarstan where Tsvetaeva committed suicide in 1941. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, Carcanet Press or The Poetry Foundation.

According to the latter source, critics and translators of Tsvetaeva’s work often comment on ‘the passion in her poems, their swift shifts and unusual syntax, and the influence of folk songs’. She is also known for her portrayal of a woman’s experiences during the so-called terrible years. She wrote several plays as well as narrative verse. One cycle of poems in the style of a diary - The Encampment of the Swans - begins on the day of Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication in 1917, and ends in 1920, when the anti-communist White Army was finally defeated.

In 2011, Yale University Press published Earthly Signs - Moscow Diaries, 1917–1922, Marina Tsvetaeva, edited, translated and introduced by Jamey Gambrell. ‘This volume,’ the publishers say, ‘presents for the first time in English a collection of essays published in the Russian emigre press after Tsvetaeva left Moscow in 1922. Based on diaries she kept from 1917 to 1920, Earthly Signs describes the broad social, economic, and cultural chaos provoked by the Bolshevik Revolution. Events and individuals are seen through the lens of her personal experience - that of a destitute young woman of upper-class background with two small children (one of whom died of starvation), a missing husband, and no means of support other than her poetry. These autobiographical writings, rich sources of information on Tsvetaeva and her literary contemporaries, are also significant for the insights they provide into the sources and methodology of her difficult poetic language. In addition, they supply a unique eyewitness account of a dramatic period in Russian history, told by a gifted and outspoken poet.’

Much of the book is available to read at Googlebooks; and below are a few (undated) extracts.

October on the Train
Notes from Those Days
‘Two and a half days - not a bite, not a swallow. (Throat tight.) Soldiers bring newspapers - printed on rose-colored paper. The Kremlin and all the monuments have been blown up. The 56th Regiment. The buildings where the Cadets and officers refused to surrender have been blown up. 16,000 killed. By the next station it’s up to 25,000. I don’t speak. I smoke. One after another, travelers get on trains heading back.

Dream (November 2, 1917, nighttime). We are escaping. A man with a rifle comes up from the cellar. I take aim with my empty hand. He lowers the rifle. A sunny day. We are climbing on some debris. S. is talking about Vladivostok. We are riding in a carriage through ruins. A man with sulfuric acid.’

On Love - From a Diary
‘The complete concurrence of souls requires the concurrence of the breath, for what is the breath, if not the rhythm of the soul?

And thus, for people to understand one another, they must walk or lie side by side.

The nobility of the heart - of the organ. Unremitting caution. It is always first to sound the alarm. I could say: it is not love that makes my heart pound, but my pounding heart - that makes love.

The heart: it is musical, rather than a physical organ.

The heart; sounding line, plummet, log, dynamometer, Reaumur - everything, but the timepiece of love. [. . .]

Old men and old women. A shaved, slender old man is always a little bit antique, always a little bit the marquis. And his attention is more flattering to me, stirs me more than the love of any twenty-year-old. To exaggerate: there’s the feeling that an entire century loves me. There’s nostalgia for his twenties, and joy for one’s own, and the opportunity of being generous - and the utter inopportuneness of it. BĂ©ranger has a little song: . . . Your glance is keen, But you’re twelve, And I’m twice eighteen.

Sixteen and sixty is not monstrous, and most important - it’s not at all ridiculous. At any rate, it’s less ridiculous than most so-called “equal” marriages. The possibility of a genuine pathos.

But an old woman in love with a young man is, at best - touching. The exception: actresses. An old actress - is the mummy of a rose.’

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