‘A living soul in a dead noose’

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.”

For a greater comprehension of Tsvetaeva’s final years, Irma Kudrova’s “End of a Poet” is an astonishingly detailed and insightful reconstruction of her life. The fate of the English translation of the book, published in Russia in 1995, is uncertain. The publisher, Ardis, was to release it three years ago, but the project was stranded by Ardis’ sale to Overlook. (Tsvetaeva’s “Collected Letters,” long in print in Russia, is another castaway). We can only hope Overlook reschedules the release, because “End of a Poet” is a zoom lens into a terrible abyss. Though doggedly researched over decades, “End of a Poet” bears all the urgency of a book written in a single, impassioned rush. The results are spine-tingling, leaving us with a sense of an awful triumph. There’s a saying that you know your worth by what destiny puts on the opposite scale: The breathtaking forces that accumulated to destroy Tsvetaeva testify to her tenacity, her fierceness, her brilliance, all the more so since Tsvetaeva was the least of her generation designed for any kind of survival.

As the NKVD, precursor to the KGB, whisked Efron back to Moscow for security reasons, the Russian emigre community quickly ostracized Tsvetaeva. Efron’s subsequent letters to Tsvetaeva did little to warn her that he was living in a situation little better than house arrest. She naively fled to Efron and her daughter, Ariadna, who were living the NKVD-owned dacha at Bolshevo. Then, two months later, the one-by-one arrest and interrogation of the two-family household began, Ten Little Indians-style. Tsvetaeva and her teenage son were left impoverished and alone. Under Stalin, arrests had become widespread and capricious, with flimsy “evidence” and opinions gathered from each prisoner used to entrap others. “End of the Poet” recounts the horrific interrogations endured by Efron at the Lubyanka, the most notorious prison of the Soviet system.


Surprisingly, the KGB opened its extensive archives for Kudrova, and “End of a Poet” contains the terrifying results of her excavations. Among the surprises: pale, unhealthy Efron, when inescapably doomed, becomes electrically heroic. Under torture, he defends his Soviet ideals and his Soviet comrades, even as the very comrades he defended (including the duped Ariadna) betrayed him, even as his interrogators were repeatedly betraying his every hope for a Soviet utopia, his dream for creating the most just society on Earth. As his health cracks and the torture continues, the signature on his interrogations becomes shakier, fainter and more illegible.

For the first time, we see the man Tsvetaeva had loved, rather than the hapless soul presented in other memoirs and biographies. “If God will perform this miracle -- and let you live, I will follow you like a dog,” she had written him, keeping her promise, despite repeated infidelities. Efron was shot on Oct. 16, 1941.

Tsvetaeva was left behind to watch the landmarks of her life fall to Hitler: Paris, her beloved Prague, her even more beloved Germany (“My passion, my homeland, cradle of my soul!” she calls it). Russia came next: The increasing air raids on Moscow unnerved Tsvetaeva. Some of the most telling accounts of her life at this time come from secondhand reports.

An acquaintance, Maria Belkina, recalled Tsvetaeva panicking during an aerial alert. Her body shook, her eyes wandered and her hands trembled. Later, after an air raid, she had become incoherent: “Her first words,” Belkina wrote in an untranslated book “Interlocking Fates,” “were ‘What, you haven’t evacuated yet? That’s madness! You should run from this hell! It keeps coming, coming and nothing can stop it, it sweeps away everything in its path, destroys everything ....’ ”

Belkina continues: “There was France, and Czechoslovakia, and the death of Pompeii, and the trumpet before the Last Judgment, and graveyards, graveyards, and ashes .... [Tsvetaeva] was on the brink, she was a live bundle of nerves, a clot of despair and pain. Like a bare wire in the wind, a flash of sparks and a short circuit.”

Tsvetaeva was evacuated up the Kama River to the backwater town of Yelabuga, but she only traded one hell for another. Kudrova provides unexpected corroboration for previously dismissed claims that the NKVD wanted Tsvetaeva to become an informer, opening the possibility of warnings, threats and blackmail. Tsvetaeva, the former spellbinder, was now a drab, gray Baba Yaga in worn clothes, clinging, incongruously, to a fashionable, silly Parisian zip handbag. Crushed between two historic forces, she thought the apocalypse had come.


Mere days before her suicide, a companion recalled a conversation on the street: “Tell me, please,” she pleaded, “tell me, please, why do you think that it’s still worth living? Don’t you really understand what’s coming?” Her friend replied that, although her husband had been executed and life was meaningless to her, she still had a daughter. “But don’t you really understand,” Tsvetaeva said, “that everything’s over? For you, for your daughter, and altogether.” And when her acquaintance asked, “What do you mean -- everything?” Tsvetaeva replied, “Altogether -- everything!” making a large circle in the air with the strange little bag she carried.

Tsvetaeva believed that “nonhumans” -- communists and fascists among others -- were swallowing the world. Her sense of the apocalypse was intuitive rather than theological. Scores of her friends and family had proved that resistance was impossible. Tsvetaeva was one of life’s tuning forks, in constant reverberation to external circumstance, so that perhaps her death, by her own hands, was simply the wish for one final act of volition.

“For a year I’ve been trying on death,” she wrote in June 1940. “No one sees or knows that for a year now ... I’ve been looking for a hook.” She hanged herself on Aug. 31, 1941, in a hallway outside the rented room where she had been living for less than a dozen days. She was buried in an unmarked grave in the Yelabuga cemetery.

It’s too superficial to see Tsvetaeva’s life as tragic; it is also profoundly heroic. In her life, as well as her poetry, she continues to take us through the looking glass, where our attitudes and platitudes falter, even explode. Stale meanings become sharp as broken glass, and paradoxes part of a worldview. That’s one reason we need the testimony of her life and work -- so we can, for a few moments, keep her company in the wind-swept realm of barest truth.


From “The Poet” By Marina Tsvetaeva

The poet begins his speech in a roundabout way.

Speech takes the poet far.

With planets, omens, the ruts of roundabout

Parables ... Between yes and no

He conjures a detour, swinging his arm

From the bell tower. For the path of comets

Is the path of poets. Scattered links

Of causality -- that is his connection! Your head

is up --

You will despair! A poet’s eclipses

Are not foretold by the calendar.

He is the one who mixes the cards,

He is the one who cheats weights and sums,

He is the one who asks from his school desk,

He is the one who routs Kant,

He who is in the stone grave of Bastilles

Is like the tree in its beauty.

The one whose tracks always grew cold,

The train, for which everyone

Is late ...

-- for the path of comets

Is the poets’ path: burning without warming,

Reaping without sowing -- an explosion

and a breaking apart --

Your path, maned curve,

Is not foretold by the calendar!

Translated from the Russian by Michael M. Naydan

From “After Russia” by Marina Tsvetaeva

(Ardis: 282 pp., $32.50)