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This review is taken from PN Review 40, Volume 11 Number 2, November - December 1984.ACCESS TO AKHMATOVA
All these books make Akhmatova - in some ways a difficult poet for the Western reader to come to terms with - more accessible, and are therefore a welcome addition to the monographs by Driver and Verheuil, Amanda Haight's biography, and the translations by various hands. Not until more of Akhmatova's correspondence and a translation of Lydia Chukovskaya's Zapiski become available shall we be able to come as close to her as we have to Pasternak and, by virtue of his widow's memoir, Mandelstam. In the absence of such intimacy - felt more keenly with so intimate a poet - each new account of Akhmatova increases our acquaintance with a figure who, in death as in life, dwarfs all but a few of her immensely gifted contemporaries.
Like Eikhenbaum and Vinogradov in their classic studies, Wendy Rosslyn is concerned with the poetry written by Akhmatova in her 'first phase' - up to and including the first manifestations of the harassment to which she was thereafter subjected. She offers close readings of dozens of short lyrics (in Russian, with English translations, both appearing alongside the comments on them) which were the basis of Akhmatova's celebrity in the years before and during the Revolution. The bulk of this analysis is conducted within categories derived from Akhmatova's 'Reading Hamlet' poems of 1909, which provide the writer with her eye-catching title. Rosslyn's sensitivity to the early poems is sufficient to diminish the occasional shortcomings of this strategy, which thrusts her thesis into undue prominence and which threatens to become mechanical when consistently applied. But there are times when one feels the need of a more flexible treatment of these elusive poems, and the decision to consider so many of them as illustrative, or otherwise, of a given cluster of preconceptions seems inhibiting.
Much of Akhmatova's early verse is focused upon critical moments in the sexual relations between men and women or, as it can sometimes seem, one woman, whom we not unnaturally (though often too readily, as Rosslyn points out) identify with the poet herself. But as her early Russian critics showed - and Rosslyn provides an excellent account of their views - the modulations matter more than the formulae. Akhmatova could scarcely have retained her massive audience if this had not been so, though perhaps only the intelligentsia would have complained at 'more of the same'. The problem for the English reader is to assess the modulations - especially those not signposted by the ubiquitous 'But', on which Rosslyn writes well - in translations that never match the subtlety of the original. Rosslyn's own translations, as she admits, are of little moment as poetry, with the result that themes, and the variations played on them, seem more important than timbre and intonation - an impression her critical method does little to dispel. This is the only book in English that has seen fit to treat in detail a body of work that acquired classic status within a short time of its appearance, and the intrinsically difficult subjects of love and religion are dealt with in an attractive and unpretentious manner. But the general reader may feel that the book resembles an academic thesis more closely than it might have done, and has sacrificed some of its claim on his attention in so doing.
Lyn Coffin's emphasis, like Wendy Rosslyn's, falls on the Akhmatova of the first phase, and 'Reading Hamlet' stands, here as there, at the head of the whole enterprise. But by including any number of poems that other translators have tended to omit, Coffin ensures that those who think of Akhmatova primarily in terms of Requiem and Poem without a hero must make a new commitment to her. Given the excellence of Coffin's ear, and a host of deft touches throughout, one is more than willing to do so; and even with poems we have come to know in other versions this unexpected pleasure is to be had. As the blurb states, for once quite accurately, 'she is the first to remain true to Akhmatova's rhyme and cadence', and prepared as we might be to forego the former, it is doubly surprising to find it co-existing peacefully with the latter. Almost the only thing to regret about a thoroughly worthwhile venture is that Joseph Brodsky - a protégé of Akhmatova, though in the eyes of Nadezhda Mandelstam a minor talent - was invited to introduce it. What the blurb characteristically calls 'thoughtful' is likely to be found irritating, even by those who do not share Mrs Mandelstam's opinion.
The third of these books presents Akhmatova against the background of the city which, though not hers (like her name), she came to think of as her own, much as her readers did: St Petersburg. Approaching Sharon Leiter's study by way of Lyn Coffin's versions one would hardly think the subject justified a full-length study. But this is largely a consequence of Coffin's omission of Poem without a hero and most of Requiem, and a selection policy which leaves 'The first long-range artillery shell in Leningrad' balanced by 'All of Moscow is soaked with verses'. Operative within a different mode, Leiter elects to take the whole of Akhmatova's output into account, and to see the patterns of the poet's response to life as bound up with the portrayal of her adopted milieu. In the early poetry Leiter sees Petersburg as the 'realm of intense, genuine, often terrifying emotion, looked back upon from the "safe", neutral afterlife of a country place' - usually Tsarskoye Selo. Subsequently, in the pre-Revolutionary period, the city becomes a 'spiritual birthplace' in which it is a privilege, as well as a necessity, to live. Then, with the triumph of the Bolsheviks, and with its new name Leningrad, it is transformed into the 'opposite of itself, its self-inflicted wounds inimical to the civilized values that it forces underground or - as in the case of Mandelstam - into exile.
In the terms proposed by Dante, also an exile and an important point of reference for both Mandelstam ('Conversation about Dante', 1933) and Akhmatova (the poem 'Dante' of 1936), this represents the city's 'infernal' period. Yet by surviving the siege of 1940-44, a kind of purgatory, Leningrad demonstrates that it is spiritually equipped to withstand, and at the same time to transcend, historical realities. Providentially spared, Leiter's argument runs, the city is once again reciprocally related to its most gifted interpreter, who has also survived against all odds, and whose Orthodoxy would in any case see abasement and grace in dynamic relationship one to another. And in the post-war years, the bond between the poet and the city is consolidated by the survivor's ability to see the apparently vanished past as unexpectedly retroactive upon its present and future life. For Leiter, as indeed for Akhmatova herself, Poem without a hero represents the culmination of a lifelong obsession with the emotional and cultural significance of the 'Northern capital'.
Leiter's subject offers greater freedom of movement than Wendy Rosslyn's and her book is the better for it, though not itself unmarked by narrowly academic concerns. But no reader who admires Akhmatova will wish to be without these two new studies, even when it is possible to feel a dimension missing, as if she were still - Lyn Coffin notwithstanding - awaiting her ideal reader.
This review is taken from PN Review 40, Volume 11 Number 2, November - December 1984.