ÈÑ: London Review of Books, Vol. 17 No. 10
ÄÒ: 25 May 1995

Every Slightest Pebble

• The Akhmatova Journals. Vol. I: 1938-1941 by Lydia Chukovskaya, translated by Milena Michalski and Sylva Rubashova, Harvill, 310 pp, ?20.00, June 1994, ISBN 0 00 216391 8

• Remembering Anna Akhmatova by Anatoly Nayman, translated by Wendy Rosslyn Halban, 240 pp, ?18.00, June 1991, ISBN 1 870015 41 X

• Anna Akhmatova and Her Circle edited by Konstantin Polivanov, translated by Patricia Beriozkina?Arkansas, 281 pp, $32.00, January 1994, ISBN 1 55728 308 7

• Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet by Roberta Reeder, Allison and Busby, 592 pp, ?25.00, February 1995, ISBN 0 85031 998 6

• Women’s Works in Stalin’s Time: On Lidia Chukovskaia and Nadezhda Mandelstam by Beth Holmgren, Indiana, 225 pp, ?25.00, September 1993, ISBN 0 253 33860 3

In the late Fifties, in the dusty warren of a Manhattan apartment, the composer Artur Sergeevich Lourie answered my questions about his friend Osip Mandelstam, whom he plausibly deemed to have been by that time irretrievably forgotten. I had turned up at his door out of the blue, led there by an article he had published in an emigre journal. He could not decide which was the more astonishing: intricate questions about a vanished poet, or the questioner himself, a young American speaking army-taught Russian: ‘Someone,’ he said, seeing me off, ‘should write about you.’

I trust that I am not now obliquely complying with this injunction if I recall some of my encounters with the great poet about whom Lydia Chukovskaya and Anatoly Nayman have left records of a fullness and intimacy that my few recollections can hardly rival. But such was the stature of Akhmatova that every slightest pebble lending strength to the aggregate of her posthumous monument must seem valuable.

Whoever sets out to write about her soon wishes that the English lexicon were richer in synonyms for ‘regal’. After ‘queenly’ and ‘majestic’ there are not many left that seem to fit the case. ‘Earthy’, if you want to describe that other side of her nature, revealed only to those who knew her in domestic circumstances, is even more in want of approximately kindred terms. It is better, I suppose, helplessly to submit and to repeat what earlier and more favourably placed witnesses have said: that she produced on most people who knew her the contradictory effect of being both unapproachably remote, so that treason could but peep to what it would, and also ready to let down her guard and plunge forthwith into whatever treason was afoot.

The notes on which I base my recollections of her were made in hot haste on trains and in hotel rooms and then, because their very existence endangered both her and me, sent quickly out of the country. This was the early and mid-Sixties. Brodsky was being sent, for ‘parasitism’, to vegetate in a village near Arkhangelsk; her dangerously disloyal Requiem was being published in Munich; Sinyavsky was being exposed as Abram Tertz and sent to a camp; and her half-hearted rehabilitation, after the spectacular denunciation by Zhdanov just after the war, was shaky at best. I set the notes aside and forgot about them. To have written about Akhmatova then would have imperilled not only her but also a person to whom I was far closer and whose case was incomparably more perilous, Nadezhda Mandelstam. Her manuscript, not yet entitled Hope against Hope, I had read at her kitchen table and then, with her blessing, sent to the West. It was not a time for too many memoirs.

Lourie was my entree to Akhmatova. Some year or so after the interview in Manhattan, I was arrested by a vision of scarlet socks covering frail white calves beneath billowing Bermuda shorts: not, at that era, a part of the expected scene on Nassau Street in Princeton. It was Artur Sergeevich, now removed from New York to live on Linden Lane, in the Mediterranean villa provided by the philosopher Jacques Maritain, who had moved permanently to France. Every inch of interior wall had been covered in murals by a young French painter, against which Lourie looked finally at home.

He had been one of Akhmatova’s ‘husbands’ for a while. Tenuous communication had not diminished their emotional attachment. ‘All your photographs look at me all day long,’ he wrote to her in 1960, in a letter now in the possession of Chukovskaya. He had briefly been Lenin’s Commissar for Music, but he had also converted to his fervent Catholicism before (about this he insisted) quitting the Soviet Union in 1922 for his long exile in France and America. He had been painfully discreet in maintaining a few links with Akhmatova, anxious lest any contact aggravate her plentiful troubles.

On 11 July 1962, with no more excuse than my ignorance, I travelled illegally on the elektrichka from Leningrad to Komarovo, where Akhmatova was said to be in the dacha provided for her by the Litfond. The sandy track where it was located went by the grand name of Lake Street. Three pedestrians, not all of whom could have been KGB, exhausted the three possible accentuations of the adjective ozernaya (‘lake’) before I located it. She came out onto the porch, lured into sight by Lourie’s name, which the young woman who had answered my knock carried in. It was the same porch pictured in a photograph in Nayman’s book, and I was in his identical position, looking up at a figure that could only seem a more than mortal presence to eyes that had studied it in dim reproductions. A hand descended. I kissed it. She withdrew it rapidly to her throat, looked in quick apprehension at the curtain of scrub pines, and asked me in.

We sat at first on a small, glass-enclosed porch. She immediately said to me that the poet Georgy Ivanov was responsible for many libels against her. It was not true, as he had written, that after her divorce from Gumilev and her non-participation in the second Acmeist group she had lost favour with younger readers. Quite the contrary was true. After we went into her small bed-sitting room, as we soon did, her conversation was so exclusively focused on Mandelstam, with only occasional asides about herself, that this overture struck me, when I looked later at my notes, as the only time when she seemed even slightly a prima donna jealous of her reputation with her public.

Some four years later I was to learn from Nadezhda Mandelstam, widow of the poet about whom I had come to speak to Akhmatova, that she had been a covert witness of the rest of the interview. No one had been prepared for the sudden appearance in Komarovo, off-limits to foreigners, of an American writing about Mandelstam. Akhmatova would have greeted with the same aplomb a white rabbit from a spaceship. She spoke hurriedly and volubly, as though she had prepared for my arrival. My being monomaniacally obsessed with Mandelstam rather than with her must have seemed a nice change. Everything that Georgy Ivanov wrote was a lie. He and Adamovich were younger than the Acmeists, had always been somewhat outsiders, and moreover had soon gone into emigration. Towards Adamovich she was more kindly disposed; he did not write of what he did not know. But Ivanov invented. Osip had never had a daughter. There was a wife. Her name was Khazina before they married. (The very existence of Nadezhda was unknown even to Gleb Struve and Boris Filippov, editors of Mandelstam’s Collected Works in the USA.)

Was Strakhovsky (another memoirist) still alive? Yes? A great pity. He might go on lying about Mandelstam. He had written nonsense about her, also. He had left in 1918 and everything to which he had pretended to be an eyewitness after that was pure fabrication. Why did those in the West not use their freedom to write the truth rather than lies? The influential poet Bryusov had once deliberately insulted Mandelstam by saying that he liked his poems – and then quoted something by Makkaveysky. (The implication, I think, was that deliberate insult was preferable to the furtive slanders of those on her list of liars.)

She had been present when Mandelstam was first arrested, in 1934. The second time was on the first of May 1938. Ehrenburg was wrong: the correct date of death was 27 December 1938. Nadya had even been sent a letter, which was most unusual. She also had a letter from Osya from the camp. (That scrap of paper is now a few hundred yards from where I sit, in the Mandelstam Archive of Princeton University Library.) Lately, the poems had been circulating in many copies; people even made money by copying them.

Mandelstam was by no means as physically unattractive as he is pictured. ‘Almost everything I have seen written about him is untrue. He was, of course, eccentric.’ (‘On byl, pravda, chudak.’) She showed me what would later become the well-known photograph of a young, appealing Mandelstam in the company of Korney Chukovsky and Benedict Livshitz. She had contributed nothing to his poem on Beethoven; more of Ivanov’s hallucinations. Did I know what had become of Prince Mirsky? ‘They drowned him in Kolyma. Yes, drowned. Boatloads of prisoners were simply sunk.’ The poem that began ‘Odna zvezda’ in Struve’s edition of her collected works was by someone else. Could no one any longer recognise the grammatical sign of a masculine persona?

Osip’s letters to Nadya existed and circulated in many copies, though she had none. ‘These,’ she said, ‘are an absolutely unique document of the 20th century.’ She dictated to me three epigrams that Mandelstam had written on her. Her version (or my transcription) differed slightly from the texts printed in Struve’s edition. So Khardzhiev would not see you? That means he’s afraid. An American was said to have written a dissertation on her and even to have been in the USSR, though he did not come to see her. ‘A pity. I might have told him much that was useful.’ Nadezhda Mandelstam would in all probability be very happy to see me – I wish I could heighten the drama of these notes by saying that at this point she glanced nervously at the screen behind which the subject of that sentence sat listening – though whether this would be risky was another question.

In the midst of my hurried scribbling some twenty square centimetres of plaster fell from the wall behind me and shattered into powder on the floor. (Akhmatova’s word for this dacha was ‘hut’ – budka – and suited it better.) She fleetingly gave me a long-suffering look which only years afterwards I would interpret as meaning, ‘They might at least cover over their microphones with greater care,’ and went on with her recollections of Mandelstam.

Not all of which were strictly accurate. She herself had travelled in Italy, she said, but Mandelstam’s was ‘a purely ethereal Rome’. It was a ‘country of the mind, only Dante’. He seems in fact to have managed a few days there. Mirsky, author of an eccentrically splendid English history of Russian literature, had gone back to Moscow a convinced Leninist and had indeed perished in the camps, though he probably met a drier death. Her absorption in my questions about Mandelstam rather sidelined any talk of Lourie, in whom she seemed to show less interest than I had expected. But she had hardly forgotten him. A pencil sketch of Lourie by the artist Miturich was visible over the mantle in her bed-sitting room. I was in any case to tell him that Nadya had been very pleased by his article on Osip in Vozdushnye puti. This aside, was he writing his memoirs? I said that I had pleaded with Artur Sergeevich to do so, but he refused, saying that so long as he did not write, the memories remained his. ‘Tell him to write,’ she said. ‘Tell him’ – this with a smile and theatrical pomp – ‘that I command it.’ (‘Skazhite, chto ya velela.’) She gave me, for Lourie, a reproduction of Tischler’s portrait drawing of her. His brother was dead, but his sister Klara was still alive. Artur had said nothing to me of any sister. Better not phone her, said Akhmatova. I was about to ask why, but she waved the topic away.

I had heard that Viktor Zhirmunsky, the great literary scholar and schoolboy friend of Mandelstam, also had a dacha in the vicinity. Akhmatova immediately took a sheet of paper out of the writing table at which she was seated and drew for me a rough map showing how to walk from her place to Zhirmunsky’s. Framed, it now hangs on the wall beside me, my only Akhmatova holograph. It contains more lines than the famous portrait sketch of her by Modigliani and is not, to my eye, aesthetically inferior.

I left with my map. At the door her thoughts returned to Lourie. I was to convey to him a further message, one that had evidently come to her as she turned over in her mind his excuse for not writing. ‘Tell him,’ she said, ‘that only that which we give is truly ours.’

My next meeting with Akhmatova occurred in London in 1965. The year before she had been allowed to travel to Italy to receive a prize and now she was to receive an honorary degree from Oxford. I saw her in her room in the President Hotel on Russell Square. Anya Kaminskaya, the ‘granddaughter’ who accompanied her everywhere in her last years, was present, and so was the late Amanda Haight, the author of the first and still best English biography. I continued to ply Akhmatova with questions and she answered with as much interest and amusement as before. I had not had a tape-recorder in Komarovo, but now I had. Would I like her to read something? She held the microphone and recited a poem. The next day, from the balcony of the Sheldonian Theatre, I watched her, flanked by Anya, as the oratory droned on. When it was done and Anya helped her to her feet to walk the few steps needed to receive the hood (she refused to wear the hat), my microphone registered one Russian word as coda to all the Latin: Kuda (‘Which way?’).

In 1966, I was in Moscow to deliver a number of lectures on Nabokov’s edition of Eugene Onegin and, ostensibly, to research Soviet theories of translation. My real aim for the balance of the year, not avowable at the time, was to complete my research for a book on Mandelstam, who was still a non-person. I was officially accredited to the Maurice Thorez Institute of Foreign Languages, though I lived in Moscow University and spent my days and evenings in the apartment of Nadezhda Mandelstam, which served as seminar, salon and cultural clearing-house for the intellectual elite of those days.

It was around 26 February that Anna Akhmatova got word to me through friends that she wished to see me. Julia Markovna Zhivova called to say that she would meet me in front of the apartment building on Bolshaya Ordynka Street where Akhmatova was staying, as she always did in Moscow, with the Ardov family. It had been snowing for a week. When I drove up in the taxi at the appointed time, Julia Markovna was waiting on the kerb, but the news was disappointing. Akhmatova could not see me. I knew that she had just returned from a long stay in hospital after the most serious of a series of heart attacks, so it was not a big surprise. The doctor had had to be called late that afternoon. He had ordered no visitors. That was that. I offered Julia Markovna a ride home in my cab. As we made our way through narrow streets out of this old section of Moscow the taxi several times came near to foundering in the huge drifts of snow.

On 2 March, Julia Markovna called me again and said that Akhmatova was better and had again asked me to come. It had to be that day, for she was leaving the next morning to go to a sanatorium in the country, where she would rest for a month and regain her strength before returning to Leningrad. This time when she met my cab she conducted me through the labyrinthine courtyard of the old building, up a short flight of stairs, and into the apartment where Akhmatova was staying, Anya Kaminskaya met us at the door.

Akhmatova sat at a large round table in a room at the end of a short corridor. The famous shawl was around her shoulders. She seemed not much worse for her long ordeal in hospital (she told me she had been there exactly 100 days) though she looked drawn, somewhat thinner, and spoke far more slowly than she had done in Russell Square or in Oxford. Her hearing in particular seemed to have worsened. Though I was seated practically at her elbow, I had to speak very loudly.

I had anticipated a rather sad encounter. She was, however, in excellent mood, high spirits even. It was the most delightful time I ever spent with her. Neither in Komarovo nor in London had the talk been so amusing or unconstrained. Laughter came easily to her. In her memoirs, Nadezhda describes the meetings between Akhmatova and Mandelstam as uproariously funny.

Gleb Struve had asked me to put two questions to her. In answer to the first she said that she had no objection at all to receiving some of the money earned by her publications abroad, so long as it was done openly. She would get the advice of Surkov (a prominent and dangerous hack, then head of the Writers’ Union, whose remark, ‘I am the last Acmeist,’ Nayman quotes with suitable lack of comment). To my look of mild surprise she said, ‘He idolises me’ (‘On obozhaet menya’), and laughed at the absurdity.

The second question involved a letter of hers that had come into Struve’s possession. It had been written on 30 November 1917, and sent to Nikolay Gumilev in Paris, but he had already left and the letter had been forwarded to the Russian Military Mission in London, in the archives of which it had recently turned up. To this she said she had never been in Ligovo and never worked for the Red Cross, nor did she know anything of any collection of paintings that Gumilev was supposed to have had in Paris.

Gleb Struve adored her. I was sorry to hear her almost contemptuous comments, delivered in tones of amused raillery, on his edition of her works. She had found in it another poem, ‘Zakat’, that did not belong to her. She especially disliked the commentary, finding it not only far too skimpy and full of errors, but also wholly misdirected towards politics.

She described the onset of her latest illness. She was participating in an evening devoted to Dante and had recited stanzas from that part of the Commedia where Virgil withdraws and Dante sees the veiled figure of his new guide, who will turn out to be Beatrice. Gianfranco Contini, the renowned Dante scholar who had received an Oxford degree at the same time as Anna Andreevna, was also there. She wickedly mimed the mincing little motions of silent applause with which he evinced his approval of her performance. At that moment the attack had begun with shooting pains across her chest and upper arm.

I told her of my meeting Arkady Raikin in Oxford just after the degree ceremony. Raikin was the most famous of all Soviet music-hall comedians. I had encountered him on the train going back to London and had shown him the first volume of Mandelstam’s Collected Works, which I had only just received from Struve. Raikin was so overwhelmed by it and the fact that he was holding it in his hands that, in a burst of Russian generosity wholly foreign to my nature, I gave it to him. She laughingly approved of my gesture and then hilariously imitated Raikin, who, on meeting her after the ceremony, had burst into tears.

She accepted a brooch that I had brought from Lourie, but made a slight moue at its plainness and immediately handed it across the table to Anya, who modelled it for her. Not the least majestic of Akhmatova’s mannerisms was graciously to receive anything presented to her and then immediately hand it to an aide. I said that in London she had done exactly the same with the shawl that I had brought from Lourie. Anya laughed and said that Anna Andreevna never kept any present long. How briefly she would have this one I could not foresee.

She hated Lowell’s translations of Mandelstam, and her English was perfectly adequate to form a judgment in the matter. Translation in general was detestable to her, since it was the chore that furnished her livelihood for the last decade or so of her life. As Nayman reports, she would never dream of translating anyone other than mediocrities, declining every offer to translate Baudelaire or Mallarme, but she carried out the daily drudgery with a sense of duty to the art of verse. Lowell’s deliberate misreadings she found unforgivable.

She showed me the book of her translations that had come out the previous year – things that she earnestly desired never to appear in any collection of her own work. She referred to this book as ‘animals’ to distinguish it from her own last collection, The Flight of Time, which she called ‘people’. She picked up the first volume of the US edition of Mandelstam and looked at the concluding words of my Introduction, which came from something she had said to me in Komarovo four years earlier, words that I had quoted exactly, though in 1964 it had not been possible to name her as the source: ‘Don’t worry if you don’t have everything of Mandelstam. If we were speaking of some small poet, there would be good reason to fear that you might never find everything. But we are speaking of Osip Emilievich Mandelstam. He is one of the greatest poets of our time. Everything, absolutely everything – the poems, the prose, the letters – every single thing will be published.’

As she read my English words she translated them, nodding her approval, back into her Russian (an experience the equal of which I do not expect to meet in this life). Here her voice faltered and her head sank slightly over the book. I feared she might be weeping or that a spell of weakness had come over her, and made as if to leave, but she recovered and asked me, with what seemed great sincerity, to stay another half-hour. I reminded her of an exchange we’d had in London. Then I had said something about being afraid to overtire her. ‘Just you try,’ she had said, suddenly taking on the manner of a sturdy Soviet girl in a patriotic film, ‘you won’t manage it!’ Now, she said, it was far from impossible.

The next morning she was taken by cab to the sanatorium in Domodedovo, some sixty kilometres from Moscow. The temperature had risen somewhat but the thoroughfares were still clogged with wet snow and mounds of old ice. Nadezhda told me that Akhmatova had not wanted to go. On the way the taxi broke down and she’d had to be transferred to another. On the morning of 5 March, just after a cardiogram had been taken, she had the last attack, and sank gradually, talking and fully conscious to the end.

Following the death of Akhmatova I witnessed, from the command post that Nadezhda Mandelstam’s flat immediately became, an extraordinary effort of cultural rescue. Everyone from Akhmatova’s inner circle began feverishly to write down verses of hers that, up to that point; had been too dangerous to entrust to paper. They became the cells of one great collective memory, sharing and correlating and correcting each other’s efforts to save from oblivion the words whose source had now vanished for ever.

Lydia Korneevna Chukovskaya, as her patronymic indicates, is the daughter of that same Korney Chukovsky sitting next to the young Mandelstam in the photo I’ve already described. His name was known not only to every Russian intellectual but in every Russian household, for he was both a prominent literary scholar and the most famous children’s writer in the country for most of this century. Nadezhda Mandelstam, in her seventies, told me that she had lisped his rhymes as a little girl.

Among the writers about whom Chukovsky wrote was Anna Akhmatova. When he learned that his daughter had made friends with the poet, he adjured her to preserve her every utterance, which, to the best of her remarkable ability, she has done. The first of three volumes, the Russian title of which is simply ‘Notes about Akhmatova’, has been well translated into English and covers the years 1938 to 1941 – from the beginning of their friendship to the evacuation from besieged Leningrad to Tashkent. The rest are to follow.

Chukovskaya is a witness sent from heaven. A distinguished novelist in her own right, she is also a trained editor and a woman of resplendent courage, intelligence and moral character. Like many Russians, she is such a devotee of the national cult of memory that her powers approach total recall. None of these qualities would matter, however, if she did not also have that most ineffably Russian of passions, a sort of personal covenant with ... with what? One falls helplessly back on that mysterious but irreplaceable phrase, the Russian Word.

Akhmatova was a personal friend, a woman whose familiar catastrophe – her husband and son had been arrested, as had Chukovskaya’s husband – had brought them together. But she was infinitely more than that: a sort of secular incarnation of the Russian Word. For Chukovskaya as for millions of other Russians, Akhmatova embodied in her poetry and in her person whatever it was about themselves as a people that made it worthwhile to resist the foreign enemy invading from the West and the domestic enemy enthroned in the Kremlin.

Chukovskaya’s account of Akhmatova’s works and days is unsentimental, meticulous and tedious in places, as ordinary life tends to be, but her zest for capturing and keeping the truth about how one of the greatest writers of this century actually managed to stay alive and sane will assure her book a place among the greatest of biographies. It began as an ordinary record of her own life but soon became (and we are notified when this happens) a record of Akhmatova alone, with the author herself present as little more than a fictional device, a point of view. She appends a small anthology of the poems, well translated by Peter Norman, that she deems necessary for an understanding of her narrative.

Anatoly Nayman, a poet and playwright, was, along with Joseph Brodsky and Dmitry Bobyshev, one of a group of young writers whom Akhmatova made her spiritual children. He met her in 1959 and in 1962 became her literary secretary and more or less a member of the household, if one may use the term for anyone so essentially homeless as Akhmatova always was. Lacking the strict chronological frame of Chukovskaya’s book, his Remembering Anna Akhmatova is a rather chaotic assemblage of notes. It is nevertheless an invaluable domestic account of the poet’s life and working methods. Nayman is a good writer with a sense of timing and detail, is almost as sell effacing as Chukovskaya, and his literary judgments are acute and occasionally striking.

He observes, for instance, that there is a sense in which Requiem is ‘the ideal embodiment of Soviet poetry which all the theorists describe. The hero of this poetry is the people ... the whole people, every single one of whom participates in what is happening on one side or the other. This is poetry which speaks on behalf of the people, where the poet is of the people and for the people. Its language is almost the simple language of the newspaper; it is accessible to the people.’ This is no doubt the aspect of the poem that made Lourie reject it when I brought it to him. ‘Anna could not have written this,’ he said. ‘It is not her voice.’ Nothing else, Nayman continues, qualifies Requiem as Soviet. Its profoundly personal, anti-heroic and specifically Christian tone, to say nothing of its ignoring all the official taboos, make it perilously un-Soviet and, at the time, quite unpublishable.

A great many books of recollections of Akhmatova have now appeared. That published by Konstantin Polivanov in Moscow in 1991 and now available in English is in many ways typical. It contains some fifty pages of her autobiographical sketches, always strangely elliptical and tantalising, and a miscellany of reminiscences by her contemporaries and younger acquaintances. Among these are Nayman, Boris Anrep, Lydia Ginzburg, Emma Gershtein and V.V. Ivanov, whose names alone guarantee that the book contains something of value; but those unable to consult the Russian should beware, for this English version belongs to that odd new genre, the all-but unedited raw manuscript, nicely printed and bound. Mandelstam’s date of death is given as 1937, though this is merely inches away on the page from the correct date, 1938, in the essay by Akhmatova that follows. His first book, Stone, is given as Green Stone, the original Russian having referred to the colour of the binding of its first edition. The famous Italian Slavist Lo Gatto is Logatto, Modigliani is Amedea. Lourie appears as Lurye, for, as a prefatory note explains, the names ‘have not been Anglicised, because to do so would have lost even more of the Russian mind.’ As it is, most of the Russian mind has evaporated from this thoroughly unreliable, disgracefully edited version.

The compendious biography by Roberta Reeder is rather more compendium than biography, if the latter is taken to denote a form of art. Readers seeking the facts of Akhmatova’s life will be able to locate them here, but the method of the book, the relentlessly cumulative stitching together of lengthy excerpts from the sources, makes for tiresome reading. Each section begins with a measure of the sort of ‘historical background’ that one finds in almanacs, moves to the mosaic of quotations, and ends with a sampler of the poems written during the period in question. Most of the many translations of Akhmatova’s poems are by Judith Hemschemeyer and come from the recent collection edited by Reeder. These are by and large reliable as to content. Reeder herself translated many other things, with usually unhappy and occasionally grotesque results.

Beth Holmgren’s book would on first glance seem to be about the two women named in its subtitle, but the cover illustration is a better guide. Looming behind the inset photographs of Nadezhda Mandelstam and Lydia Chukovskaya is the dim image of Anna Akhmatova, who turns out to be the planet around which the others orbit. Holmgren’s project, as she writes, was to address a specifically feminist readership, so it is not surprising that the vivid portraits of the two principal subjects are heavily psychological in tone and terminology. One is occasionally bewildered by the clashes of ‘scripts’, ‘gender assignments’, ‘caretakers’, ‘dominant males’, ‘provident female friends’ and so on. I realised only belatedly that the recurrent phrase ‘man made’ was a pejorative. As the title ‘Women’s Works’ makes clear, the emphasis throughout is on the collectivity of women, their mutual support for each other against all that is subsumed in the phrase ‘Stalin’s Time’ – that explicitly man-made period. Holmgren characterises Stalinism as ‘force-loving’ and therefore ‘stereotypically masculine’. In the case of Akhmatova, this leads to a close examination of the extent to which Poem without a Hero was in fact composed by her and her circle. That tallies with the testimony of many other witnesses. I am less certain that Amanda Haight’s fine biography ought to be described as the ‘joint effort’ of author and subject.

The section on Chukovskaya begins with a chapter entitled ‘Father and Daughter’, and that on Nadezhda Mandelstam with ‘Husband and Wife’, but Holmgren does not allow the dance of categories in her book to obscure the human figures of her protagonists. She was too late to have known Nadezhda Mandelstam, but she had extensive interviews with Lydia Chukovskaya, and her splendid portrait of this admirable woman redeems whatever doctrinaire aridity threatens to deform her book. I also find her judgment of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s second book, Hope Abandoned, in which the author dared to deal with Akhmatova as the fallible flesh-and-blood woman that Mandelstam knew, to be wise and large-minded in a way that some of Mandelstam’s own erstwhile friends were incapable of being.

Clarence Brown

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