Aurea Carpenter on a confidante's conversations with the poet.
The title cheeky, if understandable. These are not "The Akhmatova Journals" exactly. "Zapiski ob Axmatove", Lydia Chukovskaya's Russian original, would more accurately have been translated as "Notes about Akhmatova". And this is what they are: Chukovskaya's episodic record of the time she spent with Anna Akhmatova during the years 1938-41.
Those hoping for a newly-discovered personal diary by one of Russia's truest poetic voices this century, then, will be disappointed. And there is further disappointment when it turns out that, because these were the Terror years, the truth had to be presented in disguise anyway. As Chukovskaya writes, "The content of our conversations, whispers, guesses, silences of that time is scrupulously absent from these notes." Some of this content has been retrospectively supplied in the voluminous footnotage - as have relevant chunks of Akhmatova's verse - but it's hardly the same. On the other hand, Akhmatova, it seems, was one of those extraordinary individuals who only had to cast her formidable gaze on some thing during her rich, wretched life for it to turn to gold. Chukovskaya knew her perhaps better than anyone, and snares her insight with genuine unselfishness.
They were brought together by shared misfortune. After Akhmatova's son Lev Gumilyov was re-arrested in 1938, Chukovskaya sought her advice on the plight of her own husband, the physicist Matvey Bronshteyn, who had been detained the year before.
Two women held hostage by the authorities, they knew the shuffling desperation of the prison queue, and that, if they dared step out of line, Lyova or Mitya would suffer. Yet if they would not talk explicitly of political realities, they could discuss literature, past and present, often with surprising frankness.
Between cups of tea the two of them put the literary world to rights. We learn why Akhmatova worshipped Pushkin; why she disliked Turgenev's prose ("Everything is shallow with him") and disdained "that rubbishy old man", Leo Tolstoy, for having turned that other Anna, his greatest tragic heroine, into a prostitute.
Akhmatova was as tricky as a genius should be. Alternately moody and merry, she was a loner who coveted company (Chukovskaya would be summoned at all hours with an urgent phone call, "Come over please"), and when she got it was generous to a fault. A stoic hypochondriac - at one point she suffers "five heart attacks in five days" - she despised physical cowardice. She is disgusted, for instance, by an acquaintance's fear of having a tooth pulled without an anaesthetic: "I am unable to respect such people."
Certainly, Akhmatova was not fearless herself. Crossing roads scared the life out of her. As did punctuation - most of which the willing Chukovskaya provided for her. But, although she spent much of her adult life as a marked woman, Akhmatova never bowed before her oppressors.
One of the most affecting images of these journals (perhaps they are, after all, Akhmatova's journals) conveys the poet's natural inclination to transform and elevate the grimmest necessities of her daily life. Akhmatova, talking loudly about the weather, would hand her friend scraps of paper for her to memorise the verses written there, then light them and watch them burn, painful sheet after painful sheet.
"It was a ritual: hands, match, ashtray - a beautiful and mournful ritual."