The Akhmatova Journals
Volume 1: 1938-1941
Edited by Lydia Chukovskaya, Harvill.
British critics might think twice about calling Tolstoy "a rubbishy old man" - but not Anna Akhmatova, whose first consideration was whether artists spoke the truth. The truth which reeks human complexity and authenticity has concerned generations of Russian critics with their hearts in the right place.
On moral grounds, then, down with Tolstoy, who manipulated Anna Karenina's fate to make her seem a virtual prostitute after leaving her husband; and, on a mixture of moral and aesthetic grounds, down with Turgenev for superficiality and condescension. The Symbolist poet Bryusov had unforgivably not read Boileau. Elizabeth Browning was monotonous, Joyce's "Ulysses" worth reading four times but worryingly pornographic.
Imperiousness was a great feature of Akhmatova, a great poet by any standards and one of the four great Russian poets of the century. Her stately bearing and faintly vain, faintly amused physical beauty only redoubled it, and even in her worst anxieties and ill-health she never doubted she embodied the authentic voice. Hence the apparent ease of her lines, the flowing diction, the unstrained vision recording what her country suffered but was petrified to express. Hence also the seemingly effortless shift from Bonnard-like interiors ("a stylite on a pillar of parquet" said Mandelstam) and soul-scaling love poems to the "Requiem" in progress in these diaries.
Imperiousness, expressed in a stream of unpredictably tender and ferocious judgments is probably more common on the Russian artistic scene than here. Lydia Chukovskaya captures it together with a Russian life so genuine you can smell the warmed-up meat and potatoes and see the broken chair.
Chukovskaya - daughter of Russia's best-known modern children's writer and herself a writer, poet and publisher - was Akhmatova's younger friend in Leningrad, as with war approaching they waited for news of their imprisoned loved ones. Early on Chukovskaya learns that her husband has been shot. Akhmatova has pleaded successfully for her son Lev Gumilyov`s release, only to see him reincarcerated, not to be released until 1956. Occasionally, despite the weight of grief, Chukovskaya is smiling at the spectacle of this courageous creature feigning a girlish inability to punctuate her poems and cross the road. Grief was so intense for both these women that the prospect of their own death offered them most happiness and, paradoxically, helped them survive. Akhmatova, vigilant and eloquent by night, sleeping inefficiently by day, had reversed her existence to confront death. Do-gooders wanted to shake her out of her "neuresthenia" and have her retouch her grey hair. Official publishing houses competed to publish her censored work. Riding over these vexations, she continued writing. As each poem was born Chukovskaya memorised it. Then came the ritual of destroying the evidence, encoded in the sparse diaries as: "hands, match, ashtray" or sometimes "the stove crackled peacefully".
At 50, still with a face as if from an icon, she wore a torn black silk dressing gown over a white nightdress and, affecting distraction while being perfectly capable, looked for the tea, the sugar, the spoons. She looked, says Chukovskaya, like Byron or Mary Stuart.
The diaries necessarily excluded the political terror and personal feelings. Notes on Akhmatova's work in progress were disguised as conversations about Pushkin. This is a magical book which, by its own gaps and implications and shadows (now helpfully filled out with notes), renders the numbing sense of absence which became her muse. The poems Chukovskaya memorised are appended in fine translations by Peter Norman, particularly the tight metrical rendering of "Epilogue" of 1940. Often remembrance itself seems dead. In "The Cellar of Memory" Akhmatova writes: "But it's arrant nonsense that I live in sadness/and that remembrance nags at me... My feast day has come to an end."