ИС: Times Literary Supplement
ДТ: August 5, 1994

A memory for poetry

Lydia Chukovskaya, now eighty-seven years old, is the daughter of the critic, children's writer and big friendly giant, Korney Chukovsky (1882-1969), about whom she lovingly reminisces in her "To the Memory of Childhood" (1988). Having imbibed a religion of high culture at her father's knee, she matured to write notable "desk drawer" novels during the Stalin period ("Sofia Petrovna") and the Khrushchev "Thaw" ("Going Under"), before emerging as an open dissident during the Brezhnev era, largely through her championing of Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, for which she was expelled in 1974 from the Union of Soviet Writers. For years published only in the West, she has now lived long enough to come into her own in Russia as well. The present long-awaited first volume of "The Akhmatova Journals" (the Russian original was published in Paris as long ago as 1976) covers just the first three years of her long friendship with Anna Akhmatova; translation of two further volumes, up to the poet's death in 1966, is presumably in progress.

This English edition will confirm Chukovskaya's place among that select band of women memoirists who did so much to preserve for posterity many priceless texts of twentieth-century Russian literature, which might well have perished without their courage and their prodigious feats of memory: indeed, Chukovskaya is complimented by Akhmatova, not just for her instant ability to commit dangerous new poems to memory, but for her apparent capacity for anticipating their composition. She also, like Nadezhda Mandelstam and Evgeniya Ginzburg, conveys vividly the atmosphere of that "ghostly, fantastical, troubled world", as she styles intellectual life in Stalin's Russia. This is achieved largely by matter-of-fact description of daily life, in which the passionate concerns of the intelligentsia are set alongside the shortage of sugar, the impoverished state of footwear, or the ubiquity of drunks on the streets: "They don't really care: anything between 15 and 65 will do", frets the fifty-year-old Akhmatova. Again, passionate intellectual concerns themselves divide between vehement literary discussion and details of life "under the spell of the torture chamber"; much of the latter was subject, however, in the diaries on which this reconstructed journal is based, to self-censorship or code ("Pyotr Ivanych", for instance, represents the feared NKVD): both Akhmatova's son and Chukovskaya's husband were then in the Gulag (the latter in fact already dead). The probable surveillance under which Akhmatova lived and wrote is referred to as "The Royal Court of Wonderland". Glimmers of this do remain in the text, and much more is elicited in Chukovskaya's copious annotation. There is frequent reference also to the "usual ritual", by which Akhmatova scribbled out a risky new poem in silence (the occupants of her communal flat being not necessarily trustworthy); Chukovskaya would memorize it and then the compromising scrap of paper would be ceremonially burnt in the ashtray. Occasionally this treatment extended to poetry composed by her visitors.

All this, in addition to Akhmatova's caustic and even scurrilous views on well-known Russian literary figures and works (she spares not her own, while handing out a sound drubbing to Tolstoy, on behalf of Anna Karenina), will fascinate many readers. The multiplicity of detail on secondary and tertiary figures of Russian artistic and academic life will be of great interest to specialists. All, however, will feel for Akhmatova in her inability equally to punctuate her work and to cross the road: such is her mental state. She is seen constantly in poor health, usually lying down, suffering from heart and goitre conditions (though she was to live another twenty-five years); yet her wit never deserts her for long. An added feature of this attractive book is the appendix of the fifty-four Akhmatova poems referred to in the text, in Peter Norman's thoughtful and effective translations.

Konstantin Polivanov's compilation "Anna Akhmatova and Her Circle" was first published by Progress (Moscow, 1990). The English translation is rather indifferent, compared to the high standard achieved in "The Akhmatova Journals," and the contents are a mixed bag. Akhmatova's assorted memoirs rub shoulders with those about her from a dozen of her associates, as well as, for some reason, Khodasevich's reminiscences of Gumilev and Blok. Among the highlights are Akhmatova's memoir of Mandelstam and extracts from Nadezhda Mandelstam's already familiar and controversial "Hope Abandoned". Akhmatova's apt warning on the memoir form itself is salutary, claiming that "20 per cent of all memoirs are false in one way or another". False (and for that matter true) memoir accounts frequently incensed her in her later years, though, according to Emma Gershtein, she never denied, for instance, that Boris Pilnyak had been in love with her and proposed marriage; furthermore, she was apparently delighted to learn that one friend, the critic Khardzhiev, had described her as "a great old girl, good to have a few drinks with".

Beth Holmgren's study "Women's Works in Stalin's Time" focuses on those undaunted "widows of Russia" and custodians of its culture, Chukovskaya and Nadezhda Mandelstam. In a framework which positions the lives and careers of these two women, similar for all their considerable differences and contrasting styles, against "a force-loving, stereotypically masculine Stalinism" (and makes occasional dubious comparisons with the texts within texts of the novels of Bulgakov and Pasternak), Holmgren gives a superb comparative analysis of the literary legacy of the two memoirists. And, of course,-they emerge as paramount chroniclers of their age, authors of priceless yet problematic documents, as well as supreme role models for younger generations of dissident - though even yet by no means feminist - female intellectuals and protesters.

Soon Akhmatova returns centre stage, however, resuming her "symbolic duality - her position as both victimized woman and great Russian female poet", due to her predominance in Chukovskaya's journals and the strong supporting role she plays through the Mandelstam saga. We learn too of Chukovskaya's lost diary, which preceded the Akhmatova journals, and of her still unpublished personal memoirs. Just one of many extraordinary things to emerge is the creative relationship which extends from the seemingly mundane daily interaction of Akhmatova and Chukovskaya; especially as it is not even clear whether Akhmatova knew of Chukovskaya's note-taking. Furthermore, Chukovskaya was not Akhmatova's closest friend, we are told (they even had a ten-year estrangement at one stage), but, inspired by her and possessing a gift for transcribing the poet's aphoristic speech, she was "the one associate who could and did undertake such an extensive, monumental record". Merest hints may be gleaned from these volumes overall of Akhmatova's bisexuality; undeveloped too is an undercurrent of ambivalent relations linking Akhmatova, Nadezhda Mandelstam and Korney Chukovsky.

As each of these widows of Russia bears witness in her own way to the iniquities of her age, we can only wonder at their common, unswerving faith in the religion of poetry. This overriding value was established in Russia's Silver Age: an epoch which saw the artistic heyday of Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam and the childhood of Lydia Chukovskaya.

Neil Cornwell

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