ИС:The Independent
ДТ: July 5, 1994

Moving ritual of hands, match and ashtray

The first volume of Lydia Chukovskaya's "Akhmatova Journals" is out at last in English, and is well translated by Milena Michalski and Sylva Rubashova along with 54 Akhmatova poems ("Those without which my entries would be hard to understand"). Lydia Chukovskaya chose her friend Peter Norman to do these translations of Akhmatova's poems: they are faithful and dignified.

Chukovskaya, who is still completing the third volume of her Akhmatova Journals in Moscow, was initially drawn to Akhmatova by their shared fates - Chukovskaya's husband, the physicist Matvey Bronshteyn, was presumed to be in prison or the camps, without correspondence rights, which often meant the person had been executed; Akhmatova's son, Lev Gumilyov, was also in the camps. Thus The Akhmatova Journals begins on 10 November 1938: "Yesterday I was at Anna Akhmatova's on business." and extends to 9 November 1941, with a gap of a lost notebook after November 1940. This was the time Akhmatova described as her "bumper year"; the time of her great long poem, "Poem Without a Hero".

Lydia Chukovskaya was privileged to be in at the birth of many of Akhmatova's poems, including the moving cycle "Requiem", which was only published in Russia in 1987, 21 years after Akhmatova's death.

Some of these poems were so dangerous, especially given the almost hostage status of her son Lev, that Akhmatova wrote them down for Chukovskaya, who memorised them before Akhmatova burnt them in an ashtray: "It was a ritual: hands, match, ashtray - a beautiful and mournful ritual."

She was also invaluable to Akhmatova as a best friend who could not only comment on and proof-read her poems but help her with the practicalities of life, like crossing the road: Akhmatova had a terror of this, and the scene is repeated several times in the book. For much of the book, Akhmatova is ill and suffers repeated heart attacks, and believed she had skin cancer, and from her own words, that she was going to die soon. In the notes, which are such an important part of this book, Chukovskaya says: "It seems to me that Akhmatova continually repeated to herself, like an incantation, Pushkin's 'God forbid I should go mad'." Her mind was sober, clear and perceptive. And that's exactly why her consciousness was so filled with horror at what was happening (which others did not see) and horror at the possibility of losing her mind. Her poverty, her tiny pension, her poor diet all took their toll, and yet she was a survivor, capable of working the whole night through on the poems which later became the book "Reed", and some poems that could only be published in Russia shortly before her centenary anniversary in 1989.

Another young woman was to come into her life over 20 years after Chukovskaya - Amanda Haight, whose fine biography of her Anna Akhmatova, a "Poetic Pilgrimage" has been reissued by Oxford University Press in paperback, and published in Russian in Moscow. She also assisted Peter Norman in the translations of "Requiem" which appear in the journals. The abrupt ending of the first volume of the Akhmatova Journals should serve as a spur to the excellent translation team and the publisher to bring out a second volume. This volume is a labour of love, a must for all lovers of Akhmatova's poetry, and is a treasure trove for those who want to get to know the woman behind the poetry, in the years that were so crucial for her art and life.

Richard McKane

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