: Observer
: June 12, 1994

A chamber where poetry can secretly burn

Anna Akhmatova was a great, proscribed poet. Andrew Motion reviews the journals of a friend who saved her poems for her.


First the bad news. The Akhmatova Journals are not hitherto unknown journals kept by Anna Akhmatova herself. They're journals by her friend Lydia Chukovskaya -which describe the growth of their friendship, contain a great deal of information and preserve poems Akhmatova was compelled.to dictate rather than transcribe during the Terror. Their existence has been acknowledged for some time, but because Chukovskaya's name was banned until recently, their authorship and authentic texts have been withheld. This is the good news. At last we can see Akhmatova as Chukovskaya saw her - admiringly but clearly - at a critical time in her life.

It was a relationship begotten in distress and lived in fear. When Chukovskaya originally met Akhmatova, she had recently returned to Leningrad after a year of flight, concealment and loss. We're told that it was 'business' which first brought them together, but it was literature which held them close. Chukovskaya instantly asked her to 'recite some of her poems'. Akhmatova obliged, in an 'even, almost colourless voice', and Chukovskaj set her phenomenal memory to work, becoming a kind of secret chamber for Akhmatova - a walking manuscript book, which hostile spies could not prove or read.

Elsewhere in the Journals Chukovskaya is modest about her purely mental achievement, let alone her courage and loyalty, but at this initial meeting she gives a glimpse of what was involved:

I left her late. Walked in darkness trying to recall the poems. I had to remember them then and there, from start to finish, because already I could not let them go, even for a second. Where words had slipped my mind, I put in my own to keep the metre and, in response, from somewhere deep in the recesses of memory, these unworthy words lured out the real ones. I remembered everything, word for word. But later, while getting washed and ready for bed, I could not recall a single step down the road.

Inevitably this sort of devotion sometimes subsides into heroine-worship and at others erupts into a comic jealousy of rival fans. But usually Chukovskaya's eye is sharp and her ear exact. 'I maintain', she says, 'that where I have put words in quotation marks, I wrote them without translating them into the language of another generation.

There's a biographical advantage to all this. Rather than serving up pensées immaculately, Chukovskaya gives us a distinctive human voice, creating its own precise context. Akhmatova speaks from her shabby room, lying under a thick blanket or sitting imperiously among shadows, in a language filled with proud self-confidence, but also with hurt. The impression we get is of someone immensely strong-willed but also doomed - doomed to endure the ravages of her time, strong-willed enough to act upon them.

If Peter Norman, who translated the poems, had done as Judith Hemschemeyer in the Complete Poems (Canongate, 1992), we'd see this duality more clearly. But he works too strictly in 'the language of another generation'. He makes Akhmatova's grand themes look like municipal buildings, and her fiery lyrics sound temperate. Hemschemeyer begins one of the 'Two Poems' from Evening (1912) like this: 'Both sides of the pillow/ are already hot. / Now even the second candle/ is going out, and the cry of the crows/ gets louder and louder. /I haven't slept all night.'

Norman brings this down to: 'On both sides /The pillow has grown hot /Now the second candle/Burns out, and louder grows /The cawing of the crows. /1 did not sleep that night'.

Milena Michalski and Sylva Rubashnova, who translated the main body of the Journals, provide the urgent intimacy missing here. We catch the dynamic dogmatism of Akhmatova's judgments - on Joyce ('very remarkable'), Tolstoy ('she starts to hate' Anna Karenina), Hemingway ('a great writer; I hate his fishing, though'). We detect the pain in both women's stubborn celebration of their inner lives.

And celebration is the journal's dominant and final mood. It ends with Chukovskaya and Akhmatova meeting in October 1941, Tsvetayeva dead, their own miseries intensifying, but Akhmatova still 'watching, watching'.

Harvill don't say when we can expect volumes two (1952-1962) and three (1963-1966), but everyone who reads this book will want to know what the faithful Chukovskaya sees her seeing.

Andrew Motion

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