The Akhmatova Journals
Volume 1: 1938-1941
By Lydia Chukovskaya.
One of the attractions of lyric verse to Anna Akhmatova was its concealment. It is, she claimed, "the best armour ... you don't give yourself away". Nevertheless, her poems, in their willingness to take on not only the difficulties of love but also the enormity of revolution and war, link her inextricably with a particular period in Russian history, making it impossible to separate her life from her work. Although her style is economical and restrained, the logic of her verse associative rather than sequential, she became "the voice of many", the pronoun "we" replacing "I" as she recognised that her own fate and that of her country were somehow bound together.
A part of her remained incredulous of this development. At Tashkent during the Second World War, at a safe distance from what was happening to her beloved Leningrad, she wrote "Anyone Can Do What I Am Doing". It is a poem that turns ironically on the apparent detachment of her present situation. With characteristic intensity of understatement, she lists simple pleasures ("To go to bed, get up, eat a humble meal, / to sit on a rock by the road"), but the speaker's smile is strained. She wonders at her "miraculous fate" and why she can never quite get used to it, "as though it were a persistent, vigilant enemy".
So vigilant were her enemies in 1938, when these journals begin, that she dare not commit her poems to paper. To be killed for writing poetry, as Osip Mandelstam remarked, is a sign of unparalleled respect, proving that poetry in Russia was then a healing gift, something by which people lived. Lydia Chukovskaya, the daughter of an eminent writer and critic, had grown up in an environment where poetry was a part of everyday conversation. When she became friends with Akhmatova in the late 1930s, her skills at memorising made her invaluable as an amanuensis. While talking loudly about mundane things, Akhmatova would scribble hurriedly on scraps of paper. Chukovskaya would study these, then pass them back in silence. Akhmatova, while still remarking noisily on her neighbours or the weather, would bum them. In this way, she composed the cluster of poems entitled "Requiem" (1935-40), drawing on her experience of queues outside a Leningrad prison where her son and other victims of the Great Terror were held. Requiem existed at first solely in the heads of a few trusted friends and was finally published in Munich in 1963, without Akhmatova's knowledge.
Wanting to protest on behalf of her husband, who had been arrested, Chukovskaya went to Akhmatova in November 1938, hoping for advice. At this time, news arrived daily of some fresh arrests or deaths, yet the conversations that Chukovskaya began to record are primarily literary. Words such as "die", "shot", "banished", "queue" or "search", although frequent in their talk, could not be confided to a journal. In this revised and extended translation, Chukovskaya supplies footnotes explaining gaps or silences in the text, and names those whose identity at the time had to be obscured by the use of a single initial. In some instances, her memory fails her and she is unable to resurrect the facts alluded to in her journals. However, that we know so much about Akhmatova's life and thought at this time is largely due to this woman, who, like Akhmatova, lives and breathes poetry, her passion for it matched by her concern for accuracy and attention to detail.
"She came," the journal for 1939 begins, "in an old coat, a faded, crushed hat, coarse stockings." A few details Chukovskaya tells us about Akhmatova's living quarters - a single, ill-furnished, unswept room in a communal flat - make vivid her poverty at this time. She had earned nothing as a poet since 1925, when an unofficial Communist party resolution banned her work. She was paid a small sum in 1937 when her translations of Rubens's letters were published, but appears not to have noticed material advantages or disadvantages, having embraced a philosophy of poverty that left her free to concentrate on what mattered. She lived in domestic chaos and, in order to serve tea, had on every occasion to search her room for the necessary equipment.
Chukovskaya captures their inconsequential bookish gossip. Akhmatova's opinions could be wildly prejudiced, but Chukovskaya knew that "to argue with her about literature is unwise and unnecessary". She is appalled by Akhmatova's belief that in Anna Karenina Tolstoy wanted to prove that a wife who leaves her lawful husband prostitutes herself. She is also surprised by Akhmatova's dislike of Freud. ("All you see in those sexual arguments and myths is the reflection of the stagnant, stale, provincial milieu in which he lived.") But she is fascinated when Akhmatova suggests that a Mauriac novel compels not with its truthfulness or accuracy, but because it is contemporary: "It makes you feel as if some long-awaited friend had just greeted you over the phone. And you succumb to the familiar voice automatically."
There are moments when Akhmatova reminisces about her past, its messy relationships and their effect on her writing. More importantly, there are new poems to communicate and larger problems to consider. With war impending, the restrictions against writers are relaxed and she is given permission to publish a collection of poems "From Six Books". It causes a sensation, but is soon withdrawn from sale and from the libraries. She is dogged by ill health and, in October 1940, suffers a heart attack and is, again, vilified publicly.
Yet, however difficult her circumstances, she remains alert to the grief of others, one of her poems memorably commemorating the silence that reigned after the fall of Paris. This and other poems alluded to in the journals are included in an appendix, translated by Peter Norman, while, in addition to the author's detailed notes, there is a glossary of names for readers unfamiliar with Russian nomenclature and institutions.
Frances Spalding is the biographer of John Minion and Stevie Smith