Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Anna Akhmatova's Muse

"Neither despair nor shame. Not now, not after, not then."

"That late-night dialogue turned into the delicate shimmer of interlaced rainbows."

"And that door that you left half-open I don't have the strength to slam."

My life story, like yours perhaps, could theoretically be told 100 different ways. But I can only tell my story one way: from the perspective of someone who lost his mother at a relatively early age. If I were to write my memoirs, the memoirs of a Russophile blogger, I'd essentially be telling the tale of my mother's absence. By exiting the story when I was only 14 years old, my mother, paradoxically, became the central figure of my life. The chapters of this tale are fragments of a tragedy, dimensions of loss. Accordingly, I couldn't write my autobiography chronologically. I'd need to write the same story ten times over. In chapter one, I'd describe the delightful evolution of chronic gastrointestinal ailments related to the psychosomatic impact of my mother's departure. The characters--my angry stomach, my self-pitying small intestine, my sorrowful large intestine--would be lively and sympathetic.

In chapter two, I'd describe how my past and present lives never seemed to get along: a long-standing and bitter feud between my hopeful present and devastated past always seemed ready to erupt. Chapter three would be a catalog of worry: the reader, who might well regret the absence of plot points and character development, might nevertheless enjoy a long and leisurely tour of everything in life one can be frightened of if only one surrenders to an all encompassing anxiety about the future. Chapter four, which is really a continuation of chapter three's rich theme, would detail how an ordinary person can, under the right circumstances, move through life despite often crippling levels of cowardice. What of chapter five through ten? Well, truth be told, they are not so cheery as the previous four chapters and are, therefore, too personal to relate. The whole work will have to be fictionalized for this one to come out.

The Russian poet Anna Akhmatova's life story is, objectively speaking, tragic even when measured against the high standards many other famous and not-so-famous Russians previously set in this lamentable category of human achievement. Her first husband, Gumilyov, was executed by the Bolsheviks on trumped-up charges. Her second husband, Nikolay Punin, perished in the gulag, where her son spent the prime of his adult life. Akhmatova self fell victim to a sustained, state-sponsored attack on her poetry and her person. She was called, famously, part nun and part whore, which somehow doesn't now translate in anything one could possibly be ashamed of. No matter--the term wasn't meant as a compliment and she knew it.

The triumph of Akhmatova's life is that, despite one or two regrettable odes to Stalin's grandeur written under duress, she never really compromised with the Soviet regime, either on a political level of at the level of her art. They say that Pasternak was like this: notwithstanding all of the horrors of the Soviet twentieth century, Pasternak didn't let either pessimism or cowardice or fear distort his essentially objective artistic outlook. Is perspective the essence of a poet's genius? Notwithstanding the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, life remains a spectacular mystery, bigger than any mortal's catalog of complaints, no matter how long or grim.

Aside from poetic imperturbability, Akhmatova possessed a powerful imagination. It's in this context, that her complex and artistically charged relationship with Isaiah Berlin should be seen. Berlin, a Russian Empire-born diplomat turned Oxford intellectual historian and philosopher, only met Akhmatova a couple of times. The principle meeting, which caught the attention of the Russian secret police and perhaps led to Akhmatova's ostracism by Soviet cultural authorities, was ill-starred. It was impermissible for Russians to meet with foreigners, and especially foreign diplomats, under any but the most tightly controlled and scripted scenarios. Still, according to the Hungarian writer Gyorgy Dalos' subtle book, The Guest From the Future: Anna Akhmatova and Isaiah Berlin, Berlin emerged from the first meeting with a profound respect for the poet who had once almost personified Russia's Silver Age. And Akhmatova, the artist, came away with something more: a new muse.

In her vivid imagination--which would seem absurd if the poems didn't demonstrate the honesty and profundity of her ideas related to Berlin--the meeting with this "Guest from the Future" had profound personal as well as cosmic implications. This Guest was both her lover and a symbol of the West, which had once again become anathema to Moscow in 1947 . The meeting itself, she told others, inspiring the Cold War. The exaggeration, if that's the right word for it, seems forgivable in the context of artistic creation. In any event, as Dalos demonstrates, Stalin and other leading Soviet authorities did in fact take a direct interest in Akhmatova and Russians then and now seem to accept that somehow Akhmatova's version of events, no matter how poetic or literary, trumps the truth of her detractors.

1 comment:

  1. To all of those who are interested in the poetry of Anna Akhmatova, please visit my website:, where you'll find her poetry translated into English, collections of her books, and links other useful resources.