Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Anna of all the Russias

I've just finished reading Elaine Feinstein's biography of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, lent to me by a good friend. It was superb. I love Anna's poetry, having devoted over two years researching her and a 1970s Australian poetry translation project involving poets Rosemary Dobson, David Campbell, translators Natalie Staples, Robert Dessaix and others. My visual arts honours work was an artist's book based on this research.

Feinstein's book takes you deeply into the soul of Russia. Akhmatova was a famous poet in pre-revolutionary times, and was witness to the Revolution, suffering through and surviving Stalin's atrocities. Born in 1889, she died in 1966, having lived through an amazing piece of history, and proudly bearing witness to it with open eyes and a genius for expressing how it felt.

This is a famous Akhmatova quote, something she wrote as a kind of preface to her poem, Requiem:

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad [trying to help her imprisoned son]. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind was a young woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had of course never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there), 'Can you describe this?' And I said, 'I can.' Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.

A lot has been written about Akhmatova, and there are many translations of her poetry, readily available on the net.

Feinstein has the advantage of newly-accessible documents found since the collapse of the Soviet Union. So she has diaries, letters, confiscated manuscripts. She is also a wonderful writer, evoking the feel of the times extremely well. I'm constantly amazed at how resilient yet fragile humans are. Anna was one of the only writers of her generation to survive Stalin, but she did it with a lot of help.

Now that the ride is over I feel like I want to stay in that period and mood, and so have started reading Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward, which has been glaring at me from a shelf for years waiting for the right moment.

If you really want a buzz, go here and click on the MP3 that lets you listen to Akhmatova's voice reciting in Russian. It's like having a time machine. I finished the book and within an hour was listening to her voice. God I love the internet.

Anna of All the Russias: The Life of Anna Akhmatova, by Elaine Feinstein (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005). Only in hardback at present. I'll be buying my own copy!

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