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The Passion of Anna | The Nation

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The Passion of Anna

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Feinstein rehashes the tired comparisons between Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva, making much of the former's physical frailty and the latter's hardiness. "Unlike Akhmatova," she writes, Tsvetaeva "was able to saw wood, light fires, wash potatoes in icy water." In their own lifetimes, such comparisons had irked both poets. "I can do everything," Akhmatova archly informed Lydia Chukovskaya one evening. "And if I don't do it, it's just out of spite."

About the Author

Elif Batuman
Elif Batuman is a doctoral candidate in literature at Stanford University. She is also a contributor to the literary...

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For prose scholar Viktor Shklovsky, who lived by the
code of style and studied its depths, an unhappy love affair can be as
much a personal tragedy as a plot device for more writing.

Yet for Feinstein, Akhmatova was frail and beautiful, Tsvetaeva robust and tomboyish; Akhmatova was restrained, Tsvetaeva wild. "Akhmatova kept her dignity even in the face of tragedy; Tsvetaeva showed her emotions nakedly," Feinstein writes--a statement so simplistic as to mean barely anything at all. And Feinstein contradicts it, in a discussion of Evening: "Although [Akhmatova] cleverly hides which man her poems were written about and may well have collapsed several figures into one, all the lyrics expose undignified emotions." It is strange enough for a biographer to accuse a lyric poet of undignified emotions; it is even stranger, given Feinstein's overall investment in Akhmatova's dignity. Worse, this observation reveals Feinstein's belief that Akhmatova's poems were all written for various men, and that her job as biographer is to determine what was written for whom--a fundamentally antagonistic exercise, an effort to "expose" what Akhmatova had been able to "cleverly hide."

Feinstein makes a pretense of scholarly evenhandedness, dropping phrases like "a biographer must acknowledge" and unconvincingly playing devil's advocate ("[These lines] could, of course, be read to imply quite unfairly that Gumilyov was himself a sadist"), all the while practicing the most tiresome form of literary analysis: Is this poem about Boris or Vladimir? Was it "composed after a marital quarrel?" Or does it tell us whether she had sex with Modigliani? At one point, unable to decide which man a given poem is based on, Feinstein concludes: "It is as if she has infused the poem with her own disappointment, and given it fictional intensity." Well, yes--that's what poets do.

This kind of analysis is all too typical of the genre of literary biography--as is, in my experience, her extremely poor command of rhetoric. Feinstein writes "however" when she means "moreover"; the supporting sentences do not support the topic sentences. Her syntax is so convoluted that even very short sentences require multiple readings ("In those queues the February Revolution of 1917 which deposed the Tsar was born"). Her word choice verges on the bizarre: Hitler, she writes, "ingested Austria and Czechoslovakia"; elsewhere she claims that Akhmatova "did not approve the Nietzschean idea of an elect beyond Good and Evil"--as if the thing had turned up on her desk one morning to be rubber-stamped. (Feinstein doesn't approve the Nietzschean ideal either, and describes Akhmatova and her friends as "amoral"; of the period between 1917 and 1919, she writes, "these two years of Akhmatova's life were at once frivolous and amoral.")

Akhmatova's life is fascinating material, but Feinstein doesn't seem particularly interested in it. There is scarcely anything resembling "local color": Petersburg, Moscow, the Black Sea all come across like empty stage sets. Paris, we learn, contains the Eiffel Tower, the Latin Quarter, the Ballets Russes, some fruit and vegetable stands, and Modigliani; but where is the Paris Akhmatova wrote about, the city redolent of "petrol and lilacs"? Tashkent gets barely two sentences, and yet Akhmatova had never been so watchful as during her Central Asian exile. "She notices far more than I do," Chukovskaya recorded on the train to Uzbekistan:

She keeps pointing things out to me.... "An eagle!... It's landed on that mountain over there! Look--a river, it's yellow!"... Blue carriages of the Moscow metro, buried under the snow. Eagle-eyed Anna Andreevna pointed them out to me.

Feinstein's description of Tashkent--"Brown-skinned women offered oriental sweetmeats and flat white loaves of bread in an eastern marketplace"--is reminiscent of the worst kind of Symbolism, with its vague exoticism and banal color scheme. Just Akhmatova's luck, I thought, to find a biographer who is a Symbolist--or perhaps one who is simply boring. Feinstein doesn't write a single specific sentence about Moscow, but she devotes these three to the science of Akhmatova's heart condition: "Angina is a symptom of a condition called myocardial ischemia. It occurs when the heart muscle (myocardium) does not get as much blood (hence as much oxygen) as it needs. This usually happens because one or more of the heart's arteries is narrowed or blocked."

What local color there is in this book is supplied by Feinstein's Britishness, the understatement and stiff upper lip, most evident in the descriptions of the war years. She writes that 1938 was "a long, terrible year." Hitler's invasion was "swift and merciless"; "Stalin was astonished and appalled" by the French nonresistance; "Akhmatova was altogether dispirited." British patriotism flashes through at unlikely moments. Feinstein objects, for example, to Akhmatova's description of her father's mistress as "practically a hunchback": "This was cruel and unfair, because in fact Yelena Andreyevna was an unusual woman, and attended Oxford University."

Feinstein's biography is presumably intended to replace or supplement Roberta Reeder's 1994 Poet and Prophet; in a pinch, I would still go for the Reeder. Reeder's account is more lucid and detailed, and her translations are more literal. To my ear, they sound better as well. It's not that Feinstein had no reason to write her book. New materials have surfaced since 1994, notably the Moscow Memoirs of Emma Gerstein, Lev Gumilyov's friend and lover, as well as memoirs by Vladimir Garshin and Akhmatova's friend the comic actress Faina Ranevskaya. But Feinstein's taste for dreary household squabbles, of which there was no shortage in the days of cramped communal apartments, prevents her from deriving anything interesting from these memoirs. She is too set on trying to resolve hopeless questions, like whether Lev was justified in his "passionate bitterness" toward his mother.

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