BOOK REVIEW / Mummy, Pushkin and the devil: Marina Tsvetaeva - Viktoria Schweitzer trs H T Willetts and Robert Chandler: Harvill, pounds 20

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The Independent Culture
MARINA TSVETAEVA was born in Moscow in 1892. She hanged herself in remote Elabuga in 1941. Her 49 years spanned the Russo-Japanese war, the First World War, two revolutions, civil war, and the German invasion of Russia. All her life she was passionately apolitical, but politics destroyed her and her family; her husband was executed, her daughter was sent to a labour camp and her son disappeared. Another daughter died of starvation, aged two. She wrote obsessively, from childhood through 17 years of exile until the derelict months before her death. Now she is seen, with Alexander Blok, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak and Osip Mandelstam, as one of the great Russian poets of a generation whose common lot was tragedy.

Tsvetaeva believed that she was formed by her childhood, 'doomed to be a poet'. In the beginning there was warmth and comfort, a house in Moscow and one in the country, bathing and boating, mushrooms and berries, a large shaggy dog. Her father was a classical scholar, remote and gentle, her mother a despotic virago and a brilliant musician. Thwarted in her own ambitions, Maria Alexandrovna immersed herself in her daughters' intellectual development. She taught them French, German and music, took them to art exhibitions, and stressed the importance of spiritual values: 'money is filth'. Cocooned together in a great fur coat, they read fairy-tales and the German romantics. At five, Marina was reading Pushkin, and soon afterwards wrote her first poems. Though questions were not encouraged, and argument led to the fearful darkness of a locked lumber room, Marina and her sister Asya adored their mother; Marina believed that her outlook and her future were created by her mother, Pushkin and the devil.

When Marina was nine, her mother developed tuberculosis. They spent the next five years travelling, and Marina and Asya ran wild, despite occasional sessions at boarding school. They met expatriate revolutionaries. 'Can one be a poet and a party member?' inquired Marina. 'No' came the unhesitating answer. In 1906 their mother died and their father had a stroke. Childhood was over.

Back in Moscow, Marina was expelled from successive schools, abandoned her mother's cherished piano, fell in love with Napoleon, and set about meeting poets. Desolated by her mother's death, and confused by her new freedom, she yearned for a spiritual 'merging and dissolving' with some kindred spirit. She had some verses printed, and in 1910 brought out Evening Album, which was well received. A few months later, she was spending the summer with other writers in Koktebel in the East Crimea, a volcanic landscape of twisted red rocks overhanging a green sea where their host, who weighed 216lbs, disported himself in a roomy canvas smock with knee-length drawers.

Here she met Sergey Efron, son of revolutionaries, motherless like herself, tubercular. He was also beautiful, noble, the romantic hero she sought. In turn he saw that she 'was a genius and could not be like everybody else'. And so they married and had a beautiful baby daughter and lived happily for about three years, while Marina's literary reputation grew and Sergey finished (for God's sake) his schooling. Not content with this, he took up a university place. Not content with that, she embarked on a lesbian affair. Thus ended the idyll.

The Great War began and Sergey volunteered for the Front, leaving Marina to an increasingly tempestuous life in Moscow. Despite her lifelong affirmation that she was 'in Eternity a wife', she continued to have affairs and passionate friendships, most notably with Mandelstam and Pasternak, who represented the mythic poets of her aspirations. Many of her affairs may have existed in the abstract only. Even in the last months of her life she was in love, with a homosexual 30 years her junior whom she had never met. 'A man is invented and the hurricane begins,' Efron observed, using the image of a great woodburning stove, voracious for fuel, regardless of its quality. But beyond his own pain he was aware of Marina's self-delusion, and he remained constant to her, a lifebelt and a millstone, ultimately turning to the political intrigue which destroyed him.

It is clear that Tsvetaeva was a monster of egotism. Her relations with her children were appalling. She loved her first daughter obsessively, creating her in her own image, much as her own mother had done with her. Her second child, Irina, was frail and slow to develop; after a miserable infancy tethered to the bedpost or dumped in a corner to sleep under rags, she was left in an orphanage, where she starved to death. Marina blamed this on Efron's sisters and did not attend the burial. She excused her cruel neglect thus: 'If you find life easy, you can't believe that others are having a hard time.' Her son Mur resembled her and she idolised him; he grew up boorish and self-centred, treating her with contemptuous indifference.

Tsvetaeva was incapable of domestic life: 'How can one live with a soul in an apartment?' A thief who broke into said apartment was so shocked by its dereliction that he gave her some money. Yet outside that confine she was unfailingly generous, imbued with overwhelming sympathy for all human sufferings and a constancy to her ideals of fearlessness, loyalty, high aspiration and contempt for death. Her uncomplaining courage through years of terrible hardship and loneliness, her extravagant enthusiasm, her belief against all odds in the perfectibility of the human spirit redeem the dark side of her hyperbolic nature. And of course there are her extraordinary poems, described by Joseph Brodsky as a 'combination of Hart Crane and Hopkins'.

Viktoria Schweitzer's excellent biography is a model of its kind. There is no speculation, no recreation of private moments, no partisan lobbying. From 20 years of research and interviews Schweitzer uses only first-hand material and is scrupulously fair and unobtrusive. The pace is leisurely; landscapes, interiors, clothing and jewellery are described with glowing precision. Besides a bibliography and index, she offers a chronology and, most useful of all, biographical notes on the enormous literary cast. Peter Norman provides English versions of the poems, which are generally regarded as impossible to translate with verisimilitude. The simple answer is to make a New Year resolution to learn Russian.

(Photograph omitted)

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