BOOK REVIEW / The singing flight of the frump: 'Tsvetaeva' - Viktoria Schweitzer, Tr. Robert Chandler & H T Willetts: Harvill 20 pounds

MARINA TSVETAEVA imbibed her mother's sublime Romanticism - adoration of art, music, literature and noble sacrifice - with the milk of her many wet-nurses. Her quiet father (who created what is now the Pushkin Museum) provided the wherewithal for servants, education and holidays in dachas, while her mother strode about announcing: 'Money is filth]' This was the springiest of launch-pads for the future poet who never really came down to earth, even though the revolutionaries burned down their Moscow house and ultimately wrecked her life. It is easy to see that someone like Tsvetaeva would have driven the Social Realists mad.

Her poetry ranks with Emily Dickinson's and Sylvia Plath's, but you wouldn't know it from the bits quoted here. In a biography of a great poet not well known to the English it is a mistake to start by quoting a poem as boring as

God placed me all alone

Amid the wide world

You're no woman, but a bird

Therefore: fly and sing.

Tsvetaeva is notoriously difficult to translate because of her palpitating rhythms, but Elaine Feinstein managed to capture the magnetism; it would be a good idea to get hold of her translations before embarking upon this biography, otherwise you might wonder what all the fuss is about. It would also help to quell any rushes of hostility that may come when you read about her neglect of her second daughter, over-indulgence of her only son and some of her more dubious behaviour.

As a child Tsvetaeva identified with the Little Robber Girl who ran wild and free. 'How can one live with a soul in an apartment?', she once asked, before life taught her that nobody could really live without one. At 19 she married Sergey Efron, a twin soul, to whom she remained faithful - in her fashion - all her life. Her first published collections were a wild success, and she became fashionable.

After the Revolution they fled to Prague, where Tsvetaeva had the affair - with Konstantin Rodzevich - that produced possibly her greatest poetry. Viktoria Schweitzer wonders naively what she could have seen in that ordinary chap, but you only have to read the relevant poems to sense the chemistry. She and her husband then moved to Paris, where her life was meagre and marginalised. The Russian emigres were mean to her because she would beat no political drum. Her tactlessness with people in power was endearing. Efron understood and accepted her need for sexual freedom, but her inadequacy with day- to-day realities was too much. She once wrote that externals always went wrong for her because she was not interested in them.

Schweitzer has done a very loving job, going to great lengths to uproot proof about the murkier areas and to interview survivors, including Tsvetaeva's many lovers. Not falling in love would have been abnormal for her. In her heyday Pasternak and Mandelstam loved her in different ways, and love was her metier, but she also wrote about other matters. The Rat Catcher, for instance, is so outstanding that it is hard to understand why the Paris literary world did not appreciate her. Perhaps it was hard to recognise a genius in the eccentric, grey-haired frump which she had by then become.

When Pasternak failed to warn her properly of what was really happening in Russia she returned, persuaded by her homesick family but against her prophetic instincts - and never wrote a line of poetry again. Soon, estranged from her son, with her surviving daughter in prison and unable to trace her husband (who had been exposed in Paris as a Soviet agent), she hanged herself.

Now that the Soviet regime has disappeared into history Marina Tsvetaeva will be made into an icon - not only because of her achievements, but because she was the quintessence of all that the Soviets tried to wipe off the face of the earth.

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