WEIDENFELD & NICOLSON, £20. ORDER FOR £18 (FREE P&P) ON 0870 079 8897
Anna Of All The Russias: The Life Of Anna Akhmatova, by Elaine Feinstein
Russian, a poet, and better than beautiful
Tuesday 06 September 2005
Unlike Bunina, Akhmatova gained swift acceptance as a poet. Pre-revolutionary St Petersburg gave her the free-thinking milieu where it was possible for a talented woman to seize the privileges of a man, especially if she was beautiful. Akhmatova, according to one commentator, was "better than beautiful". Modigliani conjured her angular, arrogant, iconic presence, together with a whole artistic era, in his portraits and sketches.
She moved as an equal among male intellectuals, married several times, had numerous lovers, and attracted a female "court". She had some valiant protectors during the years of poverty and ostracism, who helped by memorising poems that had to be burned.
The poet's story is the biography of 20th-century Russia. Akhmatova's first husband was arrested on a flimsy counter-revolutionary charge and shot in 1921. At the height of her fame, she fell prey to the cultural commissars. By her mid-thirties, she was denounced as an aristocratic "relic". Stalin's terror brought imprisonment for her son Lev. Starving, tubercular, frantic with worry, Akhmatova stayed put and, somehow, continued to write.
Her early genius for emotional truth-telling gave force to her later witness. Akhmatova was a pioneer of female poetics, as important as Virginia Woolf or Jean Rhys in fiction. She dramatised autobiography into lyric, at a time when there was no fashionable cloak of the "persona".
Like the five previous biographies, this one targets the general reader. Feinstein moves at a lick, and commits a few factual errors. Akhmatova's literary quality, like Pushkin's, is hard to convey in English. Feinstein provides workmanlike translations, and explains Akhmatova's aesthetic in simple but effective terms. She is also good on Akhmatova's quarrels.
But this strong ego looks outward as well as inward. Friends are fed in their hunger, nursed in their sickness. From her mid-career travails to rehabilitation in the 1950s and dignified death in 1966, Akhmatova emerges as, in the best sense, an aristocrat.
Carol Rumens' Poems 1968-2004 is published by Bloodaxe
Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing
Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 East 17 bandmember Brian Harvey in 'very desperate situation’
- 2 Is this bridge haunted by the ghost of nu rave?
- 3 Woman filmed launching racist tirade against men on the Tube for speaking in 'own lingo'
- 4 The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
- 5 Scientists have discovered a simple way to cook rice that dramatically cuts the calories
Britain's first cinema flickers back to life following £6m refurbishment
A historian gave the most British look of despair when someone screwed up Richard III's birthday at his reburial
James May hints Top Gear days are over following Jeremy Clarkson's BBC exit
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
James May hints he will not continue on Top Gear without Jeremy Clarkson
Ukip supporters are 55 or older, white and socially conservative, finds British Social Attitudes Report
JK Rowling responds to fan tweeting she 'can't see' Dumbledore being gay
Jeremy Clarkson sacked live: Alan Yentob 'wouldn't rule out' ex Top Gear host's BBC return
David Cameron calls Labour 'hopeless, sneering socialists' while announcing 7-day NHS plans
The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
Revealed: Putin's army of pro-Kremlin bloggers