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
BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital moveTV
Final Top Gear reviewTV
FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets
Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Tunisia hotel attack: Locals form 'human shield' to protect hotel from gunman Seifeddine Rezgui
- 2 German ethics council calls for incest between siblings to be legalised by Government
- 3 French woman dies in freak bungee jumping accident
- 4 Greece crisis: Crowdfunding campaign crashes Indiegogo, raises half a million in just three days
- 5 Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck to divorce and end their 10-year marriage
The Rolling Stones announce biggest ever touring rock exhibition with Saatchi Gallery
Glastonbury 2015: The best bits you missed from Lionel Richie and the Dalai Lama to The Libertines' secret set
Glastonbury 2015: The picture of a man crowd surfing in a wheelchair is brilliant, but it wasn't taken at Glastonbury
Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James' Twitter Q&A didn't exactly go as planned
Glastonbury 2015: Shocking scenes of rubbish left strewn across campsite as clean-up begins
The moment a Queen's Guard soldier lost it and drew his gun at annoying tourist
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
Greece crisis: The wider lesson is that it’s time to abandon this failed experiment in currencies
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Pentagon accuses Russia of 'playing with fire' over nuclear threats towards Nato
They are neither a 'state' nor 'Islamic': Why we shouldn't call them Isis, Isil or IS