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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.
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