Carcanet 9.95 (124pp) 9.45 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

The Russian Jerusalem, by Elaine Feinstein

Poets in Wonderland

It is hard to classify Elaine Feinstein's inventive and ambitious new book on the great Russian poets of the early 20th-century "Silver Age". Formally, it combines fiction, memoir, history and autobiography. The text comes studded with poems and illustrations. This plurality beautifully matches and expresses the theme of imaginary quest across barriers and boundaries, even those of death.

Feinstein, one of our best-known poets, is also a translator and biographer of Russian writers. Just as she refers over and over again to their work for inspiration, so she constantly returns to their homeland, and so her story spirals as her mind does down into the imagination and around the past, onwards through the 20th century into the present.

Arriving in St Petersburg in September 2005, Feinstein rents a flat "in a poor area... a dark courtyard with unexpected holes going down to the plumbing". As curious as Alice, she avoids falling down a manhole. She enters the unknown depths of the Russian world another way, through the acknowledgment of personal loss. Musing on widowhood, her Jewish Russian forebears, her childhood in Leicester, the power of love and friendship across centuries, she visits the legendary cellar The Stray Dog, where all the poets used to meet after the theatres closed. A poetry-loving policeman points her to the underworld and gives her Marina Tsvetaeva as companion and guide.

Whereas, in The Divine Comedy, Virgil is able to direct Dante towards a vision of Paradise, the dead poets in Russian Jerusalem remain stuck in the circle of hell created by Stalin's purges of the 1930s. The only way out, she seems to suggest, is to read their poetry and try to learn history's lessons. A ghost from the future, amiably haunting the past, zigzagging through time as memory does, Feinstein meditates on Mandelstam, Pasternak, Babel, Brodsky, Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva herself: their genius, courage, quarrels and compromises. Tenderly, she gives us portraits of flawed human beings.

The Russian Jerusalem accepts death and then promptly, exhilaratingly, challenges it. Exuberantly inventive, Feinstein bursts through the walls separating categories of thought and writing. Her prose is plain, her grammar sometimes elliptical. You feel her wanting to witness history, rather than impose herself on it.

Then emotion jumps up as memory does; incoherent feeling is transformed into language. Sensual imagery makes the pages leap alive. Odessa is "a city of acacia trees and cafs, dumplings and seed bread". Feinstein's grandfather wears cardigans that "sagged at the back and he smelled of peppermint and snuff... drank lemon tea from a glass in a metal holder, holding a lump of sugar in his mouth". Elegiac, original and exciting, this is an intensely moving and provocative book.

Michle Roberts's memoir 'Paper Houses' is published by Virago

Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral