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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

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