Such a gay little sinner

ANNA AKHMATOVA: Poet and Prophet by Roberta Reeder, Allison & Busby pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
"...IN her eyes, her bearing, in her treatment of people, one of the main features of her personality became apparent: her dignity. Not conceit, not arrogance, not insolence, but dignity based on the invincible feeling of the great importance of her mission as a writer." Thus one of the innumerable sketches quoted in this massive biography, which brings a great 20th century poet closer to us than ever before.

She was born Anna Gorenko, near Odessa, in 1889. Father was a naval engineer and philanderer. Mother was kindly, intelligent, rich, impractical. Both had connections with the "People's Will" and reformist politics. They separated when Anna was 16 in 1905, a year of personal and national upheaval.

She grew up in the Tsar's Village, Tsarskoye Selo, near St Petersburg, and was associated with the city for the rest of her life. As a child she was called a "lunatic" because she read so much and was given to bouts of sleepwalking. She grew up to become "an elegant young woman with a charming frail figure, long, thick straight black hair like seaweed, with beautiful white hands and ... an almost deathlike pallor on her carefully carved face... She was a sparkling water sprite, an avid wanderer on foot, climbed like a cat, swam like a fish" - which rather cancels out, or at least modifies, the bookishness. Someone remarked later that inside her correct and classical north-Russian manners there was a wild child of the Black Sea. There was also Tartar blood, which led her to choose a Tartar nom de plume when her father said that her poetic scribblings would bring disgrace on the family name.

"A tsarina or, perhaps, only a capricious child" wrote her first husband, the poet Nikolay Gumilyov, and this duality was echoed in Eikhenbaum's notorious description of the persona in the early love poems as "half nun, half whore". Petersburg at the turn of the century was a hotbed of aestheticism, mysticism and eroticism, not unlike our own fin de siecle cavortings - think Yellow Book, BLAST, Bloomsbury, the "smart set" - but with a broader intellectual sweep to it and ever-present guilt over the medieval plight of the poor. The Russian intelligentsia coupled like rabbits, preened like peacocks, and took their material privileges for granted. Gumilyov even managed to fight a duel at the place where Pushkin had been shot. No wonder Mayakovsky bellowed that they all deserved to be thrown in the rubbish bin. Hence revolution seemed like a good, indeed an inevitable, idea.

By the late teens and early twenties, Akhmatova had made her name as a poet, had an affair with Modigliani in Paris, and given birth to her son Lev, whose fate was to cause her so much grief. By all accounts she was a hopeless mother and housewife, just like her contemporary, Tsvetayeva, and Lev was largely brought up by relatives. Love affairs came thick and fast, also like Tsvetayeva, though in other ways the two couldn't have been more different; so did the search for husbands, who seem like a series of companionable semi-father figures: the Assyrian scholar Shileiko, the musician Arthur Lourie, the art critic Punin, the professor of medicine Garshin (both of these last already married, with families of their own), the composer Kozlovsky.

There was also the mysteriously intense encounter with Isaiah Berlin, just after the war, whose importance to both of them seems out of all proportion to the few hours they spent in each other's company. Berlin had a Fool in tow, in the shape of Randolph Churchill shouting his silly head off outside in the garden, which adds a grotesque poignancy to this meetings of minds between East and West.

Akhmatova once said that Shakespeare's tragedies were negligible compared with what Russia had been through, and in one sense it's true. The revolution, the protracted civil war, collectivisation, the Great Terror, World War Two and the barbaric siege of Leningrad, the Thaw, the unthaw - these things can be named but they are beyond "Kafkaesque" and past comprehension. The "gay little sinner of Tsarskoye Selo", as she once called herself, was also, in Mandelstam's prophetic words, her country's Phaedra, and its Cassandra too. "Fate did not leave anything out for me", she said in 1965. "Everything anyone could possibly experience fell to my lot." In a late poem she recited to Robert Frost she says "Lord... I am tired of living, and dying, and resurrection." One turns from her life and poems to such contemporary western thunderbolts as Martin Amis's mid-life crisis with incredulity.

The "combination of helplessness and authority" inspired some, including many staunch friends of both sexes, and infuriated others. There is no doubting her stature, however, as one of the century's great poets and witnesses. From the early lyrics to the great "Requiem" to the Eliotics of "Poem Without a Hero" and the classical stoicism of the late quatrains she fuses the psychological acuity of Russian prose with the classical chime of hard-edged poetry, contemporary yet-immemorial, world within world. "In Tsvetayeva's poetry suffering pours over the edge, seizes the reader with pain and trembling", a grateful reader wrote to her; "But here suffering is overcome, and this is the reason for the great victory of the artist, a moral and aesthetic victory... What you possess is not reconciliation, but the power to endure..."

"In essence no one knows what epoch he lives in", she had written when young. She lived long enough to help define that epoch, to impress all her great contemporaries, to meet Solzhenitsyn ("A bearer of light") and to witness the beginning of the end: "two Russias stare each other in the eyes: the ones that put them in prison and the ones who were put in prison".

Roberta Reeder's prose is not especially cogent, and nor is her literary criticism, but this 600 page Life is distinguished by its thoroughness and its comprehensive account (particularly valuable to those who don't read Russian) of all those other poets and artists who shaped her life and milieu, together with vivid sketches of the modernist movements and literary wars that led up to and away from the shenanigans in the Stray Dog Cafe.

Akhmatova translates best of the big 20th- century four, to my ear, but don't look for any mellifluous-sounding equivalents here. Reeder has chosen literalness and utility and that, like her painstaking research, has its own authority. I was left wondering whether the so-called Silver Age wasn't actually more startling and brave, more prodigal of talent and perdurable goodness than the Golden one of Pushkin and Gogol.