Anna Akhmatova by John Simon

“Poetry is what gets lost in translation," observed Robert Frost, and was only partly right. The thrust and sweep of epic poetry translates well enough: there is no dearth of decent translations of Homer, Virgil, Dante. Philosophical poetry also survives quite well: Eliot's “Four Quartets”, for example, has been successfully rendered into a number of languages. Lyric poetry is the one that has the most to lose.

There is, obviously, the problem of rhyme. Unrhymed poetry fares much better in translation: Walt Whitman reads just about as well (or poorly) in French or German. Even as delicate an unrhymed lyric as Leopardi's "L'infinito" has thrived in English. But rhyme is a killer. With elaborate rhyme schemes, tricky rhyming words, and short lines (dimeter, trimeter), the difficulty increases exponentially. Think of Byron's “Don Juan”, or this, from Heine: "Sie sassen und tranken am Teetisch,/ Und sprachen von Liebe viel./ Die Herren, die waren ästhetisch,/ Die Damen von zartem Gefuhl." Verses 2 and 4, with their masculine rhymes, are no problem: "And talked about love and such" and "The ladies who felt so much." But 1 and 3 are impossible: the splendid joke lies in rhyming, femininely at that, Teetisch and ästhetisch, "tea table" and "aesthetic." Failing this, you've got nothing.

But there are poems untranslatable not because of their intricate rhyme scheme, rich rhymes, or fancy prosody. There exists something even more basic. In my doctoral dissertation1 I quote from the journal of Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly for September 19, 1836: "[Maurice de] Guérin est venu. Causé de la poésie des langues, qui est toute autre chose que la poésie des poètes." I commented: "Languages have their intrinsic poetry, a poetry they yield to the proper touch with gracious forthrightness." This is the kind of objet trouvé that certain words or sequences of words offer up to the poet, as blocks of marble supposedly suggested to Michelangelo the figures he would hew from them.

Take the last lines of the beautiful "Jàrkàlj csak, halàlraitélt" (Keep walking, condemned man) by the great Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti, which, after giving the contemporary poet various ways to live, concludes with "S oly keményen is, mint a sok/ sébtöl verzö, nagy farkasok." Literally: "And as roughly, too, as the from many/ wounds bleeding, great wolves." (The Hungarian "s," by the way, is our "sh.") What is a translator to do, confronted with these darkly resonant sounds? Shoot the poem in the foot, or himself in the head? There is no way "great wolves" can render the mighty rumble of nagy farkasok. {Nagy, incidentally, is a monosyllable, not unlike our nudge.) This is the poésie des langues, the poetry inherent in the sounds of a language's words, and it is this more than anything that makes a poet such as Anna Akhmatova virtually (virtually? totally!) untranslatable into English.

Consider the opening quatrain of a three-stanza poem of 1921, which the poet dedicated to her friend Natalya Rykova. The "literal" prose translation in Dimitri Obolenski's “Penguin Book of Russian Verse” runs: "All has been looted, betrayed, sold; death's black wing flickered [before us]; all is gnawed by hungry anguish - why then does a light shine for us?" Peter Norman's translation reads: "Everything is ravaged, bartered, betrayed,/ The black wing of death has hovered nearby,/ Everything is gnawed through by hungry gloom,/ Why then did we feel so light of heart?" Stanley Kunitz manages to get one rhyme into his translation: "Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold,/ Death's great black wing scrapes die air,/ Misery gnaws to the bone./ Why then do we not despair?" With all due respect, Kunitz would never have published such poetry under his own name. Finally, here is the version of Walter Arndt, one of our principal rhyming translators from the Russian: "All is looted, betrayed, past retrieving,/ Death's black wing has been flickering near,/ All is racked with a ravenous grieving,/ How on earth did this splendor appear?" 

This seems passable at first glance, but look now at the original: "Vsyo rashishchenyo, predano, prodano,/ Chernov smyerti mel'kalo krilo,/ Vsyo golodnoy toskoyu izglodano,/ Otchego zhe nam stalo svetlo?" There is no way the sonorities of that very first line can be conveyed in English, especially the play on predano, prodano. And not even the supposedly literal version does justice to the simplicity of the last: "Why then did it become light for us?" with stalo and svetlo again creating an echo effect. Russian poetry is a poetry of sound effects par excellence, because Russian is a sonorous, declamatory language; this is what those latter-day stadium-filling poets - the Yevtushenkos, Voznesenskys, and Akhmadulinas - called "pop poets" by Akhmatova, were to exploit to her disgust. 

And yet she, too, benefited from big public readings at various times in her life. For Russia is that rare country in which poetry is loved by the masses, a country where simple folk quote poetry at one another and discuss it as people here do football game. Because they often declaim in huge auditoriums and stadiums, Russian poets have adopted a vatic mode of recitation: part hieratic, part histrionic, loud and singsongy. It was Mandelshtam who reproached one of the most stentorian perpetrators with, "Mayakovsky, stop reading your verse. You sound like a Romanian orchestra." But the vatic mode is still with us. And even such a Westernized poet as Joseph Brodsky, Akhmatova's dearest disciple and protégé, subscribes to it wholehearted! This vatic mode, in turn, battens on the “poetry of languages," as the Acmeists, the group of poets to which Akhmatova belonged, certainly did. The Poets' Guild, as the Acmeists called their splinter group from the Symbolists, believed, as Max Hayward puts it, that "language was like any other material, and in fashioning poetic artifacts from it, one had to take account of it; natural qualities and limitations."2 

Anna Andreyevna Gorenko was born in Odessa in 1889, but was moved as a tot to St. Petersburg, living mostly in Tsarskoye Selo, the delightful suburb whose most fame inhabitant had been Pushkin, to whom future poet was to dedicate many searching critical-historical studies. Her father was a naval engineer; she was the third of five children. One brother was killed in the Revolution, another committed suicide; both beautiful sisters died of tuberculosis, from which only a thyroid condition saved Anna. 

When Papa Gorenko bemoaned that the tomboyish girl would become a poet and thus besmirch the family name, the seventeen-year-old changed her name to Akhmatova, as having descended on her mother's side from the Tartar ruler Akhmat, himself a descendant of Genghis Khan, and the last leader of the Golden Horde. As Joseph Brodsky writes in his essay "The Keening Muse" (1982),3 "the five open “a's” of Anna Akhmatova had a hypnotic effect and put this name's carrier finally at the top of Russian poetry." In 1905, Anna's parents divorced, and she finished the gymnasium first in Yevpatoria on the Black Sea, then in Kiev. A crush Anna had on a handsome student at St. Petersburg University remained unrequited. She herself quit her law studies and eventually yielded to the persistent and protracted wooing of the poet Nikolay Gumilyov (1886-1921), whom she married, lovelessly, in 1910. The marriage lasted three years, and produced Anna's only child, Lyov.

It was a strange marriage, with infidelity on both sides, but also real love from Gumilyov. Nikolay at first dismissed his wife's verse as insignificant, advising her to become a dancer instead. But upon his return from a lengthy trip to Africa, he was genuinely impressed by Anna's new poems, and told her she must publish a volume. Soon Gumilyov, Akhmatova, and Osip Mandelshtam became the mainstays of a new movement that a hostile critic dubbed "Acmeist." Gumilyov was executed in 1921 for his alleged part in a counterrevolutionary conspiracy, an affair that remains opaque; Mandelshtam died in the gulag in 1937. Akhmatova survived - often precariously - till 1966, and never renounced Acmeism, indeed becoming more Acmeist as she grew older. It was a poetry of the here and now, eschewing both the mysticism of the Symbolists and the radicalism (often, but not always, political) of the Futurists.

When Anna left Gumilyov after three years, it was because she had fallen in love with Vladimir Shileiko, an Orientalist of stature. Being married to him meant becoming his research assistant while also holding down a librarian's job at the Agronomic Institute. Needless to say, this impeded her own writing. Nevertheless, her verse collections, “Evening”, “Rosary”, and “White Flock”, made the young Akhmatova one of the most popular poets of Russia, and this reputation was confirmed by “Plantain” (or “Wayside Herb”, the Russian word carries both meanings), and “Anno Domini MCMXXI”, to say nothing of such later masterpieces as “Requiem” and “Poem Without a Hero”. What did she look like? There are many likenesses of her by various artists. Too bad that of Modigliani's sixteen drawings (Anna and Amedeo had a touchingly innocent flirtation when she was honeymooning in Paris with Gumilyov) only one survives. The poet Georgy Adamovich writes: "When people recall her today, they sometimes say she was beautiful. She was not, but she was more than beautiful, better than beautiful. I have never seen a woman whose face and entire appearance - whose expressiveness, genuine unworldliness, and inexplicable sudden appeal - set her apart . . . among beautiful women anywhere. Later her appearance would acquire a hint of the tragic: Rachel in “Phedre”, as Osip Mandelshtam put it. ..." Or, to quote Ronald Meyer, “Virtually every account refers to the poet's grandeur, regal bearing and stately demeanor. The adjective velichavaya (stately, majestic, regal) functions as a code word for Akhmatova." And he quotes an eyewitness, a woman who saw her in 1910 in the poet Vyacheslav Ivanov's literary salon: "Lithe, tall, and svelte, her head wrapped in a floral shawl. The aquiline nose, her dark hair with the short bangs in front and held in place in back with a large Spanish comb. The small, slender mouth that seldom laughed. Dark, stern eyes. [Others call them bright gray.] It was impossible not to notice her."

"A fine, unpretentious woman" Pasternak called Akhmatova in a letter to his cousin Olga Freidenberg. Yet the unpretentious woman was justly proud of her looks, as when she told Natalya Roskina that "sculptors had no desire to sculpt her because she wasn't interesting to them: nature had already done it all." Her nose, by the way, was not aquiline but, even more imposingly, shaped like a big fleshy "S." And consider this tribute from the great satirist Yevgeny Zamyatin, commenting on Annenkov's painting: "The portrait of Akhmatova - or, to be more exact, the portrait of Akhmatova's eyebrows. Like clouds, they throw light and heavy shadows on the face, and in them, so many losses. They are like the key to a piece of music; the key is set, and you hear the speech of the eyes, the mourning hair, the black rosary on the combs."4 

After the breakup with Shileiko (another three-year marriage) in 1921, Anna moved in with two Petersburg friends, the composer Artur Lurye (or Lourie) and the actress Olga Glebova-Sudeikina, a famous beauty. (A "sex-bomb," Nadezhda Mandelshtam contemptuously called her.) This may well have been a sexual ménage à trois; at any rate, it induced a creative outburst in Anna. Years later, her longest and most renowned work, “Poem Without a Hero”, was to take off from the 1913 suicide of Vladimir Knyazov, a young cadet whom Anna loved, but who loved and was rejected by Olga.

Her fame having peaked around 1921-22, Anna was due for a reaction. Blok died after a painful illness, and Gumilyov was executed for his alleged counterrevolutionary activities, both in 1921. Akhmatova's fifth volume, “Anno Domini MCMXXI”, appeared in 1922, after which she published no other book till 1940. Attacks on her multiplied, and there was a ban on publishing her. Lurye and Sudeikina emigrated to Paris and, like other friends, urged Anna to follow suit. She refused and, in one of her finest poems, explained why. Instead, she moved back in with Shileiko, from whom she was divorced, but who traveled much, and whose St. Bernard needed looking after. 

The poet's health was precarious: tuberculosis plagued her, and, later, heart attacks. While convalescing in a pension in Tsarskoye Selo, she met again Nadezhda Mandelshtam, ten years her junior, with whom she was to be linked in lifelong friendship. She also met Nikolay Punin, the critic and historian, who was to become her third husband, though the marriage was never officially registered. Although she was to stay with him fifteen years ("fifteen granite centuries" she calls it in a poem), the marriage as such probably didn't last longer than the usual three years; but where else was she to go? This despite that a previous Punin wife and, later, a subsequent one inhabited the same house. And as with Shileiko, Anna became an amanuensis to Punin, helping him with translations and lectures. Arrogant and promiscuous, he treated her worse; yet when asked later on which husband she loved most, she implied that it was Punin. After the Central Committee's unpublished but binding resolution that she was no longer to be printed, Akhmatova worked on her unsubsidized Pushkin studies and on translations, which were allowed her. The Thirties were dominated by Stalin and Yezhov’s Great Terror. Anna was staying with the Mandelshtams in 1934 when Osip was first arrested; soon Punin and Lyov, Anna's son, were imprisoned too. They were released upon Akhmatova's petition to Stalin, who liked her poetry, which may eventually have saved her own life. Lyov was to be in and out of prison for much of his life; Mandelshtam, re-arrested, died in the gulag in 1937, as Punin did later on. 

Between 1939 and the outbreak of World War II, Akhmatova's fortunes were low, indeed. The critic Korney Chukovsky noted that she didn't even have a warm coat, or, often, enough money for the streetcar. It was at this time that Chukovsky's daughter, the writer Lydia Chukovskaya, met Akhmatova and became her Boswell. She kept “The Akhmatova Journals”, three volumes in the original, of which we now have the first, 1938-41, as translated by Milena Michalski and Sylva Rubashova. with fifty-four poems - those mentioned in the text- Englished by Peter Norman.5

There is something very unsatisfying about having to read these journals on the installment plan. An important character such as Vladimir Garshin, a physician and professor of medicine, and at this time Anna's lover, will appear frequently in these pages, but a footnote on page 21, barely identifying him, concludes: "For more details on him, see “Journals”, vol. 2." Yet the reader should know more. When, like other artists in wartime, Anna was evacuated to Tashkent (whither she traveled clutching the precious manuscript of Shostakovich's “Seventh Symphony”), she conducted a loving correspondence with Garshin, although he wrote relatively infrequently, and then often about other women. Finally, however, he proposed marriage. Anna not only accepted but even agreed to his request to drop her own proud name and become merely Garshina. When she arrived in, as she put it, "the hungry and cold city of post-blockade Leningrad," Garshin met her at the station and chillingly asked where she wanted to be taken. She named the old Punin apartment. "He took me there, said goodbye at the entrance, and kissed my hand. We never saw each other again. ... I know very well how relationships are ended, and thank God, I've done it myself a thousand times. But this was simply incomprehensible." Garshin, it turned out, was already married. There are other problems with Chukovskaya's notes. When a new figure appears, a footnote directs you to an endnote. But it is often not the endnote you expect, which should be, let's say, number 19. Instead, you're directed to look ahead to, say, note 64, where this person is dealt with more extensively. Thus later, when you legitimately get to note 64, you find yourself rereading what you've already read. It is fortunate that the publisher, at the last minute, added a glossary, as it were annotating Chukovskaya's notes. But confusion thrives in other ways, too. The dramatis personae appear in three guises: with their full names, i.e., first name, patronymic, and last name; or, thereafter, first name and patronymic; or, often, nickname only - or diminutive of the nickname. So when on a given page a Nikolay Ivanovich (i.e., Khardziev, the poetry specialist and historian) jostles a Nikolay Nikolayevich (i.e., Punin), and then a Nikolay Stepanovich (i.e., Gumilyov) pops up, it's hard to keep them apart. When we next hear the nickname Kolya, it might take even a Russian reader a while to figure out which Nikolay is meant. Of course, it turns out to be yet another: Kolya Demidenko. Still, one should not be put off. “The Akhmatova Journals” begins with a moving prologue in which Lydia Chukovskaya tells about how she lost her husband to the gulag; how she, too, might have lost her life but for a friend's warning phone call; and how her having a husband in the camps brought her closer to Akhmatova, who had a son there. The conversations she doesn't dare report in her journal are the many ones about these and other cherished prisoners; instead, there is much talk about writers and writing, and about the trivia of daily life. Especially poignant is the evocation of the way much of Akhmatova's poetry, unsafe to commit to paper, survived: “Anna Andreyevna,6 when visiting me, recited parts of "Requiem" ... in a whisper, but at home in Fontanny House did not even dare to whisper it; suddenly, in mid-conversation, she would fall silent and, signaling to me with her eyes at the ceiling and walls, she would get a scrap of paper and a pencil; then she would loudly say something very mundane: "Would you like some tea?" or "You're very tanned," then she would cover the scrap in hurried handwriting and pass it to me. I would read the poems and, having memorized them, would hand them back, to her in silence. "How early autumn came this year," Anna Andreyevna would say loudly and, striking a match, would burn the paper over an ashtray”. But already from the outset of the book, in its English translation, we see sloppiness creeping in. Thus the code name the women used for the secret police is given on one page as Pyotr Ivanich; on the next, as Pyotr Ivanovich. Or there'll be a comment such as "Paul was murdered in that room," without any explanation in footnote or endnote. Again, in May 1939, Anna tells us how much she admires Joyce's “Ulysses”, even though it's a mite too pornographic for her; she has read it four times. By October 1940, she tells of reading this "great and wonderful" book six times. Could she have read that difficult work two more times in seventeen months? Was she given to exaggeration? Did her mind wander? Chukovskaya doesn't say. 

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