The Most Dangerous Art: Poetry, Politics, and Autobiography after the Russian Revolution

Article excerpt

Donald Loewen. The Most Dangerous Art: Poetry, Politics, and Autobiography After the Russian Revolution. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008. xii, 224 pp. Bibliography. Index. $65.00, cloth.

Donald Loewen opens his study with the somewhat rhetorical-at least in the Russian context-question: "Could the act of writing poetry, or of identifying oneself as a poet, be a courageous or even heroic act?" He proceeds to answer that question by examining five prose autobiographies of three of Russia's "big four" poets of the 20th century-Boris Pasternak, Osip Mandel'shtam, and Marina Tsvetaeva. Through a series of close readings of these prose works-interspersed at times with analysis of complementary poems-Loewen provides the first attempt in English to address these poets' responses to rapid changes in literary policies and politics in the first decades of Soviet rule. To an educated Russian of a certain age, this question would likely-and automatically-generate an affirmative response, but the question bears additional scrutiny for younger generations of Western readers and scholars, who are the most likely beneficiaries of Loewen's scholarship.

Loewen's approach is chronological and, following a first chapter, in which he briefly surveys poetry's changing fortunes in the 1920s, he moves on to a discussion of Osip Mandel'shtam's 1923 work, The Noise of Time [Shum vremeni]. Chapter Three addresses Boris Pasternak's Safe Conduct [Okhrannaia gramota], which appeared in serialized form between 1929 and 1931, first in the journal The Star [Zvezda], and then in Aleksandr Voronskii's Red Virgin Soil [Krasnaia nov']. Chapter Four returns to Mandel'shtam and the increasingly combative stance that followed the recriminatory Kornfeld affair, which involved charges of plagiarism against the poet and resulted in his writing the unpublishable Fourth Prose [Chetvertaia proza] in the 1930s. Chapter Five examines two of Marina Tsvetaeva's extraordinary childhood memoirs Mother and Music [Mat' i muzyka] and The Devil [Chert], while the final chapter returns to Pasternak's late (1956) autobiography People and Propositions [Liudi i polozheniia].

Loewen's approach in The Most Dangerous Art provides a synthesis of the familiar and the original: each chapter opens with a summary of earlier scholarship on the increasingly difficult situation for writers during the Soviet Union's first forty years, then proceeds to often passionate but informed analyses of the autobiographical works in question. …