Magazine article The Spectator

Poets under Surveillance

Magazine article The Spectator

Poets under Surveillance

Article excerpt

Poets under surveillance MOSCOW MEMOIRS by Emma Gerstein, translated by John Crowfoot Harvill, £25, pp. 512, ISBN 1860468837

Without a doubt, Moscow Memoirs is an extraordinary book, one of those literary memoirs that comes along once a decade. Emma Gerstein, in her nineties when she published it, has shed completely new light on some of the most important poets and writers of the 20th century, providing previously unknown biographical details, some of which will lead to new interpretations of their work. The book has been beautifully translated, introduced and annotated by John Crowfoot, one of the great translators of Russian to English.

Having said that, I would caution readers: the poets and writers in question were Russians living in Stalin's Soviet Union, a civilisation as remote from ours as the moon. To find this book completely gripping, as I did, you have to care quite a lot about the main cast of characters, mainly the poet Osip Mandelstam, his wife and biographer Nadezhda Mandelstam, the poet Anna Akhmatova and Akhmatova's son, the historian Lev Gumilyov.

You also have to be aware of the obsessive reverence which is normally bestowed upon these four figures in Russia. For Moscow Memoirs is not at all reverent - and therein lies its charm. Gerstein was a contemporary of her protagonists, and intimately involved with all of them. She was a close friend of the Mandelstams, so close that they once attempted to involve her in a ménage à trois. She was also Lev Gumilyov's lover. After he was sent to Stalin's concentration camps, she became close to his famous mother, and even attempted to patch up her relationship with Gumilyov when it became shaky in later life. She had many opportunities to view these four cultural icons up close, and she doesn't mind disturbing the golden haze that normally encases them all. Indeed, she seems positively to relish it.

When this book was published in Russian, it was loudly attacked by people who felt Gerstein was looking for 'revenge', and accused her of defaming the dead. But in fact the book succeeds not because it is negative but because it humanises its main characters, and in doing so brings to life the strange atmosphere of 1930s Moscow. Osip Mandelstam is usually portrayed as his wife described him in her biography, Hope Against Hope, a book that became a Soviet underground classic: as a martyr, as a victim of Stalin, as a lone voice crying in the wilderness. And Mandelstam did indeed die in a camp, having been arrested for writing a poem that slandered the dictator:

But while not taking anything away from Mandelstam's tragedy, Gerstein's portrait of him is more nuanced. …

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