Saturday, 9 June 2018

Anna Akhmatova

Most big cities have at least one essential literary or artistic pilgrimage to make, and in the case of St.Petersburg this was for me, without question, the Anna Akhmatova apartment museum. Despite their obvious artificiality, I like to visit the houses and apartments of creative figures preserved as museums. A room has a personality which is more or less permanent; it has an orientation and a volume, as well as doors and windows, all determining how much light and air are admitted, and how private or public the space is – important in an apartment, like this one, shared with rather more occupants than it was originally intended for. To stand in a room and allow that personality to work on you is a real form of connection with its former inhabitants. If original furniture, pictures, and possessions are present, so much the better.

If you don't know Akhmatova's story or her work there's plenty on the Web, but this Poetry Foundation summary is a pretty thorough introduction. Akhmatova embodies something essential about Russia, both its tragic twists and turns in the 20th century, and its edgy love-hate relationship with the arts, especially poetry. As another great Russian poet, her friend Osip Mandelstam, declared (prophetically in his case), "Only in Russia is poetry respected, it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?" Akhmatova was a survivor, however, who endured the worst, including the Siege of Leningrad and the Yezhovshchina Purges, and yet who chose to stay in the Soviet Union, in St.Petersburg, despite everything. A great beauty in her youth, much admired, courted, photographed, and painted, I actually think I prefer the gritty granny Akhmatova who lived into the mid-1960s, still writing, finally getting the recognition she deserved (including an honorary degree from Oxford), still uneasily at odds with the various paranoias of the Soviet authorities.

So I am pleased to say that I have now stood in the space where her great poem about the experience of the Great Terror, Requiem, was written, or rather, composed, as it had to be committed to the distributed memory of trusted friends, rather than written down, for fear of further persecution by the authorities. But I think my preference is for the short, lyrical work, such as this very famous one:

You will hear thunder and remember me,
And think: she wanted storms. The rim
Of the sky will be the colour of hard crimson,
And your heart, as it was then, will be on fire.

That day in Moscow, it will all come true,
when, for the last time, I take my leave,
And hasten to the heights that I have longed for,
Leaving my shadow still to be with you.
1961-63, translation by D.M. Thomas

The poem is very beautiful, spoken out loud in Russian... Uslýshish grom i vspómnish obo mne, / Podúmaesh: oná grózy zhelála... [1] Thomas's translation loses both the rhyme scheme and the incantatory rhythm of the original, and I'm not convinced by the literal sense he makes of the second stanza, but what do I know? Here's another, this time translated by Judith Hemschemeyer, which also loses the rhymes and rhythm, but seems to get the sense right:

The Last Toast
I drink to the ruined house,
To the evil of my life,
To our shared loneliness
And I drink to you–
To the lie of lips that betrayed me,
To the deadly coldness of the eyes,
To the fact that the world is cruel and depraved,
To the fact that God did not save.
June 27, 1934
Translation by Judith Hemschemeyer

Memorial to Mandelstam, seen from Akhmatova's window

The museum itself is a nice combination of rooms left in (or restored to) their original condition, and a surprisingly hi-tech gallery with interactive displays of manuscripts, books, and artefacts. And unlike, say, the Brownings' flat in Florence I visited in 2016, there is a steady stream of visiting literary pilgrims and curiosity seekers. For lovers of poetry, Akhmatova has a special place: she represents the ability of the poetic impulse to survive and thrive, despite the most brutal attempts to stamp and starve it out. True art is not a delicate, decorative affair, but a virus, or a vigorous weed. The museum is well worth a visit, should you ever be in St. Petersburg, if only to see what a Soviet-era apartment looked like; but there surely must be some special magic to be had in seeing your face reflected back from Anna Akhmatova's own mirror.

1. It's an interesting question, which had never occurred to me before, how far the poetic "voice" is affected by a heavily gender-inflected language like Russian. In other words, where the "I" of a poem is female, all the verbs, adjectives, etc. are inflected to indicate this (and similarly for a male voice). If read out as written, a poem by a member of the opposite sex must sound oddly like an impersonation, surely? This is, of course, never a problem in English, but to an extent must affect, say, French or German. Anyone have an informed view on this?

No comments: