ANNA AKHMATOVA: SCRIPTS, NOT SCRIPTURES
Review of: Roberta Reeder. Anna Akhmatova. Poet and Prophet. New York: St. Martin's Press. 1994. 619 pp. $35.00 (cloth).
Alexander ZHOLKOVSKY (USC, Los Angeles)
This is a beautiful book. The jacket (design by H. Yee) features the fascinating N. I. Altman portrait of Akhmatova, her photograph by Moisei Nappelbaum graces its spine, while the hard cover is embossed with an outline of the Modigliani sketch. It is also a solid book. The Bibliography (556-602) reflects the eight decades of Akhmatova reception, including the spate of publications around and since the poet's centennial in 1989; there is also a helpful Index of names and concepts (603-619). The book is well researched; according to the jacket, it was "in the works for ten years."
Roberta Reeder has produced the poet's most complete biography to date, three times as long as the late Amanda Haight's Anna Akhmatova. A Poetic Pilgrimage (New York, 1976), which has been since translated into Russian. In her Acknowledgements and Notes, she credits the many scholars on whose research and help she relied. By far the most important is the contribution made by Roman Timenchik, in his numerous articles and the remarkable five-volume mini-edition of Akhmatova's verse spliced with documents, memoirs, and contemporary criticism: Desiatye gody. Posle vsego. Requiem. Poema bez geroia. Photobiographiia, ed. by R. D. Timenchik and K. M. Polivanov, with V. Ia. Morderer and M. D. Timenchik (Moscow, 1989). Russians can also boast impressive collections of memoirs (among them: Ob Anne Akhmatovoi: stikhi, esse, vospominaniia, pis'ma, ed. by M. M. Kralin [Leningrad, 1990], henceforward OAA; and Vospominaniia ob Anne Akhmatovoi, ed. by V. Ia. Vilenkin and V. A. Chernykh [Moscow, 1991], henceforward VAA). Yet, the honor of authoring Akhmatova's first comprehensive biography goes to a non-Russian. It is undoubtedly "a labor of love" (D. M. Thomas, on the jacket) by a veteran Akhmatovian, who has edited and introduced the two-volume bilingual Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, trans. by Judith Hemschemeyer (Somerville, Mass., 1990).
The book's Prologue, thirteen chapters, and Epilogue follow AA's arduous life's journey in short spans geared mostly to the corresponding periods in the cultural-political history of her country (e. g., "The Twilight of Imperial Russia: 1914-1917"; "The Great Terror: 1930-1939"; "The Thaw: 1953-1958"), with two chapters organized around the poet's interactions with renowned fellow poets (Pasternak and Brodsky) and one containing lengthy commentaries on the Poem Without a Hero, her most obscure and disputed work.
Akhmatova's biography need not be recapitulated here. Nor will I raise the highly problematic issue of tightly versified poetry, such as Akhmatova's, being discussed in prosaic translation. Nor--try to list the minor mistakes a number of which are inevitably found in a book this long and informative (Bruni becomes Burni, Bugayev--Bogayev, Sklifosovsky--Skilfosovsky, the Akhmatovs--the Akhmatovas, "Mat' Akhmatovoi"--"Mat [!] Akhmatovoi," Giancarlo Vigorelli--Juan Carlo Vigorelli, Riazan'--a place "in the south," Pushkin's The Stone Guest--a "poem," and so on). The book is clearly worth its price, it is a useful teaching and reference tool, and will probably be quite popular with the enlightened reading public at large. It is, therefore, all the more important to examine the kind of Akhmatova image it creates.
Creates--or, rather, relays and propagates. Roberta Reeder's approach to biography writing is disarmingly simple. "Image creation" is not part of her active vocabulary. Nor are "constructed self," "poet's personal myth," "discourse strategies," "charismatic power," and the like (although some references to "insecurities" stemming from a difficult childhood in a troubled family do appear early on [2-3], as do sporadic mentions of role-playing at its most obvious). This comes as a surprise in a 1990s biography of an heir to the Silver Age masters of zhiznetvorchestvo ("life's art") and a powerful woman poet renowned for her superb skills--in verse and life alike--of self-mythologizing and survival. Not that such concepts have failed to reach our field, as is witnessed by Gregory Freidin's 1987 book on Mandelstam, Irina Paperno's 1988 book on Chernyshevsky, Svetlana Boym's Death in Quotation Marks: Cultural Myths of the Modern Poet (Cambridge, Mass., 1991), the more recent collection Creating Life: The Aesthetic Utopia of Russian Modernism, ed. by Irina Paperno and Joan Grossman (Stanford, 1994), and other studies developing, in the current post-structuralist light, the seminal insights of Lidiia Ginzburg and Iurii Lotman. Indeed, the demythologizing spirit has already made itself felt in Akhmatova studies, e. g., in Beth Holmgren's Women's Works in Stalin's Time: On Lidiia Chukovskaia and Nadezhda Mandelstam (Bloomington, 1993; Akhmatova's "scripting of women's unofficial roles" looms large in the book, and her photo-silhouette, on its cover), in Catriona Kelly's A History of Russian Women's Writing: 1820-1992 (Oxford, 1994; pages 207-223 are a hard-headed survey of Akhmatova's manipulative appropriation of women poets' roles), and, of course, in the numerous writings that reflect and sometimes identify her power games (see especially Anatolii Naiman, Rasskazy ob Anne Akhmatovoi [Moscow, 1989], now available also in English; and S. K. Ostrovskaya, Memoirs of Anna Akhmatova's Years 1944-1950 [Liverpool, 1988], a gap in the book's sources, perhaps deliberate, replete as it is with shrewd, often hostile observations by a junior contemporary).
The author's relative naivete is all the more striking because her subject was quite explicit about managing her own cult. Akhmatova envied Viacheslav Ivanov's ability to impose his image on his groupies (Lidiia Chukovskaia, Zapiski ob Anne Akhmatovoi, vol. 2 [Paris, 1980], 451-452; Reeder notes Akhmatova's "reservations" about Ivanov--"a 'fisher of men'" , but not her rivalry and apprenticeship with him) and on many occasions displayed an acute awareness of the malleability of the biographical text (e. g., that of Baudelaire and, closer to home, of Gumilev, the compilation of whose biography she supervised in the 20s): "She understood that the putting together of such a biography is the same as work of art... the same kind of creativity (takoe zhe tvorchestvo) as any other" (P. N. Luknitsky, Vstrechi s Annoi Akhmatovoi, vol. 1 [Paris, 1991], 233). Akhmatova assessed Osip Mandelstam's martyrdom as an "ideal" poetic destiny (Naiman, 10), and reacted to Joseph Brodsky's trial in 1964 with the provocative quip: "What a biography they are making for our red-headed one--as if he had hired someone to do it." Remarkably, this famous line, reported by many (see M. Ardov, "Legendarnaia Ordynka," Chistye prudy. Al'manakh. 1990 [Moscow, 1990], 676; Naiman, 10, 142), did not find its way into the chapter on Akhmatova and Brodsky.
That Ahkmatova was not above "ghosting her own biography" (Kelly, 219) is no secret. She edited her schoolmate Valentina Sreznevskaia's memoirs about her (VAA, 5-19) and then had Sreznevskaia rewrite them in her own hand (I. N. Punina, VAA, 27), thus borrowing several pages from Gertrude Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. She prevailed upon a sculptor to remove the realistic bulge from the back of the neck of her portrait (Vasilii Astapov, OAA, 407), and insisted on her right to act as the definitive akhmatoved (Naiman, 88). One of Akhmatova's major coups of self-presentation was usurping the role of Gumilev's "widow"--while his last legal wife was still alive (Kelly, 218). (This feat of both throwing the cake away and having it was later repeated by N. N. Berberova, who had abandoned Khodasevich but later reaped the attendant glory; one is also reminded of Stalin's habit of having himself spliced into Lenin's photographs, as well as his threat to the overly humanitarian Nadezhda Krupskaia: "If you insist on misbehaving, we will appoint someone else Lenin's widow.")
All this is meant not as vituperation against Akhmatova, but as a sobering reminder of the kind of problems one is up against here. No less than three kinds of narratives have to be distinguished:
1. The stories about the persona, i. e. stories that confirm and enhance the artistic image, created by Akhmatova herself.By failing to draw these and similar distinctions, the biographer inevitably falls into the traps set by her sophisticated subject. Roberta Reeder's love of Akhmatova turns her into the latter's pawn, a disciple dutifully taking down a holy writ posthumously dictated--authorized, as it were, by the Akhmatova estate. Indeed, while the actual estate was squandered away by the Punins, Akhmatova's spiritual legacy has become a powerful cultural institution, of which the book under review is a product. Love tends to be blind, and one wonders whether the "labor of love" label is a good recommendation for a scholarly biography. Perhaps a little healthy mistrust and detachment might have served the biographer better.
2. The stories about the actress... who created her own persona and who sometimes treated this activity with... irony.
3. Finally, the stories about Akhmatova the person... who engaged and quite often did not at all engage in the above, with irony or without" (K. Verheul, "Neskol'ko posleakhmatovskikh vospominanii," "Svoiu mezh vas eshche ostaviv ten'..." Akhmatovskie chteniia. 3, ed. by N. V. Koroleva and S. A. Kovalenko [Moscow, 1992], 49).
The image of Akhmatova the book conveys is a winning amalgam, preprogrammed by the poet herself, of three stereotypes: aristocrat, prophet, and heroic opponent of the regime. To begin with, Akhmatova was "not an aristocrat by birth" (D. E. Maksimov, VAA, 108)--no more than she was Gumilev's widow or, for that matter, an Akhmatova. (No wonder she so resented being referred to as Gorenko, her family name [Kornei Chukovskii, VAA, 59], or, indeed, by any other than "Anna Akhmatova.") She came from an unremarkable gentry family, her princely Khan Akhmat lineage was clouded in legend, her haughty Tsarskoe Selo identity was a received one (Chukovskii, VAA, 55), the family having settled there as modest outsiders (Valeriia Sreznevskaia, VAA, 5]), and so on.But if there exists such a thing as a self-made aristocrat, Akhmatova was one. She invented her name (whose dubious Genghiside aura was compensated for by its Slavo-Turko-Finno-Ugric ring, so demographically correct in the Russian Empire); created appropriate personalities for herself; cultivated monarchist childhood memories (Naiman, 13-16) and imaged herself alongside venerable statues and in memorable venues; dwelt in palaces (for a while in two at once--Mramornyi and Sheremetev, a. k. a. Fontannyi), whose modest accommodations were outweighed by the glamour they gave her datelines; outlived most of her celebrated contemporaries, accumulating, as they receded into legendary past, their fame (Chukovskii, VAA, 59-60, Naiman, 217); survived practically the entire Russian nobility and gentry, who either emigrated or were exiled from the capitals; and lived to be labeled "the first lady of the Empire," this time the Soviet one (Chukovskaia, 16-19).
Nor was she a prophet, in the real sense. To be sure, "poet and prophet" is a venerable alliteration, good for a subtitle, and Anna Akhmatova, addressed as Cassandra in a Mandelstam poem (111-112), endowed with a sharp, almost telepathic intuition, and being a poet of genius, had the wherewithal for cultivating the prophet image. Reeder obediently quotes Akhmatova's own carefully remembered and retold examples of her "prophesying," e. g., about Gumilev going down a staircase as if to an execution (141). However, if an anecdotal refutation of her prophethood is needed, her famous calmness, stemming from blithe unawareness, on the day of the 1946 Central Committee's Decree is one. Akhmatova was not a prophet for two simple reasons: her obsession with herself (only natural in a poet) and her fixation on the past, not the future (again, fine for a poet, especially a neoclassicist, whose master theme was "memory"; would Proust qualify as a prophet?). Accordingly, the only thing she expected from the future was her eventual re-recognition--which she did live to enjoy.
Akhmatova's essential conservatism--the opposite of prophethood--also manifested itself in her prescriptive ranking of books, artists, cities, pastimes, conversation topics. "A clearcut formulation: - The best city in the world [is] Paris, the best country in the world, Italy" (Ardov, 675). "For me, Dostoevsky is number one [samyi glavnyi]. And in general, he is number one" (Nataliia Roskina, VAA, 533). (One reason for her affinity to Dostoevsky may have been the "cruelty" of his talent; see Susan Amert, "'Predystoriia': Akhmatova's Aetiological Myth," Anna Akhmatova 1889-1989, ed. by Sonia Ketchian [Berkeley, 1993], 23]). Akhmatova seldom revised the canon, with the notable exception of demoting Chekhov (whom she could not forgive his consistent deflation of theatrics and hierarchical pomp; cf. Naiman, 42, Nataliia Il'ina, VAA, 584).
Finally, as a victim/foe of Soviet officialdom, Akhmatova was different from her great contemporaries: Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, or even Maiakovsky. A victim by proxy through repressions against N. S. and L. N. Gumilev and N. I. Punin and in person through decades of silencing and vilification, she was very circumspect in voicing her dissent and navigating her way back to official acceptance in later years (N. Mandel'shtam, VAA, 303, 305). Unlike the other four, she did not emigrate, practice literary disobedience, or commit suicide. She was much too wise and detached in her role-playing for that. And it is precisely as a "survivor dissident" that she has been so representative of and, therefore, acceptable to the Soviet (now post-) intelligentsia.
These were not failings but rather achievements on the part of Akhmatova, whose poetry, personality, and life form a consummate cultural artifact. But it is a failure for a biographer to take such artistic constructs at face value instead of analyzing their elaborate underpinnings. Thus, Reeder's book is both adulatory and short on appreciation.
The constructedness of Akhmatova's personality and its power dominant did not elude the shrewd critical eye of N. N. Nedobrovo, whose 1915 and only article about her she treasured. He wrote about Rosary:
A very strong book of power-full (vlastnykh) verses... A desire to imprint oneself on the beloved, somewhat coercive (nasil'nicheskoe)... An unrequited love... which by its ability all of a sudden to disappear instantly induces suspicion of inventedness (vydumannosti).... Akhmatova's very voice... displays a lyrical soul that is harsh rather than too soft, cruel rather than tearful, and obviously domineering rather than oppressed..." (in Naiman, 238, 250-253).'Powerful faking,' under the guise of 'pitiful softness,' is a fitting formula for the self-centered play-acting Akhmatova excelled at. Here is a vignette displaying several of her typical games at once. I was sick. I had a fever. I was lying in bed. A visitor brought me a bag of candies and started pouring them into a bowl. Without turning my head and opening my eyes, I asked: "The sixteen-ruble sort (Shestnadtsatirublevye)?" I recognized them by the sound. (Ardov, 674)The story, told in Akhmatova's first person and reported by an admirer, is in all likelihood true; moreover, it resembles innumerable other Akhmatova stories. It is, however, more instructive than flattering. First of all, it features Akhmatova in her favorite lying-down position, which makes her the center of attention, pity, service--and her bed, the seat of power. Service, by an anonymous male visitor (posetitel'), does not fail to materialize. Sick and helpless as she strives to appear (devoting three sentences to her condition), Akhmatova cannot let the Other have the last word and reacts by performing a mini-miracle of divination. For that, she need not make the slightest effort, so that the conventions of both ailing and clairvoyance are observed. No effort, that is, but that of delivering a dramatic line, crafted with her trademark laconicity: Shestnadsatirublevye is both a one-word, incomplete, trailing-off noun phrase and a long, three-part compound, offering an accurate description of the modest, yet tasteful object in question--a fitting punch-line for this little Acmeist gem of an episode. (Slapping a price-tag on the gift--a taboo in Russian culture, especially when the price is low, as is the case, if I have my dates and ruble rates right,--is, of course, a further put-down of the Other.) This masterful performance requires an audience, which is supplied by the one-man retinue on hand and supplemented first with the narratee(s) of the story and then with us the readers of the same as a recorded piece of Akhmatoviana.
I emphasize the thespian in Akhmatova (over the script-writer and director--her other power-generating selves) not just because this suits best the histrionic metaphor of her behavior but also because what we know about her suggests a personal void often found in actors. Not only did she like to impress and be the royalty (played, as the theatrical wisdom goes, by the courtiers), but she was also desperately afraid of being alone--whence her urgent calls at all hours to Chukovskaia and others, summoning them immediately to her side (see, in particular, Margarita Aliger, VAA, 363-364). The same fear is also discernible in her habit of living, traveling, staying, visiting, the company of others: her strangely extended family (the Punins) and her (mostly women) friends/assistants--both practical helpers and keepers of her poetic oeuvre (memorizers of verse and providers of punctuation and an occasional mot juste for her poems; see Holmgren, passim).
Roberta Reeder's treatment of Akhmatova is uncritical not so much in her sometimes leaving out negative testimony but rather in assuming, even as she tries to paint an "objective" picture, that Akhmatova is by definition right. For instance, relating the story of Akhmatova's failed engagement to V. G. Garshin (279-281), Reeder tells
- how "young and radiant" Akhmatova looked on the eve of their anticipated marriage in May 1944;The last lines serve as the story's effective closure, the "mad dog" version having been prepared by the spin given the break-up by Budyko. The blame is respectfully but squarely laid at Garshin's doorstep. In general, despite all the fairness in reporting (thus, Reeder does not fall into the trap of treating "the other woman" as a cheap young gold-digger), this is an Akhmatova script, dominated by her star performance and relegating Garshin to the role of a defeated villain. Moreover, this script is prompted by Akhmatova and her "camp" after she herself has destroyed all the independent evidence--a breach-of-promise suit that probably would not stand up in court but raises no doubts in the biographer. In any case, by striving to vindicate the heroine, the scenario fails to reveal the real drama, implicit in the text but glossed over rather than highlighted.
- how calmly she reacted to his informing her right on the platform that the plan was off;
- that she "did not let her Moscow friends know immediately what had happened" and only much later sent Nina Ol'shevskaia "a telegram... a typical Akhmatova text--concise, yet full of innuendos the reader would have to decipher... Three weeks [later]... another telegram arrived: 'Garshin is mentally ill... I'm telling only you. Anna'";
- that she then destroyed all their correspondence and "also removed the dedications she had written to Garshin in Poem Without a Hero and other poems," did not want to hear his name mentioned and shut him out of her life completely";
- that the break-up resulted from their separate sufferings: "Anna Andreevna had gone through a lot of difficult times, but... she was 'animated, transformed, young and lovely.' But Garshin, who had lived through the blockade, was very sick at this time and carrying the heavy burden of psychic drama. It would take a long time to restore his health, and he did not have this time" (280-281, quoted from Iu. I. Budyko);
- that "Garshin had an affair with a woman doctor during the war (not a nurse, as Haight suggests), who was the same age as Akhmatova, and whom he married after the war";
- and, finally, that "Akhmatova transformed her grief and disappointment into a terrifying poem" portraying Garshin as somebody who "Wanders like a ghost on the outskirts,/ The back streets and the back yards of life, heavy, stupefied by insanity,/ With a wolfish grin..." (a typo in the text turns "stupefied" into "typified").
One did not have to be crazy to reject Akhmatova as a prospective spouse. She was already known to be a difficult, if glamorous, personality and hardly a creator of domestic bliss, certainly to Garshin, who had been close to and taken care of her for quite some time before. Moreover, he now had a viable other candidate for that role. His insanity, if any, was clearly a temporary one. Rather than ending there, his life (and new marriage) were to continue for another decade. Furthermore, his later attempts at communicating with Akhmatova (in particular, on his deathbed) suggest that he was an open person, whereas her consistently repressive strategies--concealing the facts from friends, destroying letters, removing dedications, excising Garshin's very name from controllable discourse, and, finally, handing him down to posterity as a loony--add up to a closed, paranoid, power-hungry, and essentially hollow emotional attitude. The "law and order" Akhmatova was used to practicing with respect to cultural objects was this time applied to a human being--in a move known in English as "unpersoning" and familiar to Akhmatova and her compatriots without the intermediacy of Orwell.
Two important details are absent from Roberta Reeder's narrative. One concerns the real--literary-institutional--reason for Akhmatova's rage: it turned out that what really "got her gall" [vzorvalo], so that she could never forgive him, was "how stupid he had made her look by not taking into consideration her name" (Emma Gershtein, VAA, 262-263)--as if he was supposed to be marrying a title rather than a person. The other shows Akhmatova the "iron lady": impressed by her cool after being rejected in public, V. G. Admoni "remembered the words she had uttered so recently: 'She has no idea that I am--a tank!'" (VAA, 343). This referred back to the scene at the station in Moscow:
Among [the people who came to see Akhmatova off] I remember... a kind old babushka... who hugged her and made the sign of the cross over her several times and even shed some tears. When she left, Akhmatova... said: "Poor old thing! She pities me so! Is so afraid for me! She thinks that I am such weakling. She has no idea that I am--a tank!" (Admoni, VAA, 342).Thus fleshed out, the episode reads as a reification of a construction put on Akhmatova--poet and person--by Nedobrovo thirty years earlier: An uninitiated observer... has no idea that were these very same pathetic holy fools... to abandon suddenly their absurd passion and return to the world, they would walk with their iron feet over his living worldly man's body; then he would discover the cruel power... of the capricious ones... who had shed tears over trifles (Naiman, 253).(Reeder quotes Nedobrovo's article  but not this passage--or the point about vydumannost', mentioned above.)
The Nietzschean link established by Nedobrovo between artistic and worldly power could have alerted the biographer to Akhmatova's authoritarian domination of her circle of helpers. The "unpersoning" of Garshin had an ominous preview in the decade-long arbitrary--without any questions asked or accusations stated--banishment of Lidiia Chukovskaia from Akhmatova's company; Reeder mentions it in passing (262), unintrigued by this blatant exercise of power. Similar objective but uninvestigative reporting, with Anna Akhmatova as the unquestioned locus of personhood and power, is reserved also for her relations with such opposite numbers in her life-and-works scenario as Mikhail Kuzmin and Boris Pasternak.
By deproblematizing these and other relationships (e. g., Akhmatova's envy of Pasternak the Nobelist), Reeder presents us with a simplified image of Akhmatova, which is larger--but also leaner--than life. Instead of a power-smart contemporary of Stalinism we get an implausibly aristocratic, heroic, context-free spirit, bound to the epoch only by the visible chains of persecution. (Akhmatova's "Soviet" behavior in Italy, while receiving the Taormina Prize, pompous and pathetic at once, is related in much telling detail but without a hint of irony [493-497]; several other of her "Soviet" postures go unmentioned). Instead of a contradictory woman-poet personality, self-constructed in an unpropitious time and place, we get a "natural," born, as it were, into the mission. Instead of an artist drained by her lifelong flirting-turned-obsession with her destiny, we get an enviably imposing dame of letters, with just a streak of Russian suffering. In a word, instead of a struggling human, all too human, we get a monument--of the kind preapproved by the model.
Should Roberta Reeder be faulted for not writing the biography this reviewer would like to read--and, short of that, write? Perhaps not. The book is quite useful as is and even contains, albeit mostly uncooked, much food for the kind of thought he would find more appetizing. And, after all, everyone to his/her own taste.