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“Change will not come from above” @ViragoBooks #GeneralStrike #JarrowMarch

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Clash by Ellen Wilkinson

So…. I’ve managed quite well with #WITmonth during August I feel – three titles so far – but needless to say I am *not* sticking with my plans… I had wanted to read at least one Virago this month and had pencilled in “A Fine of Two Hundred Francs” by Elsa Triolet. Not only is it a book I’ve intended to read for ages, but it would have also fitted in with WITmonth and would have been ideal. However, the bookish serendipity I posted about the other day got in the way…

Was there another country in the world where the class barriers were so high as in England, and where it was so loudly proclaimed that none existed at all?

As I mentioned, I was so intrigued to stumble across Ellen Wilkinson’s “Clash”, particularly when I read about her fascinating background and impeccable left-wing views. She lived such an inspiring life, and it seems, from reading “Clash”, that much of the novel draws from her own experience. The books tell of the adventures of Joan Craig; like Wilkinson, she’s from a working-class background, fiercely left-wing and committed to working for the cause. Joan is a trade union organizer and the book is set in 1926, on the eve of the General Strike.

This was a strike that lasted for 9 days, when the country ground to a halt as workers from all industries came out in support of miners whose wages and working conditions were appalling. The strike in effect failed, as the Government were prepared and drafted in blacklegs from the middle classes; their organisation was better and they could hold out against the workers for longer, leaving the latter no option but to give in. However, the General Strike has gone down in to history as formidable display of working class solidarity, as well as contributing to an upsurge of support for the Labour Party.

Joan rose to put some more coal on the fire. She looked thoughtfully at the piece she held between the tongs. “Queer stuff, isn’t it?” she said. “All the hidden possibilities, the light and power and heat and scent and healing, all being squabbled over like a mangy bone some prehistoric cur has buried.”

“And wasted, as though the sole use of it was to grub it out of the ground as quick as possible and chuck it at any price to anyone who’ll have the stuff,” added Royd.

Against this background, an event and a time she lived through, Wilkinson tells her story and it’s gripping as well as perhaps more nuanced than you might think. Joan (like her author) is a fiery and committed women, experienced in rallying the troops at meetings and destined for a career in politics, perhaps even Parliament. However, her story is not straightforward; she has monied friends, like Mary Maud Meadowes, and a whole ‘Bloomsbury’ set. In these circles, she runs into author Anthony Dacre. A slightly older and more cynical character who’s still sympathetic to the workers’ cause, he falls head over heels in love with Joan; however, his cold and somewhat estranged society wife, Helen, is the one who wears the trousers in their marriage and so the prognosis is not good. Further complications arise in the form of Gerry Blain, a veteran of WW1 who has several chips on his shoulder and also suffers a lot from his wartime injuries. Like Dacre, he’s smitten with Joan; unlike Dacre, he is completely committed to the cause. But Joan loves Anthony, and so the romance is in for a rocky ride…

Excitement was rising. These men, Joan thought to herself, were in the centre of a crisis in which actually they, working men, were being consulted and had to give the final decision. In all the history of their class, wars had been decided for them. Their job was to fight and die. At the most they could but grumble under their breath. But now Cabinet Ministers were waiting to see what they would do, and whether their decision was war or peace.

That description perhaps makes this work sound a little trivial, but frankly it’s anything but. The backdrop to the personal story is actually as gripping and involving as anything else in the book. We witness the excitement and tension of those organizing the strike; the difficulties of pulling together multiple trades unions, all with differing agendas; the complexities of deciding where your loyalties lie; the disappointments when things don’t go as planned; and the temptations which can draw a person away from their beliefs and commitments.

The scene at the Memorial Hall reminded Joan of a beehive. Men were pouring in, while others were pushing themselves out. Communists, single-taxers, credit-reformers, were trying to push their papers on the delegates. Unemployed sandwich-men paraded in front of the hall. Press photographers tried to lure the big-wigs to pose. The inevitable mild -middle-class lady gave out leaflets on birth-control. A little apart from the hubbub a typical group of London workers looked on with their usual air of cheerful detachment. A taxi-man, wearing his union button, surveyed the scene with immense benevolence.

Importantly, Wilkinson uses her story to embrace some very important and relevant issues for women. With remarkable foresight, she shows the personal and political as being inextricably linked; I was reminded of the slogan “The Personal is Political” which came to the fore during the second wave of feminism, and it’s clear that Wilkinson believes that you can’t behave in your personal life in a way that contradicts your political beliefs. Joan is a woman with a major dilemma: she loves Tony, but he wavers constantly, wanting her to be his mistress at one point and then when he finally commits to the idea of a divorce, insisting that she would have to give up her work. Gerry, on the other hand, would be the perfect work companion but Joan’s feelings for him don’t have the passion that she feels for Tony. Joan eventually reaches a resolution although, according to the introduction to the Virago edition by Wilkinson’s biographer Betty D. Vernon, Ellen herself never did.

London, Parliament, the folks that make laws and regulations, are afraid of the miners and the steel-workers and the other manual workers. They must be kept poor, or they mightn’t stick at their jobs, they must be kept ignorant of their bodies or they mightn’t produce enough cheap labour, they must be kept overcrowded when slums could be swept away in five years, because, oh why – because we must have some one to look down on, just as we won’t give them enough State hospitals for fear we shan’t be able to give ourselves the luxury of feeling charitable.

These are not the only relationships affected by the Strike, however. That action ends halfway through the book, but Wilkinson goes on to show the aftermath: workers being exploited as the try to go back to work, fund-raising efforts, women in small industrial towns who don’t know the first thing about birth control and struggle with multiple children, and the yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots (plus ça change…) The effects of the Strike on relationships in all classes is profound, and Wilkinson’s characterisation is not black and white; Mary Maud is rich but with a heart that is in the right place and wants to help; Helen Dacre is upper class and initially nasty but becomes more human when her side of things is given; gossip columnist Palma is initially snooty but revealed to have left-wing sympathies. This nuanced approach allows Wilkinson to produce a riveting story that embraces left-wing politics, feminism and the struggle to balance work and love.

Mary Maud was a wealthy bachelor woman, an intimate of an exclusive Bloomsbury circle who bestowed fame on themselves by writing reviews of each other’s books. As each slender work appeared it was greeted as a new Tchehov, a more sensitive Dostoievsky, a respringing of the fountain of Shelley’s genius.

The book also has a strong message about the need to be vigilant; Wilkinson obviously felt that there should be no compromises and warns against the dangers of being seduced by comfort and drawn away from the struggle; Joan is tempted by the possibility of a different life that would blunt the edges of her combativeness and wish to fight for her cause, and I got very tense waiting to see what the resolution would be.

Ellen Wilkinson with Jarrow marchers, by Unidentified photographer for Fox Photo Ltd [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wilkinson’s only political novel (“The Division Bell Mystery” is a crime story, and the politics are nothing like this from what I’ve read so far) is a real winner. It’s exciting, emotional and gives an eye-witness view of a time when working people came together to try and fight for a fairer world. That attempt failed, mainly it seems because the strikers had a desperate need for proper organisation and a more sweeping overview; and in some ways, with the ridiculous in-fighting plaguing the left today, that still seems worryingly relevant. Little changes, and I was vaguely depressed to see one miner character comment about the closing down of the press: “That’ll larn the “Daily Mail” – it seems that particular rag was a problem back in 1926… “Clash” never hides its politics, but those politics give the book an importance and stimulation for discussion which so many works lack. It was definitely a worthy choice for Virago to republish in 1989, sixty years on from its original publication date; and it’s definitely worth tracking down today if you want a novel that will stimulate, engender debate and make you wonder how much we’ve moved on in what is nearly a century since that great coming together of the working class. You’ll notice a lot of quotes in this post, and I could have pulled out so many more; this is a book that’s really had an effect on me and it’s one of the most important Viragos I’ve read.

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Skinny Book Therapy! @almaclassics @almabooks

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What on earth is she wittering on about, I hear you cry! Well, simply that in our modern crazy-busy world it’s often impossible to find the time to read a classic because, frankly, some of them are just *soooo* big! Dickens, Dostoevsky, Trollope, Tolstoy – all produced some amazing books, many of which are my favourites; but they are, honestly, doorsteps. Now I love a brick of a book as much as the next reader, but sometimes I struggle to engage mentally with one, particularly when I’m going through a busy phase at work. However, a useful solution is at hand…. 🙂

I review books from the lovely publisher Alma regularly on the Ramblings, and their Evergreens series of affordable classics is a joy. These feature some truly great authors, from Woolf through Mansfield and back to Austen and the Brontes and so on. The books are always beautiful and often have extra supporting material. Plus they publish pretty new editions of my beloved Dostoevsky on a regular basis so that has to be good…. (note the editions in that *large* TBR pile!)

However, Alma have come up with an interesting new series entitled “101-page Classics” which features books of, you’ve guessed it, 101 pages in length! Now 101 pages is a very manageable size – I can read something that long in one go usually – and so I think this is a fabulous idea! There are 12 titles on the list so far, and the authors are a very nice selection, including Chekhov, Wilkie Collins, Dostoevsky, Emily Dickinson and Italo Svevo – so plenty of variety. Alma have been kind enough to provide a review copy of Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif” which I plan to read and review very soon, and there’s a serious risk of me wanting to start a special shelf for the 101 books…

Here are a few cover images of some of the forthcoming books – do check these out, especially if you’re nervous of a big fat chunky classic, or embarking on 800 pages from an author new to you – a 101-page Classic could be just the thing to help out…

The inevitability of the arrival of new books…

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Let’s make no bones about it – I’m a book addict. Have been since I learned to read, really, and I can’t say I’ve ever denied it. So despite the bulging nature of my shelves, there have inevitably been books arriving recently (and those of you on social media may have seen some of these already). They’re a fairly eclectic bunch as usual, with a lot of nice Russians in there, and in the spirit of sharing I thought I would post some images here! 😀

So, what have we here? Well, from top to bottom:

Penguin Modern Poets #17 – yes, I know I’ve got completely behind with my reading of this series, but I hardly ever see them second-hand, and it was 49p in the Oxfam and it has Kathleen Raine. I’ll get back to this series eventually – honest!

The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter – why, you may ask, have I picked up another copy of this when I had such a bad experience before?????? Well – for a start it’s an original green Virago in great condition for only 99p and the one I have is a nasty modern version. But mainly, my fiercely feminist Middle Child insists that it’s a work of genius, and so I fear I should pay attention to her and give it another try with an open (and in the right frame!) mind. We shall see…

Pulse by Julian Barnes – I’ve loved my recent reads of Barnes’ work, and this is short stories. I’ve not read any of  his shorter works so for £1.49 I’m happy to have a go!

(Incidentally, the three above were all from the local Oxfam which seems to have calmed down a little with its prices and I can’t help but scream “bargain”!!!)

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees – all I know about Mirrlees is that she has a Woolfian connection, so when I saw this lurking in the local BookCrossing location (Caffe Nero) I figured it should come home with me.

Letters: Summer 1926 by Pasternak, Tsvetaeva, Rilke – a nice NYRB edition at Full Price! (Eeek) There is a story attached to this which will come in a later post rambling on about Russians and poetry…

Orphic Paris by Henri Cole – another NYRB I bought at full price because I just loved the sound of it. I’m currently reading it and it’s stunning and I will write about it eventually but I am a bit behind with reviews at the moment, alas…

The Wives by Alexandra Popoff – I read about this online somewhere, and for the life of me I don’t know where. It’s about the wives of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov etc etc and how they were literary partners and support to their husbands. Sounds just fascinating and this is a lovely second-hand-but-in-wonderful-condition-and-very-cheap copy. Result!

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed a couple of spines with no writing and these are they:

This little lovely has been on my radar for a while, and as I’m having a bit of a Russian poetry binge at the moment and want to read a range of different translations, I thought “WTF! I work for a living, I shall buy books!” and sent off for it. More of the Russians in a later post, as I hinted above!

The other arrival is one I was ridiculously excited about:

Again, a lovely little chapbook I’ve been aware of for a while which is stuffed with Mayakovsky (amongst others) and translated by Boris Dralyuk! The cover image is from a Mayakovsky agitprop poster, and the inside is equally beautifully illustrated as well as containing an interview with the translator. Why have I never bought a copy before? Possibly because I’ve been trying to be good about book purchases (and, frankly, failing) and also because the price is not low as it’s from a small press. However, for some unknown reason to do with the weird vagaries of book pricing, I happened upon it the other day with the price slashed. So I ordered it, and even more weirdly the next day it had returned to full price. No, I don’t understand it either.

Fortunately, I have managed a fair amount of reading over the summer, and another purge is looming. However, it won’t necessarily be so easy to get rid of the extra books, as will be revealed in the forthcoming post about Russians and poetry…

(Oh, the mug? Fancy you asking! I saw it online – possibly Twitter or Instagram – and how could I resist? It’s Penguin orange, from M&S and yes, it describes me perfectly. It’s so beautiful I can hardly bear to use it…)

Rebuilding the Parisian Landscape @ShinyNewBooks @HoZ_Books

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It’s probably been fairly noticeable over the past year or so that I’ve developed quite an interest in the French Revolution (as well as the side aspect of iconoclasm during that conflict…); so when the opportunity arose to review a new book from Head of Zeus about the reconstruction of Paris during the 1800s, I was of course very interested indeed….

“City of Light” by Rupert Christiansen is a beautiful hardback book, lavishly illustrated and full of fascinating information about the knocking down of the mediaeval street plan and the building of the boulevards in Paris. It also puts the changes very firmly in context, clarifying much of what can be a very complex period of French history. The book raises a number of issues, and it struck a number of nerves with me. I find myself very conflicted about the amount of razing to the ground and rebuilding that happens nowadays, particularly when it’s done with little regard for the humans that have to live and work in the areas concerned.

By http://www.geographicus.com/mm5/cartographers/ [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And the changes taking place around Charing Cross Road and Soho in London I actually find really upsetting. When I first started visiting the area in the late 1970s/early 1980s, there were so many parts that had been unchanged for decades; you could wander down a little side street and find a cafe with 1950s formica tables and small glass coffee cups and saucers; and it was easy (and entertaining!) to get lost in the back streets of Soho. However, so much of that character has been knocked out of the area in the name of progress; and when I met up with my brother (plus Middle child and Partner) in January, he was cursing the gentrification of Soho, and how difficult it was for us just to find a damn pub to grab a quick drink in… I know where he’s coming from!

So this is a book that looks at a historical landmark that is still very relevant to what’s happening around us today. My review is at Shiny here, so please do pop over and have a look.

 

Discovering “Red” Ellen #Virago #BLCC #GeneralStrike #JarrowMarch

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As I mentioned in a recent post, I had a bit of bookish luck whilst on my travels to visit Family when I stumbled across a lovely old green Virago – “Clash” by Ellen Wilkinson, an author I’d only recently come across when I received a review copy of her newly reprinted British Library Crime Classic “The Division Bell Mystery”. Delving a little deeper has revealed that Wilkinson really *was* a fascinating woman.

Coming from a poor Manchester background, she nevertheless attended university, became a Communist and a trade unionist, joined the Labour Party, supported the 1926 General Strike, became Labour MP for Jarrow (and was therefore heavily involved in the iconic Jarrow March), visited Russia and war zones – well, that just scratches the surface. What an inspirational woman and what a life!

Ellen Wilkinson by National Photo Company Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m currently reading “Clash” and finding it completely absorbing and, depressingly enough, still very relevant. The beliefs Wilkinson gives her protagonist Joan Craig are ones I can really empathise with, and the book is really compelling.

Ahead of my full review of it, I wanted to share one particular quote which really stood out for me:

She was desperately tired, too tired even to make the effort to get back to Gordon Square. The thrills of the day, following a night on the train, had left her utterly exhausted. There came to her at that moment the queer clearness of vision that sometimes happens when the body falls asleep of itself. Through the chatter of the crowded restaurant she seemed to see England – the great steel towns of the north, the mining villages she knew so well, the little homes in which she had stayed during her organizing tours. Decent men and women working far too hard, crowded together in uncomfortable homes. Lack of obvious things like baths and hot water, lack of comforts, and, for at least five years, lack of food and warm clothes. What fine stuff they were, what excellent material out of which to build a fine race. And instead . . . muddle. Those men and women of the employing class meant well, no doubt, some of them, but, oh, their hauteur, their assumption that people, because they were manual workers, were of an inferior race! The unblushing lying to preserve a competitive system that the really intelligent among them knew was breaking down, the refusals to organize or to allow resources to be organized except on a basis that would yield excess profits to some one! They wanted inequality. They could not conceive a society without some one to bow before and others to cringe to them. The Socialist ideal of a commonwealth of equals “simple in their private lives and splendid in their public ways” made no appeal to the class that governed England in 1926. The bolder of them wanted a world in which they could gamble. The timid wanted security – Government bonds and six per cent.

So it rather seems that back in 1926 it was all about the few taking what they could from the many, and it’s shocking and saddening to find that nearly a century later little has changed. I find myself fascinated by Wilkinson and her writings, and I really do think I may head straight on to reading “The Division Bell Mystery” straight after this one!

“Follow your own path.” #WITmonth @OWC_Oxford

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Selected Letters of Catherine the Great
Translated by Andrew Kahn and Kelsey Rubin-Detlev

History as a concept can be problematic linguistically from the start, Just look at the word – an amalgam of his and story – and you can see where the focus is going to be. There is still perhaps a belief that great deeds are done by great men, and women are often marginalised to the sidelines. However, thinking of, for example, the great monarchs of the past just shows how that isn’t necessarily the case. Elizabeth I in this country is unforgettable; and the Russian monarch Catherine the Great is just as legendary.

Oxford World Classics have just brought out a brilliant book of her Selected Letters and I thought it would be fascinating to take a look at this during WIT Month; particularly after having spent some time with another great Russian, Marina Tsvetaeva. The two women couldn’t be further apart, really, but both had equally fascinating lives, and I’m enjoying very much dipping into Catherine’s correspondence.

The introduction is excellent, providing background to Catherine’s reign, her vast achievements and just what an educated woman she was. This was the real Golden Age of letter writing which was an art in itself, and she excelled in using the form for personal and diplomatic purposes. The book is divided into sections that follow her career chronologically, focusing on the main aspects which informed her writings at those points. So we see the young queen finding her way when new in the role; fostering cultural connections with European countries and philosophers such as Voltaire and Diderot; dealing with war and conflict; expanding the Russian empire; and also more personal contacts with her various lovers. Catherine’s reign was a long one and she was in many ways a self-made woman. Born a German princess, she embraced Russianness wholeheartedly, becoming synonymous with her country and determined to drag it forward culturally and in terms of conquest. And this was no mean feat, for a country the size of Russia contained so many different elements, people and cultures that to set out a set of laws and regulations that applied to all was nigh on impossible.

In the end, the laws that people are talking so much about have not been made yet, and who can say whether they will be good or not? Truly, it is posterity, and not we, who will be in a position to settle this question. Just think, I beg you: the laws must work for Asia and for Europe. What differences of climate, peoples, habits, even ideas!

The “Selected Letters” is an exemplary book, and demonstrates exactly how you should produce a scholarly yet readable volume. The introduction is detailed enough to give you perfect context, there’s a chronology, notes are indicated in the text by an asterisk, and crucially, each letter has its own short paragraph to introduce it and explain context. So it’s perfect for dipping into, which I think is how I shall carry on with it, because each letter is so beautifully written that it deserves to be savoured and not rushed. I confess the print size of the intro paragraphs is quite small for my ageing eyes, so dipping will help with this too, but I’m intrigued by this woman and shall enjoy making my way through her letters.

Andrew Shiva [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or Attribution], from Wikimedia Commons

I’m finding so much to be fascinated by in this book: for example, the fact that she was responsible for the iconic Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg. Catherine was determined to create and emphasise a connection between herself and Peter, most crucially because she was of course not actually Russian. The correspondence with the sculptor is so interesting, and her skill at a combination of flattery and insisting on her own way is so clever. I’ve also been struck again by the general interconnectedness (well, inbreeding….) of the European monarchs which continued until 20th century and perhaps reached its zenith with the strangeness around the time of World War 1 and the Russian Revolution; the family tree of Victoria caused a fair amount of havoc at that time…

Catherine the Great c. 1845 by Georg Cristoph Grooth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Selected Letters” is proving to be the perfect book for #WITmonth, and is shaping up to encapsulate brilliantly the breadth of Catherine’s achievements and her reign. As the introduction reminds us, the male bias of history often tries to diminish what she did with gossip about horses and lovers in a judgemental way which would never be applied to a king or Tsar. I’m not a fan of monarchy in general; however, accepting that this was the mode of rule at the time, what Catherine aimed to do with her country was laudable. I hope this volume will help to ensure that we remember Catherine the Great for her intelligence, wit and triumphs rather that trying to relegate her rule to one of novelty.

(Review copy kindly provided by the publishers, for which many thanks!)

“Live. And try to keep others alive.” #WITmonth

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Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922 by Marina Tsvetaeva
Edited, translated and with an introduction by Jamey Gambrell

Despite having had at least two books by Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva lurking on the shelves for well over 30 years, it’s only recently that I’ve actually started to properly pay attention to her writing – and what an author she’s turning out to be. Her poems are monumentally good, and some of them are regularly haunting me at the moment. I have a lovely collection of her prose put out by Virago back in the day; but this book was one I picked up more recently. It’s just been republished by NYRB, but my edition is an old Yale University Press edition from 2002; and it seemed a perfect choice not only to take on my recent travels with me, but also to fit in with WITmonth.

The book contains in effect a number of essays, drawing from diaries Tsvetaeva kept while living through some of the most dramatic times her country had seen.Tsvetaeva was from a bourgeois background, so was never going to be sympathetic to the Revolution; however, her diaries provide a fascinating insight into just how harsh the conditions were and how difficult it was to survive through them. She left Russia, tried some time in exile, and finally followed her husband Sergei Efron back to the Soviet Union in 1939. Efron and their daughter were arrested in 1941; the former was executed and Tsvetaeva took her own life the same year.

I rose on a carousel for the first time when I was 11, in Lausanne; the second time three days ago, on Sparrow Hills, on White Monday with six-year old Alya. Between those two carousels – lies a whole lifetime.

“Earthy Signs” is a remarkably diverse read, however; there are sections that deal with a train journey taken out into the country to try to find food; her attempts to find and keep jobs; poetry readings and the emerging Soviet arts; her thoughts on love and Germany; and so much more. Some extracts are no more than a sentence; others long meditations on life and art. And all of Tsvetaeva’s writing is fascinating.

Much of the success of the book is obviously down to Gambrell, who presumably made numerous editorial choices to structure the book as it is. “Earthly Signs” certainly brings alive Tsvetaeva, who was nothing if not a complex and intense woman. She’s capable of caprice, choosing a particular job simply because the building in which she would work is the one on which the Rostovs’ house in “War and Peace” was based. She’s also a woman of extreme and fluctuating emotions; in the introduction, Gambrell quotes at length a passage by Tsvetaeva’s husband, where he explains her constant cycle of obsession and infatuation with someone new, and in all honesty she must have been quite hard work to live with at times. That temperament is perfectly illustrated at several points in the book, in particular with her encounter with a young peasant soldier she nicknames Stenka Razin (after a historical Cossack hero) and also in her constant attraction to beautiful young men. (That tendency, I’ve noticed, seems to turn up in her poetry quite a lot too…)

Of all the temptations he offers me, I would single out the three most important: the temptation of weakness, the temptation of impassivity – and the temptation of what is Other.

The world in which Tsvetaeva was trying to survive was grim, to say the least; she struggled for food and one of her children actually starved to death. The immediacy of the prose in diary form really brings alive how it was to be in Moscow through revolution and civil war, and the narrative is shocking in many places; one instance which stuck in my mind was Tsvetaeva having to tie her youngest to a chair while going out with her other child to find food. Her naivety is always on show, and she speaks her mind at times when she should have been a little more circumspect, but somehow gets away with it. And it cannot have been easy for an impractical woman to cope with absence from her husband, about whom she had no idea whether he wa alive or dead, living from day-to-day and attempting to scrape the barest of provisions. Even when things got a little more back to normal, Tsvetaeva continued to be a woman who refused to play the game, averse to change her beliefs for anyone.

I’ve taken the year 1919 in somewhat exaggerated terms – the way people will understand it a hundred years from now: not a speck of flour, not a speck of salt (clinker and clutter enough and to spare!), not a speck, not a mote, not a shred of soap! – I clean the flue myself, my boots are two sizes too big – this is the way some novelist, using imagination to the detriment of taste, will describe the year 1919.

“Earthly Signs” was a salutary read, some of which I was involved in during a particularly unpleasant train journey; however, my discomfort for an hour or so was nothing compared with the privations Tsvetaeva undertook to try and track down food supplies. The later section of the book includes an extended meditation on poetry in the section “A Hero of Labor” when she considers the life, death and legacy of the poet, Valery Bruisov, a writer who embraced the Bolshevik revolution. In this piece she draws comparisons (and not for the first time) with the French Revolution, something of a touchstone for many who lived through the Russian equivalent; and on both sides, as both monarchists and revolutionaries can find much to interest them in the earlier conflict. Tsvetaeva also ponders the future of poetry under the Soviets, and it’s fair to say that the poet here who followed their heart will be remembered more than the one who followed the Soviet line.

By Max Voloshin 1911 (a book) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

My comments, of course, apply to the Yale version, although I imagine the NYRB new edition will be much the same in content. I did have minor issues with the book and I do wonder if these will be repeated in the reprint. The notation was problematic as it wasn’t indicated in the text at all, which necessitated constant random flipping back and forwards to see if there *were* any notes. The system employed in the letters of Catherine the Great from OUP, which I turned to after this book, was much more successful; a simple asterisk on the page indicated a note and then I could choose whether to follow it up or not. Also, in “Earthly Signs” there was no translation of phrases in French and German; and I really wonder why they were left in their original language, as if I can’t read Russian (which is why I’m reading this translation) there’s no guarantee I can read French or German either. A simple note could have been added that a particular phrase was originally in either of those languages which would have made it much easier for me than having to keep resorting to the erratic nature of Google Translate…

Marina Tsvetaeva does not mince her words at any point in the diaries; she’s frank about what she thinks about people and events, and there are some perhaps unexpected comments on race that had me hesitating. What is bizarre about this is that several appeared to be aimed at the Jewish race – and yet as the introduction reveals, Tsvetaeva was of Jewish heritage and Efron himself was a Jew. I was going to say that was perhaps strange, but then as a Scot I imagine I would feel quite comfortable being rude about my own race, so maybe I shouldn’t be sensitive about this. And Tsvetaeva is such a good writer, capable of nailing a person in a few lines; for example, her description of the woman in charge at one of her jobs:

The directress is a short-legged, ungainly, forty-year-old cuttlefish in a corset and in spectacles – terrifying. I smell a former inspectress and a current prison guard. With caustic frankness, she’s astounded at my slowness…

I ended “Earthly Signs” emotionally drained; the melancholic Tsvetaeva is never a light read, and the experiences she lived through would have broken stronger people. What emerges from the book, however, is a portrait of an intense, mercurial, emotional and brilliant woman whose tenacity kept her going for longer than you might have expected. That she took her leave when she did is not surprising; but at least she left us her words.

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