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.