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“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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Plans? What plans?? #WITmonth

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It’s no great secret that reading plans and I don’t get on that well together. More often than not if I make a schedule, join a challenge or even just try to think a few books ahead to what I’ll be reading next it all tends to go straight out of the window while I follow some random reading whim. However! August is Women in Translation month and I *do* always try to join in with that one – particularly as I read a lot of translated work and a lot of women’s writing!

So here is a little pile of possibles off the TBR which may attract my attention during this month. You’ll see one book which ticks the box for another August event – All Virago, All August, a little challenge by the members of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group. This takes in Viragos, other books by Virago authors and Persephones too, and although I don’t commit to reading only those for the month I do try to enjoy at least one title. And the Triolet counts for WIT too so that would be ideal. Although a re-read of the Colette is very tempting. And I love Tsvetaeva at the moment so her diaries would be fab. And the others sound great too…

However, this is the book I’m currently reading and loving, and so as it will be the first book I finish and review in August, it will also definitely be my first WIT book!

Unfortunately, there are other volumes vying for my attention… As I was having a rummage for WIT titles I came across a few others which caught my eye:

The Spark, of course, would tie in with HeavenAli’s Reading Muriel celebration. The Baudelaire is Baudelaire and therefore needs no explanation. And the Malcolm Bradbury was mentioned on the From First Page to Last blog and I recalled I had a copy which I have now found! It’s set in a university and since I find universities and academics endlessly fascinating (probably because I never went to one…) it sounds like I really might enjoy it.

And then there are the review books lurking:

And don’t they look pretty and appealing, and I wish I could read them all in one go… Fortunately, I shall be doing some train travelling this month which may mean that I can get through a few of these titles while on the road (or the rails…). Come to think of it, Catherine the Great’s letters would count for WIT month as well, wouldn’t they??? πŸ˜€

So lots of choices again, alas. Are you planning any Women in Translation books this month, or any Viragos? Are you a planner or do you just follow your reading whims? Do tell! πŸ™‚

“Know one thing: you will be old tomorrow….” @poetrycandle @PushkinPress

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Ten Poems from Russia
Selected and Introduced by Boris Dralyuk
Published by Candlestick Press in association with Pushkin Press

You might have seen me expressing great excitement recently all over social media about the arrival of this slim but gorgeous collection of Russian verse. That’s going to be no surprise to any passer-by of the Ramblings; I love Russian literature in all its shapes and forms, and it’s a country with a long and deep tradition of verse. You only have to look at the number of books of Russian poetry on my shelves to realise just how many great poets the country’s produced, and my collection only scratches the surface…

Candlestick Press are known for producing beautiful little themed booklets which are designed to send instead of a card; indeed, I’m pretty sure I have one based on “Mothers” which was gifted to me one Mothers’ Day (by Middle Child, if my memory doesn’t fail me). Candlestick have been championed by Dove Grey Reader, and she’s right to do so – personally, I think that anything which gets people reading more poetry is a Good Thing! Pushkin Press, of course, need no introducing – they publish the most wonderful books in translation, and are responsible for bringing some brilliant works to us; including all the wonderful Gazdanovs rendered by Bryan Karetnyk, as well as Boris Dralyuk’s excellent Babel translations and his “1917” anthology (one of my favourite reads of last year).

Any road up, that’s enough rambling – what do you actually *get* here? Well, you get a beautifully produced, A5 booklet with a stunning cover design, on quality paper and with a matching bookmark (for you to write a message on if you so wish) plus envelope. And the contents are equally stunning; ten poems from the Russians, expertly chosen, in some cases translated, and introduced by Boris Dralyuk. The authors range from Pushkin (of course!) through Akhmatova Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Pasternak et al up to Julia Nemirovskaya, a living poet. And each poem is a little gem. What particularly pleased me was the fact that there were poets new to me, including Nemirovskaya and Georgy Ivanov; and I was also pleased to see Nikolay Gumilyov featured, as I’m keen to read more of his work. Half of the works are translated by Dralyuk, the rest by Robert Chandler and Peter France; and some appear here translated for the first time, which is fab!

Akhmatova by Zinaida Serebriakova

It’s hard (and perhaps unfair) to pick favourites in any collection of works, so I won’t. But I *will* say that the Akhmatova is as stunning as she always is, with her poem on the fate of Russian poets, always menaced by “the shaggy paw of voiceless terror” (what imagery!) And I’m finding that the more I read of Tsvetaeva, the more I’m appreciating her writing; the poem featured here, “To Alya”, addressed to her daughter, is particularly stunning. But I’m not going to quote any of the poems because I want you all to go out a buy a copy of this… πŸ™‚

Editor and translator Boris Dralyuk

Boris Dralyuk has themed his collection to capture the range of the Russian soul; from myth through terror, taking in art, love and life, the selection really does cover all the bases. In his introduction, he uses a rather beautiful image to describe what he’s trying to do with this anthology, that of leading you into a corridor with multiple enticing doors leading off; each one of which opens into a room full of wonders, and more doors… I was already in that corridor, having opened some of those doors; but what this marvellous little collection has done is offered me new doors to open, new poets to explore and more wonderful Russian verse which is always balm to the soul. If, like me, you love Russian poetry you should still buy this booklet because it’s such an illuminating collection; but if you’ve never read the Russians, it’s the perfect place to enter the corridor and begin your journey of exploration – you won’t be disappointed!

A little more library love…

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That heading is a bit of a giveaway, I suppose – yes, it’s time for more pictures of books…. πŸ™‚ Not that I suppose anybody who drops in at the Ramblings will mind, and I like to keep singing the loud praises of libraries – what would we do without them, I often ask myself.

I picked up a few titles recently, all of which have Very Good Reasons for me borrowing them.

I was bemoaning on a recent post the fact that there was so little available by Bruno Schulz. Then, whilst browsing the library catalogue, I discovered there was a Collected Works, so I of course had to have a look to see if it contained anything I hadn’t read. Well, it weighs a ton and I had to haul it round town with me… However, it has letters and artwork as well as the stories so I shall have a bit of an explore.

As for the Russians – well, Steiner’s “Tolstoy or Dostoevsky” is kind of essential for me and Steiner has been getting a lot of love on Melissa and Anthony‘s blogs, so I really needed to have a look. The Tsvetaeva is just so I could see whether any of her Mayakovsky poems have been translated into English. I suspect not, although there *is* a fragment in the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry …

Now for some Golden Age crime, courtesy of my BFF J. She’s taken to sending me books (not that I’m complaining – ta muchly!) and these three have arrived so far this year. So kind, and ones I haven’t yet read!

Aren’t they enticing?

And yet *more* GA Crime has arrived in the form of review copies from the lovely British Library in their Crime Classics range. This is another author new to me and I can’t decide which one I want to try first…

Last but not least, I confess I *did* actually pickΒ  up a couple of books (yes, actually bought them though I’m trying not to…) The little Swiss travel book came from The Works and just sounded fun. The Pasolini was from a charity shop for Β£1 so it would have been rude not to. So yes, I’m definitely going to have to abandon sleeping very soon…. =:0

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