The Same Solitude, Boris Pasternak & Marina Tsvetaeva, lit-crit by Catherine Ciepiela (Cornell Univ Press)

Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva conducted a correspondence between 1922 and 1936, though they rarely met. (Rilke joined to make the exchange triangular for a few years.) It was not until 2000, when the archive of Tsvetaeva's papers was finally opened, that the entire exchange could be fully appreciated. solitude.jpgWith this material in hand, Catherine Ciepiela has charted the ways in which elements of this provocative, unconventional and "hysterical" correspondence led to aspects of their poetry. In the introduction, she writes, "To say that Tsevtaeva and Pasternak shared a hermetic language is not to say that they always understood each other. Their long-distance romance allowed them free rein for invention. Their exchange is most interesting for how they misread, under-read or over-read each other."

Each poet was the world audience for the other; the one was always on the brink of obtaining an actual body in the mind of the other, an infinitely erotic focal point for voiced desire. "Why am I drawn into your childhood, why am I drawn to draw you into mine?" wrote Tsvetaeva to Pasternak in 1926. Why do any of us attempt to draw our readers into our memories? "You have always been my sister," responded Pasternak, who believed his best book of poems was My Sister -- Life, written in the summer of 1917. Thus, this exchange offered each the exquisite benefit of reflection, of question and answer, during a time of great creativity.

solitude_2.jpgIn a 1931 letter to her friend Raisa Lomonosova, Tsvetaeva wrote, "For eight years now (1923-1931) Boris and I have had a secret compact: to live in anticipation of being together. But the Catastrophe of a meeting was always deferred, like a storm that's somewhere behind the hills. Every now and then a clap of thunder -- you go on." They finally met in France in 1935, and soon after Tsvetaeva made the tragic decision to return to Russia. (Mandelstam was arrested in 1936.) After they met, Tsvetaeva wrote, "I cried because Boris, the best lyric poet of our time, in my presence betrayed Lyricism when he called his entire self and everything in him a malady." As it turned out, Tsvetaeva had the greater courage but not the personal resources to survive Stalin. Ciepiela's interest in "gender analysis" illuminates the poetry -- but the stiffness and repetitiousness of this discussion bogs things down. Nevertheless, if you're interested in Tsvetaeva and are willing to plod through some close analysis, Ciepiela's book will provide many insights.

Irma Kudrova's The Death of a Poet (Overlook, 2004) is the most moving account I've read of Tsvetaeva, and also a valuable review of her life and her work. It's painful to read, to think of her so friendless and desolate at the end, hunted down by history, driven to death.

Emma Gerstein's Moscow Memoirs (Overlook, 2004) is an autobiographical account of her life as a friend of the Mandelstams, Akhmatova, and others. Most controversial is her suggestion, quite reasonably asserted and made apparently without an axe to grind, that Nadezhda Mandelstam manufactured the reputation of Osip via altered facts, exaggerations, and faulty memory. Gerstein portrays a "manic" Mandelstam, more or less asking for trouble from Stalin, bringing too much attention to himself because his poetry had gone unpublished. Gerstein's own story is amply tragic, and her memories of the great poets are remarkably detailed given that she took no notes.