Anthony Rudolf's post below has been adapted by him from his forthcoming book, Silent Conversations: A Reader's Life, to be published in January/February 2013 by Seagull Books/University of Chicago Press. Another and much shorter memoir, A Vanished Hand (about his teenage autograph album), will be published around the same time by Shearsman Books. Anthony, born in London in 1942, is the author of books of poetry, literary criticism, art criticism and autobiography. He has also published translations of poetry, drama and fiction, and has edited poetry anthologies. He is working on two books relating to painters: the first about his experience of being a painter's model (his partner, Paula Rego), and the second about his friendship with R.B. Kitaj. Here he writes about Elaine Feinstein's The Russian Jerusalem.
Anthony Rudolf on The Russian Jerusalem by Elaine Feinstein
(1) Elaine Feinstein is four people in one, in the sense that she writes novels, poetry, translations and biographies, and six, if you include radio plays and literary criticism. Five of her novels are on my desk as I write, including The Border and Dreamers: the latter is inscribed 'for Tony, friend and fellow struggler in the literary orchard', which reminds me of a phrase by the French poet Edmond Jabès: 'Confidence of the tree in the fruit'. Lady Chatterley's Confession, her follow-up to D.H. Lawrence, is so good that if she changed the names of the characters and gave it a new title it would self-stand without Lawrence, and that is what I have advised her to do when the rights revert to her. The rule with Elaine is that the shorter the novel, the better it is. The one with the strongest affinities to her marvellous translations of Marina Tsvetaeva is The Border: here, the razor-sharp and laser-precise syntax and rhythm of one of our finest poets work and play to best effect. Among her several books of poems is Gold, which begins with a narrative spoken in the voice of Lorenzo da Ponte, who could not fail to interest her, given his origins and destiny. A majority of the poems in her latest book, Talking to the Dead, are addressed to her scientist husband Arnold who, it is no secret, was a difficult albeit fascinating man. Elaine has cut through the undergrowth of politeness and cant in this territory, to present unadorned and elegiac love poems. In a poem whose penultimate line echoes, for me at any rate, George Seferis as well as Keith Douglas on Stephen Crane, she writes:
... most of what we work at disappears.
Little we worry over has importance.
The greedy and the generous have the same end.
The dead know nothing of what we say to them.
Still, in that silence let me write: dear friend.
(2) Elaine Feinstein's highly original and most personal work, The Russian Jerusalem, is a deeply sad book. The author imagines herself back into the company of 'familiar compound ghosts', four great poets and a short-story writer of genius: Tsvetayeva, Akhmatova, Mandelshtam, Pasternak and Isaac Babel, perhaps the most tragic, enigmatic and fascinating of all these writers. She speaks of being 'ensnared by the dangerous glamour of these ghosts'. The three men were Jewish Russians, the two women non-Jewish with important Jewish associations, such as Tsvetayeva's half-Jewish husband, Sergei Efron. The narrator also meets the Yiddish poet Der Nister and that complex figure, Ilya Ehrenberg. She is at once a barfly on the wall of the famous Petersburg tavern 'The Stray Dog' and proactive, participating in the lives of writers she has ordinarily or professionally met on the page.
'The barfly ought to sing', wrote Anne Sexton in her poem, 'Sylvia's Death'. Each chapter of The Russian Jerusalem begins with a plangently evocative poem in the classic Feinstein voice, and indeed the book as a whole works like a long poem, perhaps because the prose reads like the story of a dream, with flashes of nightmare, and draws the reader in. Our task is to keep her company and perhaps make her safe in the dangerous time and place of Stalin, although, and this is a sub-text, she is well aware that her fantasy presence demonstrates, through a glass darkly, the safety of Jewish life in Britain despite what some see as increasing levels of anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism. This is sometimes exaggerated by my brethren, especially those whose relatives perished or suffered terribly during the dark years of Hitler and Stalin, in the towns and surviving shtetls of Eastern Europe. Feinstein's primary injunction is to remember and commemorate, a classic Jewish obligation.
On visits to the Soviet Union while researching her biographies of Akhmatova and Tsvetayeva, she meets, in real time and real life, later Jewish poets such as Margaret Aliger, Yunna Moritz and Joseph Brodsky. Traces of Yiddishkeit and Jewish experience enter the spirit of the book as she finds familial and other parallels with her own life, including cuisine: she notes, for example, the difference in sweetness between Russian and Polish pickles. Back in Cambridge, England, she has a major public disagreement with Brodsky about translation - he takes a typically Russian hardline on the obligation to reproduce the metre and rhymes of the original. I well remember that meeting at Churchill College back in the 1980s. The disagreement goes to the heart of literary translation and matters greatly. Similar discussions went on in the camps, as we know from the testimonies of Semprun, Antelme and others.
Distinguished and distinctive in all the genres listed earlier, Elaine Feinstein, in The Russian Jerusalem, obliterates traditional boundaries – Sebald's The Rings of Saturn and Bonnefoy's L'Arrière-pays come to mind - and enters a new and fertile land where, I trust, she will labour for years to come as the Grand Duchess of Anglo-Jewish letters, a woman who, if the cards had fallen differently, might have been Babel's lover or, closer to home, might have been drinking lemon tea in Odessa with her beloved Zeida (grandfather), rather than in the safe haven of her childhood Leicester.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]