Elaine Feinstein: The Russian Jerusalem

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Carcanet, May 2008, £9.95

What remains?

Elaine Feinstein’s The Russian Jerusalem calls itself ‘a novel’, and so it is. It’s a time-travelling, magical-realist compendium of a fiction, in which the protagonist — a British Jewish poet, somewhat resembling the author herself — is transported into the lives of the Russian poets of the Silver Age. That it tells the life, and often tragic death, stories of Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelstam, Ehrenburg and Babel means that a swathe of history from the dark days of the twentieth century is covered by its less than a hundred and fifty pages. However, Feinstein writes with a passionate celerity which makes The Russian Jerusalem the very opposite of trite costume drama or literary-biographical summary.
It is in particular a book about poetry, and the costs poetry exacts from those who believe in and write it. Arguably, this is what deepens its concerns and, indeed, informs its high style. Fourteen of Feinstein’s own poems stud the text. These are themselves inlaid with quotations from the author’s beloved Russians, as is the surrounding prose narrative, which serve as both summary and breathing space. The effect of these palimpsests is of a conversation between poets; one which the author, with her specialist’s knowledge and wearing her poetic identity-like colours, enters as an equal protagonist.
Its epigraph, Marina Tsvetaeva’s All poets are Jews, sets The Russian Jerusalem’s tone. The protagonist enters ‘St Petersburg, 1913’ by way of ‘Raskolnikov’s police station’ and its literate inspector, and: ‘Was this the Underworld? A steamy cloud which smelt of hot irons on damp cloth like an old-fashioned laundry. There were twittering sounds, like birds. Or the sound of grasshoppers rubbing their legs together. It was the sound made by human shadows: a crowd of them pressed towards me, blindly, their flesh seemingly as flimsy as that of moths.’ For this is more than merely the ghost town of history.  Feinstein shows us that the hellish fate of Russia’s twentieth-century poets, especially those with Jewish backgrounds or connections, still matters. Marina Tsvetaeva — whom Feinstein was the first to translate into English — becomes the poet’s Virgil as she enters this Inferno.  The charged writing demonstrates instantly how Tsvetaeva is both role model and symbol. Despite her first appearance in its pages as an anonymous refugee, she is presented as an object of literary and personal admiration.
For this is a book which deals not only with the roles of poet, Jew and woman as heretic, but with the passionate romance between writer and reader. That enchantment, the novel seems to suggest, is so potent it can break through the page, precipitating the reader into a writer’s world with all the immediacy of which imagination and emotion are capable.  That it does so here is a function of the high literacy of the writing. But Feinstein is also a master storyteller.  There’s no tricksy palimpsest narrative or role-swapping here. Instead she tells the story of that romance in straightforward terms: as a quest for how things will turn out, in which the reader is led on — educated in the true sense of that word — by the writer.
The world into which Feinstein herself leads us is of course highly educated in every sense. Not only is her own knowledge of Russian literary history displayed with the casual touch of thorough-going authority; but the world about which she’s writing is a highly-cultivated one, in which a group of exceptional protagonists are alert and more than sympathetic to the giant strides each accomplishes and the challenges each faces. Sometimes, as on the famous occasion when Stalin rang Pasternak to ask whether Mandelstam was a genius, their fates collide. The collegiate sense of a generation that became a movement binds the book’s individual stories skilfully together. What might otherwise read as a series of hammer blows emerges instead as pattern. This is largely that of the Stalinist purges; but such is the book’s coherence — and indeed its page-turning intensity — that Feinstein is able to finish with the exile and fatal illness of Joseph Brodsky, at the very end of the century, with no sense of its consistency being broken. Indeed, it’s to Brodsky that she gives The Russian Jerusalem’s last word.
His verdict is that ‘what remains is the book’ . But, at least for British readers, it’s hard to escape hearing in these words an echo or contradictio to Philip Larkin’s famous ‘What remains of us is love’. And, indeed, The Russian Jerusalem itself suggests that something more than books does remain. The passion — both intensity and sacrifice — of poets from the Russian Silver Age and beyond does count for something: whether to inspire the poets who follow them or remind us all of the lessons of history.  Feinstein shows us all this with the lyric intensity of a true poet.

Fiona Sampson’s latest book is Common Prayer (2007), shortlisted for the T. S.Eliot Prize.  She is the Editor of Poetry Review.

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