Elena Shvarts (1948-2010)

Elena Shvarts, the Russian poet, died earlier this year. As one of her translators I found myself summing up her life and works over and over again — a sad task, and one which feels somehow intrusive and limiting: the condensing of a life of poetry into three paragraphs, mostly for people who are not yet readers of her poems; an element of marketing, to win over the non-readers; a few anecdotes and beautiful phrases… Nothing of the bewilderment and disbelief we feel in bereavement, or even of the nature of bereavement which deceives us, tells us we should wait for more poems, convinces us it is impossible that the wise and eloquent voice is no longer at the end of the phone line in a St Petersburg flat.
Shvarts herself wrote at length about bereavement and I have chosen to translate a short and, as she puts it, ‘lightly worn’ piece of prose on the subject of death — the death of a parent. Elena Shvarts’ mother, Dina Shvarts, died in 1998, and Elena composed some of her most beautiful and yearning poetry on the occasion of her mother’s death. In her poem ‘Candle at a Wake’ she writes

I thought… it was you
Flickering there in the flame.
Perhaps you wanted
To whisper a word of light,
The flame quivers,
But I am filled with dark.

(from Birdsong on the Seabed, Bloodaxe, 2007)

As we learn in this prose piece, written just a year later, Dina Shvarts studied during the war and the Siege of Leningrad at the Leningrad Theatre Institute. She was evacuated in 1942 to Pyatigorsk, the beautiful spa town in the south of Russia bordering the Caucasus region, where the poet Lermontov was killed in a duel. Elena Shvarts barely sketches the scene, but any Russian reader would understand immediately the contrast between starving Leningrad and the southern town, with its mountain air, mineral springs and sanatoriums, which were operating as war hospitals until the German invasion in August 1942. How odd it must have seemed to the emaciated students, actors and musicians, used by then to the spectacle of a hungry Leningrad with its cannibalism and its corpses in the streets, which a ‘passer-by picked around, as if they were puddles’ — this comes from one of Elena Shvarts’ poems on the Siege.
When the Germans invade Pyatigorsk, not everyone leaves. With our gift of hindsight the reluctance to flee may seem suicidal, but if you consider the suffering and fearful confusion that was Soviet Russia at the time, German occupation and staying put may have seemed the lesser of a number of evils. All the same, in Dina Shvarts’ story there is something like scorn for the naïve Jewish girl who twice offers her trust to the undeserving. Dina herself was more worldly, and chose the independence and the fate of a refugee over the perfidious Germans, and in doing so passed into adulthood, and aloofness, and survival.
Radlov’s decision to remain, and his tour of Hamlet in Germany, is a curious legend which I first heard quite recently from the theatre critic, Alyona Karas. Elena’s retelling of the story struck me as a dream does, when it is suddenly recollected. Like many Russian wartime stories, at first telling it sounds beyond belief, as much truth in it as in an ancient myth. Would it really have been possible for a Russian theatre to tour occupied Europe? Would it not have felt like terrible treachery? Would their lives and livelihoods not have depended constantly on finding favour with the new rulers?
Shvarts maintains that Radlov chose not to evacuate his theatre south to Tbilisi when the Germans approached. I have read elsewhere that the theatre troupe left and Radlov and his wife remained. Other versions of the story describe how Radlov simply did not manage to evacuate his theatre from Pyatigorsk in time. But all seem to agree on the fact that Radlov’s theatre was moved by the Germans to Zaporozh’e, where the theatre premiered Hamlet, and then, in September 1943, to Berlin. Part of the theatre subsequently went to France, where it performed Ostrovskii’s Guilty Without Guilt: an example of rarely bettered theatrical irony.
So Shvarts introduces the theme of death and orphanhood with the apocalyptic German invasion of Russia and the near-death of her mother. Finally she brings in the story of Radlov’s Theatre which wheels itself around war-torn Europe like Mother Courage, performing to the Germans, as Shvarts notes, because the play’s the thing — perhaps Radlov hopes to ‘make mad the guilty and appal the free’ with his portrayal of life under a murderous pretender. And then Shvarts cuts the story short and tells us teasingly that the prose is in fact concerned with something else. Her short prose pieces are mostly like this — dance-like, flitting from observation to observation, each vignette placed in such as way as to throw new light on the next. As she offers intriguing narratives she immediately withdraws them and sends the reader on another poetic digression.
Now the text is concerned with the translation of Hamlet. Shvarts’ mother Dina Shvarts reckoned Radlova’s translation of Hamlet to be the best, more theatrical than Boris Pasternak’s pre-eminent translation. She spoke as a woman who understood Russian theatre better than anyone. In 1956 Dina Shvarts began working at the Leningrad Bolshoi Dramaticheskii Teatr together with the newly appointed director Georgii Tovstonogov. Shvarts assisted Tovstonogov, read plays and advised on them, helped the director adapt works, attended rehearsals and became, in short, the éminence grise of the theatre. The relationship between Shvarts and Tovstonogov seems unprecedented in Russian theatre. Tovstonogov wrote that Shvarts was his ‘first advisor, the mirror we all have to glance in from time to time’. Their friendship and co-operation resulted in some extraordinary shows and the BDT, as it is known, became perhaps the most artistically important Russian theatre during Tovstonogov’s long reign. When he died in 1989 Dina Shvarts was desolated. Her whole life had crumbled — she had lived in the theatre, and lived for it, and although she carried on offering advice and help to the successors her real purpose was gone. Most Russian theatres are the expression of a single autocratic artistic intelligence and when that is gone the theatre often becomes a shadow of itself. The BDT was no exception.
Part of the tragedy of an orphan, Hamlet’s tragedy, is the end of good order and the fall into anarchy and confusion after the death of the parent. When Dina Shvarts dies in 1998 her daughter begins reading Hamlet, but in any order, as she writes, beginning at the end or halfway through. The narrative no longer matters, the sequence of events in the play is broken. Likewise time no longer seems to follow measure: it is out-of-joint, and Shvarts makes the poetic point that when a parent dies it is the end of the very person in whom your ‘age’, the time you inhabit, began. There is no longer any natural sequence in time.
In fact this idea of time ‘out of joint’ marks the whole text, which might be read as a series of cinema stills: the Siege, wartime Pyatigorsk, Europe and Radlov, the actor Kriukov, his Hamlet barely discernable in post-war cinema. Time may pass in the text, but the events it describes seem unrelated in time. There is no interest in the logical consequences of things, or the matter of cause and effect — war and death have dislocated time and order and scattered meaning. The characters, Dina, Radlov, Smirnov appear on the stage and disappear again because in wartime every narrative feels as if it is being told from the middle or the end, and the death of the heroine, Shvarts’ mother, has released the events from a linear life into a confusion of grief, anecdote and memory.
Of course the same has been said many times about Hamlet itself, with its peculiar passage of time, a narrative which takes place over many years, but has the appearance of events squashed into a few murderous weeks. In Shvarts’ view Hamlet is the work of a bereaved child, compelled to circle around the axis of death, as Hamlet does himself, and it is this compulsion alone which might tell us something about the authorship of Hamlet. The reader is invited to extend this to Shvarts herself: the continual circling around the theme, the narrative which slips away and refuses to be ordered are characteristics of this short poetic work, too.
For Elena Shvarts Hamlet is a play about being an orphan. When I researched her life I discovered that her mother Dina Shvarts was also an orphan. Her parents were shot in the 1930s when Dina was still a young child, accused of being ‘enemies of the people’, and so she must have completed her wartime odyssey more or less alone. It is hardly speculation to say that for Dina the theatre must have become her family and home, and where she brought up her own daughter. Anyone who has been backstage in a Soviet theatre to the maze of tunnel-like corridors, smoking vestibules and dressing rooms, who has felt the atmosphere of patriarchy and the camaraderie between company members will understand how easily an extended family may be fashioned out of this creative ants’ nest.
Death the puppeteer, moving all the characters in Hamlet and in Elena Shvarts’ prose, death everywhere, as it really was in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s: pitiless, incomprehensible. In a recent commentary in the TLS James Doelman notes that Kozintsev’s Soviet-era film of King Lear has details in it, details of failed harvests and suffering, which the Western ‘existentialist’ Lear on his barren heath has lost, and he makes the point that the Soviet directors and actors had lived through Shakespearean disasters at first hand: famine, war, genocide, the crops rotting, the state rotting — none of this was theoretical or merely imagined. Much the same might be said for Shvarts’ understanding of Hamlet. After all she grew up in a world of lost orphans, a place where the nuclear family was a fantastical dream — everywhere children without parents, wives without husbands, mothers without sons. Shakespeare’s vision of a broken Denmark filled with helpless orphans is no mere literary device to her. And as she imagines Shakespeare to be doing in Hamlet, Elena Shvarts seeks to outwit death and even to revenge herself on death itself by living and writing poetry.

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