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Marina Ivanova Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) - aka Marina Cvetaeva, Marina Tsvetayeva

Great Russian women-writers

Marina Tsvetaeva

One of the most original of the Russian 20th-century poets, whose literary rehabilitation began in the 1960s. Tsvetaeva's disciplined poetry arose from her own contradictory personality, eccentricity and highly controlled use of language. Among her innumerable themes were female sexuality and the tension between women's private emotions and their public roles. She lived in exile in the 1920s and 1930s because of her political views. After returning to the Soviet Union and being ostracized by the literary community she committed suicide in 1941. What shall I do, singer and first-born, in a
world where the deepest black is grey,
and inspiration is kept in a thermos?
with all this immensity
in a measured world?

(from 'The Poet', trans. by Elaine Feinstein)

Marina Tsvetaeva was born in Moscow. Her father, Ivan Tsvetayev, was a professor of art history and the founder of the Museum of Fine Arts. Her mother Mariya, née Meyn, was a talented concert pianist. The family travelled a great deal and Tsvetaeva attended schools in Switzerland, Germany, and at the Sorbonne, Paris. Tsvetaeva started to write verse in her early childhood. She made her debut as a poet at the age of 18 with the collection Evening Album, a tribute to her childhood. The book was privately published and was dedicated to the narcissist diarist Bashkiartseff (1858-1884). For Russian writers Bashkiartseff became the ideal of the female artist, and her writings were also dealt by Simone de Beauvoir in her study The Second Sex. Evening Album was favorable reviewed by Nikolai Gumilyov (1886-1921), a poet and literary critic, who was accused after the Revolution of antiregime conspiracy and shot without trial.

In 1912 Tsvetaeva married Sergei Efron, they had two daughters and one son. Magic Lantern showed her technical mastery and was followed in 1913 by a selection of poems from her first collections. Tsvetaeva's affair with the poet and opera librettist Sofiia Párnok (1885-1933) inspired her cycle of poems called 'Girlfriend'. Párnok' career stopped in the late 1920s when she was no longer allowed to publish. The poems composed between 1917 and 1921 appeared in 1957 under the title The Demesne of the Swans.

Another affair Tsvetaeva had with Konstantin Rodzevich (1895-1988), an ex-Red Army officer. 'Poem of the Mountain' and 'Poem of the End' were inspired by this relationship. Rodzevich was captured by the White Army and he fled to Prague, where he graduated as a lawyer. He was an active member of pro-communist organizations, joined during World War II the French resistance and spent two years in captivity in Germany. In 1960 he sent his Tsvetaeva archive to Moscow, and argued that Tsvetaeva created a 'myth' out of their affair.

After 1917 Revolution Tsvetaeva was trapped in Moscow for five years. During the famine one of her own daughters died of starvation. Tsvetaeva's poetry reveal her growing interest in folk song and the techniques of the major symbolist and poets, such as Aleksander Blok and Anna Akhmatova. Fascinated by Akhmatova's lines, conveying the confusion of love, "I drew my left-hand glove / onto my right hand - " Tsvetaeva stated: "The whole woman, the whole poet is in these two lines; the whole Akhmatova, unique, unrepeatable, inimitable. Before Akhmatova none of us portrayed a gesture like this. And no one did after her." (from Poets with History and Poets without History, 1934) Tsvetaeva wrote six plays in verse and narrative poems, including 'The Tsar Maiden' (pub. 1922). The central opposing characters are the fair-haired King-Maiden and the evil stepmother of the young tsarevich, who try to win his heart. Betrayed by the stepmother the King-Maiden tears her heart out of her chest. The evil stepmother turn into a snake and the tale concludes with the uprising of the populace. Another response to the Civil War was The Desmene of the Swans, which glorified those who fought against the communists. The diary-like cycle of poems begins on the day of Tsar Nicholas II's abdication in March 1917, and ends late in 1920, when the anti-communist White Army was finally defeated. The 'swans' of the title refers to the volunteers in the White Army, in which her husband Sergei Efron was fighting as an officer.

In 1922 Tsvetaeva emigrated with her family to Berlin, where she rejoined her husband, and then to Prague. This was a highly productive period in her life - she published five collections of verse and a number of narrative poems, plays, and essays. She blended elements from Orthodox prayers and folklore with modernist idiom, and often sought inspiration from the 18th century and the (Russian) romantic age, from which she adopted the idea of the poet as a rebel or an outcast: "We are poets, which has the sound of outcast," she once wrote. Molodets (the swain), completed in Czechoslovakia in the late 1922, was her second fairy tale in verse and was widely reviewed by the émigré press. Tsvetaeva and Natal'ia Goncharova, who drew illustrations for it, tried in vain to publish it in French. Le Gars, based on this Russian work, was published in Paris in 1986.

In 1925 the family settled in Paris. Tsvetaeva's collection Craft was published in Berlin in 1923. In Prague in 1924 she wrote 'The Poem of the End', dealing the parting of two lovers and her extra-marital affair. After reading it Pasternak wrote to Tsvetaeva that it "draws its readers to its world like tragedy" and praised her as an artist of extraordinary great talent. Personal themes were developed further in 'From the Seacoast,' 'Essay of the Room,' and 'The Staircase,' all written in 1926. In The Ratcatcher, a narrative poem from 1925, Tsvetaeva drew parallels between revolutionaries and rats. This thinly veiled poem about the Russian Civil War was not published in full in the Soviet Union until 1990. The poem was a homage to Heinrich Heine's 'Die Wanderratten' and borrowed the story from 'The Pied Piper of Hamelin'.

By the 1930s, Tsvetaeva's poems were no longer printed in her native country. She published her essays in such émigré publications as Volia Rossii, Chisla, Poslednie Novosti, and Sovremennye Zapiski. Sometimes her essays were printed in a brutally cut form and in 1926 he attack on the Russian émigré literary establishement made her persona non grata. Her style could be aphoristic and poetic, and she used paradoxes, provoking the reader into joining her in the search of uncertain truths. "The same water - a different wave. / What maters is that it is a wave. / What matters in that the wave will return. / What matters is that it will always return different. / What matters most of all: however different the returning wave, / it will always return as awave of the sea. / What is a wave? Composotion and muscle. The same goes for / lyric poetry." (from 'Poets with History and Poets without History')

During her years in Paris Tsvetaeva wrote two parts of the planned dramatic trilogy. The last collection published during her lifetime, After Russia, appeared in 1928. Its print, 100 numbered copies, were sold by special subscription. "The volume concludes with greetings from the lyric heroine to the Russian rye. According to Tsvetaeva's numerous statements, Russia borders land that is the embodiment of God; it can be suggested, therefore, that the meditative tone of many poems from the collection comes from the transcending human experience of her past and from the broadening of her spiritual and cultural horizons." (Alexandra Smith in Reference Guide to Russian Literature, ed. by Neil Cornwell, 1998) In Paris the family lived in poverty, the income came almost entirely from Tsvetaeva's writings. When her husband started to work for the Soviet security service NKVD, the Russian community of Paris turned against Tsvetaeva. "All poets are Jews in a Christina world," she once bitterly declared. Her limited publishing ways for poetry were blocked and she turned to prose. In 1937 appeared MOY PUSHKIN, one of Tsvetaeva's best prose works. To earn extra income, she also produced short stories, memoirs and critical articles. She also wrote a series of personal and literary mamoirs about Valery Bryusov (1873-1924), Andrey Bely (1880-1934), Maksimilian Voloshin (1877-1932), and Mikhail Kuzmin (1972-1936)

In exile Tsvetaeva felt more and more isolated. Friendless and almost destitute she returned to the Soviet Union in 1938, where her son and husband already lived. Next year her husband was executed and her daughter was sent to a labor camp. Tsvetaeva was officially ostracized and unable to publish. After the USSR was invaded by German Army in 1941, Tsvetaeva was evacuated to the small provincial town of Elabuga with her son. In despair, she hanged herself ten days later on August 31, 1941. She had written in 1922 in 'The Tsar-Maiden': "I am nowhere. / I've vanished in no land. / Nobody catches up with me. / Nothing will bring me back." According to Boris Pasternak, her suicide might have been prevented if the literary bureaucrats had not behaved with such appalling heartlessness to her.

Tsvetaeva left behind a great body of work, that broke new ground for women poets. In her poems Tsvetaeva used characters from the Bible, heroines of the classical mythology, and Russian folklore and history. She experimented with many styles, and her collection Razluka (1922, separation) impressed the poet Andrey Bely so that he wrote one of his collections in Tsvetaeva's style. Boris Pasternak also admired her work and later wrote: "The greatest recognition and reevaluation of all awaits Tsvetaeva, the outstanding poet of the twentieth century." Tsvetaeva herself described her friend as looking like an Arab horse.


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