*Tsvetaeva, Marina

Marina Tsvetaeva

Marina Tsvetaeva



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Tsvetaeva, Marina

Russian, 1892–1941
Marina Tsvetaeva’s prose has always been to some extent the naughty stepchild of her poetry. Even after she had gained recognition as a world-class poet, a distinction dating from 1960, if not before, her prose continued to be regarded as “painfully pretentious and obscure” (D.S.Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature, 1960). Despite the hostile critical reception, she produced a sizable body of prose covering a wide range of nonfictional genres. Among these, perhaps the best known are her autobiographical sketches, especially her masterful trilogy “Dom u Starogo Pimena” (1933; “The House at Old Pimen”), “Mat’ i muzyka” (1935; “My Mother and Music”), and “Moi Pushkin” (1937; “My Pushkin”), but they also include memoirs, travel sketches, diaries, and prose portraits of her famous contemporaries in the Silver Age of Russian literature, such as Maximilian Voloshin (“Zhivoe o zhivom” [1933; “A Living Word About a Living Man”]), Andrei Belyi (“Plennyi dukh” [1934; “A Captive Spirit”]), and Valerii Briusov (“Geroi truda” [1925; A hero of labor]). They appear as genres more familiar to Western readers (the book review and the feuilleton), as well as some brilliant and highly idiosyncratic forays into literary history and criticism: an appreciation of her beloved contemporary Pasternak (“Svetovoi liven’” [1922; “A Downpour of Light”]), a comparison of Pasternak and Maiakovskii (“Epos i lirika sovremennoi rossii” [1932; “Epic and Lyric in Contemporary Russia”]), and theoretical essays (“Iskusstvo pri svete sovesti” [1932; “Art in the Light of Conscience”], “Poet i vremia” [1932; “The Poet and Time”], and “Poety s istoriei i poety bez istorii” [1934; “Poets with a History and Poets Without a History”]).
Tsvetaeva’s prose covers nearly the entire span of her creative career. As J.Marin King’s ground-breaking translations (published in A Captive Spirit, 1980) indicate, it can be divided into three periods with some overlap. The first period extends from 1917 to 1921 and contains predominantly diaries and prose sketches culled from her experiences in the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and the Civil War. The second (1922 to 1932) is devoted to essays on poets and writers, the nature of creativity, and the ethics of writing.
The third period extends from 1934 to 1937. During this period myth and memory merged to produce the most memorable of the prose portraits as well as the landmark autobiographical sketches. As King also indicates, the thematic and chronological continuity among the autobiographical sketches suggests that Tsvetaeva viewed them not independently but as chapters of an autobiography.
Undoubtedly the main reason why Tsvetaeva’s prose did not initially receive the recognition it deserved is its extreme difficulty. Hers is a powerful prose that delights in flexing its muscles. In its terseness it resembles a form of personal shorthand. Transitions are replaced by dashes linking unrelated, even antithetical ideas. Paragraphs are reduced to a single sentence, and sentences to a single word. The reduction of the text to its smallest structural unit is a deliberate Tsvetaevan strategy. For her, the word is not an empty signifier but a repository of sound, and sound generates meaning. This is demonstrated by her favorite technique of taking a single word and from it deriving an entire chain of auditory and thematic associations. Unfortunately, these chains of association are often so personal that they leave the uninitiated reader bewildered.
The question of Tsvetaeva’s relationship to her reader has received much critical attention because it was unique, even in the age of formal experimentation in which she wrote. Although a great admirer of Montaigne and Sainte-Beuve, she has neither their discursive style nor their critical distance. Instead she adopts an uncompromising attitude toward her reader, keeping up a rapid-fire barrage of indicatives, interrogatives, direct address, and interpolated asides representing either her own “alternate” voice or the reader’s assumed reply. From this, both Joseph Brodsky (1986) and Angela Livingstone (introduction to Tsvetaeva’s Art in the Light of Consciousness, 1992) conclude that her style is dialogic, while King emphasizes that it has the sound and rhythm of a live human voice. This too is a deliberate strategy on Tsvetaeva’s part. She provokes the reader into joining her in the spirit of “cocreation”: “…what is reading if not deciphering, interpreting, drawing out something secret, something behind the lines, beyond the limits of words. (Not to mention the difficulties of syntax!) Reading is—above all—cocreating” (“Poet o kritik” [1926; “The Poet on the Critic”]).
No less unique is the structure of her essays, which strikes us by its lack of inductive argument. She typically begins by stating a paradox. She then develops one branch of the paradox as far as possible. Returning to her point of origin, she develops the opposite branch until she reaches a point where the two meet, like a pair of clasped arms. In the process, she consistently elevates the level of argument until she reaches a conclusion, most often couched in the form of an aphorism. Tsvetaeva was addicted to aphorisms, and hers are particularly rewarding: “Every poet is essentially an émigré…emigre from the Kingdom of Heaven and from the earthly paradise of nature … An émigré from immortality in time, a non-returner to his own heaven” (“The Poet and Time”).
Tsvetaeva wrote the bulk of her prose in emigration and published in various Russian émigré periodicals based in Prague, Berlin, and Paris: Volia Rossii (Russia’s will), Chisla (Dates), Poslednie Novosti (The latest news), Sovremennye Zapiski (Contemporary annals), to name but a few. The process was far from smooth: her longer essays were subjected to brutal editorial cuts, and two projected book-length collections, the one of her Civil War diaries, the other of her critical essays, never materialized for lack of a publisher. Ironically, it was her prose that ultimately shaped her fate in emigration. Her scathing attack of 1926 on the Russian émigré literary establishment, “The Poet on the Critic,” caused an outraged community to ostracize her, thus depriving her of an audience. Only since the 1980s has her stature as a brilliant memoirist and profound essayist been conclusively established.


Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva. Born 26 September 1892 in Moscow. Studied at schools in Switzerland and Germany, and at the Sorbonne, Paris. Married Sergei Efron, 1912 (executed, 1939): two daughters (one starved to death) and one son. Trapped in Moscow for five years after the 1917 Revolution; left Russia, 1922, for Berlin, Prague, and finally Paris, 1925; returned to Russia, 1939, but officially ostracized and unable to publish.
Died (suicide by hanging) in Elabuga, 31 August 1941.

Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Proza, 1953
Izbrannaia proza v dvukh tomakh, 1917–1937, 2 vols., 1979
A Captive Spirit: Selected Prose, translated by J.Marin King, 1980
Proza, edited by A.A.Saakiants, 1989
Ob iskusstve (On art), 1991
Gde otstypaetsia liubov’ (Where love renounces), 1991
Art in the Light of Conscience: Eight Essays on Poetry, translated by Angela Livingstone, 1992.

Other writings: ten volumes of poetry and much correspondence.
Collected works editions: Stikhotvoreniia i poemy v piati tomakh, edited by Alexander Sumerkin and Viktoria Schweitzer, 5 vols., 1980–90; Sobranie sochinenii, 7 vols., 1994– 95.

Gladkova, Tatiana, and Lev Mnukhin, Bibliographie des oeuvres de Marina Tsvetayeva, Paris: Institut d’Études Slaves, 1982

Further Reading
Baer, Joachim T., “Three Variations on the Theme ‘Moi Pushkin’: Briusov, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva,” Transactions of the Association of Russian-American Scholars in the U.S.A. 20 (1987):163–83
Brodsky, Joseph, “A Poet and Prose,” in his Less than One: Selected Essays, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, and London: Viking, 1986
Chester, Pamela, “Engaging Sexual Demons in Marina Tsvetaeva’s ‘Devil’: The Body and the Genesis of the Woman Poet,” Slavic Review 53, no. 4 (1994)
Feiler, Lily, Marina Tsvetaeva: The Double Beat of Heaven and Hell, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1994
Feinstein, Elaine, A Captive Lion: The Life of Marina Tsvetayeva, London: Hutchinson, and New York: Dutton, 1987
Forrester, Sibelan, “Marina Tsvetaeva as Literary Critic and Critic of Literary Critics,” in Russian Writers on Russian Writers, edited by Faith Wigzell and Robin Aizelwood, Oxford: Berg, 1994
Gifford, Henry, “Joseph Brodsky on Marina Tsvetaeva,” in Russian Writers on Russian Writers, edited by Faith Wigzell and Robin Aizelwood, Oxford: Berg, 1994
Karlinsky, Simon, Marina Tsvetaeva: The Woman, Her World and Her Poetry, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985
Knapp, Liza, “Tsvetaeva’s Two Goncharovas,” in Cultural Mythologies of Russian Modernism: From the Golden Age to the Silver Age, edited by Boris Gasparov, Robert P.Hughes, and Irina Paperno, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992
Korkina, Elena, “‘Pushkin i Pugachev’: Liricheskoe rassledovanie Mariny Tsvetaevoi,” in Marina Tsvetaeva: One Hundred Years: Papers from the Tsvetaeva Centenary Symposium, edited by Viktoria Schweitzer and others, Berkeley, California: Berkeley Slavic Specialties, 1994
Kroth, Anya M., “The Poet and Time in Marina Tsvetaeva’s Philosophical Essays,” in Russian Literature and American Critics: In Honor of Deming B.Brown, edited by Kenneth N.Brostrom, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, 1984
Lossky, Véronique, Marina Tsvetaeva: Un Itinéraire poétique, Paris: Solin, 1987
Mnatsakanova, Elizaveta, “O roli detskogo vospominaniia v psikhologii
khudozhestvennogo tvorchestva: Na primere prozy Mariny Tsvetaevoi i dvukh otryvok iz romana F.M. Dostoevskogo ‘Brat’ia Karamazovy’,” Wiener Slawistischer Almanach 19 (1982):325–49
Schweitzer, Viktoria, Tsvetaeva, edited and annotated by Angela Livingstone, London: Harvill Press, 1992; New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993
Smith, Alexandra, “The Cnidus Myth and Tsvetaeva’s Interpretation of Pushkin’s Love for N.Goncharova,” Essays in Poetics 14, no. 2 (1989):83–102
Taubman, Jane A., A Life Through Poetry: Marina Tsvetaeva’s Lyric Diary, Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1989

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