On its surface, the idea seems irresistible: a book about the four great 20th-century Russian poets, born a year or two...


NIGHTINGALE FEVER: Russian Poets in Revolution

On its surface, the idea seems irresistible: a book about the four great 20th-century Russian poets, born a year or two apart--Akhmatova (1889), Pasternak (1890), Mandelstam (1891), Tsvetayeva (1892). After all, the four were friends of varying closeness and all finally came into such Soviet disfavor that their voices--whether through extermination, torment, or extraordinary public humiliation--were stilled for long, heartbreaking periods . . . or forever. Yet this group-study approach, at least as handled by Hingley (A New Life of Anton Chekhov, Russian Writers and Soviet Society 1917-1978), proves to be an unfortunate one. Hingley treats his subjects period by period, biographical updates followed by literary criticism--which means that the life stories (all of which are told more effectively elsewhere) are fragmented, generally robbed of their drama. And the criticism suffers even more, since these very different poets aren't really yoked together because of a tradition of Russian letters, but because of a fact of Russian history. (""Only in Russia is poetry respected,"" said Mandelstam. ""It gets people killed. Where else is poetry so common a motive for murder?"") Thus, while the four shared a spareness of image, a frequent mutual sympathy, Hingley--despite himself--keeps producing substantive differences: Pasternak's sodden, almost squishy imagery; Akhmatova's mournful dignity; Mandelstam's tesselated obliquities; Tsvetayeva's throbbing fantasies. In fact, it's as if someone attempted a short book on Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Williams--as compatriots and a literary constellation: the forced juxtapositions distort; nothing cohesive emerges. Still, as ill-conceived as this project may be, it has an even more crippling drawback: the crucial illustrations of the four poets' work. Hingley has done all the translating himself; to give a strict flavor of the original Russian, he has omitted articles and pronouns; and his choice of vocabulary is at times absolutely Victorian. Pasternak, the most mellifluous of the four, comes out like this: ""Socialist maid/from gloaming/Striking light as from pried steels;/Sobbing, basilisk-visaged--/You illumined, chilled us."" Mandelstam: ""Like wedge of cranes to foreign climes/With foam celestial on your Tsar's beards--/Whither sail you."" (In James Green's rendering, these lines are at least intelligible: ""Like a concourse of cranes toward far-off borders/(On the heads of kings the spray of gods)/Where are you sailing?"") The result? The four poets here, in Hingley's stilted, music-less hand, come off like high-schoolers writing bad haiku on assignment--a fault which makes this book even potentially damaging: readers unfamiliar with the poets will be thoroughly, unfairly, turned off. So: four patchy literary criticisms with biographical fragments, howlingly cacophonous translations--all in all, a hasty, quite needless mess: Hingley's historical sources on the four can all be consulted first-hand, and better translations are certainly available.

Pub Date: Nov. 10, 1981


Page Count: -

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1981