By C. D. C. REEVE.
MARINA TSVETAEVA1 IS internationally famous as a poet: her collected poems are available in a wonderful French edition,2 as are her collected prose works.3 Similarly, in English, quite a lot is available,4 Poetry, of course, especially poetry like Tsvetaeva’s, is difficult to translate, as is—for that matter—Tsvetaeva’s poetic, vivid, often extremely funny, and always autobiographical prose: “the continuation of poetry by other means,” Joseph Brodsky calls it.5
The Russianness of Tsvetaeva’s poetry and prose—singularly direct and forceful as they are—consists in an obvious authenticity of the emotions. Everything is felt instantly and strongly: everything is strashny and vesely—terrible and joyful—and yet about this directness there is nothing histrionic, sloppy, or self-indulgent… The flowering of life is immensely strong, immensely spontaneous in Tsvetaeva’s poetry, but that goes with an equally extraordinary precision and technical skill … she has always been a poet’s poet… Tsvetaeva’s passions, hatred of injustice, anarchy, and corruption, profound admiration for duty, honor, loyalty, and trust, are as it were the standard strong feelings, but they seem to belong to her not as a poet, even when she is writing poetry… [Her] suicide cannot be seen as Sylvia Plath’s could, as an aspect of the requirement of her art. It was simply the end of the road, a long and agonizing one.6
Where the poetry is concerned, “the English, any English, tends to look like pale lemon jelly next to the megaphonic granite and barbed wire of the original,”7 but in The Story of Sonechka,8 which is the major focus of this essay, we can experience something of the truth of Bayley’s description for ourselves.
As the Story begins, it is 1918 in Moscow. The communist revolution is in full swing. Food is scarce, living conditions harsh. Two women meet on the stage of an empty theater. One is the twenty-six-year-old Maria Tsvetaeva (already a poet, married to Sergei Efron, and the mother of two girls), the other the twenty-four-year-old actress Sonia Holliday (Sonechka). The Story of Sonechka, written almost twenty years later, in 1937, is the story of their love for each other. As to what sort of love it was—well, that is something of a puzzle.
Toward the end of the Story, in a conversation with her son Mur, Tsvetaeva says that Sonechka’s “life force came from me.” For, as she puts it, “if there’s love—there’s life; if there isn’t love….” That is why, “in essence there are no characters in my story. There is love. And it acted—through persons.” It is a thought that finds related expression in Iris Murdoch’s deep reflections on love, which she variously describes as “the perception of individuals,” “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real,” and “the discovery of reality.” What makes that realization so difficult, is that “by opening our eyes we do not necessarily see what confronts us.” For “we are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals the world.” Love, as “the capacity to see,” is thus what “the liberation of the soul from fantasy” consists in.9
The measure of love, on this way of thinking about it, lies in the quality of the vision of the beloved, the quality of the independent, spontaneous life with which she is portrayed:
You see, my whole miracle with [Sonechka] was—that she was outside me, and not inside, not a projection of my dreams or heartsickness, but an independent thing, outside my fantasy, outside my invention, that I didn’t dream up, didn’t sing, that she was not in my heart—but in my room. That for just once in my whole life I hadn’t added anything, but was barely a joint-owner, that is, I received—in scope and return—a full measure.
We are apt to detect, not clear-eyed vision in the phrase, “for just once in my whole life,” but romantic illusions—“Eye’s falsehoods,” as Shakespeare calls them in Sonnet 137. We are apt to detect it, too, when Tsvetaeva says to Mur: “That was the name of the woman whom I, out of all women in the world, loved the most. And maybe—more than anyone. I think—more than anything. Sonechka Holliday.” But the fact is that we have in The Story of Sonechka itself something approaching evidence for the truth of at least part of this. But whether we will see it depends on how loving—how free from fantasy—our own eyes are. “A book is a mirror,” as the aphorist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote,10 what we find in it depends a lot on what we bring to it.
Tsvetaeva admits that others often did not see in Sonechka what she saw. As an actress, she had limitations:
—Yes, very talented… But you know she’s an actress fitted only for her own roles: her own self. You see, she plays herself, meaning—she doesn’t play at all. She—just lives. You see Sonechka in a room—and you’ve seen Sonechka on stage….11
When she returns to Moscow from a theater tour of the provinces, but does not go to see Tsvetaeva, people spoke of her “‘ungratefulness,’ ‘flippancy,’ ‘inconstancy’,” and of “how unfaithful she is.” But Tsvetaeva herself, confident of her own love, and the clarity of vision it guarantees, did not succumb: “not for a second deep in my soul did I believe that she—for some banal reason or other—simply didn’t come, didn’t come—didn’t come.”
The explanation Tsvetaeva gives is this:
Sonechka left me for her woman’s destiny. Her not coming to me was only her obedience to her female lot: to love a man—in the end, it doesn’t matter what kind—and to love him alone till death. In no commandment was I—my love for her, her love for me, our love—included. About her and me there wasn’t any singing in the Church or writings in the Gospels. Her leaving me was a simple and honest fulfillment of the Apostle’s word: “And a man shall leave his mother and father…” I was to her more than father and mother, without a doubt, more than that beloved man, but she had to prefer him, the unknown one. Because this is how, while creating the world, God ordained it. And, after all, we both went against “people”: never against God and never against humankind.
No doubt many readers—many of us—will see not God’s word at work here, but rather an ideology of heteronormativity writing itself into what is purportedly God’s word. But many others, of course, will see it the way Tsvetaeva does, as “woman’s destiny,” divinely sanctioned.
In her Letter to the Amazon12—addressed to Natalie Clifford Barney (1876–1972), an American ex-patriate, living in Paris, who “devoted her considerable fortune, her social graces and her modest writing talent to the promotion of one single cause: spiritual and physical love between women”13—Tsvetaeva explains in greater detail how she understands this destiny. It is a matter of “a pure and triple vital instinct—youth, perpetuation, womb”:
The end [of the relationship with the female lover] will come. The beginning of the male lover? The succession of male lovers? The stability of the husband?—The child will come.—I omit the exceptional case: the non-maternal woman.—I also omit the banal case: the young woman who is depraved, either out of instinct or fashion, the shallow pleasure lover.—I omit, as well, the lost soul, the unusual case of one who in love searches for a soul, thus—predestined to choose a woman. And the one who loves with abandon, who, in matters of love, searches for love and takes it where she will.—And the medical case.—I consider the normal case, the natural and vital case of a young woman who is wary of man and drawn toward woman and wants a child. She who, between the man (the stranger, the indifferent, or even the revealing enemy) and the repressive beloved, ends up choosing the enemy.—She prefers having a child to love.—She prefers her child to her love. (pp. 12–13)
Tsvetaeva is explaining why the “normal” younger woman leaves her older female lover, and is writing now almost twenty years after her relationship with Sonechka, and three years before writing her story about it. Despite that, on this point, her views seem not to have changed. Yet they seem to overlook a number of cases.
The first is the one which, from the perspective of heteronormativity, is the only truly “normal” one: that of a woman—young or old—who wants or has children and is not sexually attracted to women at all. Second, the case of a young woman who wants or has children, and is sexually attracted to women, and to men—the bisexual case. Third, the case of relationships between women which, while romantic and perhaps in some sense of the term erotic, are not sexual, in that they do not include activities that aim at orgasm for at least one of the partners.14 Fourth, (to mention just one more) she leaves out otherwise “normal” cases, which break up for reasons other than “woman’s fate.”
Part of what makes these four cases particularly intriguing is that they doubly include the case of Sonechka. For, as Tsvetaeva is well aware, Sonechka herself could not have children: “Marina, I’ll never have children.—Why?—I don’t know, the doctor told me and explained it all, but it’s so complicated, all our insides….” And, in point of fact, despite her relationships with men, including marriage, she never did have any.
Then there is the yet more jarring fact that Tsvetaeva’s relationship with Sonechka did not involve activities that aim at orgasm for at least one of the partners. Indeed, it did not even involve such more weakly or ambiguously sexual activities as kissing and cuddling:
We never kissed, except when saying hello or goodbye. But I often put my arm around her shoulders, with a gesture of defense, protection, seniority. (I was three years older. In my essence, in my whole self, older. I’ve never had anything little in me.) I hugged her like a brother. No, it was a dry fire, pure inspiration, without an attempt to discharge, squander, realize.
It did, however, involve these things by a sort of proxy:
I knew we had to separate. If I’d been a man—it would have been the most happy love—but this way—we inevitably had to separate, for her love for me would inevitably be—and was already—on the way—to loving another, who’d always be a shadow, and whom she’d always betray with me, as she inevitably did Yura and Volodya.
And since these future relationship were “fated” to involve actual sex, the relationship with Sonechka involved this too—although, again, only by proxy.
One result of this is that all Sonechka’s sexual relationships with men become in reality sexual relationships with Tsvetaeva herself, whose intervening shadow is that of the true object of love and desire. But it is equally true that their relationships with Sonechka, become relationships with her:
I’ll tell you that to my joy [Volodya had] never attempted to explain his relationship with Sonechka. He knew that I knew that it was in this case—his final step toward me, that it was—a rapprochement, not a separation, and that in kissing her, he kissed me—kissed all three of us—himself, her and me—we three together in the whole Spring of 1919—in her person, on her little face—kissed.
These triangles are central to The Story of Sonechka, in which Pavlik, Yura, and Volodya are characters almost as important as Sonechka herself. Yura’s gorgeous sister Vera, indeed, was Sonechka’s first schoolgirl avatar:
I especially remember her long back with a half-untwisted plait of hair, and from the front especially her mouth, which was scornful with naturally drooping corners, and her eyes, which were the reverse of that mouth, smiling naturally, with turned-up corners. This discrepancy in her features, which resounded in me with an inexplicable excitement, and which I interpreted as beauty.
Moreover, the self of the author, too, becomes (so to speak) split, since it is at once the female element loving another female, and the male element through whom, by proxy, she does at least some of her loving: “With Volodya, I unburdened my male soul.” The bisexuality implicit in this splitting, is explicit, as we shall see, in Tsvetaeva’s life. So she herself is a case missing from her list in Letter to the Amazon. It seems that, taking herself as “normal,” she sees female bisexuality as itself to be included under that head.
With these splits and triangles, reality itself also becomes resituated, life itself reconceived:
Sonechka didn’t come—because she had already died. Only the dead ones—don’t come in that way, because they can’t, because the earth is holding them. And I felt her near me for a long, long time, almost within reach of my hand, in just the same way that one feels the dead, on whose hand one can’t close one’s hand only because—it shouldn’t be, because it would turn all the known laws upside down: equally fearing to meet the emptiness—and to meet the hand. After all, it was only from my ears and my eyes that Sonechka disappeared.
The real world is not, then, the world our senses reveal. For the ones dead in that world are alive—really alive—in that other world: the world of love. The departed—the ones who have left us—are still here, never really having left at all. In a letter of September 27, 1937, Tsvetaeva tells her Czech friend, Anna Tesková, that when she heard of Sonechka’s death, she “descended into that eternal well where everything is always alive.”15
It is tempting to psychologize all of this, to see it as a way of accommodating loss, as a sort of vision of eternal life. But Tsvetaeva gives us a different way to think of it. In a letter of November 17, 1940 to Tania Kvanina, a young married woman to whom she was attracted, she writes:
The whole point is for us to love, for our heart to pound even if it should break to smithereens. I always got broken to smithereens and all of my poems are those silver smithereens of my heart.16
Her prose works, too, we may infer, are something like these smithereens—loved things preserved: “Who remembers Sonechka now? Her hour hadn’t yet struck and she lives at the bottom of a metal chest, like a not-yet-sprouted seed of her own fame, in Mama’s story.”17
IF WE KNEW no more than this story, we might also see repression at work. We might think that Tsvetaeva desired sex with Sonechka, but for one reason or another—social or personal—repressed her desire, or never had the opportunity to try to satisfy it. But we do know much more. Without purporting to go into all the details, let us touch on a few of the most salient ones, as a sort of prelude.
In her autobiographical story, “My Pushkin,” Tsvetaeva tells of her reaction to a scene from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, which her mother thinks she is too young to understand: “Like a little fool—six years old—she’s fallen in love with Onegin!” But her mother is wrong: “I had fallen in love not with Onegin, but with Onegin and Tatiana (and maybe with Tatiana—a little more), with both of them jointly and—with love.”18
Infatuation, indeed, “was to remain Tsvetaeva’s characteristic form of emotional contact with another person. In love, she sought romance and the acknowledgement of an intense mutual need.”19
Two such romances—one mild, with the poet Lyov Lvovich Kobylinsky, and another, more intense, with Vladimir Milander—in 1910, prepared her, by their failure, to fall in love with Sergey Efron, when the two met at Maximilian Voloshin’s country house in Koktebel, on the eastern shore of the Black Sea. They married in Moscow in January, 1912. Their daughter Ariadna (Alya) was born on September 5, 1912.20
So much for the prelude.
Then, in October 1914, Tsvetaeva met the openly lesbian poet Sophia (Sonia) Parnok (1885–1933),21 who was seven years older than she, and with whom she fell instantly in love:
The heart immediately said: “Darling!”
I forgave you everything—at random,
Knowing nothing—even your name!—
O love me, o love me!22
Their passionate and tumultuous relationship lasted until February 1916, when it was broken off—in another of those cases omitted from Letter to the Amazon—not by the younger woman needing to fulfill her biological destiny, but by Parnok, who had simply moved on to another lover.
Here is part of “Girlfriend 7,” one of the poems Tsvetaeva wrote about their “madcap trip… at the end of December 1914 to the ancient city of Rostov the Great, where they visited a Christmas fair and made love in a monastery hostel,”23
while their relationship was at its most intense:
How in the monastery hostel
—The bell-ringing roar of sunset—
Blissful, like birthday girls,
We thundered, like a troop of soldiers.
How I swore to you to get prettier
Until old age—and spilled salt,
How three times—you were furious!—
I was dealt the King of Hearts.
How you squeezed my head
Fondling each curl,
How the flower of your enamel brooch
Chilled my lips.
How I drew your narrow finger
Across my sleepy cheek,
How you called me a boy,
How you liked me that way…
If we are to judge from these lines, the relationship was not only explicitly sexual, it was also orgasmic, and cast Tsvetaeva in the boy’s role (whatever exactly that might be taken to be).
Simon Karlinsky infers in addition that the affair with Sophia Parnok awakened Tsvetaeva’s “sensuality and gave her the kind of erotic fulfillment that she did not get… from her marriage with Sergei Efron.”24
Diana Burgin25 infers yet more—that Tsvetaeva had “apparently never experienced real passion or been capable of orgasm” before Parnok. In Parnok’s own jealous poem addressed to Tsvetaeva’s husband, the same claim is pretty clearly made:
Not you, o youth, broke her spell.
Marveling at the flame of that loving mouth
It is not your name that will be jealous, o first one—
My name will linger on the lover’s lips.
But more important than the issue of primacy—especially with regard to erotic preference—is the issue of exclusivity and significance. Was Tsvetaeva orgasmic only with women, or also with men? And what sort of significance did orgasm have for her? Her relationship with Sonechka, as we saw, was sexual only by proxy and not orgasmic at all. Yet it was Sonechka “whom I, out of all women in the world, loved the most… more than anything.”
One of Tsvetaeva’s letters, which may not have been accessible to these writers, provides important evidence on both these heads.26 It was written to Konstantin Rodzevich, a former White Russian officer, three years younger than Tsvetaeva, and a close friend of her husband’s, whom she met soon after her arrival in Prague, and who became her lover a year later. The affair lasted from September to December 1923, so the letter was written in pretty much its early days:
September 25, 1923
I’m rereading what happened last night and now make the following correction to it. A beginning with no-end (the only place where the end should be!) is never the end, but always the beginning—this is the very exact truth about my past days and years, the only key to my intense loneliness in love.
Even when one listens to music (with which love is in great accord) one waits for an end (a resolution) and if one doesn’t get it, one languishes. (The whole of Scriabin is languor.) I, who am musical in my core and in my design—perhaps, more a musician than a poet, could not possibly languish, waiting for a resolution here too. But why wasn’t there even once: “wait.” Oh, never, almost at the edge, one millimeter before it, and never! Not once! It wasn’t easy and not at all like that other thing I told you about27 (it wasn’t a lie, but some sort of frenzy of pride; forgive me, but it’s a matter of getting used to someone), but for me to tell a stranger, for me to ask, to put myself in someone’s hands so completely—no, I preferred—but there wasn’t a preference: the other men were strangers, the other men had no business with me. Distrust? Pride? Shame?
All of them together. Obviously, they didn’t love me very much. Obviously, I didn’t love them very much. Well, maybe I loved them very much, but not in that way. Maybe they loved me very much, but were not the right ones. This is a very dim region in me, a mystery in front of which I’m standing now. And if I’ve never counted it as suffering, that was because I, in general, thought of love as an illness, where one doesn’t count the sufferings.
Now appreciate this following strange thing: with the female friend28 I knew it all full. Why then after that was I still pulled toward men, with whom I felt incomparably less? Obviously, it was the voice of nature, a secret hope of getting it all—and incomparably more!—by some sort of miracle from a male friend, something I didn’t believe in because it never came true! I wanted to reach it somehow without my having anything to do with it, without my knowledge, without the participation of another in whom I hadn’t enough trust (give it to me! it’s mine!), so I simply didn’t introduce another into the circle of my (those) feelings. But there was a longing, a thirst—isn’t it that same longing, thirst, hope that pushed me at the station toward you, back then? The longing for complete embodiment. Not having known the main thing—you see, I was not a full human being.
But… I always responded with a joke. This is something that I used to keep hidden even from myself. (In such richness—such poverty! No, let’s say it didn’t count, si peu de peine et tant de plaisir29—simply didn’t exist!) From this came so many meetings, so many easy separations, so much easy oblivion. In the worst case scenario, I’d lost what one can carry within oneself: the soul of the other one, which I did take with me. Put simply, I didn’t belong to anyone, I wasn’t anyone’s.
I’m writing this whole thing to you so you won’t think me simpler, younger, less passionate (maybe all of these are qualities of mine?). But this is much more complex than I’ve let on, and maybe more important to me than I myself wanted to know about till today. It was a thirst, the quenching of which I didn’t believe in: that’s it.
And in this, with you, I’m only at the beginning of the road.
In this with you, just like in the question of me and outer life, you are the healer of my soul, because this, first of all, is the soul’s illness: madness of pride or whatever you want to call it.
Your business is to make me a woman and human, to finish my embodiment. It’s now or never. My wager is very large.
Now I’m re-reading this: it turns out that I don’t exist. I’m remembering now this poem of 1916 (It is in Psyche, I’ll give this book to you.)
The lights are like a gold bead thread,
A taste of the night leaf on my lips.
Free me from the ties of day,
Understand, I’m of your dreams!
In this was also joy. And remembering it, I turn the same poem to you:
Put the night ties on me!
A letter just came. I’m meeting someone today. In my soul everything is over-tortured and over-twisted. A whole new sky fell on my shoulders. I look into you as into boundlessness.
I’m asking you, please, to destroy this female document.
It’s a remarkable letter, the details of which merit careful analysis, but for our purposes, it is enough to notice that it settles the issue of significance pretty decisively: orgasm really was important, and not just because of the pleasure involved. It settles, too, the somewhat less import issue of primacy: Parnok was the first! And—though perhaps a bit less decisively—it settles the issue of exclusivity. Another letter, from September 22, cements the matter:
You performed a miracle on me, for the first time I felt the unity of heaven and earth. Oh, I loved the earth before you appeared, and the trees! I loved it all, I was able to love it all, except for the other person, the other living being. The other person always hindered me: he was like a wall I butted up against, I couldn’t do it with them. Hence I had a notion of myself as not a woman, but a spirit! It was not to live, but to die.30
To the extent, then, that sexual preference for partners of a particular gender is partly a matter of success in achieving orgasm with them, it seems clear that Tsvetaeva was bisexual, able to achieve orgasm with both males and females.
But these letters also help us to understand something else about Tsvetaeva, not this time about her sexual preferences, but about the terms in which she understands them. For it seems that she takes a partner with whom she achieves orgasm to be giving her soul a living body, without which she is not a woman, but simply a disembodied spirit. Looking back, then, at Tsvetaeva’s thoughts in the Story of Sonechka, we might think of the life her non-orgasmic love gives to what would otherwise be just characters, not persons, as a sort of spiritual life.
The brief affair with Rodzevich was in 1923. By 1937, Tsvetaeva had had a son (February 1, 1925) and many more affairs with men and women, none lasting, none satisfying.31 Moreover, Tsvetaeva’s life didn’t end in 1937: with her daughter Irina, long dead of starvation in a children’s shelter (February 2, 1920), her other daughter, Alya, imprisoned in a labor camp (she was arrested on August 27, 1939), her husband Sergei in prison (he was shot there on October 16, 1941), at odds with her son Mur, driven mad by Stalin’s apparatus of terror—she died by her own hand on August 31, 1941.32 What, we must now wonder again, therefore, is what was so special about the relationship with Sonechka, that it—more even than any of the straightforwardly sexual and orgasmic ones—made her “the woman whom I, out of all women in the world, loved the most. And maybe—more than anyone. I think—more than anything”? If the answer lies anywhere, it must lie in the Story of Sonechka itself, I suggested, and the quality of the picture of her that it presents.
One part of Tsvetaeva’s answer has to do with the sense she has of the declining powers of her own love, and her need to conserve what she has of them:
Do I need to add that after her I never loved another female creature and, of course, won’t love any, because I love less and less, saving the rest of my left-over ardor for those—who won’t be able to feel its warmth?
But when we ask for whom she must conserve them, the only plausible answer, it seems, the only ones “who won’t be able to feel its warmth” are those—of whom Sonechka is the principal example—who have passed out of reach of “eyes and ears.” So that doesn’t really help much, since it just returns us to the question of Sonechka’s specialness. An earlier passage is more illuminating:
Here it’s appropriate to say, because later it will be obvious, that I also treated Sonechka as one would a favorite thing, a present, with a feeling of happy possession one never felt before or after—for a person, but for favorite things—always. Not even for a favorite book, but precisely—for a ring, which finally managed to get on the requisite hand, something screamingly—mine, still on the burial mound—mine, in the possession of that gypsy—mine, a ring as happy to be mine as I—to have it, fitting me, as I intrinsically, inalienably—fit it. If anything—at one with my finger! Our relationship wasn’t exhausted by this: it was all my conceivable love plus this.
This fittingness and harmony—palpable in the Story—explains why being with the living, breathing Sonechka was so joyfully pleasant. But what it doesn’t explain is the continuation of the relationship—to put it this way—with a Sonechka who is no longer there to continue the harmonious duet (or trio!).
Fortunately, then, Tsvetaeva’s attempts to explain Sonechka’s specialness don’t stop there:
Like Cordelia about—salt—from my children’s book of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the same am I about—Sonechka and sugar, with the same modesty: she was necessary for me—like sugar. As everyone knows—sugar—is not a necessity, one can live without it, and for four years of the Revolution, we did live without it, some substituting—treacle—for it, some—shredded beets, some—saccharin, some—nothing at all. Drinking unsweetened tea. No one dies of its absence. But they don’t live either. Without salt, scurvy happens, without sugar, ennui. A whole live, white, piece of sugar—that’s what Sonechka was for me. Crude? Crude—like Cordelia: “I love according to my salt,33 no more, no less.” One can love the old King like salt… but a little girl? No, enough of salt. Let this be said once in the world, I loved her like sugar during revolution. And that’s that.
We are hardly in a position to doubt her: “the art of our necessities is strange,” and ennui-dispelling sugar in Moscow in 1919 was surely no small thing. Like a happy childhood, even the memory of it continues to work its energizing magic, especially on an increasingly tragic life: “I dream about Sonechka Holliday, like about a lump of sugar: а guaranteed—sweetness.” Tsvetaeva’s wish, indeed, was that the Story of Sonechka might serve its readers in precisely that role: “Let this whole story be—like a lump of sugar, at least it was sweet to write it!”. It is that—and more.
C. D. C. (David) Reeve is a professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina. He and his wife and co-translator Inessa B. Fishbeyn live in Chapel Hill.
- The best biographical study is still Simon Karlinsky, Marina Tsvetaeva: the Woman, Her World, and Her Poetry. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), but Lily Feiler, Marina Tsvetaeva: The Double Beat of Heaven and Hell (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994) is also useful.
- Marina Tsvetaeva, Poésie Lyrique (1912–1941), 2 vols., edited and translated by Véronique Lossky (Édition des Syrtes, 2015).
- Marina Tsvetaeva, Oeuvres, 2 vols. edited by Véronique Lossky and Tzvetan Todorov (Paris: Édition du Seuil, 2009).
- For example, some of the prose, with an Introduction by Susan Sontag, appears, edited and translated by J. Marin King, in Marina Tsvetaeva, A Captive Spirit (Woodstock: Ardis Publishers, 2004), and eight of her essays on poetry, in Marina Tsvetaeva: Art in the Light of Conscience (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), translated with an introduction and Notes by Angela Livingstone. Some of her diaries are translated in Jamey Gambrell, Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries 1917–1922 (New York, NYRB, 2002), and some of her letters in Letters 1926: Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, Rainer Maria Rilke (New York: NYRB, 2001), again with a preface by Susan Sontag. A good place to start with Tsvetaeva’s poetry is Dark Elderberry Branch: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva: A Reading by Ilya Kaminsky and Jean Valentine (Farmington: Alice James Press, 2012), which includes a CD of the reading. Marina Tsvetaeva, Selected Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1994), translated by Elaine Feinstein and others, is also excellent. Khlystovki, autobiographical prose, previously appeared in The Fortnightly Review.
- Joseph Brodsky, “A Poet in Prose,” in his Less Than One: Selected Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1986), p. 178.
- The Power of Delight: A Lifetime in Literature (New York: Norton, 2005), “A Poet’s Tragedy: Marina Tsvetaeva (1892–1941),” pp. 279–290.
- Clarence Brown, “On Not Liking Tsvetaeva,” London Review of Books 8 (1994). Tsvetaeva wrote, Brown says, “like a man, and like a woman. Should I make up my mind? Impossible. She never made up her own mind, nor did she see the need. I seem to hear her scorn now for the waffling about, trying to assign her work to gender categories. The attempt is itself, in her terms, a category mistake.” It is as true of the person as of her work.
- Part I of was first published in Russkiye Zapiski 3 (Paris, Shanghai, 1938); Part II was first published in Neizdannoe, stikhi, teatr, proza (Paris, 1976). A censored version of the entire work was first published in Novy mir (Moscow, 1979). The text translated is that printed in A. Saakyants and L. Mnukhin, Marina Tsvetaeva, Sobraniye Sochinyenei v Syeme Tomakh Tom 4 (Moscow, 1994), pp. 293–418. Translations are drawn from Inessa B. Fishbeyn and C.D.C. Reeve, The Story of Sonechka (forthcoming from Columbia University Press).
- Existentialists and Mystics (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1998), p. 215, pp. 368–369, p. 354.
- The Waste Books (New York, 2000), p. 71.
- That this is a very jaundiced view of Sonechka’s abilities as an actress is attested to by the many glowing critical reviews of her performances cited in G. Brodskaya, Sonechka Gollidei: Zhizn’ and akterskaya sud’ba (Sonechka Holliday: Life and the Actress’s Fate) (Moscow: OGI, 2003).
- Written in French (1932–1934), and translated into English by A’Dora Phillips and Gaëlle Cogan (New York: Ugly Duckling Press, 2016), from which I quote. Barney was nicknamed “Amazon” by her admirer, Remy de Gourmont.
- Karlinsky, Marina Tsvetaeva, p. 208. (For more on Natalie Barney in The Fortnightly Review, see here; for our portfolio of essays on Remy de Gourmont, see here.—Ed.)
- A criterion proposed in Rachel Elizabeth Fraser’s compelling essay, “The Erotics of ASMR,” The Oxonian Review, 8 May 2020.
- In “Escape from Earth: A Study of Tsvetaeva’s Elsewheres,” Slavic Review 36 (1977): 644–657, a perceptive short study of Tsvetaeva’s poetry, Ieva Vitins writes: “In Tsvetaeva’s work, earth is essentially a place of exile where her persona stands ‘with only one foot.’ From its confines she time and again seeks to return to her original home in the sky by escaping into the worlds of dreams, poetry, and, for a while, an impassioned correspondence… In the late twenties and thirties, by contrast, there is a conscious turning away from aerial imagery to the immediate world, and finally a turning away from poetry itself to death.”
- This and the previous letter are quoted and discussed in Karlinsky, Marina Tsvetaeva, pp. 238–239. The translations are his.
- Letter of Alya Efron (daughter of MT) to A. K. Tarasenkov, February 7, 1956.
- King, A Captive Spirit, p. 336 (translation modified).
- Karlinsky, Marina Tsvetaeva, p. 52.
- The details of all of this are recounted in Feiler, Marina Tsvetaeva, pp. 42–65.
- A good study in English is Diana Burgin, Sophia Parnok: the Life and Work of Russia’s Sappho (New York: New York University Press, 1994). The pioneering study is S. Poliakova, Zakatnye oni dni: Tsvetaeva i Parnok (The Sunset Days of Yore: Tsvetaeva and Parnok) (Ann Arbor: Ardis Publishers, 1983). See also new translations in The Fortnightly Review by Alex Chernova, Anna Ivaskevica and Alex Wong of six of her poems here.
- The second stanza of “Girlfriend 9,” one of the cycle of poems Tsvetaeva wrote to Parnok. Most of these are translated, with facing Russian, in Karina McCorkle, Those Strange Moscow Ladies: Queer Identity in the Poetry of Tsvetaeva and Parnok (2015), pp. 64–72, from which I quote.
- Karlinsky, Marina Tsvetaeva, p. 53.
- Karlinsky, p. 53.
- Sophia Parnok, p. 52.
- The Russian text is in A. Saakyants and L. Mnukhin, Marina Tsvetaeva: Pis’ma 1905–1923 (Ellis Luck: Moscow, 2012), #63–23, pp. 361–362. The translation is Inessa B. Fishbeyn’s and mine.
- It isn’t clear to what Tsvetaeva is referring.
- Obviously Parnok.
- Tsvetaeva is recalling a story told by Ivan in Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov: “A little blonde Norman girl of twenty—a buxom, unsophisticated beauty that would make your mouth water—comes to an old priest. She bends down and whispers her sin into the grating. ‘Why, my daughter, have you fallen again already?’ cries the priest: ‘O Sancta Maria, what do I hear! Not the same man this time, how long is this going on? Aren’t you ashamed!’ ‘Ah, mon père,’ answers the sinner with tears of penitence, ‘Ca lui fait tant de plaisir, et à moi si peu de peine!’[Ah, father, it gives him so much pleasure, and me so little pain!].”
- Feiler, who quotes this letter, differently translated, concludes that with Rodzevich, Tsvetaeva “seemed to experience something of the same intensely sexual feelings for him as she had for Parnok” (p. 145). The text translated is in A. Saakyants and L. Mnukhin, Marina Tsvetaeva: Pis’ma 1905–1923, # 62–23, pp. 357–359.
- They are recounted chronologically in Feiler, Marina Tsvetaeva. There were also some apparent attempts at some sort of relationship in 1940 with the young woman we encountered earlier, Tania Kvanina. McCorkle, Those Strange Moscow Ladies, pp. 17–21, provides some details of this relationship, supported by quotations from Kvanina’s memoirs. This records Tsvetaeva as having told her that she “greatly resembled Sonechka, only a grown-up Sonechka” (p. 19). But McCorkle is a bit too quick to see sexual attraction, rather than nostalgic re-enactment of a relationship not straightforwardly sexual, as Tsvetaeva’s motivation.
- The most authoritative account is Irma Kudrova, The Death of a Poet: The Last Days of Marina Tsvetaeva (Woodstock: Overlook Press, 2004).
- Sol! as in salary, translates “bond.”