Talking to the dead
By Elaine Feinstein
The Russian Jerusalem
By Elaine Feinstein
‘Poetry, like love, risks all on signs’, wrote a French poet. Elaine Feinstein, in her latest book of poems, Talking to the Dead, speaks plainly and from the heart about and, indeed, to her deceased husband. He was a difficult man but their marriage was an adult affair, containing epiphanies as well as contradictions. It is a beautiful collection, which will surely endure, a lyrical record of impediments admitted but transcended.
Feinstein’s most personal book The Russian Jerusalem somehow merges all the genres she has practised. Sadder than Talking to the Dead, it is a tale of loss and destruction, sorrow and pain.
The author imagines herself into the company of some of her favourite writers, “familiar compound ghosts” (in Eliot’s phrase), four great poets and a short-story writer of genius: Tsvetayeva (Virgil to Feinstein’s Dante), Akhmatova, Mandelshtam, Pasternak and Isaac Babel, perhaps the most tragic and fascinating of all these figures.
She is “ensnared by the dangerous glamour of these ghosts”. The men were Jewish Russians, the women non-Jewish with important Jewish associations, such as Tsvetayeva’s half-Jewish husband, Sergei Efron. She also meets the Yiddish novelist Der Nister, who didn’t survive, and that complex figure, Ilya Ehrenberg, who did.
Feinstein is like a bar fly on the wall of The Stray Dog, the famous St Petersburg tavern she evokes, but proactive, briefly sharing the lives of writers she has previously encountered for professional reasons.
Each chapter begins with a plangently evocative poem in the classic Feinstein voice. Indeed the book as a whole works like a long poem, perhaps because it reads like the story of a dream — with flashes of nightmare. Our task is to keep her company in the dangerous time of Stalin, although, and this is a sub-text, she is well aware that her fantasy presence demonstrates, through a glass darkly, the safety of Jewish life in England. But she never forgets that many Jewish families in England have relatives who perished or suffered terribly during the dark years of Hitler and Stalin. Feinstein’s primary task is that old Jewish imperative: to remember and commemorate.
On visits to the Soviet Union while researching her biographies of Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetayeva, she meets, in real time and real life, later Jewish poets such as Margaret Aliger, Yunna Moritz and Joseph Brodsky. Traces of Yiddishkeit and Jewish experience enter the spirit of the book as she finds familial and other parallels with her own life, including cuisine: she notes, for example, the difference in sweetness between Russian and Polish pickles.
Distinguished and distinctive as a biographer, poet, critic, translator and novelist, Feinstein obliterates traditional boundaries and enters a new and fertile land where, I trust, she will labour for years as the Grand Duchess of Anglo-Jewish letters, a woman who, if the cards had fallen differently, could have been drinking lemon tea in Odessa with her beloved Zaida — a lump of sugar held between what remained of his teeth — rather than in Leicester, the safe haven of her childhood.