I have lived in leafy Meudon, a Paris suburb, for 12 years. There are many things I enjoy about Meudon, but in the glorious spring weather I love to take my exercise by walking throughout the town, down to the river and up through the forest. Meudon is located halfway between Paris and Versailles, making it a setting for events in French history such as the home of the dauphin, the son of Louis XIV and Madame Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV. Moreover, many artists, musicians, and writers have enjoyed the hills and forests of Meudon. There are several historical plaques and markers about town marking the names of these figures. On one nondescript wall I found this plaque commemorating a single, special event. I read this plaque with a sense of envy, to imagine living in such a cultural milieu.
“Here at the house of Louis Laloy, June 2nd, 1912, Stravinsky and Debussy played for the first time the piano version of the “Rite of Spring””
Recently I was walking along the tree lined boulevard Verd-de Saint-Julien, where the trees are trimmed like a hedge in the French fashion. I stopped at the house at number 31 for a reason I will explain in a post to follow. I have passed this house perhaps hundreds of times. But for the first time I took a real interest in the historical marker there for the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (also spelled Tsvetayeva) who had lived there in 1927. Now don’t get me wrong, I have looked at it years ago, and even took a picture of it. However, this time it was like meeting again an acquaintance who you never thought about, nor had any interest in. Yet upon this reacquaintance you find her to be one of the most remarkable persons you have ever met. Such is the case for Marina Tsvetaeva, who I think you will agree had a most extraordinary life. I have put together a timeline of some of the major events of her life from her Wikipedia page.
1892: Born in Moscow, her father, Ivan Tsvetaeva, 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 traveled 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
1914: Efron joined the Russian army to fight in WWI
1917: Tsvetaeva was trapped in Moscow for five years during the revolution and subsequent civil war. Efron joins the White army to fight against the Bolsheviks in the civil war
1919: During the Moscow famine she put both her daughters in a state orphanage, mistakenly believing that they would be better fed there. Ariadna became ill, such that Tsvetaeva removed her, but Irina died there of starvation in 1920
1922: Tsvetaeva emigrated with her family to Berlin, where she rejoined her husband, and then went on to Prague.
1925: Tsvetaeva settled in Paris, in the region she would live for the next 14 years. During this time she contracted tuberculosis.
1937 Efron is recruited by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, and takes part in the assaination of a Soviet defector in Switzerland. He and his daughter return to the Soviet Union
1938: Friendless and almost destitute Marina also returned to the Soviet Union
1939: Tsvetaeva was officially ostracized and unable to publish. Her husband was executed by the Soviet authorities and her daughter was sent to a labor camp.
1941: German invasion, 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. Her suicide note to her son read in part, “…I am madly in love with you… Tell Papa and Alia – if you see them – that I loved them up to the very last moment and explain to them that I ran into a dead-end street.”
This timeline does not begin to reveal her poetry and prose writing, her place in European culture, nor her intense relationships with so many important personalities including the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke and Russian writer Boris Pasternak, author of Dr. Zhivago (here is the wonderful film) and a Nobel Prize laureate. Regarding Meudon, in the memoirs of Tsvetaeva’s daughter Ariadna.No Love Without Poetry I found this comment, “…special places in her memory; she sought them everywhere and found them only rarely in the undulating hills of the former “royal hunting grounds” of the Meudon woods and in the cliffs, colors and smells of the Mediterranean coast.”
The house on Blvd.Verd-de-Saint Julien, the trees lining the street, and the marker for Marina Tsvetaeva.
Another intense relationship for Tsvetaeva was with the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. His family life indicated in the quote below explains the painful aspect of the current war between such close cousins, Russia and Ukraine, who have such intimate ties of history, geography, and people. “The [Mayakovsky] family was of Russian and Zaporozhian Cossack descent on their father’s side and Ukrainian on their mother’s. At home the family spoke Russian. With his friends and at school, Mayakovsky spoke Georgian.” He had said, “I was born in the Caucasus, my father is a Cossack, my mother is Ukrainian. My mother tongue is Georgian. Thus three cultures are united in me,”
I mentioned Rilke and Pasternak in particular because of their three-way correspondence with Tsevtaeva published in a book. The correspondence between the three poets began in 1926 with Pasternak’s father Leonoid, a well known painter, who had met Rilke on his first trip to Russia at the turn of the century. This passage is even more nostalgic than the plaque in Meudon for long lost European culture. “Do you remember charming old Moscow, now but a legend, a fairy tale? …Do you remember Tolstoy, his house, his estate Yasnaya Polyana? …Do you remember that beautiful warm evening in Rome, at a villa next to the Borghese, and our discussion of, among other things, The Lay of Igor’s Heart [an epic poem from the late 12th century]…And do you remember our chance meeting in the aisle of a Swiss railroad car with a foaming mountain stream foaming below us! That was the last time we saw each other.”
The correspondence between the painter and the poets illuminated aspects of the Russian people and their relationship with Europeans. Rilke’s response to the first letter of Leonid Pasternak included this passage.“And now I want to lose no time but express how much your language and everything to do with the old Russia (the unforgettable , intimate, and homely skazka [fairy tale]) and everything you remind me of in your letter have remained close, dear, and holy to me, implanted forever in my life’s foundations. Yes, we have all had to undergo a great deal of change, your country more than any: but even if we do not live to see it at its resurrection, the profound, the real, the other surviving Russia has only fallen back on her secret root system, as she did before, under the Tatar yoke, who could doubt that she is still there and is gathering her forces in that dark place, invisible to her own children,leisurely with her own sacred slowness, on to a possibly still-remote future?! Your own exile, the exile of so many of those the most faithful to her, nourishes this, as it were , subterranean preservation, for as th real Russia has hidden herself underground, inside the earth,thus all of you have, after all, left in order to remain true to her in her present concealment, …”
Later, Tsvetaeva wrote to Rilke, “One more thing I will always be a Russian woman in your perception, you in mine–a purely human (devine) phenomenon. This is the difficulty with our too–individualistic nationality: all of which in us is I is called “Russian” by the Europeans. (Same case as, with us, Chinese, Japanese, Negroes–very far away or very savage.)”
At this moment in time, with the two-minute hate of all things Russian in the West, my delving into the life of Tsvetaeva has taken on a special, more emotional, meaning for me. This one personal story is enough to invoke sympathy in me for all of the Russians. I have never had a close Russian friend. I have never visited Russia. I was viscerally against the Soviet Union. But I was greatly moved by many Russian writers, especially Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Solzhenitsyn, Adding the music of Tchaikovsky, and so many more, I think anyone familiar with these giants and with a beating heart must have a warm feeling for the Russian people.
How is one to think about the current conflict? I am an LRC contributor, so of course, I am anti-war. Thus, Putin’s expansion of the eight-year old war is not a good thing. But the demonization of Russians, making a NATO intervention more likely is clearly dangerous. Furthermore, James Corbett thinks Putin is a WEF stooge. To the contrary, Robert Barnes thinks the Ukraine war is a globalist project that Putin will thwart. I note that Putin has shown support for the Russian Orthodox Church, seemingly a nationalist move, and therefore, anti-globalist. Maybe they are both right, in that we are approaching the neo-Orwellian conflict between the East Asian security state versus the Oceanian security state. What I know for sure is that I will simply try to maintain the old culture of peace and beauty as shown in the photo below.
My poor attempt to recreate the lost European culture: a Belgian beer and the poets at Le Café de la Paix after a walk in the Meudon forest.
Poem of the End is the poem that drove Boris Pasternak to fall in love with Marina.
This link provides many of Marina’s translated poems. A couple of examples follow:
For My Poems, Written So Early
For my poems, written so early
That I didn’t even know I was a poet,
Hurled like drops from a fountain,
Like sparks from rockets,
That burst like tiny devils,
Into the sanctuary of sleep and incense,
For my poems about youth and death
— For my unread poems! Scattered in dusty bookstores,
Where no one ever buys them!
For my poems,
like precious wines,
A time will come.
No Longer Now
No longer now the same god-given bounties
Where now no longer the same waters glide.
Then fly, and hasten, doves of Aphrodite,
Through the great gates that sunset has swung wide.
And I on the chill sands shall lie,
receding Into the dimness of unreckoned days . . .
Like the shed skin the snake is coldly eyeing,
My youth, outgrown, has shrunk under my gaze.
Below are screen captures from No Love Without Poetry, the memoirs of Marina Tsvetaeva’s daughter Ariadna (her story is also well worth a look). From these snippets you will find that she is a remarkably poetic writer herself.
The following is from Ariadna’s journal when she was 9 years-old staying in Berlin.
This could have been a scene from Dr. Zhivago