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The Uncivil Servant: Diaries of Doomed Writers

Mitchell Abidor
November 25, 2017

Discussed in this essay: Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries 1917-1922 by Marina Tsetaeva, translated by Jamey Gambrell. NYRB Classics, 2017, 248 pages; and The Diaries of Emilio Renzi by Ricardo Piglia, translated by Robert Croll. Restless Books, 2017, 448 pages.

MARINA TSETAEVA (1892-1941) was part of the remarkable generation of Russian poets who had already hit their stride or were about to at the time of the 1917 October Revolution. Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Mayakovsky, Yesenin, Blok, Pasternak, Mandelstam — all would produce brilliant work and almost all would meet sad ends: the first four suicides; Blok disillusioned, dying embittered at 41; Pasternak constantly under threat; Mandelstam vanished into the gulag.

Earthly Signs, a brilliant collection of prose by Tsvetaeva, is a brutal, unforgiving, and occasionally humorous series of journal entries and aphoristic essays about the years 1919-1925 in the young Soviet republic. It presents us with a poet’s-eye view of the harsh early years of socialist power, a power with which she had less than no sympathy.

Born in Moscow to a cultivated family, Tsvetaeva spent her formative years in Europe, where she learned German and French (she would write that “there are many souls in me. But my primary soul -- is German”). The family returned to Russia in 1905, and Tsvetaeva had her first volume of poetry published at 17. She married the student Sergei Efron in 1912, and when the October Revolution occurred, Efron was in the Imperial army and then served in the anti-Bolshevik White Army during the Russian civil war. She was finally able to leave Soviet Russia and join Efron in Prague in 1922, where they lived until 1925, then moved to Paris. Over the course of his time in Paris in White circles, Efron experienced a political conversion and returned to Russia in 1937, correctly suspected by the Whites of being an agent of the Soviet secret police. He disappeared in the storm of Stalin’s Great Terror, and their daughter Alya was also arrested, though she survived.

Unlike her husband, Tsevtaeva never experienced a political change of heart, and no mistake should be made about this: Tsevataeva was profoundly reactionary. Writing in the wake of the October Revolution, she hated communism with a passion, with nothing about it and its advocates finding grace in her eyes.

She also refused to be viewed as a woman poet or to participate in women’s events, writing that “in poetry there are more essential distinctions than belonging to the male or female sex,” and claimed “an inborn aversion to everything bearing the stamp of female (mass) separation.” In a series of aphorisms on the subject of gratitude, she bemoans the fate of Marie Antoinette, saying how a 5-year-old Mozart said about a 7-year-old Antoinette, after she’d helped him to his feet after he had slipped and fallen, that “Celle-la -- je l’epouserai” [I’m going to marry that one]. When Princess Marie-Therese asked him why: “Par reconnaissance” [Out of gratitude]. Tsvetaeva went on to write of the many the French queen had helped, and wondered, “Did anyone shout to her -- par reconnaissance -- ‘Vive la Reine’ -- as she rode in her carriage to the block?”

HATING THE BOLSHEVIKS, Tsvetaeva’s ideal was a holdover from her childhood: Germany. In her idealized Germany, “a poet slumbers in every clerk…in every tailor a violinist awakens.” That they went to war in 1914 against Russia does not interfere with her love of Germany, of which she said “This is the country of freedom… A country where the law (of community life) not only takes the exception into account: it reveres it.”

Germany is, and will remain, despite all this, for the poet Tsevataeva, the country of Novalis, Hölderlin, Goethe, and Heine.

The heart of the book is Tsvetaeva’s journal-like accounts of daily life in Red Moscow. With her husband away fighting the Reds with the White forces, she is undisguisedly opposed to the Bolsheviks, and has little regard for the common folk, who have now (officially, at least) been raised to power. Viewed with suspicion on a train by a sailor for her bourgeois manners and suspect opinions, she is ranked by him among the evildoers of the world who have tried to do in the working class: “It’s these booklearned ones, this gentry, these damned Junkers that have filled Moscow with blood. Bloodsuckers! Bastards!”

She travels to the south attempting to obtain scarce food and goods, and in the peasant world she visits she is viewed askance by all: “to the boor’s wife I’m ‘poor’ (cheap stockings, no diamonds), to the boor a ‘bourgeoise.’”

Antisemitism is undisguised (Tsvetaeva, not Jewish herself, famously wrote that “All poets are Jews”), even in the new Russia. Overhearing a discussion of the assassination of Uritsky, the head of the Petrograd Cheka, a woman asks, “Who did the kikes kill?” The hatred of city-folk is also rife: “They licked Moscow clean,” says one peasant, “now they’ve come to gobble up the countryside.”

For the first time in her life she is forced to work, and in 1918 she finds a fairly pointless post at the Narkomnats, the People’s Commissariat for Nationalities, where she is surrounded by the nationalities of the former Russian empire, now Soviet state, whose appearance and accents she mocks mercilessly. But working there teaches her a valuable lesson, or rather confirms one she’d already learned: “The main thing is to understand from the first second of the Revolution: all is lost! Then everything is easy.”

Starvation is everywhere, and will claim the youngest of her daughters, and the “former person” Tsevtaeva, who had lived comfortably at home and abroad, must hunt for food and is ecstatic when she is able to receive a supply of frozen potatoes. “The potatoes are in the cellar, in a deep, pitch-dark crypt. The potatoes croaked and were buried, and we, the jackals, are going to dig them up and eat them.” The best are at the far end of the room, and getting to them is “like climbing over a mountain of jellyfish.” And yet climb she does.

THE DEPTHS to which Russian life had fallen in those early days that would lead to Lenin’s New Economic Program cannot be more brutally and directly described than in Earthly Signs. Staircases and beams have vanished, as the wood has been torn away chopped and used for firewood. She wonders if “there is a genuine thinker and observer who could write a genuine book about hunger?” and removes herself from the competition: “I would write it -- if it weren’t for the romantic flourish in me -- my nearsightedness -- all of my idiosyncrasies -- which at times prevent me from seeing things as they are.” She writes these dismissive words as she provides us precisely with that “genuine book about hunger” whose absence she had bemoaned.

Tsevaeta’s Soviet Russia is without pity. Returning to the Soviet Union along with her now pro-Soviet husband, she was, after his arrest and execution and the arrest of her surviving daughter and son, alone, isolated, shunned because of her husband’s fate. She barely got by on translation work arranged by Boris Pasternak. Evacuated from Moscow after the German invasion in 1941, she had finally reached a point where there was no way out of her situation. Leaving three notes, she committed suicide.

IF TSVETAEVA’S journals are those of a writer in the midst of the storms of history, whose advance she resolutely stands against, the Argentine writer Roberto Piglia’s (1941-2017) brilliant Diaries of Emilio Renzi are the account of the life of a provincial who, from his earliest youth, knew that literature would be his métier. He writes in these diaries, which cover the years 1957-67 “the formative years,” as they are subtitled: “’Well, I’m going to be a writer,’ I said; I was sixteen years old and had the same odds of being a writer as being a pilot or mercenary.”

Piglia’s diaries, which he assembled in their present and final form just before his death in January 2017 of Lou Gehrig’s disease, are published here by Restless Press, which is headed by the Mexican-Jewish writer Ilan Stavans. The writings are remarkably direct yet at the same time distanced, for they are written in the persona of Emilio Renzi, the main character in two of Piglia’s novels. Entries are usually in the first person, but sometimes in the third, and when “Renzi” discusses his plans for an essay or short story, it is often followed by that planned essay or short story. The importance of the fictional character in the composing of this volume reflects what Emilio/Ricardo has to say about his apprenticeship in letters: “I learn what I want to do from imaginary writers. Stephen Dedalus and Nick Adams, for example.” In The Diaries of Emilio Renzi we are given a first-person account from without. “In my case, I could say: I have entered my autobiography when I have been able to live in the third person.”

His life is lived in all variety. As he writes, “[p]olitics, literature, and toxic love affairs with other men’s wives have been the only persistent thing in my life.” Piglia the political activist, editor of the journal of a Trotskyist group from which he is almost expelled for unwillingness to actually do political work; Piglia the son of a Peronist father who is disappointed in his offspring for not following in his political footsteps; Piglia the friend of thieves and prostitutes; Piglia the lover of many women; Piglia the close and serious reader, the expert on American literature who will end up a professor at Princeton; Piglia the man who is unable to hold on to money; Piglia the student; Piglia the habitué of literary -- and other -- bars; and, of course, Piglia the writer.

Two figures hover over these diaries, those of William Faulkner -- Piglia’s love for the American explains the obscurity of his own novels -- and the great Italian writer Cesare Pavese, whose diaries, published as This Business of Living, inspire and haunt Piglia. If Pavese’s diaries have a place in the pantheon of world literature, the same can be said for the Diaries of Emilio Renzi. And it can also be said of Piglia what Piglia said of Pavese: “[W]hen in coming years forgetting erases the biographical circumstances that enabled his writing…Pavese will have to be viewed, surely, as the man who, in This Business of Living, has written some of the most memorable pages of contemporary literature.”

The final section of the Diaries recounts Piglia’s transcription of the diaries we are reading, a transcription he is carrying out in order for us to see that he has remained faithful to the ideals that first motivated him: “That is why I am transcribing my diaries, because I want people to know that even now, at seventy-three years of age, I still think in the same way, criticizing the same things that I was criticized when I was twenty.” He doesn’t mention that he is transcribing the diaries under a death sentence.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.