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Recommended Reads: The Russian Jerusalem by Elaine Feinstein

Written by jen, 16th June 2008

Known as one of our greatest living poets, Elaine Feinstein is also a novelist, translator, screenwriter, playwright and biographer. It is only a mind like this, at once creative and analytical, that could have led to the production of this unique work. The Russian Jerusalem focuses on the ‘Silver Age' Russian poets of the early 20th-century. It is an inventive and ambitious book, combining fiction, history and personal memoir. The fact that it is then interspersed with Feinstein's own poems and illustrations by William Kermode (1895 - 1959), brings a dimension to the book that allows it to cross the barricades and limitations of the theme with genuine power. Exploring a vast literary heritage, one that is her own, Feinstein portrays the landscapes of Russian Jewry and the great literary figures that lived within it. "All poets are Jews," says Marina Tsvetaeva, a statement that Feinstein has threaded through the book to evoke a Jerusalem of intense creativity, talent and friendship, which induced danger, viciousness and cruelty for those living in twentieth-century Russia. ‘All poets are Jews': all Jews and poets are outsiders.

The Russian Jerusalem begins in 2005, where we discover Feinstein living in a rented flat in a "poor area" of Putin's St. Petersburg. Fascinated by the ghosts haunting the decaying buildings of Soviet cities, Feinstein is guided by the spirit of Marina Tsvetaeva on a remarkable journey through the lives of Russia's great poets. Her imagination takes her down, deep down to threatening places and backwards in time to Stalin's Russia and the plight of the great poets: Mandelstam, Pasternak, Babel, Brodsky, Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva herself. It is dark stuff. As Feinstein maps the genius of their literary minds, their political and religious views, and the immense cruelty that is inflicted upon members of the Writers' Union, she also depicts flawed human beings. She depicts the conversations, love affairs and beliefs of these writers as, one at a time, they are unfalteringly silenced, tortured and murdered in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. The simplicity of the prose is sometimes rather brutal, at others' achingly beautiful. At moments it is terrifying,

That was when Ehrenberg began to understand. That winter, the Kremlin arrested twenty-five new defendants. All were secretly executed on 12 August 1952: 'The Night of the Murdered Poets'. Ehrenburg thinks with discomfort, as he often has: 'I am the only one of the Jewish Anti-Facist Committee still alive.'

The only survivor.

then an injection of sensual imagery,

It is a warm afternoon. And there he is. Hatless and shirtless in a garden, drinking with two guests. He has a broad face, huge eyes and his cheekbones have deep hollows beneath them.

There are banks of flowers. A lilac bush. Lavender. The poet looks calm and happy. He has been digging a dark patch of earth under the fruit trees, and the spade still stands in the soil. He is wearing old clothes, and the lowest button on the right side of his jacket hangs by a thread . He moves a deckchair into the shade for one of his guests.

and the insertion of a original poem,

Rivers, we dream of black rivers, and
a shadowy world lying across their waters.
The other shore is always a little uncertain.

Darkness. Acacia blosson. No boatman.
I am not brave enough for this exploration.
This is a savage path. I fear this country.

compels the pages to life in its plurality.

The Russian Jerusalem will leave you gasping. Feinstein's own poems in this book are worthy of the ghosts of the poets she brings back to life so powerfully, so resolutely and with such life. It will inspire you to read those who have so fervently inspired her.

Posted by Jen Tomkins

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