Janet's Reviews > The Guest from the Future: Anna Akhmatova and Isaiah Berlin

The Guest from the Future by György Dalos
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's review
Dec 08, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: russia, poetry

I thought this book per se was only all right--treating with the circumstances and aftermath of the momentous meeting of Anna Akhmatova and scholar/diplomat Isaiah Berlin in Leningrad in 1946. But for clues to the enigmatic Akhmatova's poem "Poem without a Hero," it was invaluable.

The meeting with the brilliant Berlin revitalized her desire to write and to live, and thus it was a crucial meeting for Akhmatova and Russian literature, although the book itself is drab beyond drab. The author suggested at one point that this meeting would make an amazing play, that one fateful night, and I think he is right--the meeting of the besieged poetess who had always kept a certain distance in her love relationships falling in love with a brilliant foreigner--a guest from the future, really from the free world-- who would eventually betoken such misery for her and her son, at least but breaking the ice that had formed within, freeing her again, her capacity for attachment, for passion--what a drama! And what an aftermath.

Sent me immediately to the Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova (trans. Judith Hemschemeyer) to find the 'guest from the future' in the long poem-cycle "Poem without a Hero." (p.552):

"The sound of steps, those that doen't exist
Across the shining parquetry
And bluish cigar smoke.
and reflected in all of the mirrors
Is the man who didn't appear
Who could not get into the hall
He is no better than the others and no worse,
But he doesn't waft on Lethe's chill,
And his hand is warm.
The guest from the future!--Is it true
That he really will come to me,
Turning left at the bridge?

Also he figures in the third and last dedication:

"Long enough I have frozen in fear,
Better to summon a Bach Chaconne,
And behind it will enter a man,
He will not be a beloved husband to me
But what we will accomplish, he and I,
Will disturb the 20th Century.
I took him by mistake
For someone mysteriously bestowed,
the mosts bitter of fates.
He will come to me in the Fountain Palace
to drink New Years' wine
And he will be lagte this foggy night.
And he will remember Epiphany Eve,
The maple at the window, the wedding candles
And the poem's mortal flight...
But it's not the firest branch of lilac,
not a ring, not the sweetness of prayers--
It is death that he bears."

Learned so much about her association between fame and death, I didn't know.

I thought the book was especially interesting around the subject of how these Soviet writers' Western counterparts and fans seemed not to understand how their mere contact could condemn a writer to years of silence, years in the gulags, and not only for themselves but for their families. What it cost the Russians--Akhmatova, Pasternak, Zoshchenko--to meet the Western emissaries. Not only the eagerness for outside word, but dreadful awareness of what disaster could spring from something as positive as say, a Nobel prize, or innocent as a visit from a group of English students.

Five stars for the information, but two for the pleasure of reading it.

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