I got into a lot of new writers over Easter, I think because I’ve been reading so many anthologies; it’s been such a good way of discovering people I might not have otherwise. So many such discoveries are those who are seldom translated into English, except for these little bits and pieces – a poem here, a short story there – in order to contribute to a bigger picture of an era or a movement. I must take all of them that I can get, no matter how little it might be.
One such new discovery, and one of the best, has been Zinaida Gippius. The library has volumes and volumes of her – her diaries and essays, mostly – but they’re all in Russian, and though I tried one of the diaries I realised that having to look up so many words would only make me feel bad for not being ‘good enough’ and would take all the fun out of it. So how glad I was to find her in the anthologies.
I had long wanted to read her. I remember her once being mentioned in class and thinking what an interesting woman she sounded, and how it must have taken something, some kind of strength I suppose, to have become known as a poetess at that time (this was before I had read much Russian women’s writing and known who else there was, so she must have been one of the first I had heard of). Yet for some reason I wasn’t expecting to actually like her. I think of it now and I’m not quite sure why; perhaps because, a long time later, my first proper meeting with her was in a portrait by Teffi, ‘The Merezhkovskys’ in the collection Rasputin and Other Ironies, which I read at the start of this year. She seemed to me a woman somehow cold, difficult, most of all strange (for a lack of a better word) – and we are taught not to like strange women.
Yet now that strangeness, the sense of her not being quite of this world, is what makes her voice and her work so appealing to me. I was sold on her very quickly; the lines that did it were these from Швея (‘The Seamstress’)
А кровь – лишь так того, что мы зовем
на бедном языке – Любовью
Любовь – лишь звук…Но в этот поздный час
того, что дальше – не открою.
‘Love’ is our paltry word
For the blood language cannot name.
‘Love’ is a meaningless sound…
but I shall see no more now, it is late.
That was all it took; I was converted. I liked this idea that there is something beyond, and here, more specifically, the way it pertains to language. I feel as though I spend a lot of time thinking about how we fit ourselves into language and how there might not be the words for what we need to say; but she gave me the idea that perhaps there is something outside of language, and that that’s what we should be seeking instead.
Not only is it this idea of the ‘beyond’ that strikes me, for this is something you can find in many other Symbolists. What is unique perhaps is that I find myself able to believe in it. There’s a difference between simply listening to what a writer has to say, to being told of something and no more – and allowing yourself, however briefly, to be absolutely convinced of it. Reading Gippius (for I don’t feel as though I can use her first name, as if I’m somehow not qualified; for its beauty and nobility I don’t want to touch it, Zinaida) is like listening to Russian church music; to me, at least, she speaks to the heart rather than the mind; in the time it takes to read a poem I find myself sold, eyes for a moment on another world, all questions set aside.
I like this beyond, or these beyonds (so I keep calling it, because I don’t know how else to explain it! – but if you read her you’ll know just what I mean), and I think I find them so convincing because they are made to seem so natural. Innate. To connect with what we don’t have language for, for example, is not portrayed not simply a departure but a return. That though we might look for our ‘true’ selves in the next life (or whatever that mysterious place is that she writes of), we shouldn’t necessarily have to, and perhaps they are within us already; perhaps we have lost our way a little, or have not learnt to listen to them, that’s all. That makes it all easier, I think; we don’t have to go after things if they are already within us, and the mystical becomes less frightening.
My favourite of her poems at the moment, which touches upon so many of these questions, is Домой (‘Homeward’) –
о земле –
«Есть человек. Есть любовь».
А есть –
Ложь и грязь. Ложь и кровь.
Мне родиться –
Не говорили, что мир такой.
Ну, а теперь – домой! домой!
and in English:
fairy tales to me
about the earth:
‘Man lives there. And love.’
But, in truth –
there’s only evil,
Lies and filth. Lies and blood.
When they suggested
I be born –
No one told me the world was like this.
Now, all I want is – home! to go home!
Having got to know Gippius properly over the last couple of weeks, and having all this in mind, I can see explanations for why she and Merezhkovsky are as they appear in Teffi’s depiction, and having revisited the chapter this week I find myself able to appreciate both it and her much more. The ‘utter detachment from everyone else, a detachment that seemed innate and which they had no compunctions about’ that she speaks of makes much more sense to me now. I can barely imagine Gippius in the world of war and of exile in which Teffi wrote of her; I read of her dealings with hot-water bottles in a hotel in Biarritz and I think, no wonder.
Things that had only made them seem strange (again!) to me before I now found oddly moving; ‘when the Merezhkovskys felt frightened, they briskly sought the help of holy intercessors. They decorated their statuette of Saint Theresa with flowers and, with neither faith nor divine inspiration, mumbled their way through their invocations.’ Some things I even found quite endearing: ‘The Merezhkovskys led strange lives and were so out of touch with reality that it was positively startling to hear them come out with ordinary words like “coal”, “boiled water,” and “macaroni”‘. I too found it odd to imagine Gippius speaking these words; and I was delighted to be reminded of the ‘piles of cheap French crime novels which they read diligently every evening.’ Is this really my same poet? – it must be. Perhaps more of this comes through in her diaries; I look forward to the day I might read all of this that’s still out of my reach.