17 November 2005

My grandmother's world

I've been reading the correspondence among the poets Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Rainer Maria Rilke, as collected in the book Letters, Summer 1926: Pasternak, Tsvetaeva, Rilke, edited by Yevgeny Pasternak, Yelena Pasternak, Konstantin M. Azadovsky. Everything about this book fascinates me—not just the intoxicating words of the poets themselves, with their whirlpools of wordplay and currents of desire, but also the references to the furnishings of their lives.

Example: Boris is in Russia, his parents are in Germany, Marina is in France, and Rainer is in Switzerland. There is no postal service between the USSR and Switzerland, so Boris sends some of his communications to Rainer via his parents (his father feels free to comment on Boris's first impetuous letter!), and Marina transmits a greeting from Rainer to Boris. The book includes photos of the letters, so I can see the fountain pen nibs' shapes and trails. The politics of book publishing at the time; the realities of househunting and train travel; the nature of doctor-patient relations ... all are grist for my imagination.

And they all remind me of my father's mother, Gerd Maurer. How I loved talking with her! She was an active young woman in those years between the world wars, and in our conversations she brought the intellectual and cultural excitement of those years to life. The walls and shelves around her sofa were full of pictures, books, sculptures, souvenirs, of all levels of seriousness, collected by her and her seafaring husband from those years and later, and many of them had a fascinating story behind them.

Our conversation corner by the fireplace, shown in a photograph on our living room wall (and posted here), is gone forever—except in my mind as I look at the picture and discern the familiar objects: the seahorses; photo of my grandfather pointing at a globe to show the northernmost point of one voyage of his ship, the M.S. Meteor; the decorative bellows; the cartoon of sailors in exaggerated bellbottoms, and of course my grandmother's familiar sofa.

I also loved looking at the exotic things that were in her closets and drawers. Maybe the cosmetics were the most fascinating in my younger years, with the fragrant powders and pads, and the hidden mirrors. The cigarette cases were so beautifully engraved.

In my later childhood, the bookshelves were the best places to explore. The "Who What Where" annual almanac series, showing the world's events from a Norway-centric viewpoint, were fascinating. I remember a cartoon from 1957—a smiling Khrushchev launching the first Sputnik satellite by bouncing it off poor Eisenhower's head. Prowling their shelves, I also made my first discovery of pornography, The Amorous Adventures of a Gentleman of Quality ("Not to be sold in England. Or the USA."), but the writing was so ornate that I don't think I realized what it was at first.

The letters of the three poets was not the first book to remind me of my conversations and explorations at my grandparents' home in Oslo. Andrei Makine's totally delightful Dreams of My Russian Summers did that for me, too. The wonderful thing about Summer 1926 is that it is the true record of an extraordinary web of relationships that caught up, not just those three geniuses, but much of the world—including my grandmother, who read at least two of the three, and me.

Rilke (already dying of leukemia) to Tsvetaeva:
Poet, do you sense how you have overwhelmed me, you and your magnificent fellow reader; I'm writing like you and I descend like you the few steps down from the sentence into the mezzanine of parentheses, where the ceilings are so low and where it smells of roses past that never cease. Marina: how I have inhabited your letter. And what an astonishing thing when the die of your word, with the score already called, fell by a further step, showing the complementary number, the final (often still larger) one. A force of Nature, that which stands behind the fifth element, inciting and gathering it? . . . And I for my part felt again as though you through Nature had assented to me, an entire garden of affirmation around a well. Around what else? Around a sundial. How you overgrow and overwaft me with your word-summer's tall phlox.

But, you say, it is not a matter of Rilke the person. I, too, am at odds with him, with his body, with which such pure communication had always been possible that I often did not know which produced poems more happily: it, I, the two of us? (Souls of the feet, blithe as often they were, blissful with walking across everything, across earth, blissful with primal knowing, pre-knowing, complicity of awareness beyond knowing itself!) And now dis-cord, doubly cored, soul clad one way, body mummed another, different.
Tsvetaeva to Rilke, Ascension Day 1926:
. . . to him
You cannot boast of matters grandly sensed. . . .
[from Rilke's Ninth Duino Elegy]
Therefore, in a purely human and very modest way, Rilke the man. As I wrote this, I hesitated. I love the poet, not the person. (As you read this, you came to a stop.) This sounds like aestheticism, i.e., soulless, inaminate (aesthetes are those who have no soul, just five acute senses, often fewer). May I even choose? As soon as I love, I cannot and will not choose (that stale and narrow privilege!), you already are an absolute. And until I love (know) you, I may not choose because I have no relation to you (don't know your stock, after all!).

No, Rainer, I am not a collector, and Rilke the man, who is even greater than the poet (turn it whatever way you like, it comes to the same: greater still!)—because he carries the poet (knight and steed: horseman)—I love inseparably from the poet.

By Rilke the man, I meant the one who lives, gets things published, whom one likes, who already belongs to so many, who must be tired by now of so much love. All I meant was the many, many human contacts! By Rilke the man I meant the place where there is no room for me. Thus the entire set of poet and man—renunciation, abnegation, lest you might think that I am intruding into your life, on your time, into your day (working day and social day), which has been planned and allotted once and for all. A renunciation—lest it hurt afterward: the first name, the first date that one collides with by which one is rejected (Vorsicht! Verzicht!)

Dear one, I am very obedient. If you tell me: Do not write, it excites me, I need myself badly for myself—I shall understand, and withstand, everything.


What to tell you about the book? The ultimate stair. My bed turned to a cloud.

Darling, I know everything already—from me to you—but it is still too early for a lot of things. Something in you must still get used to me.


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