THE RUSSIAN JERUSALEM by Elaine Feinstein
Or maybe it would not be like this at all. Maybe it would be like the 'Writer's House' in Elaine Feinstein's new book THE RUSSIAN JERUSALEM - quiet, oppressed, the occupants suspicious of each other and furtive. But in THE RUSSIAN JERUSALEM this oppression comes not from jealously-guarded creative secrets or rivalries, but from the state. This idyllic-sounding 'The Writer's House' is something the government has created, and in the time that Elaine Feinstein describes it, is slowly being taken apart. People disappear, and those left behind are too afraid to ask why. While some stand up to the oppression, others connive, while yet others are merely suspected of conniving. The intrigue is poisonous, and desiccates their ink.
Apart from these scenes which hold the reader with their pervading sense of disquiet ( 'He can still hear the blank purr as Stalin put the phone down'), there are touches of humour too: 'Tsvetaeva hisses at me: "That man has the soul of a stuffed capon. When he sees apple trees in blossom he is reminded of cauliflower in a white sauce."'
THE RUSSIAN JERUSALEM is a strange and exquisite book. Interleaved with poems and memoir are imagined scenes from history where the author is there in the room, ghost-like, observing invisibly, sometimes accompanied by her recurring passion: the poet Marina Tsvetaeva. Only once does the author become really substantial - in her great-grandfather's stetl in Belarus. Then she joins her relatives at their crowded table and eats bread and drinks soup and wine. It is 1941 and the sense of foreboding is strong, as it is throughout the book: ' I want to cry out: "Have you learnt nothing? Leave. Leave now," but I can hardly breathe the hot sticky air, never mind speak.'
'All poets are Jews.' Marina Tsvetaeva said, and perhaps, if 'Jew' represents the oppressed and dislocated, she is right. Not only poetry, but any form of creative expression seems to flow more fluently from those who are different and who have to work at this business of survival.
'..."What are the things you remember,
Joseph?" Tsvetaeva whispers tenderly.
"Your words Marina." "But from your own life?"
'Just now I thought of sliding happily
over the snow to school as a little boy.
my head already filled with Russian poetry,
my fists ready for playground battle."...'
By the end of the book, which is beautifully illustrated with wood-block-style drawings by William Kermode from 'Moscow has a plan : A Social Primer', I had a strong impression of certain aspect of recent Soviet history. It is complicated, and I think it will take me a long time to absorb and understand the rest. But this book, with its tense evocative scenes of Petersburg, Odessa and Kiev under Stalin, Brezhnev and Yeltzin, makes me not only want to know more, but go there too.