Thursday, October 22, 2009

NYRB Challenge: A Ménage à trois of letters. . .

My next pick in my ongoing 50 book NYRB Classics Challenge was inspired by a recent conversation with a friend. We were discussing - ironically by electronic means - the demise of personal correspondence, concluding shamefully that it had been several years since either of us had actually written a long letter by hand. E-mail or instant messaging can be a wonderful, instantaneous, cheap mode of communication, but I have to wonder - are we missing out on something possibly more precious and fun, that is not only more permanent, but also intellectually challenging, forcing one as it does, to thoughtfully take the time to choose words and subject matter? Is letter writing truly a lost art form and one I'd like to re-engage with?

I wanted to find out so I spent two hours flexing my lazy hand muscles and I wrote my friend a letter. And then I went to my shelves and started reading NYRB Book #6 - Letters: Summer 1926, the correspondence between the poets Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeva and Rainer Maria Rilke. The collection is edited by Yevgeny Pasternak, Yelena Pasternak and Konstantin M. Azadovsky and translated from the Russian, German and French by Margaret Wettlin, Walter Arndt and Jamey Gambrell. Susan Sontag provides the preface.

The collection covers four months in which the three poets wrote to and about each other. Rilke was battling leukemia in a sanatorium in Switzerland; he would die later that year. Pasternak was living in Moscow (where he couldn't receive letters with Swiss stamps - Rilke had to reroute them through France or Germany) and carrying on both an artistic and romantic correspondence with Tsvetayeva who was living in poverty in Paris. Reading this collection of very powerful and beautifully written letters, I was struck by several glaring contrasts to our modern styles of communication, no doubt influenced by the historical period and the personal temperaments of the poets. Considering that Rilke had never met either the adult Pasternak or Tsvetayeva, the emotional and familial outpouring of words is impressive from all three of them. Any author today would blush to get the type of adulation that gushes from this fanmail. This is especially true of Tsvetayeva's letters which were my favourite of the group. As noted in the introduction, she treated her letters as art, as if she were creating a new genre - "epistolary lyric poetry." Here she is on the subject of writing them:

A letter is like an otherworldly communication, less perfect than a dream but subject to the same rules. . . Neither the one nor the other can be produced on command; you neither write a letter nor dream a dream when you want to but when it wants to: the letter- to be written; the dream - to be dreamed.

Secondly, it was fascinating to note the extreme importance placed on the written word. These letters were not only read and re-read, but multiple copies were made, extracts written down in notebooks and forwarded on in other letters to friends and families. And indeed it is because of this meticulous preservation that this correspondence has been able to be reconstructed, as in some cases the original letter was lost. These letters were treasured and savoured. Pasternak kept a copy of a short letter from Rilke in an envelope marked "Most Precious" which he carried in his jacket pocket for the rest of his life. Would we ever do this with an e-mail, even one printed out? Would it have the same sentimental and emotional impact as a blue-tinged, crinkly piece of paper, the ink faded somewhat, but still showing signs of its writer's distinctive handwriting? Would we ever assign that much importance to any device that needed electrical charging?
And the correspondence even continued posthumously. Both Pasternak and Tsvetayeva wrote letters to Rilke after hearing of his death, as if this was the only medium they felt could best express their grief.

This collection contains an excellent and extensive introduction that provides all the biographical and artistic context one needs to successfully navigate through the correspondence and it will make you want to engage with the poetry as well. Rilke's poetry can be found easily and in many editions, for example here. Samples of Tsvetayeva and Pasternak's poetry, can be found in NYRB's edition of The Stray Dog Cabaret: A Book of Russian Poems, translated by Paul Schmidt. In particular, this collection contains Tsvetayeva's long poem "The Poem of the End" about a couple ending their affair as they walk across a city. It's haunting, beautiful and stylistically interesting, and when she sent it to Pasternak, it made an enormous impact on him (he mentions it numerous times in his letters, both to her and other correspondents). The collection also includes poems by acclaimed poets Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam and Alexander Blok.

The day after I finished the book, a handwritten letter arrived from my friend (Canada Post is considerably slower now than 1926 postal systems that crossed many borders). I shall treasure it. I think we both enjoyed the exercise enormously and I hope we'll continue to make the time to write.

No comments: