It should be noted that this collection consists of Ariadna’s letters mostly. (52 of them to be precise, while only 13 are from Boris – it seems he was always either very busy, immersed in translation and writing, or unwell).
Some of the letters were written during the period when she lived and worked in Ryazan (she taught at an art school there) while others attest the hardships of her six years of exile in Turuchansk, Siberia. These letters in particular are wonderful testimonials of Ariadna’s literary talent and personality. There’s also several letters written after her rehabilitation in which she mostly writes about her work on tracing and publishing her mother’s (Marina Cvetaeva) manuscripts.
Three themes caught my attention. First, she regularly complained about and apologized for the style and the content of her letters. She writes about the lack of time, the work that is never done, the tiredness and, consequently, about degradation of her capacity of reflection and inability to express herself properly.
I am afraid I flounder a great deal now – will you be able to understand all of this that I cannot express?*
Here as well:
I have become so savage that expressing my thoughts gives me a lot of anguish – they transformed themselves into indistinct emotions which only I – my sole interlocutor – can understand.
Dear Boris, you are annoyed by my unavoidable comments at the end of every letter – by my appeals to forgive all the mess and nonsense. I cannot do differently because I am very tired and it’s hard to gather my thoughts. I will finish in the same manner again because it’s the absolute truth. I am incapable of including in my letters not even the hundredth part of what I’d wish to, and I don’t write the way I should, nor do I use the proper tone or write about what is important because in my head there’s noise and in my ears there’s humming.
This is what Boris had to say on the subject:
Once again you astonishingly described your life and the far removed North and the frosts. It would be a prattle of the most ordinary kind if I would mention this only to laud you. Here’s a practical conclusion. A person who sees the way you do, who reflects and talks the way you do can absolutely, in all the life circumstances, rely on herself. No matter the life’s currents, it’s tortures or fears, such a person can lightheartedly follow her, already in childhood found, perceived and loved path, listening only to herself, trusting only herself. Rejoice, Alja, that you are such a person. What are all your misfortunes compared to such wealth!
And I completely agree. In spite of how brute or inept she might have had felt, she still managed to write poetically, demonstrating her subtle observational skills, strong mind and even a great sense of humor just where one would least expect it.
Which brings me to the second theme of interest – Siberia. She writes:
If I could be in charge of my life, I would live and work far away from Moscow, right at the North, even norther than here. I would live and work truly, not in this way I have to work now. I would write books about things most people don’t have the opportunity to see and, I give you my word of honor, I would write beautifully! The utmost North is a real treasure for a writer, the undiscovered land, and so far nobody wrote about it truly well.
And one believes her. If she wrote so beautifully while living, or should I say surviving in such difficult circumstances one could only imagine what her writing would have been like if she had had time, if she had had her freedom and means to live where and how she wished to live. Her descriptions of cold, of masses of ice floating down the river, of Siberian wind and skies are enchanting. Here’s how she writes about stars:
But the stars here are enchanting. I was coming home late from work yesterday. It was relatively warm and very quiet – the marvelous starry night engulfed me whole, dissolved me into itself, shut out everything but my ability to experience it, to feel it. It seemed to me that I quietly entered into the great movement of the stars and that the universe became comprehensible; not only from the outside, as for instance the human body is to a surgeon, but as an entire organism, do you understand? And the murk was not gone because the light showed itself, no, it’s just that the darkness revealed itself to be made of uncountable amount of light speckles and their quantity gave my earthly field of view the illusion of darkness.
The third thing I wanted to mention is Ariadna’s writing about literature. In almost every letter there is a sentence or two about what she was reading at the moment – mostly Pasternak’s songs and translations (of Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays, of Goethe’s Faust), but there’s also Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Balzac. One whole letter, four page long, was written as a comment on the first draft of Doctor Zhivago that Boris sent to her. She argued it was too short (150 typed pages), too tight, that he has to stop constraining and hurrying his characters and let them develop at their own pace. Her opinions and impressions were all well explained and one could easily discern that she was a great reader.
So, that was Ariadna.. I don’t doubt I will be reading these letters again, alongside Pasternak’s poetry maybe.
*If the excerpts are not quite beautiful, if the translation is poor the fault is all mine. I do apologize.