Why is Anna Akhmatova's legacy important? What was shameful about Jorge Luis Borges' career? How did Coco Chanel become famous? These are the kinds of questions esteemed critic Clive James poses and answers in his new book, Cultural Amnesia, a compendium of the intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who shaped the 20th century. Taken together, the essays—presented in an A to Z format—offer a compelling alternative history of the last century and the struggles of liberal humanism against totalitarianism: "If the humanism that makes civilization civilized is to be preserved into this new century, it will need advocates," James writes. "These advocates will need a memory, and part of that memory will need to be of an age in which they were not yet alive." Over the next eight weeks, Slate will run an exclusive alphabetical selection of these essays, adapted and abbreviated for these pages.
This lyrical wealth of Pushkin ...
—Anna Akhmatova, "Pushkin's Stone Ghost"
Born in Odessa, educated in Kiev, and launched into poetic immortality as the beautiful incarnation of pre-revolutionary Petersburg, Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966) was the most famous Russian poet of her time, but the time was out of joint. Before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Anna Andreyevna Gorenko, called Akhmatova, already wore the Russian literary world's most glittering French verbal decorations: Here work was avant-garde, and in person she was a femme fatale. Love for her broken-nosed beauty was a common condition among the male poets, one of whom, Nikolay Gumilev, she married. After the Revolution, Gumilev was one of the new regime's first victims among the literati: The persecution of artists, still thought of today as a Stalinist speciality, began under Lenin. Later on, under Stalin, Akhmatova included a reference to Gumilev's fate in the most often quoted section of her poem "Requiem": "Husband dead, son in gaol/ Pray for me."
In the last gasp of the czarist era, she had known no persecution worse than routine incomprehension for her impressionistic poetry and condemnation by women for her effect on their men. But the Russia of Lenin and Stalin made her first a tragic, then a heroic, figure. After 1922 she was condemned as a bourgeois element and severely restricted in what she could publish. Following World War II, in 1946, she was personally condemned by Andrey Zhdanov, Stalin's plug-ugly in charge of culture. She was not allowed to publish anything new, and everything she had ever written in verse form was dismissed as "remote from socialist reconstruction."
Her prestige abroad helped to keep her alive at home, but also ensured that her life could never be comfortable: The security police were always on her case. In the 1950s she was rehabilitated to the extent that a censored edition of her collected poems was officially published. ("Requiem" was among the poems missing: Isaiah Berlin, who visited her in Moscow in 1946, was correct when he predicted that it would never be published in Russia as long as the Soviet Union lasted.) Unofficially, however, her work had always circulated, whether in samizdat or, in that peculiarly Russian tribute to greatness, from mouth to mouth, by memory. Akhmatova was the embodiment of the Russian liberal heritage that the authoritarians felt bound to go on threatening long after it had surrendered. As such, she was an inspiring symbol, but when a poet becomes better known than her poems, it usually means that she is being sacrificed, for extraneous reasons, on the altar of her own glory. In Akhmatova's case, the extraneous reasons were political. It should be a mark of reasonable politics that a woman like her is not called upon to be a heroine.
Some languages are inherently more beautiful than others, and Russian is among the most beautiful of all. For anyone learning Russian, a phrase like "lyrical wealth," from Akhmatova's essay "Pushkin's Stone Ghost," comes singing out of the page like a two-word aria from an opera by Moussorgsky. I noted it down as soon as I saw it. In 1968 the West German publishing house that called itself Inter-Language Literary Associates produced a magnificent two-volume collection of Akhmatova's works in verse and prose. I bought those books in London in 1978, when I was in my first stage of learning to read the language. I never got to the last stage, or anywhere near it; but I did reach the point where I could read an essay without too much help from the dictionary. (Memo to any student making a raid on the culture of another language: Essays are always the easiest way in.) Reading Akhmatova's essays, one is soon convinced that she would have been an excellent full-time critic of literature if she had been given permission. But of course she wasn't, which brings us immediately to the point.