A Few Essential Introductory Words by Anatoly Naiman
This is the story of a tragic fate from which the irrefutable impression of radiant happiness and victory emerges.
Not because the periods of happiness were so long and powerful that they overwhelmed the sorrow—on the contrary: joy lasts only moments, days, or at best weeks, while on the other hand sorrow is constant: “sorrow then, sorrow now, sorrow without end.”
But because, apparently, the tragedy finds expression in poetry that is stronger that the fact of that tragedy. It finds expression in a harmony that prevails over fate. It finds expression in the creative act that leads the way out of death’s domain.
The story has to confirm this state of affairs—it has to guide the viewer to the images that confirm it, and emphasize those images.
The poet formed her credo when she was 25, with a fierce candidness that did not allow for a backward glance:
I’ve stopped smiling now,
a chill wind freezes my lips,
THERE’S ONE HOPE LESS NOW,
ONE SONG MORE.
AND IN SPITE OF MYSELF I’LL GIVE
THAT SONG UP TO JEERS AND CURSES,
because a lover’s silence is
unbearably painful to the heart.
The conditions that they at the root of “Requiem” and other poems of suffering bring tragedy—in both the literal and the literary senses of the word—to the peak of expressiveness. But at the same time there is the triumph of:
The cold, pure, bright flame
of my victory over fate.
The message Anna Akhmatova gets out to people is as grand as, if not grander than, that of the great male Russian writers: LIFE IS FULL OF GREAT SUFFERING, UNBEARABLE PAIN, THE MOST EXTREME HUMILATION, BUT A HUMAN BEING IS CAPABLE OF OVERCOMING ALL THIS. INDEED, THAT’S WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A HUMAN BEING.
In contrast to the men writers, Akhmatova doesn’t preach and teach this, but simply lives the life that demonstrates it, or as they used to say in past times about poets, she “sings this life.”
The weight always has to be shifted away from Akhmatova the grieving, keening, sorrowful, and towards Akhtmaova the victorious, joyous, full of happiness that almost seems to have nothing to do with that other Akhmatova and independent of her, creating out of this happiness something that never existed before.
This figure embodies tragedy, but is by no means a champion of suffering; on the contrary, it is an extraordinarily attractive, lively personality in the highest degree, so that I, a young man, always felt I wanted to be in her presence.
This must become the guiding principle in choosing scenes and images—and most importantly, their sequence—from the synopsis that follows. The synopsis offers what amounts to a generous helping such scenes and images, more than are needed, although it is important to note that they are organized along specific plot lines. Some of them can—and certain of them must—appear twice, or even three times, “playing” differently at different moments of the story.
Note: With the exception of cases so noted, the lines of poems within the synopsis aren’t spoken, but are strictly part of the description of the scene.
Last but not least:
Things (or scenery, or situations) named by the poet can come to life. Magic, if you like—but above all “Adamism”—Adam names a bird “dove” and it becomes a dove, cooing and flying like a dove. (Something like in 8 1/2, where during the first half of the film the main character moves by objects that in the second half find their own rhythm and begin to “move” themselves.) It would be good to find some method, even a formal one if there is no good way to do it naturally, that would do the same thing in this film. For example: a frame with a maple tree, its leafy branches motionless over the water—then the leaves start to fall, but what sets them in motion is a voice saying “maple leaves are falling already on the swans’ pond.” But everything else in the frame remains frozen. (it doesn’t have to be exactly this way—but something along these lines.)
Ancestors. The dead. All Souls.
Petersburg, Liteiny Prospect (it would be good to find photographs showing the odd-numbered side before it was built up).
[key lines] 1) And the windows’ glass was as dark as a mineshaft, / and in it a glimpse of something that happened, / better not to look at. 2) The mirrors’ walnut frames, / astounded by Karenina’s beauty.
Hamlet and Ophelia, exchanging roles, confessing to one another.
Tauric Chersonesos (Archers’ Bay). Tsarskoe Selo (the formal part)
[key line] “Or by a reflection in someone else’s mirror.”
Gumilev. Archetypal man. Ancient tragedy as the essence of life—its inevitable, its most ordinary and its best manifestations: marriage, youth, children.
Slepnyovo, Tsarskoe Selo (its merchants quarter).
[key line]: “Not to see / what is happening behind the looking-glass.”
Beginning of the 1920s – 1940.
Soviet Leningrad: Fountain House (and in general the whole landscape of her former life) is like a decorative façade, behind which lies total ruin (the vegetable gardens on Mars Field), the “bloodied floor” and all the reality of Requiem. Pushkin’s Petersburg is reborn as Dostoevsky’s.
[key lines]: My former home still watched me / with a squinted, malevolent eye, / with that window I will always remember.
Europe, Paris. The poems, one reflected in the other, “To wake up at dawn” and “It’s simple, it’s clear” with the background “When in the gloom of suicidal thoughts…” (there’s an old recording of this). Gradually the figure in “luxurious furs” is getting crowded out by the image of the “impoverished beggar” and the film clips of “gay Paris” on the verge of World Wars I and II by clips of people fleeing the city in June, 1940.
[key line]: “To enter, as if into a mirror, with the dull consciousness of Betrayal and a wrinkle that wasn’t here yesterday…]
Equivalence to a shadow. “I” as a conversation partner, in resistance to complete isolation.
The time is unclear: always and never.
The place is unclear: everywhere and nowhere.
[key line]: Portraits secretly alter their looks.
[*] “In my youth I used to say that I couldn’t understand how people lived in times of war and terror.”
Introduction of AN [Anatoly Naiman] and rough sketch of the mise en scene of the film (AA’s portrait and her voice reading poetry in the background, a quick succession of frames conveying the content of the Elegies—a summary and chapter outline of what is to unfold and repeat in the film to come).
Naiman is building a fire in front of the house—repeating a scene that played out regularly, several times a week, at Akhmatova’s. (The fire is one of the vehicles of motion—as water, the bird and others will be below, see, for example, chapter 8).
The route of a nearby walk (to Lake Street; or to Zhirmunky’s dacha).
The outing (on foot, by bike, or by car) to the cemetery and “along” it to Pike Lake.
The trip along the edge of the Bay of Finland—to places “way out in the country” (perhaps to Leonid Andreyev’s dacha).
Kronstadt on the horizon.
Wild rose in bloom; particularly along the edge of the Bay.
Snow. Snow falling. Blizzard. Falling snow. The courtyard of the House of Creativity in the snow. A ride in a Finnish sleigh.
Vyborg. “A population center of medium density.”
Rock face in water.
An overall view.
Signing of the (1940) peace treaty with Finland.
Subtext: Finland—Scandinavia—the North.
Finland as occupied (by force) territory.
I enter deserted houses,
someone’s just-abandoned cozy home.
All is quiet, except for flitting white shadows
in other peoples’ mirrors.
(Suomi looks tender and mysterious
in its empty mirrors.
And the dull splinter of the new moon gleams
like the Finn’s serrated knife.)
The “white shadows” are, in particular, the winter-camouflaged infantry on skis, the most widespread image of the Finnish war of 1940.
Plus Hyvinkää—the tuberculosis sanatorium in 1915: “I’m living at white death’s house / on the threshold, in darkness.”
Scandinavia is a cultural toponym of Symbolism (and in general for the beginning of the century:) “the undisputed premiere thinker of the time, Knut Hamsun,” the “other premiere thinker Ibsen.”
From this follows: “This land, though not my native land” with its catalogue of Symbolist clichés—
and the “Native land” (which we “mix and crumble” (see “mixed and crumbled [mesivo, kroshevo]” of Mandelstam: the first appearance of his face) of Acmeism.
To think about: maybe a scene from “A Doll’s House” or “Hedda Gabler” or “The Master Builder” in a Norwegian production. Illustrations to Pan and Victoria (if not to Mysteries), similarly “Scandinavian.”
The North, in the space of Akhmatova’s poetry, is quite clearly set against the hostile West, East and South:
The West slandered me and didn’t believe its own words,
And the East luxuriously betrayed me,
The South was stingy meting out its air,
smirking at my boisterous lines.
But the clover stood, as if on its knees,
The moist breeze sang in a pearl horn,
Thus my old friend, my faithful North
Comforted me, as it alone could do.