The Guest From the Future

book The Guest From the Future

reviewed by Emily Banner

Published in Issue No. 47 ~ April, 2001

The Guest from the Future is a difficult book to classify. It comprises a goodly amount of literary criticism, and the bulk of the work focuses on the life of Anna Akhmatova, yet the author informs us in the preface that “[t]his book is not a biography of Anna Akhmatova, nor is it a work of literary criticism.” The more general rubric of “history” might be applied, but the work is structured unlike most books of history, repeatedly expanding and narrowing its scope from the personal to the global, and referring to scraps of poetry as if they were historical documents. In the process, however, and amid multiple frustrations, a fascinating tale unfolds.

The pivot of the book is a twelve-hour meeting that took place in November, 1945, between the British scholar and diplomat Isaiah Berlin and the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, at her home in Leningrad. Relatively little is known about the meeting itself, but its impact on Akhmatova’s poetry was most significant – Dalos posits that Berlin was, among other things, the unnamed “guest from the future” who appears in Akhmatova’s opus “Poem Without a Hero” – and its impact on her life may have been cataclysmic. (There’s no getting around the uncertainty of the “may have been” – it is known that Akhmatova was under KGB surveillance, and that Berlin was suspected of being a spy, and the Soviet regime did effectively excommunicate Akhmatova in 1946, but a direct link between meeting and excommunication is unprovable.) In any event, Akhmatova herself believed that her meeting with Berlin was what started her troubles, and out of deference to his subject, Dalos seems inclined to agree with her.

What followed for Akhmatova were twenty years of subtle persecution (the Soviets having recognized that to blatantly persecute a world-famous writer would be a public relations disaster). She was publicly defamed; her son and ex-husband were sent to the gulag; her works were banned; her pension and rations were suspended and reinstated; her poetry was accepted for publication only to be held up for years by government censors. In our culture, the state is so distanced from the literary/artistic world that unless you adorn a Virgin Mary with elephant dung, the government is unlikely to notice you, much less react to you. And so a situation like Akhmatova’s – in which one’s artistic life is entirely subject to the caprices of an all-powerful state; in which one cannot write what one wants, cannot publish what one writes, and cannot even speak to a friend without worrying that a quick conversation will get your son arrested, your husband killed, and the Cold War escalated – seems foreign to the point of being incomprehensible. But Dalos renders it deliberately and skillfully, allowing the full gravity of the situation to become clear without straying too far into melodrama.

Dalos does a commendable job of putting Akhmatova’s life into a broader historical perspective, which is surely necessary when writing of a regime that sought to dominate international politics and public opinion while simultaneously controlling every aspect of its citizens’ lives. It may be unthinkable to a 21st-century American reader that a minor issue such as the treatment of Akhmatova in a 1964 Soviet encyclopedia could be tied up with something like the Cuban Missile Crisis, but such was apparently the case, and Dalos reports it so well that it becomes not just thinkable but understandable. This is easily the best work he does: depicting Akhmatova’s historical situation in a way that is both accessible and compelling, so that, while one may not be convinced that Akhmatova’s meeting with Berlin precipitated the Cold War, one can understand why Akhmatova would have seen it that way, and can even appreciate some of the justifications for her view.

Where Dalos gets himself into trouble is when he begins interpreting poetry. I’m not an Akhmatova scholar, but it doesn’t take a specialist to know that any given line of poetry can have multiple meanings and referents. Dalos would have it otherwise, however. He repeatedly quotes from Akhmatova’s poetry and then tells us what the lines mean, leaving no room for alternate interpretations. “‘I go around creating miracles,'” he tells us, “essentially means: ‘I write poems.'” And elsewhere, he quotes:

Not to a secret pavilion
Does this flaming bridge lead:
Him to a cage of gold,
And her to a red scaffold.

Dalos then explains that “[t]he flaming bridge is the path to fame. But the way divides into two: one, the man’s, leading to confinement, weighed down by honours and achievements, in a gilded cage, and the other, the woman’s, to death.” Such literal poetry-to-prose translations are more reductive than illuminating. Without denying that the lines could have these meanings, surely they could also contain other implications.

Dalos doesn’t fare much better when he attempts to explain emotions. In describing how her meeting with Berlin affected Akhmatova, Dalos informs the reader that:

[l]ove is essentially a fiction, a focus of separate feelings such as tenderness and hate, despair and hope…. At the same time it is an independent, self-sufficient reality, the only one apart from birth and death in which human beings can be totally involved.

Putting aside the question of how relevant this is to a work of history, such definitions add nothing of value to the book. As with the explications of Akhmatova’s poetry, the problem lies not so much with the definition offered as with the authoritative tone and the ruling out of alternatives: This is what love is. This is what this poem means. It is hard to take seriously a historian, or a literary critic, who finds either love or poetry so simplistically reducible.

Interestingly, Dalos is quick to see the flaws in these methods when they are employed by others, especially if those others happen to be Soviets. When Akhmatova was denounced as “a nun and a whore” by Soviet cultural officials in 1946, their chief complaints against her arose from her poetry, which made use of erotic overtones and religious imagery. In condemning her, they applied overly literal interpretations to her poetry, attributing all characteristics of the poems’ narrator to the poet herself. Dalos takes them to task for this error. “The difference between a real-life person and a poetic portrayal of that person is the difference between fact and fiction,” he warns. But that difference seems to have eluded him when he approached the poems himself.

The central fault of The Guest from the Future is inherent in the above examples. Wherever interpretation is needed, Dalos’s conclusions all seem foregone. Rather than combing through the material in search of answers, Dalos apparently decided in advance what he wanted to find, and then picked examples that would support his theories. The result is that anytime he strays from historical record into the more shadowy realms of poetry and emotion, the book takes on a condescendingly didactic tone, and there are entire chapters that made me want to toss this book across a room.

But when he just reports on history, Dalos spins a captivating yarn. Akhmatova’s life yields ample tragedy and drama to keep the plot engaging, and the global political struggle from which she could not separate herself gives her story a weight that is staggering even fifty years later. It is also a testament to Akhmatova’s excellence as a poet that, perhaps in spite of Dalos, the snippets quoted make me eager to read more of her work. When I do, I expect that I’ll understand where she’s coming from far better than I would have without this book.

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Emily Banner is a co-founder of Inkberry, a nonprofit literary center in the Berkshires. She lives in western Massachusetts.