Phaedra: A drama in verse with 'New Year's Letter'
Translated from the Russian by Angela Livingstone
WINNER OF THE ROSSICA TRANSLATION PRIZE 2014
Marina Tsvetaeva’s verse drama Phaedra is perhaps the most extraordinary of all literary treatments of the Phaedra legend. It is primarily about female passion, and its most powerful figures are the female ones.
Dangerously high voltage runs through all of them – Phaedra herself; her Nurse from childhood; and even the offstage Antiope, Amazon queen and mother of the young hunter Hippolytus (son of Phaedra’s husband Theseus) with whom Phaedra falls in love and who represents a powerful counterforce of chastity.
Phaedra, completed in 1927, is written with sustained emotional pressure throughout its nearly two thousand short but saturated lines and its shimmering variations of rhythm, rhyme and assonance. Angela Livingstone has translated this little-known great work for the first time into English, with the same brilliance that prompted an American translator to call her version of Tsvetaeva’s Ratcatcher ‘the very pinnacle of the art of translation’.
Three long poems written at the same time as Phaedra are included along with the main work. Their depth of thought and feeling connects with Tsvetaeva’s intense epistolary relationship with Pasternak and Rilke, and fascinatingly fills out the themes and preoccupations of Phaedra. Angela Livingstone’s translations of these poems also appear for the first time in book form.
The translator’s introduction and editorial matter, including a glimpse of the original in her note on translating Phaedra, enhance the reader’s appreciation of this work, so strongly characteristic of its author.
‘This flowing English version of Tsvetaeva’s inimitable verse drama will at last bring this powerful work to an Anglophone audience … The substantial introduction, which presents Tsvetaeva’s play in the dual contexts of her overall poetics and of the creative history of the Phaedra theme, is a gem of informative, insightful clarity … The translations of Tsvetaeva’s abstruse but brilliant long poems “New Year’s Letter”, “Poem of the Air” and “Attempt at a Room” are not only valuable in and of themselves, but they effectively fill out the poetic context for Phaedra‘s composition.” – Alyssa Dinega Gillespie, Russian Review
‘The purity of the language in this translation seems to me altogether admirable . . . This is an important book which not only extends our understanding of a great Russian poet, but also illuminates the spirit of her translator, who is as little interested in the commonplace values of the everyday world as the poet she translates.’ – Elaine Feinstein, PN Review
MARINA TSVETAEVA (1892–1941) is one of the four great modern Russian poets – with Mandelstam, Akhmatova and Pasternak – whose work most profoundly bears witness to Russian life of the first half of the 20th century. At the age of nineteen she married Sergey Efron, a member of the family associated with the 19th-century revolutionary organisation 'The People’s Will', who fought in the White Army in the Civil War of 1918–21. After one of her two daughters died of starvation during this period, she left Russia with her surviving daughter, settling in France to lead a life of poverty and obscurity, publishing her poetry and prose in émigré journals. In 1939 she rejoined her husband in Russia; without her knowledge he had begun to work for the Soviet secret police.
In Soviet Russia Tsvetaeva was confronted by harsh living conditions and with grief after grief. Her sister and daughter were sent to camps and her husband was executed. She had few friends and little income. In August 1941 she was evacuated with her son to a desolate Tatar town, where she hanged herself. Tsvetaeva's extensive oeuvre consists of lyric and long poems, plays and autobiographical essays.