The seaside resort of Nervi, the last outpost of suburban Genoa, Italy, was not a place I expected to find the legacy of the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892 – 1941) so visibly remembered. I was in the area for a month-long writing residency at the nearby Bogliasco Foundation and my daily walk took me past a slightly forbidding-looking villa on Nervi’s shady Via Aurelia, at the southern, less frequented end of the town.
After several weeks I spotted it, a plaque set high on the gable of the building seen here on the left hand side of the photograph above, commemorating Tsvetaeva’s time here – from November 1902 to May 1903 – when she was just ten years of age.
Marina’s mother, a gifted concert pianist, had been diagnosed with TB in 1901, and her doctors decreed that her only chance of recovering was to move to a warmer climate. Marina, her sister Anastasia (Asya), her father, Ivan Tsvetaev, founder and director of the Pushkin’s Museum of State Arts in Moscow, and her older step-sister Valeria (from her father’s first marriage) travelled to Nervi so her mother could take the cure.
It was to be a formative experience for the poet. Because of her mother’s illness, she and Asya were left very much on their own. “Thus for the first time in their lives, they were free. They could behave like children, and they had a marvelous time with the sons of the owners of the pensione, climbing the cliffs, lighting campfires on the beach, learning to smoke, getting sun-tanned and wild,” writes Lily Feiler author of Marina Tsvetaeva: The Double Beat of Heaven and Hell.
The family stayed at the Pension Russe, a boarding house for Russian emigrés. But this was no ordinary boarding house – its inmates, for the most part, were like Marina’s mother, invalids or TB patients. According to Baedecker’s 1906 Handbook for Travellers, Nervi – “surrounded with groves of olives, oranges , and lemons” – was the oldest winter-station on the Italian Eastern Riviera, much frequented by English, Russians and Germans as a health resort.
“A feature of the place is the dust-free and sunny Coast Promenade (to the left on leaving the station), which runs along the shore above the rocky beach, and is protected by a lofty wall on the landward side. Pleasantly placed benches on the promenade and in the adjoining gardens afford resting-places for patients who wish to be much in the open air without taking active exercise,” the guide goes on.
As well as unprecedented freedom, the sojourn at Nervi also provided Marina and her sister with more sombre life lessons. Although her mother’s health improved there, she and Asya were constantly surrounded by the spectre of death. “How many I have seen of them during my mother’s illness, doctors coughing out the last shred of confidence that it’s a little bronchitis, and fathers of families who didn’t think ahead far enough to say farewell to their children,” she recalled in later years.
She remembered a young German, Reinhard Roever, staying at the pensione at the same time, who was shortly to die of TB, burning a piece of cigarette paper one evening and as the ashes flew upward he exclaimed – “Die Seele fliegt” (The soul is in flight). “To the melody of his holy Bach in the darkening Italian room with windows like doors, he taught Asya and me the immortality of the soul,” Tvestaeva wrote in her memoirs.
The pensione was also a hotbed of anti-Tsarist politics – activists and anarchists frequented its rooms from whom the sisters learned revolutionary songs, with their mother accompanying them on the piano.
During their stay, the Tsvetaevs were joined by Professor Dmitri Ilovaisky, an eminent Russian historian, who was the father of Ivan Tsvetaev’s first wife. Like his son-in-law, he had remarried after being widowed, and was the father of two teenage children, Nadia and Sergei, (technically step-aunt and uncle to Marina) to whom she was exceptionally close.
In his biography, Tsvetaeva, The Woman, The World and Her Poetry, Simon Karlinksy notes that by age four Marina had developed a crush on Sergei, but her more serious attachment was to Nadia, eight years older than her. In a letter to Vera Bunina in May 1928, Tsvetaeva wrote that it was only after Nadia’s death that she could give her feelings true rein.
But by the time they arrived in Nervi, both Nadia and Sergei were already mortally ill with TB. Nadia died two years later in Russia, as did Marina’s mother. Recollections of Sergei and Nadia were central to Tsvetaeva’s memoir The House near Old St Pimen’s Church (1934). In it she described the damp and draughty quarters in which Illovasiky’s children from his two marriages were raised and which caused all but two of them to die of TB by the age of 20. Karlinsky describes the memoir as the poet’s “monument to that youthful infatuation with the lovely Nadia”.
Marina’s subsequent life was to be a catalogue of upheaval and tragedy, a victim of the violent turbulence of her country’s 20th century history. She married army officer Sergei Efron in 1912; they had two daughters, Ariadna and Irina, and later a son, Georgy. She survived the Russian Revolution, after which Efron joined the White Army. The couple were separated for five years while the Civil War raged. During the Moscow famine, Tsvetaeva, alone and penniless, was forced to place her daughters in a state orphanage, where the younger, Irina, died of starvation in 1920, aged three.
In 1922, Tsvetaeva emigrated with her family to Berlin, then to Prague, before settling in Paris in 1925. She never quite fitted in with the Russian literary exile set in Europe, and her denouncements of the Soviet system in her work meant that her name was unmentionable in Russia and her poetry ignored.
At the end of the Thirties, Efron was exposed as an agent of the Soviet secret police involved in several political assassinations, including, allegedly, Trotsky’s son. He fled to the Soviet Union. Tsvetaeva, who apparently knew nothing of her husband’s terrorist activities, was subsequently ostracized by the Russian community in Paris.
Karlinsky writes she followed Efron to Moscow in 1939 in the mistaken belief that it would help him and secure a better future for their son. On her arrival, she learned that her sister Asya – with whom she had played on the beach at Nervi – had been sent to a hard-labour camp.
Two months after Tsvetaeva’s return, her daughter Ariadna was arrested on espionage charges, and her husband was executed. When the German army approached Moscow in 1941, she and sixteen-year-old Georgy were evacuated to Yelabuga, Tatarstan, where she committed suicide by hanging herself in August 1941. She left a note for her son in which she wrote: “Forgive me, but to go on would be worse.”
Georgy volunteered for the Eastern Front where he died three years later, but Tsvetaeva’s daughter, Ariadna, and her sister, Asya, also a poet and memoirist, survived the war and the Stalin purges, and both wrote about Tsvetaeva and her work. Ariadna died in 1975, but Asya lived on until 1993.
Her poem “Homesickness”, translated here by Boris Dralyuk, captures Tsvestaeva’s vehemence and spiky alienation, its declarations of denial and defiance subtly undermined by the final melancholic line. The spirit of the child who had frolicked in the waves at Nervi with her beloved sister, had been well and truly extinguished by then.
Homesickness! Silly fallacy
laid bare so long ago.
It’s all the same where I’m to be
entirely alone —
it’s all the same across what stones
I lug my shopping basket,
toward some house as alien
as a hospital or barracks.
I do not care what faces see
me bristle like a captive lion,
or out of which society
I’m quickly forced into my own
fenced realm of silent feelings.
I’m like an iceless polar bear —
just where I fail to fit (won’t try!)
and am belittled, I don’t care.
My native tongue will not delude
me with its milky call.
I won’t, I can’t be understood
in any tongue at all
by passersby (voracious eaters
of newspapers, milkers of rumor) —
they’re of the twentieth century,
and me — no time is home to me!
Dumbfounded, like a log that fell
on an abandoned lane,
all is the same to me, all, all
the same, and what has been
most dear to me now matters least.
All signs, all memories and dates
have been erased:
A soul born — any place.
My homeland cared for me so little
that the most clever snoop
could search my soul for birthmarks — he’ll
find nothing with his loupe!
Yes, every house is strange to me
and every temple — barren.
All, all the same. Yet, if I see,
alone along the verge – a rowan. . .