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‘A Ghost in the Rylands Library’: A Tribute to and from Elaine Feinstein (1930-2019)

We are deeply saddened by the death this week of the poet Elaine Feinstein, who was a dear friend and unfailing supporter of the John Rylands Library. In 2017, archivist Jane Speller produced a wonderful blog post celebrating the extraordinary breadth of Elaine’s literary output and the richness of her archive, which is one of our most important modern literary collections. Jane was then cataloguing the archive in a project funded by the Strachey Trust; her catalogue is now live on ELGAR. In tribute to Elaine, and with Jane’s permission, we are republishing the blog in amended form, including a short film by Colin Still.

Film by Colin Still of Elaine Feinstein reading and discussing ‘A Ghost in the Rylands Library’ in 2017. © Colin Still, Optic Nerve, London.

She is an extremely fine poet. She has a sinewy, tenacious way of exploring her subject that seems to me unique. Her simple, clean language follows the track of the nerves. There is nothing hit or miss, nothing for effect, nothing false. Reading her poems one feels cleansed and sharpened.  (Ted Hughes).

Hughes’s assessment of Elaine Feinstein as a poet was exact, but she was so much more: a prolific novelist, biographer, translator and playwright. She was the author of fifteen novels and even more poetry collections.

Gwen and Jamies portrait
This portrait photograph of Elaine Feinstein was taken by Gwen Riley Jones and Jamie Robinson – two of the Library’s photographers – in 2013. Some of the box files containing Feinstein’s working papers can be seen in the background.

Feinstein was an expert on Russian literature, though she only learnt Russian in her twenties; her Russian-Jewish parents insisted that she spoke only English at home. She received three Arts Council Awards for her translations of the Soviet Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941), whom she described as ‘the most important single influence on my poetry’. Feinstein first read the poems of Marina Tsvetaeva in Russian in the 1960s and the encounter transformed her. ‘What drew me to her initially,’ she wrote, ‘was the intensity of her emotions, and the honesty with which she exposed them.’  Feinstein’s translations of Tsvetaeva’s work, first published to great acclaim in 1971, introduced the Russian poet to English readers, and  Feinstein’s biography, A Captive Lion: The Life of Marina Tsvetayeva, was published in 1987.  Feinstein’s enduring relationship with the work of Tsvetaeva culminated in 2009 with the publication of Bride of Ice: New Selected Poems (Carcanet), an enlarged edition to which Feinstein added five major pieces, including ‘Girlfriend’, a sequence of lyrics, written by Tsvetayeva for her lover, the poet and journalist, Sofia Parnok (1885-1931).

Feinstein translated a host of other Russian writers, including Margarita Aliger (1915-92), Yunna Moritz (b.1937) and Bella Akhmadulina (1937-2010). In addition, she was the biographer of literary giants Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) and Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837). Feinstein’s other biographical studies include two further writers with turbulent lives: the English novelist D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) and the Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes (1930-98). The papers relating to all of these biographies are included in her archive.

A tiny portion of Elaine Feinstein’s archive during the cataloguing project. Her papers have now been repackaged into archival folders and boxes, but all her original file labels have been carefully transcribed in the catalogue.

The Feinstein archive is now housed in over 150 archive boxes, and whilst the material is physically ordered and contained, the contents are bursting with life: narratives and partial narratives, drafts and redrafts, meticulous translations from Russian into English – literal and poetic; detailed notes from Feinstein’s research visits to Russia; transcriptions of interviews; and correspondence with major literary figures from around the world.

Feinstein’s novels often feature Jewish characters. The tense poignant action of The Border (1984) concerns a couple forced to flee from Austria following the Anschluss. Loving Brecht (1992) follows the life and times of Frieda Bloom, a Jewish cabaret singer whose chaotic emotional life takes her from Wiemar Berlin to Stalin’s Moscow, from New York to eventual refuge in London. Children of the Rose (1975) deals with the lives of the European Jews and the Second World War, exploring the current and past lives of a group of people scarred as a result of the war. Jewish identity in England is explicated in The Survivors (1982), a novel set in Feinstein’s native Lancashire where issues of assimilation, acculturation and tradition are portrayed. Feinstein’s last novel, The Russian Jerusalem (2008) is a fascinating mix of fiction, autobiography and poetry, in which the author, with the ghost of Marina Tsvetaeva as her guide, reconstructs the fates of the great Russian writers during Stalin’s Terror. The Terror and its aftermath is also a dominant subject in her biography of Akhmatova, Anna of All the Russias: The Life of a Poet under Stalin (2005). Feinstein often illuminates important episodes in Akhmatova’s tempestuous life by interpolating her own translations of passages from Akhmatova‘s poems.

Feinstein came from a Jewish background, and one of the themes of her fiction is religion and spirituality, although not of the orthodox type. Feinstein’s novels, The Ecstasy of Dr. Miriam Garner (1976), and The Shadow Master (1979), and her radio play The Temptation of Dr. William Fosters (1991) display a unique blend of religious morality and social awareness combined with an investigation of personal desires. Papers relating to these plays as well as Feinstein’s other work for radio, television and theatre can be found in the archive.

Feinstein continued writing in her late eighties, and one of her most recent poems had an archival theme. In June 2017 she attended the annual John Rylands Research Institute conference, Archival Afterlives, which focused on archives relating to post-war poetry. Reflecting on her own ‘archival afterlife’, Feinstein was prompted to write a poem on the subject. ‘A Ghost in the Rylands Library’ was published by the Spectator in September 2017, and Elaine gave us permission to reproduce the text below. We have also been given permission to share a wonderful film by Colin Still of Optic Nerve of Elaine reading the poem: see above.

Ghost in the Rylands Library



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