The Contradictions of Literary Life

Elaine Feinstein’s It Goes with the Territory and Anthony Rudolf’s Silent Conversations are two very different books about literary lives, although they cover some of the same ground and feature some of the same people.

It Goes with the Territory is a crisp, clear account of a girl growing up in Leicester’s Jewish community, finding her literary voice in Cambridge, and going on to write poetry, fiction, plays, biography, and to translate the work of others. Silent Conversations is less about a reader’s life than a life in reading. It is a narrative about books and the people who write them. Rudolf charts the place of the written word in his life, only tangentially revealing how that life has been lived.

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These are lives with “foreign roots”—which also happens to be the title of Feinstein’s opening chapter—roots, it should be added, that have been profoundly influential. Born in 1930, Feinstein grew up as Elaine Cooklin, with all four grandparents from Odessa. The family was not particularly observant, but the young Elaine heard Yiddish and Hebrew, and became familiar with traditional rituals and food. Her father was a woodworker who ran a factory that experienced erratic success. The Leicester community was a fairly protected environment in which to grow up, but inevitably, events in Europe, as well as antisemitism at home, shaped her sensibility. In 1949, she won an exhibition to Newnham College, Cambridge, and encountered there “an enchanted city.” It was to be the beginning of a life very different from that of her parents.

In Cambridge, she found—both then and later when in 1956 she returned to the city as a married woman—a milieu in which she met writers from many parts of the world, whose work and encouragement supported her early efforts in poetry. With this sustenance, she flourished, and began to publish: first poetry, then fiction. She became interested in Russian writers, particularly Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova, whose work she translated and whose lives she chronicled. She wrote plays for radio and the stage. Even though Feinstein experienced much success in her life, it was also a journey rife with pain and difficulty, her account of which will surely speak to women of her generation and later, who have struggled to balance marriage, family, and career.

In the 1960s, Margaret Drabble (a friend of Feinstein’s) had said that women had to accept the impossibility of success in more than two of these three pillars. Feinstein may be the exception, but if so, it came with a cost. Her husband, Arnold Feinstein, would become a distinguished chemist and immunologist, but he brought with him a “fractured inner world.” Feinstein had to work hard to support his early career, and it was a difficult marriage. Soon, there were three sons to demand her attention, while she was drawn increasingly into an exhilarating environment of writing, editing, meeting poets from continental Europe and the United States, and teaching. 

Feinstein felt herself “at the edge of the English literary world,” which she believed to be “an appropriate, even an honourable position for a poet.” But even if she was outside the mainstream, Feinstein was still able to forge connections with many of the most striking and influential poets of the 1960s, including Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Ted Hughes, Thom Gunn, Denise Levertov, and Yehuda Amichai. As her poetry came to occupy so much of her emotional life, she felt she could not blame her husband for resenting his own position on the periphery of this energising territory. Even with domestic help and childcare, there were conflicting demands and continual pressures. And it seems that throughout Feinstein’s career, Arnold did not take—or did not want to take—her writing seriously.

Like her poetry, Feinstein’s memoir is lucid, intimate and honest. It communicates a life of almost relentless tension, but also of privilege earned through commitment and an openness to diverse creative energies. Even so, she acknowledges that at times, “I was leading a very selfish life,” adding that such selfishness, undermining a role as a supportive partner, is “more traditional in men.”

At the same time as Feinstein was beginning to find a place in a Cambridge literary milieu, Anthony Rudolf arrived at the university as an undergraduate. For him, Cambridge was not an enchanted city. He was unhappy and unproductive as a student, and it was some years before he found his métier as translator and facilitator of poetry, roles which he has performed with distinction and influence. Silent Conversations—the title taken from a comment by Walter Savage Landor, “What is reading but silent conversation?”—is a reader’s stream of consciousness, tacking between the physical book to the words on the page to the writers who created the words, and following a dazzling range of bookish conjunctions. 

The books discussed in Silent Conversations have been collected over many decades: required reading as a student, books carefully selected and serendipitous acquisitions, gifts from writers and friends, books which mark moments of particular personal or intellectual significance. They range through poetry, philosophy, psychology, biography and memoir, art and music – but not much fiction or history. Running as a counterpoint throughout Silent Conversations is Rudolf’s love of 19th and 20th-century French poetry. Russia and Central and Eastern Europe are also present, although southern Europe less so. American poets make many entrances as well, both as characters in the memoire and through their works on the page. 

I read most of Silent Conversations in the Scottish Highlands, which reinforced my sense of a literary landscape rather different from my own—although there are ways in which Rudolf and I coincide. We were both at Cambridge in the 1960s and have mutual friends, but more importantly, we share the need to read. While my reading coming-of-age was rooted in 19th-century novels—Austen, Scott, Dickens, the Brontës, Eliot, Hardy, Stevenson, Conrad—these stalwarts of British fiction are largely absent from Rudolf’s more contemporary and more European canon. It’s a long book and it’s unlikely that any single reader will share all Rudolf’s enthusiasms, but the sheer intellectual energy of his writing is compelling. 

Underpinning the book, and less muted than in Feinstein’s memoir, is the presence of Rudolf’s Jewish heritage, and the shadow of the Shoah. He has “a shelf of books about the conflict in the Middle East,” which is, he notes, beginning to obsess him. “If you are going to obsess, obsess on the basis of knowledge.” But just as important is his exploration, implicit as well as explicit, of the Jew as the ultimate European, transcending borders and therefore doubly suspect. As I write this, in the middle of January following the terrible events in Paris, the transcendence of both comfortable and uncomfortable definitions requires even more urgent attention.

What fascinates about Silent Conversations is that for Rudolf, reading is not in itself enough. He needs also to follow through, to make connections, to translate in the broadest sense of the word, to interpret, to juxtapose, with numerous asides that are often entertaining and provocative. This is the book’s strength, but it can also irritate. It makes for a skittish, parenthetical style, with the effort to pull together the personal, the political and the poetic, often resulting in long and complex sentences. You’ll need a dictionary, and in spite of his heart-felt “thank heavens for indexes,” there ironically isn’t one to be had in his book. 

Both books are both England-centred, specifically anchored in London and Cambridge, yet they reach far beyond, extending literary horizons, sending the reader to re-visit the familiar and to seek out the undiscovered. They both communicate an intensity of literary experience and both explore, in different ways, the contradictions and tensions inherent in literary lives. If they have a shared message, it is that without the contradictions, the richness, and value of literature, much would be diminished.

Jenni Calder has published widely on literary and historical subjects, and writes fiction and poetry as Jenni Daiches. Her latest book is Forgive, a novel (Luath Press).

It Goes with the Territory: Memoirs of a Poet
Elaine Feinstein (Alma Books2013)

Silent Conversations: A Reader’s Life
Anthony Rudolf (Seagull Books, 2013)

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