26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 39

Who boiled the potatoes?

John Bayley

THE GUEST FROM THE FUTURE by Gyorgy Dalos John Murray, £17.99, pp. 250

This book is the story of a single night, the night of Isaiah Berlin's visit to Anna Akhmatova in Leningrad in November 1945. It is a love story, the story of a love that became a focal point in the life of the poet, giving meaning to events that preceded it and followed it.

And yet, the author continues, with a small drop in this promising build-up of tension, 'it was not as important for him as for her'.

Indeed it was not. For her it was 'fateful': for him it was merely memorable. Nor was there any question of a night of love, in the Hollywood sense, between the aging and famous poet and the brilliant young don and diplomat. As Isaiah often used to tell his friends, he was on the verge of getting up to go at every minute, but was so fasci- nated by the poet's conversation and remi- niscences, so seduced too by the sheer sombre magnificence of her personality, thit he stayed on atid on until suddenly it was broad daylight in the room.

And even that did not call a halt to their endless Chekhovian dialogue. For Akhma- tova, that dawn was the beginning of two things: persecution and poetry. She had been under a cloud both before and during the war, in which the authorities had nonetheless grudgingly evacuated her as a privileged artist from her doomed-to- starvation city. Now, however, the full pres- sure of Soviet disapproval was turned on. She had been consorting with the destined foe, showing, like the nun and harlot Stalin and his henchman Zdhanov described her as being, a wanton passion for the class enemy, a capitalist Jew from the decadent West, no doubt also an agent of the British Secret Service.

But that night and dawn produced poetry as well. Akhmatova had already begun her strange and wonderful long 'Poem Without a Hero', the crown of her mature achieve- ment as a poet, and now Isaiah Berlin him- self, as 'the Guest from the Future', came to play a crucial role within it. Like Osip Mandelstam, Akhmatova was an Acmeist poet who believed that poetry should be spare, condensed and outwardly unemotional. The movement distrusted the gestures of Symbolism, and the kind of por- tentousness which Blok had put into his famous apocalyptic poem 'The Twelve', with its climax identifying a band of disso- lute Red Guards with Christ and his apos- tles.

Akhmatova herself was in love with Blok at one stage, but her poems about the experience are notably restrained and sardonic, seen in precise terms of place and atmosphere — the raspberry-coloured winter sun, expressionless eyes never quite meeting each other. In the shadowy kalei- doscope of 'Poem Without a Hero' the same technique is used in more complex ways. Persons who meant much to the poet interchange and melt into each other, bringing the, past into the future, and the fateful privacies of the poet's early life into the perspective of the 20th century — 'the real one, not the calendar one'.

Isaiah Berlin was to play his own incon- gruously timeless and mysterious part in the iconography of the poem, becoming in the final version not only a part of the past's ghostly visitation, but the unknown caller from the future, coming to the poet's tenement room in the Fountain House by the Fontanka canal.

Is it true That he really will come to me Turning left at the bridge?

Candidates to be this guest jostle each other today in the pages of memoirs and appreciations, the Punin family claiming Nikolay Punin, art historian and long- standing partner of Akhmatova, to be the true addressee. As Gyorgy Dalos dryly observes:

The growing number of potential guests at Fountain House begins to be like rivalry between Greek cities for the honour of being the birthplace of Homer.

The rotund, young, cigar-smoking diplomat from the Moscow embassy was far from being the ghostly figure the poem's inner dimension suggests. But as Dalos points out, the 'Guest' is not only

a wholly concrete person but a highly abstract summation of what Berlin's visit meant for Akhmatova. As such he is a proto- , type of the reader of the future, for in that accursed year no one in our country could read properly.

Wartime propaganda and jingoistic verse were all that Soviet poetry lovers had been given by the state to feed on.

Berlin himself was full of hopes, perhaps naive ones, as a result of the meeting. In a report to London he recommended the set- ting up of an English consulate in Leningrad, still the most cosmopolitan of Russia's cities, and he hatched projects for bringing both Akhmatova and Pasternak to receive honours at Oxford. In the short term all these efforts were doomed to fail- ure, and Berlin himself came to feel guilty about the part he had unwittingly played in the subsequent persecution of Akhmatova, and indirectly in that of her unfortunate son Lev Gumilov, who had been released from a camp to fight in the war, only to be sent back to the gulag afterwards. His real offence was to be the child of the poet to whom Akhmatova had once been married; but on his eventual release he remained on bad terms with his mother, partly as a result of the whole 'Guest' incident.

Like other things in life and art it had been both a farce and a tragedy, as well as a great inspiration. For Isaiah and for Ran- dolph Churchill, who had come wandering round the Fontanka canal looking for his friend and shouting his name, it could hardly help seeming like the background of a John Buchan story.

In those days an English innocence still kept them insulated from the grim reality of Soviet life. And of course in Akhmato- va's room there was nothing whatever to drink or eat, although some potatoes were eventually borrowed. A humorous man, as it seems, Dalos when interviewing 'the Guest from the Future' wanted to know who had boiled these potatoes. 'She did,' said Isaiah simply.