First in a series of monthly posts from the Legacies of Stephen Dwoskin project based at the University of Reading
by Henry K. Miller 30 Oct 2018
Marina Tsvetaeva in the year of her death, 1941
The life of Marina Tsvetaeva was laced with tragic irony. Born into the Russian intelligentsia in 1892, she was a celebrated poet in her youth, and moved among the leading lights of the pre-war literary scene. The Russian Revolution of 1917 destroyed the world into which she had been raised. Her husband Sergei Efron went to fight on the side of the ‘White’ counter-revolution, leaving her to bring up their two daughters amid the desperate conditions of the Civil War. The younger of them died of malnutrition. Two decades later, by which time the family was living in exile in Paris, Efron abandoned her again – this time for the Soviet Union, after his conversion to the Communist cause. Two years of poverty and isolation forced her to follow him, in 1939, only for Efron, and their equally committed elder daughter, to disappear into the Gulag. Under suspicion, and more isolated than ever, she killed herself in 1941.
It was a life that fascinated Stephen Dwoskin. He worked on the scenario of his film about Tsvetaeva, A Captive Spirit, for more than five years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a period encompassing the Soviet Union’s collapse. Its title was taken in turn from her highly subjective prose portrait of the Symbolist writer Andrei Bely, published in a Parisian émigré journal after Bely’s death in 1934. Tsvetaeva’s A Captive Spirit was by no means a standard biography; Dwoskin’s A Captive Spirit would seek to emulate her ‘manner, feeling and style’. The film, as he conceived it in 1988, ‘would be kind of drama, but not a literal “re-created” one, nor one that is precisely linear. Following Tsvetaeva’s own style; – of grand leaps and finite details; of oblique fairy-tale references and eloquent precision; of innocence, passion, and strong rhythm – a film would evolve more like a collage, or an “impressionistic” rendering.’
In this it continued Dwoskin’s movement away from his avowedly avant-garde work of the 1960s and ’70s, and towards the biographical essay film, manifested in Shadows From Light: The Photography of Bill Brandt (1983) and Ballet Black (1986), both financed by the Arts Council. As the project developed, Dwoskin decided to focus on Tsvetaeva’s last years in France, 1937–9, when partly as a result of her husband’s political volte-face – and direct involvement in Soviet assassination plots – she was ostracized within the émigré community, and found it almost impossible to get published. Times were hard even before Efron’s departure; in 1933 she had written to a friend ‘Emigration has made a prose writer out of me’, and in this comment perhaps we can see the germ of Dwoskin’s interest in – and identification with – her. As in his earliest experimental films, the relationship of voyeur (biographer) and viewed (subject) is central.
Dwoskin, too, was an emigrant, having come to London from New York in 1964. He too had once moved among a group of illustrious names which by his middle years he may have felt had been dispersed. He too seems to have perceived himself as an exile among exiles. Like Tsvetaeva he struggled to find outlets for his work, and had to invent new forms – in his case using new media – to keep going without ever bowing to the conventional. Sometimes he was successful, but Dwoskin’s A Captive Spirit was never made.
His notes from the unrealized project include the story of how Tsvetaeva’s unpublished writings survived. An Estonian critic with whom she was in correspondence advised that she deposit her archive with a scholar of Russian culture in Basel, Switzerland; part of it went there, but much else was lost. We are more fortunate in Dwoskin’s case; his archive is alive and well and living in Reading. Indeed, Dwoskin was a conscientious self-archivist, and commented upon the fact in unpublished writings he (naturally) deposited in his own archive. ‘Old Drawer’, an undated document which exists in various forms, tells of him going through the titular drawer ‘looking for all the old writings … the crumpled past of films never made. Sad. In this retracing I found various considerations for a film on the woman poetess from Russia who fell in love with everyone…’.
Unlike Tsvetaeva, Dwoskin’s writing was not all done on paper; the archive, which it is our project to open up, also resides in a number of hard drives awaiting exploration. All in all, it presents a similar challenge to the one both Tsvetaeva and Dwoskin faced when trying to apprehend their subjects: how to capture a life, how relate it to the work, or vice versa; and how to give the result form.
This is the first in a series of monthly posts from The Legacies of Stephen Dwoskin project, based at the University of Reading and supported by the AHRC. Follow its progress on Twitter: @DwoskinProject
Henry K. Miller is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Reading, and editor of The Essential Raymond Durgnat.