TOP 500 REVIEWERon 1 March 2016
Elaine Feinstein is one of those writers who have mastered several literary forms, as a novelist (15 novels to date), a poet (19 collections), a distinguished translator (particularly of the poems of Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva), a biographer, a playwright, and now the memoir. Memoir as a form is more fluid, more selective, than the traditional autobiography - more suitable for her intimate, searching look back at her long and successful life - and she handles it with confidence and honesty. She writes with ease, fluency and a richness of tone that keeps you turning the page; perhaps her skills as a novelist and poet and biographer combine here to draw you into her world. Yet she does not let you get too close - this is not a transcribed diary with everything laid bare - she touches upon subjects, people, places, events, trips abroad (there are many of these) with the concision and brevity of poetry, and then moves on, coming back when she needs to to update the story, creating a mosaic of a life that one can only admire for its vivacity, achievement and fortitude.
Born in Lancashire, she was brought up in Leicester, felt closer to her enterprising father than her mother, did well at school despite her humble origins, and found herself at Cambridge, at Newnham. Later, she lived in many different houses in Cambridge with her husband Arnold, a distinguished scientist, and her three sons, all of who turned out to be highly talented, while she developed her career as a writer and lecturer. She met with early success; in the process she built up a large network of colleagues and friends, many of them writers, some who have become household names: Joseph Brodsky, Donald Davie, Margaret Drabble, Carol Anne Duffy, Ruth Fainlight, Alan Ginsburg, Miroslav Holub, Ted and Olwyn Hughes, RuthPadel, Jean Rhys, Michel Schmidt... the list is endless. It indicates not only how well regarded she was, but how much she operated at the centre of literary life in the UK and elsewhere. And that's one of the values of this memoir, it gives us something of the history of its times, what life was like for a writer, a female one at that, and Jewish, in the UK post the second world war. Given all her achievements, it's a wonder she's not even better known than she is.
A theme running through her book is the nature of her long 40 + years of marriage. She married a scientist who seldom seemed to appreciate either the nature or the quality of her work, though he did have flashes of insight, and this must have been an abiding disappointment for Elaine. He was often needy and seemed to think - like Mr Ramsey in 'To the Lighthouse' - that his wife owed him more attention than she had time to give. But his own wide circle of friends, colleagues and admirers brought her into contact with many people distinguished in science who enriched her life. Arnold suffered from severe bouts of ill-health, particularly towards the end of his life, and also from depression. A crisis occurred well into the marriage when Elaine discovered he was having an affair with a much younger woman who bore his child. This put their bond under severe strain but it proved strong enough for them to survive it. She unfolds all this without self-pity or bitterness, her warm understanding of humanity, and the needs of her family, carrying her through. She herself, it seems, was never tempted into an affair, or if she was she does not mention it.
Another strand is the nature of her Jewishness, the forms of which she did not practice, but which nevertheless influenced her life. She felt the weight of her ancestry and the memories of her ancestors - at one point the whole family visit a former concentration camp where some of them perished. She visited Israel many times and engaged with many Jewish writers. She had international status and was asked to lecture and read at conferences all over the world, including Russia and the countries of Easten Europe. Indeed, one wonders how she fitted it all in and still managed to be a prolific author.
A fascinating and highly readable memoir by a remarkable woman.