Readings — From the April 2018 issue

Kiss and Tell

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From a letter written by Marina Tsvetaeva to Boris Pasternak in 1927. Tsvetaeva (1892–1941) was a poet. The letter was included in the February issue of the PN Review. Translated from the Russian by Christopher Whyte.

Darling Boris,

Here is the story of a temptation. It reaches far back, it has its roots in Moscow when I was fifteen. She was the most beautiful of all the girls who went to secondary school, so beautiful it hurt. She was one year below me, and when we passed in the corridor, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. In a year during which we met each day, I didn’t say one word to her. 1918–1919. Love. Offense. (Clouds pass over the screen.) 1925, Paris. Three days since I arrived. A letter to The Latest News, forwarded to me. “Marina! Probably you won’t remember me. I used to study with you at secondary school, I liked you but was afraid of you,” and so on. I reply. And so on. And so on. She is ill, gets treatment. Nine meetings in two years. Once I called on her, in a cramped apartment by Porte de Passy, against a background of poor-quality furniture, no space for anything, with her mother, cheerful and finelooking. This summer I visited her twice, in a sanatorium. Talk of literature, unnatural across the abyss of those letters. Of this and of that. 1927, a month ago. One in the afternoon. A knock on the door. A lady. I: “How delightful! Please, let’s go into my room.” “But where is your room?” A low, muffled voice. Fur, burning cheeks, she can hardly get her breath, because the way from the station to where we live is uphill, and then there are the stairs, and of two lungs, all she has left is a faint half-crescent. All consumed. Chess, guests, a snack. We decide to take a walk together. Well, our street barely climbs. I imagine how it must be for her, both of us are panting. Going back, I think with misery of the stairs. And, the moment we are through the door: “Could I lie down now?” She lies down on my battered, mouselike couch, beautiful, young (you would never say she was thirty-two, more twenty-two). She says nothing. Looks around. I want to take my work to the table, she stops me with a movement of her head, her eyelids, her self. I sit down. Prompted by everything that is in the room, I take her hand. A hand longs for a hand (one takes hers, the other goes to her hair), I bend over, in my head: “Myriads.” And fully aware of the crime I am committing — right to the heart of her infection. In full awareness.

Boris! The resistance of that mouth was so different from the others. And with what shame it yielded. My first genuine kiss. And, perhaps, her desire. Boris, I kissed death. My wish to compensate for everything, in the name of life. Life itself kissed death. Boris, every kiss ought to be like that, not for life but for death, in full awareness of the price and the cost.

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