From Publishers Weekly
In the annals of 20th-century literature, few encounters between great writers were at once so ephemeral and so fraught with meaning as the evening in 1945 that Isaiah Berlin spent in the Leningrad home of Anna Akhmatova. The celebrated Russian poet saw Berlin, a Russian-born Oxford professor of political theory, then first secretary for the British Embassy in Moscow, as a visionary from the democratic world that she'd never experienced. According to Dalos, Akhmatova became romantically obsessed with Berlin and placed him as the central figure in a famously cryptic masterpiece, "Poem Without a Hero." The encounter also left Akhmatova under the surveillance of the KGB, who denounced Berlin as a British spy. Dalos, a Russian novelist and literary critic who now lives in Berlin, was captivated by the story at a 1993 meeting of the Heinrich B?ll Foundation in Moscow, at which a former KGB official delivered a paper on Akhmatova and her secret government file. Quoting at length from Akhmatova's friends and supporters, and from extensive interviews with Berlin, who died in 1997, Dalos makes considerable headway in recasting Akhmatova's lifework. Dalos is least convincing when using complex passages from her writing to support his theories about her relationship with Berlin. When weaving together details from Russian history and the notes and letters of Berlin and Akhmatova, his writing is more graceful, lending support to the growing reputation of a poet who only late in life earned global publication and an honorary doctorate from Oxford, and for whom a star was named in 1988, 22 years after her death.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Kirkus Reviews
Hungarian writer Dalos brings his powerful dissident's voice (1985, 1984) to the story of the ill-fated meeting between poet and philosopher. On the eve of the Cold War, a night in November 1945, Isaiah Berlin, then first secretary to the British Embassy in Moscow, met the greatest living Russian poet, the mercurial Anna Akhmatova. The two spent some 12 hours talking, and ever after Akhmatova thought of the Englishman as a lover of sorts and, Dalos believes, as the poetical figure the guest from the future, who appears in one of her greatest works, Poem Without a Hero. The long-term consequences of the meeting, however, may have been baleful; the already controversial Akhmatova found herself the recipient of a scathing denunciation by Stalin's arts czar, in which she was infamously characterized as ``a nun . . . and a whore.'' She was unable to publish her verse, barely able to eke out a living as a translator, and her son was sent to the gulag. Berlin would be haunted by guilt feelings for the rest of his life, although Dalos doubts that the visit was the trigger for the repression that followed. For the rest of her life (she died of a heart attack in 1966), Akhmatova would be in and out of favor depending on the blowing winds of change in the Soviet government. Dalos traces the cycles of her career in a deft, ironic, often caustic voice. He has a solid grasp of the vagaries of Communist bloc governmental shenanigans and also illuminates Akhmatova's verse with some incisive analyses. Occasionally, he is reduced to guessing the motivations of the men in the Kremlin, but he is generally cautious in his surmises. A downbeat but highly insightful book, painful to read but splendidly written and researched. -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.