Sophia Parnok: The Life and Work of Russia's Sappho

Diana Lewis Burgin, Author
Diana Lewis Burgin, Author New York University Press $65 (355p) ISBN 978-0-8147-1190-3
Reviewed on: 07/04/1994
Release date: 07/01/1994
Ebook - 398 pages - 978-0-585-34192-7
Paperback - 382 pages - 978-0-8147-1221-4
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Critical biographies run the risk of advancing more criticism than biography, of illuminating an author's work while shedding only shadows on her daily experience. Part of a series titled The Cutting Edge: Lesbian Life and Literature, Burgin's study of ``the only openly lesbian voice in Russian poetry'' is no exception. While Burgin's affectionate intelligence succeeds in its goal of enlivening Parnok's soulful lyrics for Western readers, she lacks either resource or inclination to introduce Parnok as a flesh-and-blood being making her way through the actual world. Not until Parnok reaches her twenties do we learn that she has suffered since childhood with Grave's disease, and never do we learn the full clinical consequences to Parnok's health. About the poet's appearance there is equally little, and of her actions in pre-Revolutionary and Stalinist Russia, there are too many phrases like ``something apparently did come up.'' Parnok comes across as a melodramatic, needy person whose tormented yearnings and unconventional sexuality produced a provocative if insubstantial body of work. Though Burgin's thoughts about translation make for interesting reading, her assumption that Parnok's poems are autobiographical remains woefully unexamined. Still, her efforts to meld the poet's works and passions will awaken sympathy for this neglected lesbian artist while never quite justifying the series editor's claim that Parnok was ``brilliant.'' (May)
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