Poet, translator and biographer Elaine Feinstein dies aged 88

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The poet, biographer and translator Elaine Feinstein has died at the age of 88. Her publisher Carcanet said: “She was one of Carcanet's dearest and oldest friends, and she will be deeply missed.”

Elaine Feinstein was born in Liverpool , and educated in Leicester, before winning an Exhibition to read English at Newnham College, Cambridge. She went up in 1949, only a year after the first women were admitted to full membership of the University. After graduating, she read for the Bar in London. She returned to Cambridge with her husband, the molecular biologist Arnold Feinstein, in 1956.

Because of her family origins in the Russian-Jewish daspora, she developed a close affinity with the Russian poets of this and the last century. Her versions of the poems of Marina Tsvetaeva , for which she received three translation awards from the Arts Council were first published in 1971 and remain in print. She was also a novelist and playwright. Her five biographies include A Captive Lion: the Life of Marina Tsvetaeva (1987), Pushkin (1998), and Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet. In 2005 she was awarded a Civil List pension in recognition of her services to literature.

Talking of her biography of Hughes at an event at London’s Southbank Centre less than two years ago, she said: “Ted Hughes was a wonderfully generous man. His dedication to poetry … was the lodestar of his life.” She added that it was “important to understand his spirit”, rather than Hughes’ media image: “It’s the memory I wanted to recapture.” 

At another event at London’s Jewish Museum, she spoke of her connections with Russia, which had been “exotic and fortunate, and very much a matter of happenstance”. Her translations of Marina Tsvetaeva, a Russian and Soviet poet who killed herself in 1941, shortly after her husband was executed, were published in the early 1970s, and she met the poet Bella Akhmadulina through the “Queen of Moscow” ‘s then-husband, Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Feinstein told her audience that Bella, who lived in a flat above the Bolshoi in those days, was “very bold, genuinely courageous”, writing many letters in support of other dissidents at a time when it was quite dangerous to do so.

‘Death and the Lemon Tree’, a poem from one of her later collections, faces up to approaching mortality, as she returns from a reading trip in crisis-hit Greece to find an apparently dying plant has produced new leaves in her absence. “So, you’re not finished yet, / my resilient tree. Good. Let us age further.”   





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