This portrait of Ossip Mandelstamm is a condensation of a long and rather rough fragment from the memoirs of the poet Anna Ahmatova. A version of it was published recently in Aerial Ways, a Russian language magazine published in New York.
Mandelstamm was one of the most brilliant; conversationalists. In conversing he didn’t listen to himself, nor did he answer himself as almost everyone does today; he was considerate, imaginative, and infinitely varied. I have never heard him repeat himself. Ossip Emilievitch could learn foreign languages with extraordinary ease. He recited by heart in Italian whole pages out of the Divine Comedy. Not long before his death, he had asked his wife Nadia to teach him English, which he didn’t know at all. He spoke about poetry dazzlingly, often in a prejudiced way, and sometimes he was monstrously unjust—about Blok for example. About Pasternak he said: “I am thinking about him so much that it even makes me feel tired.” And also, “I am sure he has never read a single line of mine.” About Marina: “I am an anti-Tsvetayevist.” He was at home with music and this for a poet is extremely rare. More than anything else, he feared the loss of his poetic voice. When this happened, he rushed around in a state of terror and he invented all sorts of absurd reasons to explain this calamity. A second, frequent cause of distress was his readership. It always seemed to him that he was liked by the wrong readers. He knew well and remembered other poets’ poems, sometimes falling in love with a single line. He could memorize with ease poems which were read to him.
I met Mandelstamm in the Spring of 1911, at Viatcheslav Tvanov’s “Tower.”1 He was then a thin young boy with a twig of lily-of-the-valley in his button-hole, his head thrown up and back, with eyelashes so long that they covered half his cheek.
Throughout the ‘Teens we frequently met at various literary occasions. These were very important years for Mandelstamm as a writer. There is yet much thinking to be done, much to be said about these formative years. Mandelstamm greeted the Revolution as a completely mature poet, and a well-known one, at least in a small circle.
I saw Mandelstamm especially often in 1914-1917, in Petersburg. He would come by for me with a rented carriage, and we rode over the unbelievable holes of the revolutionary winter, among the famous bonfires which burnt as late as May, listening to the sound of rifle-shooting rushing towards us, we didn’t know from where. Mandelstamm was one of the first to write poems on civic themes. For him, the Revolution was an enormous event, and it is not by chance that the word people appears in his verse. In March of 1917, Mandelstamm disappeared. At that time people disappeared and reappeared and no one was surprised by it. In Moscow he was becoming a permanent contributor to a magazine entitled The Flag of…
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