• Email
  • Print

A Portrait of Mandelstamm

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 Labor.

In the summer of 1924 Ossip Mandelstamm brought to me his young wife, Nadejda. I was then living on Fontanka Street, No. 2. Nadia was what the French call “laide mais délicieuse.” Our friendship started on that day, and it has lasted to this day. Ossip loved Nadia extraordinarily, incredibly much. He didn’t let her out of his sight, he didn’t allow her to work, he was wildly jealous, he asked her for advice about every word in his poems. Altogether, I have never seen anything like it in all of my life.

In the Fall of 1933, Mandelstamm was finally allocated an apartment in Moscow (which he celebrated in his poems). It looked as if the vagabond life which took the Mandelstamms back and forth between Leningrad and Moscow had ended. For the first time Ossip started to collect books, mostly ancient editions of Italian poets. At that time he was translating Petrarch. But in fact things remained unsettled. Mandelstamm had to phone somewhere all the time, he waited and hoped and nothing ever came of it. There was no money at all, and only half-promises for reviewing and translating jobs. Although the times were relatively bloodless2 the shadow of disaster and doom hung over this house. About that time, Mandelstamm changed physically a great deal: he became heavier, his hair turned gray, he had trouble breathing. He looked like an old man (he was forty-two) but his eyes continued to sparkle. His poetry was becoming better all the time; so was his prose.

On May 30th, 1934 he was arrested. On that very day, after a deluge of telegrams and telephone calls, I arrived at the Mandelstamms from Leningrad. We were then all so poor that in order to be able to buy a return ticket, I took a statuette with me to sell, a 1924 Danko. The warrant for Mandelstamm’s arrest was signed by Yagoda3 himself. All night the police searched the apartment. They were looking for poems. We all sat in one room. It was very quiet. Behind the wall, at Kirsanov’s4 , we could hear a Hawaiian guitar. The detective found The Century of the Wolf and showed it to Ossip Emilievitch, who nodded his head in silence. He was taken away at seven o’clock, when it was already daylight. He kissed me when we parted.

Fifteen days later, early in the morning, Nadia had a phone call and was told to be at the Kazan railroad station that night if she wanted to accompany her husband in exile. It was all over. Our friend X and I went around collecting money for the trip. People gave a lot. Mrs. B. burst into tears and stuffed into my hand without counting it, a whole lot of money.

I went to the Kazan station with Nadia, but my own train was leaving from the Leningrad station early that evening, and Ossip was brought out only after I had left the Kazan station. No one was allowed to speak with him. It was too bad that I hadn’t waited for him, and he hadn’t seen me, because later on, when he had fits of insanity, he was persuaded that I had surely been shot, and kept looking for my corpse.

In February of 1936, I went to visit Mandelstamm in Voronej and learned all the details of his “affair.” It is striking that a sense of spaciousness and breadth appeared in Mandelstamm’s verse precisely in Voronej, when he was not at all free.

It was there that he was forced, for ambiguous reasons, to give a lecture about Acmeism. It mustn’t be forgotten that he had said in 1937, “I do not disavow the living or the dead.”

There have been several gossipy, ill-informed books about Mandelstamm published in recent years. One is Georges Ivanov’s Petersburg Nights. Even more shocking in its inaccuracies and trivialities is a book by Leonid Chatsky, published under the aegis of the best, oldest American university, Harvard!

Mandelstamm was a tragic figure. Even while in exile in Voronej, he wrote works of untold beauty and power. And he had no poetic forerunners—wouldn’t that be something worth thinking about for his biographers? In all of world poetry, I know of no other such case. We know the sources of Pushkin and Blok, but who will tell us where that new, divine harmony, Mandelstamm’s poetry, came from?

I last saw Mandelstamm in the Fall of 1937. He and Nadia had come to Leningrad for a couple of days. The times were apocalyptic. Disaster was following in the footsteps of each of us. Mandelstamm had no money whatever. He and his wife had no place to live. Ossip breathed heavily; he was catching air with his lips. I came to meet him, I do not remember where. Everything was like a frightening dream. Someone who arrived after me said that Ossip’s father had no warm clothes. Ossip took off the sweater he was wearing under his jacket and gave it to pass on to his father. At that time we were reading simultaneously Joyce’s Ulysses—he in a good German translation. I in the original. Several times we started to talk about Ulysses, but we couldn’t—it was not a time to talk about books.

Mandelstamm was arrested for a second and last time on May 2nd, 1938. He died a few months later in Siberia.

(Adapted by Olga Carisle)

  1. 1

    A famous Symbolist literary salon in pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg where an esoteric fin-de-siécle atmosphere prevailed.

  2. 2

    Ahmatova writes “vegetarian,” which has the same literal meaning in Russian as in English.

  3. 3

    The chief of the Soviet Secret police at that time.

  4. 4

    A Soviet poet, younger than Mandelstamm, who is still alive today.

  • Email
  • Print