Mandelstam’s Power

Hope against Hope: A Memoir

by Nadezhda Mandelstam, translated by Max Hayward, Introduction by Clarence Brown
Atheneum, 431 pp., $10.00

Poetry is power,” Osip Mandelstam once said to Anna Akhmatova, thinking of the extraordinary destiny of the Acmeist movement to which the two had belonged. In the West this observation may hold true for the happy few, but it does not for society, or even for the cultivated public. In Russia, however, it holds true not only for an elite but for society in general. For in Russia, literature, and especially poetry, has long been a major moral force, has, indeed, possessed political “power.” Mandelstam himself is one of the most powerful Russian poets of all time, in every connotation of the word power.

At first glance his manner and career would seem to preclude any such stature. Born into a well-to-do, cultivated Jewish family of St. Petersburg, he received the most elite and cosmopolitan of educations, first at the famous Tenishev school and then at the universities of Paris, Heidelberg, and Petersburg. Highly sensitive and self-consciously learned, he first became known to the public, on the eve of 1914, as the most abstruse representative of the Poets’ Guild, as the Acmeist or neoclassical school of the great poetic revival of prewar Russia was called.

A celebrity among the avant-garde until the Twenties, he soon fell into official disfavor, and in the Thirties he was the first poet to become a victim of the purges. In his lifetime he published only three short collections of verse and several prose pieces. A good half of his work has never appeared in Russia at all. For although he was legally “rehabilitated” after Stalin’s death, his work has not been reprinted since 1928 (except for token selections); and a volume of his verse, for ten years now allegedly ready for the press, must be considered an official myth designed to convince the naïve that his work is no longer suppressed. For all practical purposes Mandelstam remains a non-person who exists only in samizdat.

Just how this blighted career should be the source of a power that called down the wrath of Stalin himself is the subject of the reminiscences of Mandelstam’s widow, which remain unpublished in Russia. From a background similar to that of her husband, Mme. Mandelstam lived with the poet for twenty years in a closeness and devotion that made of the couple almost a single person. During the thirty years since his death she has had scarcely any other purpose in life than to preserve his memory. She speaks, therefore, almost with his voice. (For this reason one would have hoped for a translation more rigorous than the present one, and especially for a title other than the awkward pun, Hope against Hope, on her first name; for in spite of Mme. Mandelstam’s extraordinary vitality, there is far more horror than hope in her account.)

Still, this memoir is not just another exposé of Stalin’s system of terror. It is also a vindication of Mandelstam’s values and a commentary on his work. It is …

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