by Nadezhda Mandelstam, translated by Max Hayward
Atheneum, 687 pp., $13.95
Osip Mandelstam: Selected Poems
translated by Clarence Brown, translated by W.S. Merwin
Atheneum, 100 pp., $6.25
Complete Poetry of Osip Emilevich Mandelstam
translated by Burton Raffel, translated by Alla Burago, with introduction and notes by Sidney Monas
State University of New York Press, 353 pp., $15.00
Osip Mandel’shtam, Selected Poems
translated by David McDuff
Rivers Press, Cambridge, England (Distributed by Duckworth & Co.), £2.25
The words of Amos could serve as the epigraph to this book: “I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell sacrificial offerings in your solemn assemblies.” This is a book of anger, a book of despair and pain. It is also, and above all, a book of love for the man who was the best Russian poet of the twentieth century and who died in a concentration camp in 1938. Even his widow does not know the exact date of his death, and on the basis of testimony given by some who happened to survive she is able to state it only approximately. During his lifetime the poet was slighted; after his death he was reviled and silenced; and quite recently a respected Harvard professor declared him of interest “only to émigrés,” in spite of the fact that this poet shared with his people everything that fell to their lot, including the unmarked pit where he was thrown to rot, his prison camp number tag still tied to his ankle. The poet’s name is Osip Mandelstam, and the book I am speaking of is the second volume of memoirs by his widow, Nadezhda, whose name means “hope” in English—a circumstance that was played up with dubious wit in the book’s English title.
Nadezhda Mandelstam was born in 1899; now she is seventy-four, and her book tells how she lived through those years. Because her story covers the fifty-four-year history of the Soviet state, it is of historical interest. It was written by an eyewitness and victim of the most monstrous epoch of human history, but the voice of the eyewitness predominates over the cry of the victim. She tells about an epoch of terror which drove some out of their minds, transformed others into scoundrels, paralyzed still others—about an epoch that seemed endless, that lasted so long that it seems to have permanently altered the consciousness of the Russian people—who now regard the existing regime as the inevitable order of things, determined by nature itself.
In her book she tells about writers whose names are well-known in the West and those who are unknown, about the police-station atmosphere of Soviet literature. But she is primarily interested in the displacements which have occurred or, more precisely, which were produced in the consciousness of man by what happened in Russia in this seventy-four-year-old century. She also talks about those Western writers who were toadies to the new regime—all the Aragons, Nerudas, and Sartres who consciously closed their eyes in order to remain on the progressive wave in the whirlpools of Russian blood. The plot of her book is simple: she tells how she lived with her husband and how she lived afterward, without her husband, when they murdered him. But she is interested in why they murdered him, and the quest for that answer forms the book.
The late Anna Akhmatova called Nadezhda Yakovlevna Mandelstam “the most fortunate widow,” having in mind …