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Beyond Consolation

Joseph Brodsky, translated by Barry Rubin

Hope Abandoned

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

I

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 the world recognition her husband’s work had received, the dissertations, symposiums, and congresses devoted to him (all outside of Russia, never within), the crowds of young people flocking to Nadezhda Yakovlevna’s home to get a look at her and talk about her husband, to show her their own verse. For his part, Osip Mandelstam also turned out to be “the most fortunate poet,” thanks to the books written by his widow. For these books are not only a “guide” to his verse, though they are that too. But any poet, no matter how much he writes, expresses in his verse, purely physically (statistically), at most one-tenth of his life. Nine-tenths is shrouded in darkness, and if any testimony by contemporaries is left, it contains gaping voids, not to mention the differing angles of vision that distort the object. Nadezhda Mandelstam’s second book illuminates the darkness, fills in the voids, and eliminates the distortion. Consequently, something like a resurrection takes place—an act that could be considered heathen were it not a Christian being resurrected.

I don’t think any other poet has been as fortunate in his widow: Mandelstam is resurrected. But not only Mandelstam—that which killed him, outlived him, and continues to exist and gain popularity is also reincarnated. And those nine-tenths that remained or, more precisely, were left outside his poetry are resurrected too. Because of their lethalness, his widow re-creates them with the care used in dismantling a bomb. Throughout the book Mme Mandelstam is never abandoned by the fear that she will not manage to say everything in time, that she will be cut short, that she will die or be killed. This fear sounds like a refrain, but also like the ticking of a timing device. Her carefulness comes not only from fear but from love—a mixture of the two.

That mixture was the hallmark of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s life with her husband, and it stayed with her during the subsequent three decades when she dodged about the country like a hunted rabbit, hearing the bark of the police behind her and the tread of the hunters from State Security. It was her carefulness that gave rise to this unique phenomenon: the widow of a great poet turned out to be a great writer. More precisely, through his verse, by the acts of his life and by the act of his death a great poet called forth great prose. There is frightening logic in this.

When I say “a great poet” I understand full well that the American reader has every reason to distrust this statement. Moreover, if he did not have reason before, he will find it now, thanks to the profusion of heavy-handed translations. But I am not asking that what I have said be taken for granted, nor have I any intention of citing authorities (among Slavists, linguists, etc.) whose name is legion. I refer the reader to this book of memoirs itself, which in spite of the modest number of quotations creates the image of a truly great poet. Even if this book were pure fiction, invention, belles-lettres, the reader would believe in the reality of its hero, as he believes in the reality of Werther or Bloom. Unlike Werther and Bloom, who were their authors’ alter egos, Mandelstam was for his wife, as she was for him, the “thou” which the self needs for its own fulfillment. In a sense, what happens in this book is reminiscent of the creation from a rib—with the sexes reversed. Even without knowing a single line by Osip Mandelstam, the reader understands that a great poet is being discussed, because of the quantity and energy of the evil directed against him.

Mme Mandelstam’s second book (which has circulated in Russia in manuscript form, since it cannot be published there now or twenty years from now—and I will explain why later) has provoked the rage of her countrymen on both sides of the Kremlin wall. I would say this is even more true among the intelligentsia than among the “authorities.” For Mme Mandelstam puts an equals sign between the two, and the authorities are, on the one hand, flattered by this, and on the other hand, pleased to see disorder in the camp of their enemies, i.e., the intelligentsia. As far as the latter are concerned, they are unable everywhere, and all the more so in the USSR, to endure the demands of a man brought up on catechism and grief. And it is precisely those demands that the book is about. A fish starts rotting from the head, and Mme Mandelstam quite justly equates the moral decay of the Russian intelligentsia with the pernicious ignorance of the heads of government.

Her book is relentless, it breathes typical Judaic devotion to justice. What Mme Mandelstam does in its 621 pages is nothing other than hold a Day of Judgment on earth for her age and its literature—a judgment administered all the more rightfully since it was this age that had undertaken the construction of paradise on earth.

The tone of the book is distinctly Biblical not only because of its repetition reminiscent of the Prophets and because of the suffering that befell the author. Nor is it only because she proved to be, to judge from everything one knows, the only person within the territory of Russia who had not forgotten the catechism taught in grammar school. It is Biblical because, it seems to me, the twentieth century has exhausted the possibilities for salvation and come into conflict with the New Testament. The experience of this century turns man’s soul back to Luther’s idea that God is neither bad nor good, but is arbitrary. Literature of the Absurd or, more precisely, the idea of literature of the Absurd, the very idea of the Absurd, is thus nothing but a “revival” of the Old Testament, and I would call Nadezhda Mandelstam the first writer of the “post-Absurd.”

Her book is that of a new Russian literature, a new literature in general. From the dogmatism of the Middle Ages, through spiritual disarray or (if we prefer positive vocabulary) the Renaissance, through the Doubt of the Age of Enlightenment (again the inclination for oral positivism), through the Consolation (i.e., the idea of the justification of life) of nineteenth-century Russian literature, to the Absurd of the twentieth—this, schematically, is the path traversed by mankind over the last 500 years, and is moreover the path of the individual during the course of his life.

But sooner or later the individual discovers that the Absurd is not the final category of consciousness either, that even after the Absurd one has to live, eat, drink, flee from the police, betray or not betray one’s neighbor. And for this life Christ is not enough, Freud is not enough, Marx is not enough, nor is existentialism or Buddha. All of these are only means of justifying the holocaust, not of averting it. To avert it mankind has nothing except the Ten Commandments, like it or not. Mme Mandelstam’s book is roughly a commentary on this—on the “Judaeo-Christian ethic.”

This may seem a typically Russian viewpoint, a viewpoint determined by the absence of freedom, the absence of the experience of life in a “permissive” society. But I want to assure enlightened readers that Russians, like no one else, challenged the idea of freedom. First, because for any slave “freedom” is the main object of his thoughts. Secondly, because its absence must be justified. Dostoevsky is the best example. Yes, he was a champion, an apostle of Good; but you won’t find another advocate of Evil like him. And the strength of his advocacy of Good is directly dependent on completely exhausted arguments “for” Evil. Therefore one may believe the Russian viewpoint that “freedom is not an autonomous notion; that physical freedom is determined by statistics, political freedom by slavery, and religious freedom—in the framework of Christianity—by the Day of Judgment.”

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