Ossip Emilievich Mandelstamm was born in St. Petersburg in 1891 and died in a Soviet prison camp. He belonged to a generation of Russian writers who revolted against the unbridled mysticism, the self-dramatizing metaphysical dreams, and the conscious “decadence” of the Russian Symbolist writers. Their master was the remarkable and still under-valued poet Innokenti Annensky, the withdrawn, fastidious classical schoolmaster who taught Greek in the famous Lycée in Tsarskoe Selo. An absorbed and patient craftsman, remote from the political passions of his day, austere, aesthetic, and contemplative, Annensky was a preserver and recreator of what, for want of a better term, may be described as the classical tradition in Russian verse, which descends in a direct line from the godlike figure to whom all Russian writers pray, from whom they all stem, and against whose authority no rebellion ever succeeded—Pushkin himself. In the years before World War I these poets called themselves Acmeists and sometimes Adamists. They were a Petersburg sect, nor is it extravagant to suppose that the formal lines of that coldly beautiful city were not without influence upon their writing. Annensky’s most gifted followers, Nikolai Gumilyov, Anna Akhmatova, and Mandelstamm, founded the Guild of Poets, the very title of which conveys their conception of poetry not as a way of life and a source of revelation but as a craft, the art of placing words in lines, the creation of public objects independent of the private lives of their creators. Their verse with its exact images and firm, rigorously executed structure was equally remote from the civic poetry of the left-wing poets of the nineteenth century, the visionary, insistently personal, at times violently egotistic, art of the Symbolists, the lyrical self-intoxicated verse of the peasant-poets, and the frantic gestures of the Ego-Futurists, the Cubo-Futurists, and other self-conscious revolutionaries. Among them Mandelstamm was early acknowledged as a leader and a model. His poetry, although its scope was deliberately confined, possessed a purity and perfection of form never again attained in Russia.
There are poets who are poets only when they write poetry, whose prose could have been written by someone who had never written a line of verse, and there are poets (both good and bad) whose every expression is that of a poet, sometimes to the detriment of their work as a whole. Pushkin’s stories, histories, letters, are classical models of beautiful and lucid prose. When he is not writing poetry he is not a poet any more than Milton or Byron or Vigny or Valéry or Eliot or Auden are in their prose; unlike, that is to say, Yeats, D’Annunzio, and, for the most part, Alexander Blok. All that Mandelstamm wrote is written by a poet. His prose is a poet’s prose—this he has in common with Pasternak. This, but little else. Pasternak, his friend, contemporary, rival (as writers, they felt no great sympathy for each other) was only too acutely conscious of the history of his time, of his own place in it, of his function as a man, a genius, a spokesman, a prophet. He was, or became, a political being whatever his naivetés and aberrations. His relationship to Russia and Russian history was an agonizing problem to him—from first to last he addresses his people, testifies, and in his last years, bears the full weight of a terrible public responsibility. Only fanatics blinded by Socialist realism or a party line, inside and outside the Soviet Union, have denied this and have attacked him for being “Parnassian,” aesthetic, remote from Russian or Soviet reality and so on. This common charge is hardly worth discussing. Mandelstamm is the precise opposite. He scarcely had any personal existence outside it. He resembles his exact Western contemporaries, the imagists and the neo-classical poets; his self-imposed discipline derives ultimately from Greek and Roman, French and Italian models. If this conveys the notion of something cold and marmoreal, the impression is misleading. Concentration and intensity of experience, the combination of an exceptionally rich inner life, nourished by a vast literary culture with a clear vision of reality, as agonized and undeluded as Leopardi’s, divided him from his more subjective and self-expressive Russian contemporaries. He began of course, as they did, in the shadow of French symbolism, but emancipated himself exceedingly early. Perhaps it was a conscious opposition to everything vague and indeterminate that caused him to cut his cameos so fiercely, to lock his images so firmly, sometimes a shade too firmly, in an exact, unyielding verbal frame. This tendency toward objectivity and his intimate relation to the great classical poets of Europe made him an original and somewhat Western figure in a country educated to confessional literature, and insistence and over-insistence on the social and moral responsibility of the artist. It was this that was described as lack of contact with reality, self-estrangement from the national life and the people, for which he and his fellow Acmeists have been condemned since the early years of the revolution.
Professor Clarence Brown in the Introduction to his skillful and accurate translations of Mandelstamm’s strange but very fascinating prose pieces, tells us a good deal—although by no means everything—that is known of Mandelstamm’s life. He was born into a middle-class Jewish family, received a normal Petersburg education in the celebrated Tenishev school, went to St. Petersburg University, and traveled in Germany, Switzerland, and France. Early in life he became a passionate defender of poetry, against those who made attempts at it. Kaverin’s account (cited by Mr. Brown) of Mandelstamm’s urgent pleas to him not to become a poet, his passionate insistence upon the appalling demands and enormous, indeed absolute, rights of poetry, show him as a fanatical champion of art against the ungifted and the presumptuous.
His first collection of poems appeared in 1913 (he was for some reason not conscripted into the army) under the title Stone. He believed in sculpture, architecture, the fixed, the firm, in all that is the work of human hands according to rule and form: this enemy of flux and the undetermined, in his convictions and his practice, had clear affinities with his contemporaries, Pound, Eliot and Wyndham Lewis. The October revolution, not surprisingly, proved fatal to him. Unwilling, and indeed unable to adjust himself and adapt his talents to the new demands, he could not talk himself into collaborating with tribunes, organizers, builders of a new life. Timid, frail, affectionate, always in love, infinitely vulnerable, compared by his friends to an elegant but slightly ludicrous small bird, he was capable of astonishing acts; this shy and easily terrified man had a fund of mad heroic courage. Mr. Brown, whose thorough and scrupulous research seems to me totally reliable, corroborates the remarkable story. One evening early in the Revolution he was sitting in a café and there saw the notorious Socialist Revolutionary terrorist Blumkin (who later assassinated the German ambassador Mirbach). Blumkin, at that time an official of the Cheka, was drunkenly copying the names of men and women to be executed onto blank forms already signed by the head of the secret police. Mandelstamm suddenly threw himself at him, seized the lists, tore them to pieces before the stupefied onlookers, then ran out and disappeared. On this occasion he was saved by Trotsky’s sister. But it was not likely that such a man would survive long in deeply disturbed conditions. He knew that he was condemned to perpetual exile. His next collection is appropriately called Tristia. He was an inner émigré, an Ovid helpless before the omnipotent dictator. In 1934 he wrote an epigram in verse about Stalin (Robert Lowell has composed an incomparably more magnificent translation of it than that quoted by Mr. Brown; it is to be found elsewhere in this issue). It is a magnificent and blood-chilling poem that needs no commentary; and may well be the immediate cause of the tyrant’s rage against the poet. He was persecuted relentlessly until he died, in conditions of unutterable horror in a prison camp near Vladivostok, probably in 1938. The circumstances were such that no friend of his who has any direct knowledge of them will speak of what occurred if he can avoid it.
On successive pages Mr. Brown provides two photographs of Mandelstamm. One was taken circa 1910, the other is dated circa 1936. The first shows the childlike, naive, charming face, with dandyish, slightly pretentious sideburns of a rising young intellectual of nineteen; the other is that of a broken, tormented, dying old tramp, but he was only forty-five at the time. The contrast is literally unbearable, and tells more than the memoirs of his friends and contemporaries. The lives of Russian poets have often ended badly: Ryleyev was hanged; the Decembrist poets died in Siberia or were broken there; Pushkin and Lermontov were killed in duels; Yessenin, Mayakovsky, and Tsvetaeva committed suicide; Blok and Pasternak died in misery and official disfavor. But Mandelstamm’s fate was the most terrible of all. Indeed his whole life was haunted by the image of helpless innocent men, tormented by enemies and crushed by them. Perhaps like Pushkin, in Eugene Onegin, he had some premonition of his inevitable end.
Some of Mr. Brown’s best pages in his truly valuable introductory essay trace the parallels between the hero of Mandelstamm’s quasi-surrealist story, “The Egyptian Stamp,” with those other victims in Russian literature—Evgeny in Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman” (beautifully translated by Mr. Edmund Wilson), the absurd hero of Gogol’s “The Nose,” the victim of Dostoevsky’s The Double, and above all the minor official in Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” which Mr. Brown is the first to adduce as a source for Mandelstamm’s story. The nightmare became real and for Mandelstamm became incorporated in the figure of the Kremlin’s “mountaineer,” who slowly and remorselessly (not without some assistance from at least one writer of considerable gifts and a vindictive disposition) hounded him to death. No doubt it would be better to read these haunted stories without bearing in mind the fate of the author (as the poet himself would surely have wished one to do) but it is not easy to achieve detachment. Yet no matter how macabre the fantasies which Mandelstamm wrote in his peculiar prose, they achieve the tranquility of harmonious art—the Hellenic ideal which he inherited from Annensky and, ultimately, the early German romantics. Some of the most ironical and most civilized of his poems were composed during the darkest hours of exile and persecution. No doubt despotic regimes create “inner emigrés” who can, like stoic sages, remove themselves from the inferno of the world, and out of the very material of their exile build a tranquil world of their own. Mandelstamm paid an almost unimaginable price for the preservation of his human attributes. He welcomed the Revolution, but in the Thirties compromised less than anyone, so far as is known, with the inevitable consequences. I can think of literally no other case of a poet who resisted the enemy to a greater degree.
Mandelstamm had nothing to conceal, was filled with no inner panic, save about his health: towards the end he imagined that Stalin’s agents were bent on poisoning him. The vendetta began in 1934. The best known episode in it is a famous midnight telephone call which Pasternak received from Stalin. Several versions of this are in circulation. Mr. Brown, relying, it seems to me, on dubious authority, gives a mild and peaceful version from which Stalin emerges as an ironical but not at all malevolent despot, who behaves creditably. This tallies with the account given by Mr. Robert Payne. The story that Pasternak himself told a reliable witness in later years is somewhat different from that given by Mr. Brown. Stalin asked Pasternak whether he was present at a reading of the notorious epigram. Pasternak evaded the question and explained how important it was for him to meet Stalin for there were many problems which they must discuss. Stalin coldly repeated his question, and finally said “If I had been Mandelstamm’s friend, I should have known better how to defend him,” and laid down the receiver. With the memory (whether it was accurate or touched up by his own fantasy) Pasternak was forced to live for the rest of his life. He told it with moving candor and anguish to at least one visitor.
Mandelstamm was exiled to Voronezh but was allowed to return to Leningrad for a short while. There he quarrelled with the politically influential Alexei Tolstoy (although this may have happened earlier—our sources differ on this). This was followed by expulsion from the capital cities, re-arrest, imprisonment in Moscow, transfer to camps in the Far East, savage beatings by guards and fellow prisoners (for stealing their rations from fear that his own were poisoned), hunger, emaciation, physical and mental collapse, death. Official oblivion descended upon him. Until very recently he was still an unperson, although now there is said to be a prospect (experts differ on the degree of its likelihood) that like the once reviled Yessenin, Mandelstamm too will come fully into his own. No socialist society has (or at any rate, should have) anything to fear from unfettered powers of creation; so at least Gorki taught us, and his views carry more official weight in the Soviet Union than Plato’s. Yet today this noble classical poet is still read in clandestine manuscript versions throughout the length and breadth of his country. Perhaps like other maîtres cachés he too will be allowed to emerge into the light of day.
Professor Brown has translated the three prose works of Mandelstamm—“The Noise of Time,” “Theodosia,” and “The Egyptian Stamp,” and provided them with clearly written and highly informative critical introductions and brief notes that deal with some of the more esoteric allusions in the text. It seems to me the most illuminating commentary on Mandelstamm in English at the present moment. It is a work of impeccable scholarship, throws light on dark places (no authors require this more than the Russian writers of the first third of this century—Bely, Khlebnikov, Mayakovsky, and, especially in his early prose writings, Pasternak, with whom Mr. Brown—rightly for this purpose—classifies Mandelstamm), and the entire volume is well produced. Nevertheless, these pieces may be described as prose only in the sense in which Novalis’s novels or The Waves are prose. “The Noise of Time” is a poetic sketch for an autobiography, “Theodosia” is half reminiscence, half fiction, and “The Egyptian Stamp” is a fantasy. Mr. Brown is a learned and sensitive student of the period and its atmosphere, and seems to me to make no error of fact or perception. His renderings are always accurate, often skillful and ingenious, the result of the most devoted care and a wonderfully good ear for the nuances of Russian Kunstprosa. Yet how is it possible to translate this kind of writing? How can one convey the fantastically complex web of local, historical, literary, but above all personal references and allusions, play on words, play on names? What would a contemporary Russian reader make of Auden’s The Orators? Auden’s poetry could be conveyed to them more successfully than his prose writings of the Thirties; and this for analogous reasons seems to me to apply to Mandelstamm. Robert Lowell, in his translations that follow, seems to me to have accomplished what Pasternak did for the poets of Georgia: both transform poetry from a wholly unfamiliar language and perform the task of imaginative utterance in the persona of another as expressively and profoundly as it can be done. The similarity between the classical interests of Mr. Lowell and his original may have played its part. The result is beautiful and moving.
Mandelstamm’s prose is scarcely translatable. The verse with all its fearful complexity and the tiers of meaning packed into the miraculously chosen words is, despite everything, more capable of being reproduced in an alien medium than his wildly eccentric, although rigorously disciplined, “prose.” He intended to write in what he himself called “wild parabolas.” He succeeded more often than not and to an astonishing extent. “A manuscript is always a storm,” he wrote. But the writer keeps his head and dominates the storm. Sometimes he fails: then we have passages of brilliant virtuosity, the galloping wild horses of an exultant and disordered poetic imagination. But because Mandelstamm is a marvelous rider the wild leaps, even when they seem to vanish in mid-air, are exhilarating and never degenerate into a mere exhibition of skill or vitality. More often these pages obey a rigorous pattern; Mr. Brown seems to me right about this as against the learned Soviet scholar Berkovsky, whom he quotes in his book with justified approval. For the cascades of Mandelstamm’s glittering or tranquil images leaping out of one another, the historical, psychological, syntactical, verbal allusions, contrasts, collisions, whirling at lightning speed, dazzle the imagination and the intellect, not as an impressionist or surrealist cavalcade of haphazard violently contrasted elements, a brilliant chaos, but as a composition, as a harmonious and noble whole. Mr. Brown speaks of Mandelstamm’s “patterned selection of incongruous images.” But it seems to me that they are seldom incongruous. They are bold, violent, but fused into a disturbing, often agonized but demonstrably coherent, unity—a complex, twisted, over-civilized world (needing a sophisticated and widely read observer) in which there are no loose ends. All the strands are interwoven, often in grotesque patterns but everything echoes everything else, colors, sounds, tastes, shapes, tactile properties are related not by symbolical but literal—sensory and psychological—correspondences. It is all the product of a remorselessly ordering mind. The description of him by Russian critics as “architectural” is perfectly just.
In the center there is always a suffering hero—the martyr pursued by the mob, a descendant not only of Gogol’s and Dostoyevsky’s humble victims but (whether consciously or not) also of Büchner’s Woyzeck (and very like Berg’s Wozzeck). The suffering hero of “The Egyptian Stamp” is a Russian Jew. His prose is populated with figures and images of his Jewish environment, treated neither with condescension nor irony nor aggressive self-identification, indeed no self-consciousness of any kind. This evidently remained his natural world until the end.
Two motifs run persistently through these strange pieces: one, that of a wistful, timorous, Jewish victim of men and circumstances. Literary historians will surely one day devote chapters and perhaps volumes to this stock figure of our time and trace his evolution from his gentile ancestors, from peter Schlemihl to Hoffmann’s terrorized creatures, from Dostoyevsky to Andreyev, until we reach Mandelstamm’s Parnok, an obscure ancestor of Mr. Bellow’s Herzog. Mandelstamm identifies himself with poor Parnok and at the same time prays passionately to be delivered from his characteristics and his fate. Pasternak took a different and much solider path to salvation in Dr. Zhivago.
The other motif is that of music and composers, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and, at a different level, Tchaikovsky and Scriabin, the characteristics of whose art haunted Mandelstamm much as they did Pasternak; and are constantly used by him to describe other things. They are similes for nature, ideas, human beings: the comparison between Alexander Herzen’s stormy political rhetoric and a Beethoven sonata in “The Noise of Time” is one of the most typical and brilliant of these. The two themes come together in the marvelous description of the contrast between two Baltic seaside resorts—the German resort where Richard Strauss is played before an audience from which Jews have been excluded, and the Jewish resort full of Tchaikovsky and violins; still more, in what is, if not the best, the most directly emotional of all his lyrics, the poem about the gloomy Jewish musician Herzevich (the play on Herz and Serdtze—the Russian for heart—can scarcely be conveyed in English). It is a poignant and profoundly upsetting piece, like the single Schubert sonata which the musician practices over and over again. (M. Vladimir Weidle has written well about it.)
In “The Egyptian Stamp” the hero’s enemy—his alter ego descended from Hoffmann and Chamisso—is the stupid, brutal, handsome, insolent soldier, the miles gloriosus, who steals the hero’s shirts, persecutes him, is admired while the hero is despised, and robs the hero of what he most ardently longs for. He is the terrible Double—the Doppelgänger—of the paranoiac imagination of the early German Romantics, the Drum Major in Wozzeck, the symbol of detestable strength and success, the mocking dismissal of all forms of inner life.
“The Noise of Time” in its own euphuistic way looks back to the dying Jewish bourgeois world, the office-study of Mandelstamm’s father, the leather merchant, a succession of tutors, Jewish and Gentile, the mingling of the Petersburg liberal intelligentsia with socialist conspirators—the world from which the revolution sprang. It vividly recalls the not wholly dissimilar world of Pasternak’s youth in Moscow, although there the Jewish element is much more remote.
As for “The Egyptian Stamp,” although the fantasy derives from nineteenth-century romanticism, it has points of similarity both with the phantasmagoria of Bely’s Petersburg and the logic of Kafka’s Castle. No wonder that this book, like much imaginative Russian writing of its time, was not held propitious to the social and political policies of the Soviet State in the late Twenties and early Thirties.
The first and second Five Year Plans swept all this away. It swept away the writer too. The day will dawn, it may not be far off, when a new generation of Russians will be allowed to know what a rich and marvelous world existed in the midst of the hunger and desolation of the early years of the Soviet Republic; that it did not die a natural death, but is still crying for fulfilment, and is not therefore buried in some irrevocable past.
December 23, 1965