Thursday, August 14, 2014

`Willy-Nilly, a Classic'

“My desire is to speak not about myself but to track down the age, the noise, and the germination of time. My memory is inimical to all that is personal. If it depended on me, I should only make a wry face in remembering the past.” 

If only every memoirist were to agree. How often have you heard someone begin a story by saying, “I could write a book…,” and you end up giving thanks that they couldn’t? The self tells each of us we are important, regardless of our writing gifts. It also tells us that others are insufficiently aware of this fact. The results, in a spectrum spanning asinine to sublime, include: Twitter, initials carved in a tree, À la recherche du temps perdu. The passage above grows in plangency when we know the author is Osip Mandelstam, writing in “The Noise of Time” (1923), collected in The Noise of Time: The Prose of Osip Mandelstam (1965). As writer and man, his strategy is always oblique. The poet most reveals himself when writing of others. As readers, we must be attuned not to events but sensibility, nuances of awareness. Guy Davenport, another grudging self-chronicler, who once told an interviewer “I have no life,” claimed Mandelstam as an important influence on his work and described “The Noise of Time” and the other prose pieces as “delightful, lapidary, bright narratives.” The Mandelstam passage continues: 

“I was never able to understand the Tolstoys and Aksakovs, all those grandson Bagrovs, enamored of family archives with their epic domestic memoirs. I repeat—my memory is not loving but inimical, and it labors not to reproduce but to distance the past. A raznochinets needs no memory--it is enough for him to tell of the books he has read, and his biography is done.” 

Some glossing: Tolstoy and Sergey Timofeyevich Aksakov wrote multi-volume chronicles of their lives and the lives of their families. One of Aksakov’s, published in 1858, is titled Childhood Years of Bagrov Grandson (translated as Years of Childhood). In his notes, Brown translates raznochinets as “an intellectual associated with none of the principal social classes, such as the nobility, priesthood, merchants, etc.” Literally, it means “people of different ranks” and was used snobbishly by the educated elite. As a Jew in Russia, Mandelstam adopts the title with ironic pride. He sees himself as a trans-national inheritor of Western Civilization, not a provincial subject of the Russian Empire, Tsarist or Soviet. In an earlier chapter in The Noise of Time, “The Bookcase,” he writes: 

“The bookcase of early childhood is a man’s companion for life. The arrangement of its shelves, the choice of books, the colors of the spines are for him the color, height, and arrangement of world literature itself. And as for books which were not included in that first bookcase – they were never to force their way into the universe of world literature. Every book in the first bookcase is, willy-nilly, a classic, and not one of them can ever be expelled.” 

Note: “world literature.” Mandelstam knew his peers to be Ovid, Dante, Villon and Shakespeare, not Aksakov, not even Tolstoy. In “The Man Without Contemporaries” (The Geography of Imagination, 1981), Davenport writes: 

“A page of Mandelstam’s prose is a kind of algebra of ironies over which the same hand has drawn comic furniture and objects with a life of their own à la Chagall. The Noise of Time is a spiritual inventory of the mode of life swept away by the Revolution – men condemned to stations on the moon might write such books about life on earth: a book that would teach us that the usual and the routine look like miracles once you have lost them forever.”

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