Sunday, January 17, 2016

`Destined to Be a Friend'

“The coming of a new book into his life was like a first encounter with someone destined to be a friend.” 

The author of this sentence, Nadezhda Mandelstam (1899-1980), writes as though she knew its effect on her reader, me. Hope Against Hope (1970) and its conjoined twin, Hope Abandoned (1974), both translated by Max Hayward, became friends, counselors, confidantes. The first volume I read in 1973, when Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin published The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam. Soon, Solzhenitsyn published his indictment of the Soviet system, and ignorance and naïveté were was no longer even thinkable excuses. The monster was irrevocably stripped of its camouflage of lies. Think how many of the last century’s most important writers wrote in the shadow of communism – the Mandelstams, Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov, Babel, Vasily Grossman, Zbigniew Herbert, Whittaker Chambers and Arthur Koestler among others. 

Born in 1891, Mandelstam, we now know, died in a transit camp near Vladivostok on Dec. 27, 1938. Nadezhda’s volumes document her life with the poet, before and after his death. The passage quoted above is from Chapter 49 of Hope Against Hope, “The Reader of One Book,” which begins like this: 

“In his youth M. always carefully weighed his words—it was only later that he tended toward levity. In 1919, when he was still very young, he once told me that there was no need at all to have a lot of books, and that it was best to read one book all one’s life. `Do you mean the Bible?’ I asked. `Why not?’ he replied.” 

Nadezhda thinks of the “splendid graybeards of the East who read the Koran throughout their lives.” She says of Osip, “I could scarcely picture my light-hearted companion as one of them.” Knowing what was soon to come in the Soviet Union, it’s poignantly difficult to think of Mandelstam as ever having been “light-hearted.” She goes on: “A real poet is always recognized immediately—by his enemies as well as by his well-wishers. It seems inevitable that a poet should arouse enmity.” 

Mandelstam refers not to poetasters masquerading as agents provocateurs, anti-bourgeois poseurs and “activists,” but the real thing, dedicated writers. The two breeds are instantly distinguishable on the page. Nadezhda writes: 

“M. never tried to commit what he read to memory, but rather to check it against his own experience, always testing it in the light of his own basic idea—the one which must underlie any real personality. It is reading of the passive type, which has always made it possible to propagate predigested ideas, to instill into the popular mind slick, commonplace notions. Reading of this kind does not stimulate thought, but has an effect similar to hypnosis—though it must be said that the modern age has even more powerful means for dominating people’s minds.” 

The manner of reading Mandelstam describes, weighing what one reads against one’s experience of life, seems commonsensical but in fact is rare almost to the point of being exotic. Her volumes, in addition to chronicling one of literature’s great love stories (many of Osip’s poems once existed only in Nadezhda’s devoted memory), are, as Clive James writes of her in Cultural Amnesia (2007), “key chapters in the new bible that the twentieth century had written for us.”

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