Friday, February 26, 2016

`Willy-Nilly, a Classic'

“The bookcase of early childhood is a man’s companion for life.”

How I wish this were true. Who wouldn’t want to claim a prodigy’s gift, reading Dante in diapers? But I wasn’t born into that kind of house, or with that sort of gift, and in early childhood I read comic books and Mad magazine (the latter first published in the month I was born). Perhaps Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) is being fanciful, optimistic or nostalgic in Chap. 4, “The Bookcase,” in The Noise of Time (trans. Clarence Brown, p. 77, The Prose of Osip Mandelstam, 1965):

“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.”

Again, flamboyantly hopeful, but Mandelstam seems to be reclaiming a past, his own and that of all Russians Jews, or all Jews everywhere. The lower shelf of the family bookcase, he says, was “chaotic”: “This was the Judaic chaos thrown into the dust. This was the level to which my Hebrew primer, which I never mastered, quickly fell.” Mandelstam is an archeologist. On the next higher shelf, “above these Jewish ruins,” are the German volumes – more orderly, of course. Next, his mother’s Russian books – Pushkin, Lermontov, Turgenev, Dostoevsky and a lesser name, less familiar in the West: Semyon Yakovlevich Nadson (1862–1887). Mandelstam calls the Nadson volume “the key to the epoch, the book that had become positively white-hot from handling, the book that would not under any circumstances agree to die, that lay like someone alive in the narrow coffin of the 1890s.” Nadson was a Jew, and his poetry was popular to a degree unprecedented among Russian readers.

I remembered Mandelstam’s bookcase chapter – a free-standing essay, really – while reading a book by Vasily Grossman (1905-1964). The Road (trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, and Olga Mukovnikova, New York Review Books, 2010) is a collection of stories, journalism, essays and letters by the author of Life and Fate. Recurrent themes are books as refuge and their centrality to a civilized life. In a 1943 story, “The Old Teacher,” the title character is Boris Isaakovich Rosenthal: On warm days, when the old man goes outdoors, “He did not take philosophy books with him: the noise of children, and the women’s laughter and cursing, were entertainment enough.” He sits reading Chekhov. Grossman writes:

“He loved books—and books were not a barrier between him and life. His God was Life. And he learned about this God—a living, earthy, sinful God—by reading historians and philosophers, by reading the works of both greater and lesser writers. All of them, as best they could, celebrated, justified, blamed, and cursed Man on this splendid earth.”

As a reporter for the Red Star, Grossman accompanied the Soviet troops liberating the camps at Treblinka and Majdanek. In his 1944 report “The Hell of Treblinka,” Grossman depicts the anti-Rosenthals, those with contempt for books and everything civilized, among the camp guards:

“The SS and the Wachmänner did not see the newly arrived transport as being made up of living human beings, and they could not help smiling at the sight of manifestations of embarrassment, love, fear, and concern for the safety of loved ones or possessions. It amused them to see mothers straightening their children’s jackets or scolding them for running a few yards away, to see men wiping their brows with a handkerchief and then lighting a cigarette, to see young girls tidying their hair, looking in pocket mirrors, and anxiously holding down their skirts if there was a gust of wind. They thought it funny that the old men should try to squat down on their little suitcases, that some should be carrying books under their arms, that the sick should moan and groan and have scarves tied around their necks.”

In 1938, Mandelstam died in a Siberian transit camp. Grossman died of stomach cancer in 1964, sixteen years before Life and Fate was published. His great novel was photographed by Andrei Sakharov and smuggled out of the Soviet Union, where it was not published until 1988.

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