Thursday, April 14, 2016

`This Banquet of Words'

“Our first substantial knowledge of Mandelstam’s writing was Clarence Brown’s translation of three prose pieces (The Noise of Time, Theodosia, The Egyptian Stamp) – three delightful, lapidary, bright narratives.  They seem to have been achieved by applying the severest rules of Imagism to the art of the novel. Mandelstam’s economy with words was Spartan. He envied the medieval philosophers their clarity and precision. Fragmentary and capricious as his prose seems, it has a sense of wholeness.”

So writes Guy Davenport in “The Man Without Contemporaries,” collected in The Geography of the Imagination (1981). Across a lifetime of reading, a handful of writers alter our understanding of the world in lasting ways. The critical year for me was 1973, when Brown published Mandelstam (Cambridge University Press), his biography of the poet, the first in any language. That led me to Brown’s 1965 translation of The Prose of Osip Mandelstam (an expanded edition, The Noise of Time: Selected Prose, was published by North Point Press in 1986). Soon came Selected Poems (1974), translated by Brown and W. S. Merwin, and the memoirs of the poet’s widow, Hope Against Hope (1970) and Hope Abandoned (1974). Both of the latter volumes were then being published for the first time anywhere, in the English, translations of Max Hayward.

I discovered two great writers – Mandelstam, Brown -- at the same time the world was discovering them. In aggregate, these five books erased any lingering sense of naïveté I may have had regarding the Soviet Union, socialism and other utopian schemes. Years later, after reading Davenport’s Mandelstam essay, I learned he had known Brown from childhood. Both were born in Anderson, S.C., where they attended Boys High School and worked together on the school newspaper, the Yellow Jacket. Both went on to attend Duke University. Davenport died in 2005. Now I’ve learned that Brown died last year at age eighty-six, and Princeton has posted a fine obituary. Here is Davenport again, on Mandelstam’s poems in English:

“A Mandelstam poem lives inside itself. As in Keats, Mallarmé, or Shakespeare, the words breed meaning. Again and again Professor Brown makes anguished statements about the impossibility of translating Mandelstam into English. In order to make the attempt he turned to the poet W.S. Merwin (who knows bushels of languages but not Russian) and entered into one of the happier collaborations of literary history.”

Brown is old-fashioned in his love for literature. Inevitably, in dealing with Mandelstam he must deal with politics, but his senses are roused primarily by the literary. In 1985 (the year Gorbachev was elected General Secretary by the Politburo), Brown edited The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader, a selection ranging from Tolstoy and Chekhov to Voinovich and Sokolov (and including Mandelstam). In his introduction he says provocatively and probably correctly:

“I now look back on this banquet of words with much pleasure, which I hope nothing will prevent your sharing. These writers, after all continue in our time the tradition that has made Russian, along with English and classical Greek, one of the three supreme literatures of the world.”

In his essay, Davenport praises Brown not only as an enterprising scholar but as a writer. What he writes might serve as a Brown’s epitaph:

“There is no greater success for scholarship than to recover, establish, and interpret an unknown figure. It is a recompense for a luckless life that Mandelstam is served in posterity by two masters of prose, for the critics are already noting that Nadezhda Mandelstam is a very great writer. And Clarence Brown is a prose stylist of the first rank, if so few people might constitute a rank, for what is rarer than a scholar who can write lucid, strong, and graceful prose? He has a great deal of the Mandelstamian wit and sense of the absurd; he has the unflagging curiosity to have tracked down everything trackable down; and has mercy on the Russianless reader, and always makes allowance for him.”

Years ago as a newspaper reporter I was assigned to interview the residents of a Jewish retirement home, many of them recent arrivals from the former Soviet Union. The pretext was something to do with their observance of the Jewish Holy Days in the age of glasnost and in the United States. In a large meeting room were seated fifteen or twenty men and women, several in wheelchairs. I heard overlapping conversations in Russian, Yiddish and English. I began asking questions about religious observance under the Soviets. Between their limited English and my monolingualism, the going was slow. When I was almost ready to leave, I asked if anyone read Russian literature. Almost everyone said yes and trotted out the canonical names – Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov. I asked, “How about Babel?” and I heard murmurs and sighs and observed nodding heads and smiles. “How about Mandelstam?” The din grew in volume. Old ladies squeezed my hands and several began to cry. Thanks to Brown.

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