Some writers we adopt as members of the family. We coddle them and pay attention to their every word like doting parents. We seek out the obscure and minor works, even juvenilia. If their native tongue is not English, we read and weigh rival translations. We pay them respect and honor as we would a sibling or child. Such a pair is Osip Emilyevich Mandelstam (1891-1938), the doomed Russian poet, and his wife Nadezhda Yakovlevna Mandelstam (1899-1980), one of the last century’s great memoirists. I would read anything by or about them I could find.
Two Literary Giants: Bulgakov, Mandelstam (1993) is part of the New Russian Writing series published by Glas (as in glasnost, “openness”) in Moscow. I’ve read much of Bulgakov and never found him interesting, but the Mandelstam material redeems this thrown-together little book, more like a family scrapbook than a Festschrift. The editor, Natasha Perova, reproduces photographs of Osip’s parents, Emily and Flora, his younger brothers, Aleksandr and Evgeny, and of the poet, his wife and their friends.
Much of what we know about Mandelstam is drawn from Hope Against Hope (1970), Mozart and Salieri: An Essay on Osip Mandelstam and the Poetic Process (1973) and Hope Abandoned (1974), the memoirs written by his wife, so it’s good to finally have excerpts from pre-Nadezhda remembrances (trans. James Escomb) left by his brother Evgeny (1898-1979), a doctor. We learn that Mandelstam, when young, loved Wagner’s music, and that the family moved at least seventeen times before the February Revolution. The brothers found visits to the synagogue “unpleasant, even distressing.” We read Evgeny’s anecdotes gratefully but sadly, knowing the poet’s fate:
“We used to play charades while on holiday. I remember once Osip and I thought up and played a charade on the name `Mandelstam.’ The first part was a sweetcake made from almonds [in German, Mandel], in the second was a tree trunk [in German, Stamme], and the whole was the two Mandelstam brothers, hand in hand. We often had musical evenings at the guest-house, playing new compositions, and reading poetry, though Osip always refused to read his own work.”
Mandelstam was a student at the famous Tenishev School in St. Petersburg from 1900 to 1907. Another writer, Vladimir Nabokov, enrolled in 1911, and both studied with Vladimir Gippius, the school’s Russian literature instructor and head master. Evgeny writes:
“Literature, of course, was the most important to him. His studies quickly took him beyond the boundaries of the curriculum. This was already evident in his third-form report. In essence this was a testimonial not to his mastery of the school curriculum, but to his formation as an individual. His teacher wrote: `He has made great strides in the past year. Exceptional progress can be observed in his independence of thought and ability to express himself on paper.’”
Perova includes a selection of anecdotes written by Nadezhda Volpin (1900-1998), a poet and translator from French and English, who had a son with another doomed poet, Sergei Alexandrovich Yesenin (1895-1925). Here’s one:
“Once, after a long interval, Osip and Nadezhda came to see me. My little boy, who was two at the time, was lying on his cot. The poet leaned down over him:
“`Do you know who I am?’
“`You’re lying. What’s my name?’
“`You’re Uncle O.!’
“Mandelstam burst into a joyful laugh.
“`True! True! That’s O for Ode. That’s my hallmark. I am the Ode!’”