“From childhood he had been devoted to whatever was useless, metamorphosing the streetcar rattle of life into events of consequence, and when he began to fall in love he tried to tell women about this, but they did not understand him, for which he revenged himself by speaking to them in a wild, bombastic birdy language and exclusively about the loftiest matters.”
Only important people, those who count, whose thoughts are stamped approvingly like sides of beef, need occupy our attention. Their aspirations are lofty and pure. They never fuss over bad skin or how they will pay the rent. Important writers always know what the next word will be before they write it. Important readers pre-order the resulting books from Amazon.
Devotees of the useless fool no one. For them, life is not a problem to be solved. They bathe but sometimes forget to comb their hair. They read almanacs and dictionaries. They consider syntax an important matter. Noise is their raw material. They shape.
“A manuscript is always a storm, worn to rags, torn by beaks.
It is the first draft of a sonata.
Scribbling is better than writing.
I do not fear seams or the yellowness of the glue.
I am a tailor, I am an idler.
I draw Marat in his stocking.
I draw martins.”
The quoted passages above come from one of my favorite twentieth-century works, “The Egyptian Stamp” (1928), collected in The Noise of Time: The Prose of Osip Mandelstam (North Point Press, 1986). It has been called a novella, a collage and an autobiographical essay. It deals with Jews living in St. Petersburg. In his notes, the translator, Clarence Brown, tells us: “The name `Marat’ is suggested by the verb marat' [scribble], three lines above.” Jean-Paul Marat was the most radical of the radicals, and died in the bathtub. Mandelstam’s narrator disapproves of Parnok, the protagonist of “The Egyptian Stamp”:
“Parnok ran, tripping along the paving blocks with the little sheep hooves of his patent leather shoes. More than anything in the world he feared to attract upon himself the displeasure of the mob.
“There are people who for some reason or other displease mobs. The mob picks them out at once, taunts them, and pulls them by the nose. Children have no special liking for them and women find them unattractive.
“Parnok was among this number.”
In “We Often Think of Lenin in the Clothespin Factory” (The Jules Verne Steam Balloon, 1987), Clarence Brown’s lifelong friend Guy Davenport sets up a verse dialogue between “Potch” (the poet’s widow, Nadezhda Mandelstam) and “Polden” (a loyal young Bolshevik). Potch says of her dead husband: “He was a poet. They took him away. / I have all of his poems off by heart.” Polden asks: “Are they published in a book?” and Notch replies: “No, never. / One of them is about the Old Cockroach [Stalin] / Seeing his face in the shine of his boots.”