Wednesday, May 03, 2017

`Most Miserable of Ages'

“Our first substantial knowledge of Mandelstam’s writing was Clarence Brown’s translation [in 1965] 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.”

This comes from my first substantial knowledge of Guy Davenport’s writing, I think. Perhaps I had encountered him earlier, but he published “The Man without Contemporaries” in the Summer 1974 issue of The Hudson Review, and I know I read it then. In the previous year or so I had read the books he considers -- Hope Abandoned by Nadezhda Mandelstam, Mandelstam by Clarence Brown, and Mandelstam’s Selected Poems translated by Brown and W. S. Merwin. This convergence – Mandelstams/Brown/Davenport – amounted to an ongoing literary revelation. Davenport became a brand name for literary excellence. I kept an eye out for him and for Brown, born in Anderson, S.C., like his childhood friend, Davenport.

I was discovering the Mandelstams with the rest of the English-speaking and much of the Russian-speaking world. All of this came back to me when I remembered that Mandelstam was arrested for the second and final time, for “counter-revolutionary activities,” on this date, May 3, in 1938. He died in a Siberian transit camp almost eight months later, on Dec. 27. In his essay, collected in The Geography of the Imagination (North Point Press, 1981), Davenport writes:

“The remainder of the twentieth century (most miserable of ages since the Barbarians poured into Rome) might profitably be spent putting together the human achievements which tyranny has kept behind walls.”


The Sanity Inspector said...

In his collection Kolyma Stories, Varlam Shalamov includes a fictional account of Mandelstam's death.

M Alfonso said...

Thanks again. The Mandelstams are heavily in my thoughts now as is Brodsky and Akhmatova. I owe their presence in my life to your blog. In my journals you are knighted as Sir Patrick for when in retirement I embraced poetry again t was at yr feet and David Meyers and Stephen Pentz both of whom I learned abt from this blog. The enrichment keeps me in your debt so I continue to pray and ponder about the jewels I find here.