Wednesday, July 05, 2017

`Scraps of Experience'

Two more books arrived on Monday and two more are on the way. Lately I’ve been stacking new arrivals on top of the bookcases, making no attempt to properly categorize them by subject or author. The arrangement offends my sense of tidiness and makes access awkward. All the spines are facing out but to reach one book means moving a dozen others. One of the new books is Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Abandoned. I read it the first time more than forty years ago, and some time in the eighties I acquired a beat-up paperback copy published in England that eventually cracked in half from over-use – a rare occasion when I threw away a book. The new copy is a fat paperback published after Mandelstam’s death in 1980. It never reads like self-regarding victimology and only incidentally is it autobiography. I read it as history and a bitter species of wisdom literature. Even in translation (by Max Hayward) the prose is tart and aphoristic. Here she is in the first chapter describing what prompted her to write another volume after Hope Against Hope:
“Without pain you cannot distinguish the creative element that builds and sustains life from its opposite—the forces of death and destruction which are for some reason very seductive, seeming at first sight to be logically plausible, and perhaps even irresistible. I feel my pain keenly now, and am going to write about myself alone, though in fact there is much more to it than that. I am really concerned less with myself than with the scraps of experience I have stored up during my life. In going over them all now I feel I may come to a better understanding of certain things. If this life was given to us, it must have a meaning, although the very idea was dismissed out of hand by everybody, young and old, who I have ever known in my lifetime.”

Of course, Mandelstam speaks of life in the Soviet Union, which killed her husband, along with many friends, and made her existence an unending hardscrabble nightmare, but even we, the fortunate few, can learn from her lessons. We can distinguish the trivial and fleeting from the essential. She condemns those for whom the “self” is “an amusing plaything, a delicious awareness of living matter, a craving for pleasure conferred on the flesh by blind evolution. Hence it follows that the most important thing in life is self-preservation: everybody looks after himself, by whatever means he pleases.” Readers familiar with Mandelstam’s first volume, and the betrayal of her husband that led to his death in a Siberian transit camp, will understand that this is not idle moralizing. And they will understand why I bought my third copy of her book after losing the first two. When Joseph Epstein attempts to explain why he retains some books and lets go of others in “Books Won’t Furnish a Room” (In a Cardboard Belt!: Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage, 2007), he writes: 

“I tried to devise principles for keeping the books I did. Usefulness and rereadability were the best I could come up with.”

[Found later in Hope Abandoned, where Mandelstam is recalling the time after learning of her husband’s death: “I schooled myself to read only books which make a great demand on you—such as grammars of ancient and modern languages, and a few books on linguistics. But I could never get through more than a few lines at a time because they would suddenly blur, and I saw instead a heap of bodies in the wadded jackets of camp prisoners.”]

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