Wednesday, March 07, 2018

`A Scene from a Grade B Thriller'

“She treated me always with the slightly irritated kindness of one charged with the care of a not terribly bright grandson. But I was what God had sent, and she seemed, in the end, grateful for small favors.”

Thanks to a tip from a reader I learned that The Russian Review published an issue in October 2002 devoted to remembrances of Nadezhda Mandelstam (1899-1980), including the late Clarence Brown’s “Memories of Nadezhda.” Readers owe Brown an unpayable debt. In 1965, he published his translation of The Prose of Osip Mandelstam (an expanded edition, The Noise of Time: Selected Prose, was published by North Point Press in 1986). Cambridge University Press brought out his Mandelstam, the first biography of the poet in any language, in 1973. 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). Elsewhere, Brown describes her as “vinegary, Brechtian, steel-hard woman of great intelligence, limitless courage, no illusions, permanent convictions and a wild sense of the absurdity of life.”

In his memoir, Brown recounts his first trip to the Soviet Union, in 1965, when he visited Nadezhda in her two-room apartment in Moscow. Her history of “serial betrayal,” Brown writes, earned her “every right to a terminal case of paranoia. That she was no more than morbidly suspicious and careful should be seen as a sign of mental health.” Mandelstam took for granted that the KGB was listening:

“She assumed that every word we exchanged over that kitchen table was heard and recorded. After a while, I myself began to sense that there was always a third partner to our conversations, though what the poor eavesdropper could possibly make of my persistent probing into the link between the meter of a line and its meaning is more than I can imagine.”

Brown offers a rare and memorable Western glimpse of Varlam Shalamov, not yet known to the English-speaking world as the author of the remarkable Kolyma Tales:

“The most imposing visitor whom I encountered across the kitchen table was Varlam
 Shalamov, a man who had spent decades in the camps and, far from weakened by the experience, had grown into a human replica of some gnarled pine weathered on a Pacific palisade. His hands played over the books and manuscripts on the table like creatures from the prehistory of man, but eager to catch up. He was there several times a week. My speaking Russian struck him as miraculous: a stone with the power of articulate speech. That there were others like me he refused to believe.”

Brown describes how he smuggled the manuscript of Mandelstam’s first memoir, still untitled, out of her apartment and the Soviet Union – “a scene from a Grade B thriller.” He gave it the title Hope Against Hope, which he named after her. Nadezhda means hope. In his brief remembrance, Jack F. Matlock Jr., who served as the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 t0 1991, captures some of Mandelstam’s defiant, hard-boiled manner:    

“We sat down and, when I resumed my chatter, she burst out in English, `Why are we speaking that language of slaves? I’d much prefer if we spoke English. One feels so much freer.’ And so we did, she in her very precise diction and marked British accent. It is hard for me to believe that she really had a hatred for the Russian language. She probably just wanted to put the KGB to the extra trouble of having to translate rather than merely transcribe the tapes of our conversation.”

1 comment:

The Sanity Inspector said...

Someone said that Kolyma Tales sounded like something Isaac Babel might have written, had he come back from the gulag.