Saturday, June 06, 2020

'Hidden Praise for the Incoercible Imagination'

“Within that embroidered prose, hidden praise for the incoercible imagination, which is freedom . . .”

Victor Serge ( Victor Lvovich Kibalchich) writes of Osip Mandelstam and his Journey to Armenia (1933), a work of lapidary prose that defies every convention of travel writing and, typically for Mandelstam, common sense. Nikolai Bukharin commissioned Mandelstam in 1930 to visit the new Soviet republic and write a glowing account of its worker’s paradise. In his introduction to Journey to Armenia (collected in The Noise of Time: The Prose of Osip Mandelstam, 1986), the translator Clarence Brown emphasizes “. . . the offending passages (principally the folkloric ending, which must be one of the most unmistakably derogatory references to Stalin published in the Soviet Union in the 1930s),” adding, “no syllable of Mandelstam’s thereafter appeared in the Soviet Union during his lifetime.”

Russian-born but stateless, Serge (1890-1947) is a baffling and intriguing character. I first encountered him in high school when I bought a remaindered copy of his 1931 novel Birth of Our Power (trans. Greeman, 1967). His political metamorphosis – anarchist, Bolshevik, anti-Stalin Left Oppositionist – mirrored that of millions, many of whom were murdered by Stalin and his goons. He was close to Trotsky. Unlike him and many of his comrades, Serge died of natural causes.  He remained a dedicated revolutionary and Marxist, though he seems to have had a conscience of sorts, a vestigial moral sense. And he could write, a rare gift among political extremists of any stripe. While in Mexico he observes: “Few people know that the so-called Soviet regime is totalitarian. And among those who are aware of this, many admire it for just this reason.”

Reading his  Notebooks 1936-1947 (NYRB Classics, 2019), translated by Greeman and Mitchell Abidor, I was surprised to learn that Serge knew Mandelstam. Writing on Sept. 10, 1944 of a meeting in Moscow in the early nineteen-thirties, Serge says:

“Osip Emilievich Mandelstam, an authentic poet, read us in private an inspired tale in Giraudoux’s style, impressions of the Caucasus mixed with allusions to freedom of the imagination, which no power can ever wipe out (no power except the censor and the political police). As he ended his reading his thin irregular face with its worried eyes, was exalted: ‘Do you think it’s publishable?’ [Mikhail] Zoshchenko raised his yellow, reticent, regular face to say: ‘It doesn’t seem so scandalous to me.’ I had the painful impression of the sneaky, roundabout rebellion of a fearful child, seeking subtle ways of saying things without seeming to.”

And this, a miniature portrait of a civilized man in an uncivilized time and place:

“One evening, at my house, he was strained and embarrassed. ‘It’s that you’re a Marxist,’ he admitted. When I showed him a volume of photos of Paris by night, the strain between us quickly evaporated before these images. 'Thanks to these photos I feel confident again . . .’” 

Only years later did we learn for certain what happened to Mandelstam after his second arrest in 1938. On March 26, 1946, Serge gives a speculative account of the events following Mandelstam reading aloud his “Stalin Ode” to a small group in Moscow. He writes:

“There was something in him of a refined, intellectualized, Russian Hérédia, Mallarmé, of Giraudoux, and Russian Symbolism. (Acmeism, from the word akme, meaning ‘supreme,’ founded in 1912 by [Nikolay] Gumilev—shot. Expressing not symbols of the real but the real in its immediate purity.) ‘Foreign to our era,’ wrote The Soviet Encyclopedia.—Certainly true. Shortly before my arrest, he read to us in a fearful and warm voice his impressions of the Caucasus, Mount Ararat, a lake, which made me think of [Giraudoux’s] Suzanne et le Pacifique.”  

The translators of Serge’s Notebooks include a fifty-six-page “Glossary of Names.” Most of the entries conclude with arrest followed by execution or suicide. Serge writes on Nov. 5, 1944:

“An enormous indifference greets the announcement of deaths. Giraudoux is dead; Max Jacob was tortured and murdered; Saint-Exupéry disappeared, no reaction, no moved or moving note, no real interest among people who know the works and the men, nothing, or almost nothing, in the press. And when something is published it’s so stupid and pitiful that it would be better not to publish anything. Obviously there are too many deaths and they can no longer be counted. Books and ideas are henceforth worth so little that there’s no need to even speak of them.”

Mandelstam died in a Siberian transit camp in December 1938, nine months after Bukharin’s show trial and execution.

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