“Mandelstam’s poems are splendid. They are the very essence of poetry. Perhaps even a little too much so. Sometimes I think that the poetry of the twentieth century, for all its brilliance, has less of the universal humanity and passion that imbues the great poetry of the nineteenth century.”
Vasily Grossman was in Armenia for sad but understandable reasons. In October 1960 he had submitted the manuscript of his masterpiece, Life and Fate, to a Soviet literary journal. Four months later, KGB agents confiscated the typescript, carbon papers and even his typewriter ribbons. For the rest of his life – he died in 1964, having never seen his novel in print – he would say his book, not he, had been “arrested.”
Later in 1961, Grossman was commissioned to revise a literal translation of a 1,400-page Armenian war novel by Hrachya Kochar. He needed the money, took the job and spent two months in Armenia in 1961-62. In the introduction to An Armenian Sketchbook (trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, New York Review Books, 2013), Robert Chandler and Yuri Bit-Yunan suggest that giving Grossman the job may have been an attempt by Soviet officials “to buy [him] off, to compensate him—at least in financial terms—for the non-publication of Life and Fate.” He was already sick with the cancer that would kill him in two years. In Yerevan, the Armenian capital, Grossman’s sense of humor remains intact:
“After a while, I got used to being ignored. But there were still moments when I felt disheartened. I spent the whole of New Year’s Day in my hotel room—I would have been glad to receive a phone call even from a dog.”
Grossman asks Kochar, called “Martirosyan” in the book, what he knew about Mandelstam’s visit to Armenia in 1930. Kochar says he doesn’t remember him. “At my request, he phoned several poets from the older generation—none of them knew that Mandelstam had ever been in Armenia. Nor had they read his Armenian poems.”
In 1927, a Soviet publishing house had hired Mandelstam to revise and edit a Russian translation of a book by the Belgian novelist Charles de Coster. It was published the following year. The poet was accused of stealing credit after he was mistakenly identified on the title page as sole translator, not as editor. The press mounted a campaign against Mandelstam, who denied the charges, which further enflamed the attacks on him. He feared being banned from publishing. The campaign, increasingly infused with anti-Semitism, dragged on for more than a year.
Nikolai Bukharin interceded and had Mandelstam and his wife Nadezhda sent to Armenia, a semi-autonomous appendage of the Soviet Union, as journalists. She writes in Hope Against Hope (trans. Max Hayward, 1970): “M. owed [Bukharin] all the pleasant things in his life. His 1928 volume of poetry would never have come out without the active intervention of Bukharin. The journey to Armenia, our apartment and ration cards, contracts for future volumes – all this was arranged by Bukharin.” After a show trial, Bukharin was executed in 1938, nine months before Mandelstam died in a Siberian transit camp.
Mandelstam was to visit the new Soviet republic and write a glowing account of its worker’s paradise. Instead, in 1933 he published a sui generis travelogue, Journey to Armenia (trans. Clarence Brown, The Noise of Time: The Prose of Osip Mandelstam, 1986). In the introduction to his translation of Journey to Armenia, 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.”
Grossman doesn’t reveal how much of this backstory he knew. He writes: “[T]here is an enchanting music in Mandelstam’s poems, and some are among the finest poems written in Russian since the death of Blok [in 1921]. . . . And although Mandelstam was unable to shoulder the entire great burden of the Russian poetic tradition, he is still a genuine and wonderful poet. There is an abyss between him and those who only pretend to write poetry.” Grossman concludes that section of his Armenia book with typically oblique irony:
“And my acquaintances in Yerevan did not remember Mandelstam’s visit to Armenia. Yes, I was beginning to get the picture.”
Though separated by three decades, Grossman’s case uncannily echoes Mandelstam’s. Both men were hired to revise the translations of others. Both fled the Soviet Union for Armenia. Both wrote idiosyncratic travel books. Both were Jews.