Friday, January 15, 2021

`A Vacation from Reality'

Guy Davenport writes in a letter to Hugh Kenner on August 16, 1962: 

“Осип Мандельштам [Osip Mandelstam] the one who wrote the epigram on Stalin’s moustache in 1942 [sic] and hasn’t been seen since. Said to poetize second only to Пастернак [Pasternak] in modern Russian. The Egyptian Postage Stamp is Marc Chagall in prose: a Gogol-like hilarity from Odessa in the Old Days: idiotic customs officials, jackdaw provincial dandies, with as much flavor as Cranford or Our Mutual Friend. Mandelstamm’s [sic] only novel [sic].”


Davenport is never careless. The bracketed cautions above suggest the world’s ignorance in 1962 regarding Mandelstam’s life and work. Davenport was fortunate. Clarence Brown (1929-2015), his childhood friend in Anderson, S.C., befriended the poet’s widow, Nadezhda Mandelstam, smuggled the work of both out of the Soviet Union, and translated Osip’s poetry and prose into English. In 1965, Brown published The Prose of Osip Mandelstam (1965), which included The Egyptian Stamp. An expanded edition, The Noise of Time: The Prose of Osip Mandelstam, was published in 1986. In his introduction, Brown quotes a sentence from The Egyptian Stamp:   


“It is terrifying to think that our life is a tale without a plot or hero, made up out of desolation and glass, out of the feverish babble of constant digressions, out of the delirium of the Petersburg influenza.”


Brown comments: “This sentence occurs toward the end of The Egyptian Stamp, the single example of Mandelstam’s narrative prose and one of the few examples of surrealist fiction to be found in all of Russian literature. We might take these words as a clue to the pattern of the tale itself, which is composed in a kind of delirious key and consists of just such a feverish babble of constant digressions.”


Davenport sees Gogol (and Gaskell and Dickens), which is probably true enough. I see Sterne, that adept of “constant digressions.” Davenport sees a novel. Brown sees “narrative prose.” We’re all trying to describe a writer unlike any other. Davenport continues in his letter to Kenner:


“Clarence is  just in from Russia. ‘. . . a hallucination, the USSR . . . a vacation from reality. Their press is as absorbing as the Baptist Courier and reflects the world as faithfully.’ In Odessa he heard a Jugoslav jazz band sing a Negro spiritual, in English and in dialect. In Warsaw he saw the twist for the first time (O American professors!)”


Mandelstam was born in Warsaw on this date, January 15, in 1891. The so-called “Stalin Epigram” was written in 1933, not 1942. It led to his first arrest the following year. He was arrested again in May 1938, sentenced to five years in correction camps for “counter-revolutionary activities” three months later, and died in a transit camp near Vladivostok on December 27, 1938.


In a letter to Kenner dated November 6, 1970, Davenport writes: “One of the best books of our time is Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope (NY publisher’s title, the Russian is the laconic Memoirs). . . . My friend Clarence Brown got the MS out of Moskva, and wrote the introduction.”       


[The letters quoted above can be found in Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner (ed. Edward M. Burns, 2018).]

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