Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam

Seamus Heaney

The first sentence of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope against Hope is one of the most memorable openings in all literature: ‘After slapping Alexei Tolstoi in the face, M. immediately returned to Moscow. From there he rang Akmatova every day, begging her to come.’ That was in 1934, and in his indispensable Mandelstam, Clarence Brown outlined the circumstances which led to this smack, whose sharp report not only unloosed the avalanche in which the poet Osip Mandelstam perished but also prepared the volcanic action which would begin thirty years later when his widow Nadezhda Mandelstam sat down to write her memoirs.

In 1932, Alexei Tolstoi had presided over a ‘comrades’ court’ set up by the Writers’ Union to hear Mandelstam’s complaint against the novelist Sargidzhan. The Mandelstams were by then in disrepute with the Soviet authorities and the novelist and his wife had been set to spy on them in their apartment building. As a result of the ensuing proximity, suspicion and hostility, Sargidzhan had finally hit Nadezhda ‘very hard’. The court found that ‘the whole affair was a survival from the bourgeois system and that both sides were equally to blame.’ A commotion then started in the court, the judges took refuge in a room, but in the end Tolstoi burst out through the crowd calling: ‘Leave me alone, leave me alone. I couldn’t do anything! We had our orders.’ Two years later Osip delivered the retaliatory smack. In Nadezhda’s words, Mandelstam thought that ‘the man ought not to have obeyed the orders. Not such orders. That’s the whole story.’

It is, of course, far from being the whole story. The slap was the outward sign of an inner grace which had returned to Mandelstam in the middle of 1930 when he made his journey to Armenia. In the course of his travels there, the sense of being right, the inner freedom without which he could not summon his poetry, was restored and his five years’ poetic silence was broken. Along with the poetry came the power not to obey orders, and almost, it would seem, as a proof to himself that the power was absolute, Mandelstam later wrote the uncharacteristically explicit and ‘political’ poem against Stalin, ‘the Kremlin mountaineer’. It was, in fact, this poem that was the real cause of Mandelstam’s first arrest a day or two after the face-slapping incident: David had faced Goliath with eight stony couplets in his sling.

The Moscow apartment was searched by the secret police, Mandelstam was taken to their headquarters in the Lubianka Prison, interrogated, and sentenced to three years of exile in Cherdyn, where, in a deranged state, he attempted suicide by throwing himself from a hospital window. Then the ‘miracle’, as Nadezhda Mandelstam calls it, happened. As a result of Stalin’s personal interest in the case, an interest kept warm by Pasternak’s subtle handling of a phone-call from the dictator himself, the sentence was commuted to exile in some town in European Russia, excluding the principal cities.

‘Suddenly M. remembered that Leonov, a biologist at Tashkent University, had said good things about Voronezh ... Leonov’s father worked there as a prison doctor. “Who knows, perhaps we shall need a prison doctor,” said M., and we decided on Voronezh.’ The light-hearted tone seems to have been characteristic. And to a man who deliberately travelled light, who consciously identified himself with the raznochintsi, those ‘upstart intellectuals’ of the 1860s, and who at this stage was imbued with Dante to the extent that he found his own practice of composing poetry by mouth and often on foot prefigured in the master – ‘the step, linked to the breathing and saturated with thought: this Dante understands as the beginning of prosody’ – to such a man, who could also wonder ‘quite seriously, how many ox-hide shoes, how many sandals Alighieri wore out in the course of his poetic work, wandering about on the goat-paths of Italy’, the prospect of exile was not altogether disabling. However, this illusory sense of well-being only arose when he had regained his mental balance: during his hallucinations on the journey from Moscow to Cherdyn, and during his confinement in the hospital there, Mandelstam lived in terror, in an unmitigated awareness that he was doomed. Once his wife and the housekeeper had to hide the clock from him, to allay his demented conviction that executioners would arrive in the ward to shoot him at exactly six o’clock.

Nadezhda’s awareness was equally unmitigated, but was sustained in the daylight of a sane consciousness, borne like a hot brand in her by now almost feral intelligence. Suddenly she became a guerrilla of the imagination, devoted to the cause of poetry, to the preservation of her husband’s achievement, and, in particular, to the preservation of his manuscripts. The words that formed part of the commuted sentence which was meant to ‘isolate’ and ‘preserve’ the poet might equally apply to the task she instinctively and religiously – the word is not too strong – undertook the moment the secret police entered their apartment. From then on, she was like a hunted priest in penal times, travelling dangerously with the altar-stone of the forbidden faith, disposing the manuscripts for safe keeping among the secret adherents. And inevitably, having consecrated herself a guardian, she was destined to become a witness.

As a consequence, the mature work of a great poet survived, and two of the most fortifying books of our times, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope against Hope and Hope Abandoned (the titles constitute fierce puns on her first name, which means ‘hope’ in Russian), were finally written in the late Sixties. In these books, we have a devastating indictment of most of what happened in post-revolutionary Russia, and, more intimately, the story of Mandelstam’s Voronezh exile, his return to Moscow in 1937, his rearrest and deportation to a labour camp: ‘My first book was Stone and my last will be stone, too.’ He died just before his 48th birthday in a transit camp near Vladivostok, having travelled the five and a half thousand miles from Moscow in a prisoner transport train. The official cause of his death was given as ‘heart failure’: Mandelstam did suffer from a heart complaint, though he may in fact have died of typhus. His widow reports the way in which she was given the news:

I was sent a notice asking me to go to the post office at Nikita Gate. Here I was handed back the parcel I had sent to M. in the camp. ‘The addressee is dead,’ the young lady behind the counter informed me. It would be easy enough to establish the date on which the parcel was returned to me – it was the same day on which the newspapers published the long list of Government awards – the first ever – to Soviet writers.

By then, the Mandelstam canon had been established, though it was not until the New York edition of his Collected Works in 1955 that anything like a complete record got into print. Before that, more than two hundred of the poems were kept alive in ‘pre-Gutenberg’ conditions. As far as the Soviet reader was concerned, Mandelstam was finished as a poet after the appearance in 1928 of the three books which marked the culmination of his public writing career: his Poems, a collection of criticism entitled On Poetry, and a volume containing ‘The Noise of Time’, his autobiographical account of childhood in St Petersburg, and the fictional title piece ‘The Egyptian Stamp’. But in Voronezh the Mandelstams compiled three notebooks of the work that came after this. Nadezhda writes:

I have often been asked about the origin of these ‘Notebooks’. This was the name we used to refer to all the poems composed between 1930 and 1937 which we copied down in Voronezh in ordinary school exercise books (we were never able to get decent paper, and even these exercise books were hard to come by). The first group constituted what is now called the ‘First Voronezh Notebook’ [new work done in exile, it would seem], and then all the verse composed between 1930 and 1934, which had been confiscated during the search of our apartment, was copied down into a second notebook ... In the fall of 1936, when some more poems had accumulated, M. asked me to get a new exercise book.

In spite of his disregard for ‘writing’ (the word was used contemptuously to describe, among other things, informers’ reports, and anyhow Mandelstam worked, not with a pen, but with his ‘moving lips’), the poet had come to realise that a manuscript was more durable than a man, and that memory could provide no permanent sanctuary for poetry. From that sanctuary, nevertheless, it emerged with poignant force. After Osip’s second arrest, for example, when Nadezhda worked the night shift in a textile factory in the town of Strunino, she kept herself awake by muttering the verses to herself: ‘I had to commit everything to memory in case all my papers were taken away from me, or the various people I had given copies to took fright and burned them in a moment of panic.’ And then there is this scene in a loft occupied by thieves, which was reported to Nadezhda by a man who had passed through the final transit camp at the same time as her husband:

Sitting with the criminals was a man with a grey stubble of beard, wearing a yellow leather coat. He was reciting verse which L. recognised. It was Mandelstam. The criminals offered him bread and the canned stuff, and he calmly helped himself and ate. Evidently he was only afraid to eat food given him by his jailers. He was listened to in complete silence and sometimes asked to repeat a poem.

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