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Clarence Brown

Clarence Brown is a professor of comparative literature at Princeton and the author of a twice-weekly column in the Times of Trenton. His edition of Osip Mandelstam’s prose, The Noise of Time, has recently been reissued by Viking Penguin.

Sycophant-in-Chief

Clarence Brown, 12 December 1996

In 1966, the year I made the acquaintance of Ilya Ehrenburg, these words appeared in the Daily Mirror: ‘His name is always mud – some-where or other. He is Ilya Ehrenburg, the renowned Soviet writer, who has shouldered the lifelong burden of always being blamed by somebody, somewhere, for something.’ Joshua Rubenstein shows flair in taking this as the epigraph for his book, and so acknowledging the magnitude of his task.’

Icicles by Cynthia

Clarence Brown, 21 March 1996

That Plato was by nature a short-story writer, not a novelist, seems clear. Walt Whitman was a novelist, Chopin a writer of short stories. Michelangelo was a novelist, Picasso a writer of short stories. Whatever the medium, most artists would seem to favour a breathing period that is either long or short. Chekhov, Borges, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver were short-story writers. Dostoevsky, Faulkner and (horrified as he would be to find himself with this lot) Vladimir Nabokov were novelists. It your destiny lies in one form, the other is seldom hospitable. O’Connor’s short fiction was the inspired work of one born to the genre; her novels seem grimly willed achievements, determined to last 300 pages or die trying. The short story is notoriously even more unforgiving of those whose ambition cannot abandon its vaster longings. Take the muse of the short story out for an evening only if you are willing to rivet your concentration on her every velleity; she will repay the roving eye with instant annihilation.

As for the Brioches

Clarence Brown, 2 November 1995

The troopship carrying me and several thoes and other soldiers across the wintry North Atlantic in 1952 was named the General Floyd W. Cagebottom or something, and the 11-day nightmare aboard it has always salved my bad conscience for heading to Europe rather than Korea, the destination for the overwhelming majority of my fellow basic trainees. I was on the bottom canvas bunk in a tier of four. My three spatial superiors were as seasick as I was, but it was I who had to endure the splash of vomitus on the deck beside my face. The latrine was clogged and awash in urine and various forms of buoyant egesta. The Coca Cola and graham crackers on which I subsisted kept me from losing more than the twenty pounds or so I got shot of on the way to Bremerhaven.

Every Slightest Pebble

Clarence Brown, 25 May 1995

In the late Fifties, in the dusty warren of a Manhattan apartment, the composer Artur Sergeevich Lourié answered my questions about his friend Osip Mandelstam, whom he plausibly deemed to have been by that time irretrievably forgotten. I had turned up at his door out of the blue, led there by an article he had published in an émigré journal. He could not decide which was the more astonishing: intricate questions about a vanished poet, or the questioner himself, a young American speaking army-taught Russian: ‘Someone,’ he said, seeing me off, ‘should write about you.’

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