Doomed Poet: Osip Mandelstam

 Ralph Dutli, Mandelstam’s biographer and German translator, describes the poet as a sacrificial casualty: “In Russia, and all over the world, he is seen as a martyr for poetry, someone who paid with his life for his verses.  He is known, above all, as a victim of political persecution and the author of a trenchant poem exposing Stalin as the ‘corrupter of the human soul.’  His death in 1938 under appalling circumstances, in a forced labour camp, also contributed significantly to his worldwide fame.”

In Osip Mandelstam: A Biography (Verso, 424 pp, £25), Dutli also claims that Mandelstam was “a fun-loving poet . . . who loved life and had absolutely no wish to become a martyr.”  But he also presents massive  evidence that undermines this joie de vivre image.

The poet lacked material possessions, was socially isolated and lonely.  His life was a miserable, tragic and dreary nightmare, punctuated by two suicide attempts.  He was depressed, apathetic and sick, and became an old man at 42: “His teeth were decayed, he had heart trouble, he had breathing difficulties and he walked with a stick.”  The poet lamented, “I have nothing to eat.  I am severely and incurably ill, and I have been robbed of any possibility of obtaining treatment.”  This latter-day Job described himself as a beggar and invalid, a dog and a cur, a hunted animal.  Apart from what Dutli calls “a continuing lack of accommodation and crushing material poverty, political persecution, two periods of imprisonment, exile and death in a Siberian labour camp,” his life was all jollity.

Mandelstam’s character was deeply flawed.  He was “slovenly and inconsiderate  . . . a laughing stock . . . inexpressibly peculiar and foolish.”  Always demanding handouts, he was a “provocatively arrogant beggar” who never repaid his loans.  This “very difficult and bewitching human being . . . could explode like a bomb at the slightest disagreement.”  In My Half-Century (1976), his friend and fellow poet Anna Akhmatova recalled that he lived in thwarted expectation: “He constantly had to be phoning somewhere, waiting for something, hoping for something. And nothing ever worked out.”

Anna Akhmatova

Many people helped him, at considerable risk.  Isaac Babel tried to get him a job in the Ukrainian cinema.  Mandelstam’s savage lines, “The goose too dislikes a knife / Driven through its tender neck,” were influenced by Babel’s story “My First Goose” in Red Cavalry.  Nikolai Bukharin, member of the Politburo and editor of Pravda, helped him get a flat and jobs, published his work and arranged his official travel to Armenia.  Stalin respected the opinion of Boris Pasternak and phoned to ask if Mandelstam was “a master of his craft”.  Though Pasternak evaded the question, Mandelstam was spared for another four years.

Many Russian writers died tragically under Stalin.  Vladimir Mayakovsky, Sergei Yesenin and Marina Tsvetaeva killed themselves; Isaac Babel was executed.  Mandelstam’s agonizing death was even worse than these poets’ quick end.  They all yearned for high culture in a period of cultural dissolution and their tragedies were as familiar as tears.  Bent on self-sacrifice, they lacked the instinct for self preservation that would have allowed them to write more poetry.

Mandelstam repaid the kindness of friends with vicious attacks on his vulnerable artistic allies, who were also attacked by the oppressive Soviet regime.  His close friend Akhmatova — a far greater poet than he — had been condemned as “half-nun, half-whore”; her husband had been murdered and her son sent to a prison camp.  Alluding to her suffering and her upper-class background, Mandelstam mocked her as a “Stylite standing on a parquet floor.”  He condemned the work of Tsvetaeva, his lover and also a superior poet, as feminine verse and domestic needlework, and declared that her poems about Russia were tasteless and historically insincere.  Not satisfied with venting his spleen on friends, he attacked Yesenin as a peasant poet, alien presence and “self-intoxicated narcissist,” and wrote a “sweeping polemical onslaught” on Andrei Bely’s Notes of an Eccentric.  He even assaulted Anton Chekhov’s classic play, whose people yearn to escape from provincial life to Moscow: “Give the characters railway tickets, for example the ‘three sisters,’ and the piece has come to an end.”

Mandelstam met his devoted wife Nadezhda (Nadia), nine years younger and a slightly mollifying presence, on May 1, 1919 and slept with her that night.  He dictated his poems to her, which helped her memorize them when it was too dangerous to write them down, and she suffered with him during his harsh exile in Cherdyn in the Urals.  In a 1932 reenactment of Leonid Andreyev’s play He Who Gets Slapped, a neighbour and spy struck Nadia during an argument.  Two years later, the poet confronted Alexei Tolstoy, an influential writer, slapped him in the face and shouted, “I am punishing the hangman who gave the order to hit my wife.”  Tolstoy warned him, “Don’t you understand that I can destroy you?”

Despite his great love for Nadia, Mandelstam seized the poet’s prerogative and had many love affairs.  He looked like a camel and was no Don Juan, but women were attracted to the poems rather than the man.  Dutli says little about the poet’s intimate rather than poetic relations in 1920 with the girlishly slim actress Olga Arbenina.  In his poem to her that compares kisses to bees’ honey, “Their food is honeysuckle, time, and mint,” “time” is a misprint for “thyme”. When he had his affair with Tsvetaeva, she was married, had a daughter and had just ended a lesbian liaison.  Nadia generously concluded that Marina had jump-started her own affair: “I am sure that my relationship with M. would not have been formed so easily and simply if he had not previously encountered Marina with her verve and her wild passions.”

Marina Tsvetaeva in 1925

His 1925 passion for the actress Olga Vaksel, who dreamed of appearing in films, inspired love poems and was more threatening:

Angel clad in a golden fleece

Standing in a web of light,

The lamplight plays upon your face

And lights the shoulders I’ve embraced.

Nadia now had enough; she packed her suitcase and planned to run off with the painter Vladimir Tatlin.  When he arrived to sweep her away, the poet unexpectedly turned up and announced, “Nadia will stay with me.”  He threw her farewell letter into the fire and rudely severed relations with Olga.  Dutli does not explain why in 1932 Olga shot herself in Oslo, which Mandelstam in a poem about her calls “Stockholm”.

The poet’s single lines and phrases are more impressive than his poems: “the delirious dreams of mooning sheep”; “Starlight, like salt on an axe-head”; “silent like paper,” “quieter than water,” “the noiseless flight of the elevator.”  Exalting poetry, he wittily told Akhmatova, “for a novel one needs at least a term of hard labor like Dostoyevsky’s or the estate of a Tolstoy.”  When his work was suppressed he defiantly asked, “Did they publish André Chénier?  Or Sappho?  Or Jesus Christ?”  His jailors ignored his pathetic plea, “You’ve got to let me out, I wasn’t made for prison!” He bitterly pronounced, “In no country is poetry so highly regarded as in Russia; poets are killed for it.”

His themes are exile, love and death, and the fragile dignity of endangered poets in the age of obliteration.  Yet he sometimes went off the rails by proclaiming, “there was only one gift that Russia had: moral freedom, the freedom of choice.”  Many of his poems refute this: “With bare hands they take you—stubborn! Grim! / The land will ring all night with your shrieking.”  He even dared to attack Lenin and his secret police: “When October’s favourite was making us / A brutal, angry yoke, / Armoured killer-cars sprang up, / And low-browed machine-gunners.”  As dogs attacked men instead of their natural prey, the wolfhound century leapt at his throat.

Dutli does not explain the most puzzling aspect of the poet’s tragic existence: his motives for writing and even publicising the fatal “Epigram Against Stalin” that finally cost him his life.  Though the attack is not much of a poem, the suicidal bravado is impressive.  Alluding to Stalin’s origins in Georgia, he mildly calls him “the Kremlin mountaineer” and “broad-chested Ossete.”  He then sharpens his pen and provides disgusting details: “His fingers are as fat as grubs. . . . His cockroach whiskers leer.”  Even worse are the dictator’s unremitting propaganda, destruction of the kulaks, the Ukraine famine and sadistic pleasure in murder: for “The soul-corrupter and peasant-slayer . . . every killing is a treat.”  He does not mention Stalin’s pock-marked face or withered arm.

Joseph Stalin

Frightened friends asked, “What are you doing?  And why?  You are pulling the noose around your neck yourself.”  He said he hated any form of fascism and could not remain silent.  Echoing Martin Luther’s Ich kann nicht anders, he added: “I can do no other.”  He was also driven by destructive impulses.  He intentionally rushed toward his doom, signed his own death warrant and held his own funeral.  He could not avoid his inevitable fate, was ready for death and even felt he was already dead.  Finally he confessed, “I am a shadow.  I do not exist.  I’m only left with the right to die.”

His attempt to save his wretched life by composing a flattering Ode to Stalin oscillated, Dutli writes, “between exaggerated praise with elements of parody, and camouflaged abuse.”  In a blatant show of insincerity and disregard for truth, he affirmed, “I’d speak of him who shifted the world’s axis, / While for the customs of a hundred peoples caring.”  Akhmatova also desperately tried to praise the Great Leader, with no more success.

The result of Mandelstam’s pathetic manoeuvres was his NKVD file of April 1938, even more dangerous during the murderous Purge Trials.  It states that he was hostile to the Russian Revolution and policies of the Communist Party, and strongly sympathetic to Trotskyism.  He wrote an insulting and counter-revolutionary satire on Stalin.  He continued to hold anti-Soviet views and, “owing to his psychological instability he is capable of aggressive actions”.

The potential aggressor was arrested in May 1938 and sentenced to five years in a labour camp.  Considering his wretched health, this was a death sentence.  Transported across Russia in a journey that took a month, trapped with 80 other convicts in a sealed goods wagon, he reached the very worst of the high-mortality death camps in Kolyma, north of Vladivostok on the Pacific coast.  He then caught typhus, died of a heart attack on December 27 and was thrown naked into a frozen mass grave.  In 1972 the faithful Nadia managed to smuggle his papers to Paris, and sold them to the Princeton University Library.  In 1987, under Mikhail Gorbachev, the Unperson was officially rehabilitated and honoured in his homeland.

In Dutli’s flawed biography, four photo captions are ludicrously misplaced; and the index, which has no subheadings nor entry for Mandelstam, is largely useless.  The bibliography in this English translation egotistically and pointlessly includes 12 works by Dutli in German, and four pages of German and Russian editions of Mandelstam’s works.  Hundreds of distracting citations in the text, and hundreds of footnotes to German and Russian rather than English editions, pointlessly clog this pedestrian work.  The writers translated by the poet—Sir Walter Scott, Ernst Toller and Henri Barbusse—are certainly not 3rd- or 4th-rate, as Dutli suggests.  Clarence Brown’s Mandelstam (Cambridge, 1973) is better written and more perceptive.

Dutli maintains that Mandelstam has “been recognised all over the world as one of the most important poets of the twentieth century.”  But his numerous quotations do not justify this claim, and his many classical references are more decorative than profound.  In Less Than One (1986) Joseph Brodsky, another Jewish poet from Leningrad, praised Mandelstam’s “nervous, high-pitched, pure voice shot through with love, terror, memory, culture, faith—a voice trembling, perhaps, like a match burning in a high wind, yet utterly inextinguishable.”  But W. H. Auden more persuasively observed, “I don’t see why Mandelstam is considered a great poet.  The translations that I’ve seen don’t convince me of it.”  Brodsky blames the translators and angrily insists, “it makes one shudder at what has been done to his lines in English.”  But in The Government of the Tongue (1988) Seamus Heaney, taught by his friend Brodsky to admire Mandelstam, states, “I cannot believe we lose much by reading [Journey to Armenia] in Clarence Brown’s lucid and athletic English.”

Brodsky’s 1986 translation of a quatrain from Mandelstam’s major poem, “Verses on the Unknown Soldier,” is slightly better than David McDuff’s (1973).  But they are quite similar: mess/ muddle, jumble /medley, beam / ray, slanted soles / squint feet, retina / pupil, and McDuff’s earlier version certainly doesn’t make one shudder:

An Arabian mess and a muddle,

The light of speeds honed into a beam—

And with its slanted soles,

A ray balances on my retina. (Brodsky)

An Arabian jumble, medley,

the light of speeds ground down to a ray—

and on its squint feet

the ray stands in my pupil.



McDuff also translates one of Mandelstam’s saddest and most poignant quatrains:

It is transparent and dark in the great pool,

and a languorous window stands white;

but the heart—why does it so slowly,

so insistently grow heavy?

Dutli effectively concludes the book with tributes from distinguished writers, including Tsvetaeva, Ilya Ehrenburg, Vladimir Nabokov, Paul Celan and Derek Walcott, who wrote:

Frightened and starved, with divine fever,

Osip Mandelstam shook, and every

Metaphor shuddered him with ague.

But now that fever is a fire whose glow

Warms our hands.

Jeffrey Meyers has just published James Salter: Pilot, Screenwriter, Novelist.  His Parallel Lives: From Freud and Mann to Arbus and Plath will appear on July 3, 2024, both books with Louisiana State University Press.


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