Osip Mandelstam: A Biography by Ralph Dutli (Translated from German by Ben Fowkes); Tristia by Osip Mandelstam (Translated from Russian by Thomas de Waal) - review by Donald Rayfield

Donald Rayfield

The Poet & the Tyrant

Osip Mandelstam: A Biography


Verso 432pp £25



Arc Publications 130pp £11.99

When in 1960 I first came across Osip Mandelstam’s poetry, nobody in the USSR had enjoyed access to his work since the early 1930s and few even knew of his existence, let alone of his death, as he had predicted, in Stalin’s Gulag. His books had been removed from libraries and bookshops. Only braver readers kept them, sometimes hidden in saucepans at their dachas. From 1958, supported by the CIA, émigré scholars collected what they could from Russian publications of the writings of banned Russian authors; the works were so in demand that students like myself copied them out by hand. Impressionable readers were stunned by the hypnotic musicality of Mandelstam’s early poems, by the penetrating appreciation of the disaster that unfolded – the ‘ship of time going to the bottom’ – during the First World War and the Russian Revolution, by the fine love poems and by the use of biology to elucidate his times.

For a student of Russian literature, Mandelstam is a godsend. Every poem has memorable lines that could be quoted in many imaginable situations. Some are frivolous – ‘Eternal is the taste of fresh whipped cream,/As is the smell of orange peel’ – and others gnomic: ‘Everything has been. Everything will be repeated/And only the moment of recognition is sweet.’ Mandelstam absorbed into his poetics a whole century of Russian lyrical poetry, including Pushkin, Lermontov and Tyutchev, as well as Derzhavin, Batyushkov and Baratynsky, so that his poetry seems to be a conversation with the dead. The influence of classical Greek and Latin poets, German Romantics and French symbolists can be discerned too. Yet you also feel the presence of an acutely nervous, highly reactive personality, steeling itself to face forces that threaten him with destruction.

Ralph Dutli has spent half his life translating Mandelstam’s works into German and has combed all the accessible background material. Dutli’s biography, first published in German in 2003, is thorough and fair. With his translation, Ben Fowkes makes it read as if it was written originally in English. It is likely to become the standard reference work for the English reader. Mandelstam himself shunned biography, declaring, ‘The only biography of a writer is a list of the books they have read’. Dutli ignores Mandelstam’s dictum. The people Mandelstam met and, above all, his contretemps with Stalin dominate over his responses to other writers, living and dead.

Dutli is particularly enlightening on the beginning and the end of the poet’s life. Mandelstam was born in Warsaw in 1891 to a Polish-Lithuanian Jewish businessman and a Russophile mother with intellectual aspirations. Like Paul Celan (a Jew from Chernovtsy, now in Ukraine but formerly in Austria, Poland and Romania), he could have written in Yiddish, Polish, Lithuanian or even German. He opted, however, for Russian: the 1900s was a period when, despite widespread anti-Semitism, Jewish writers in the Russian Empire were deserting Yiddish for Russian. Mandelstam received a very European education from the superb teachers at the Tenishev School, where Vladimir Nabokov a decade later also acquired a multilingual and thoroughly cosmopolitan education. By 1910, still a teenager, Mandelstam, urged on by his mother, had shown his juvenilia to the influential editor of a St Petersburg arts magazine, Apollon, and won a circle of admirers, although they were sometimes patronising about Mandelstam’s mannerisms, emotional outbursts and childlike unworldliness. His closest friendship was with a married couple, the poets Nikolai Gumilyov and Anna Akhmatova, with whom he continued all his life to have real or imaginary conversations (even after Gumilyov’s execution in 1921).

During the early 1910s, Mandelstam became an important figure in the Acemist school of poetry, which counted Gumilyov as one of its leading lights. Acemism, Mandelstam said, was characterised by ‘a yearning for world culture’. The Acemists sought to transcend symbolism, taking an almost sculptural view of poetry as something to be carved from ‘hard’ linguistic material. Mandelstam’s first book was called Stone. Works by his fellow Acmeist poets had similarly mineral titles – Gumilyov’s Pearls, Anna Akhmatova’s Beads, Mikhail Zenkevich’s Wild Porphyry. In 1911, Mandelstam had himself baptised in order to register at the University of St Petersburg, but his family’s bankruptcy forced him to go abroad on a study tour of France.

When the First World War broke out, Mandelstam showed hitherto unsuspected maturity, turning away from the war. When revolution followed, he saw it as a historically predetermined disaster. Like several other poets, he moved to the Crimea to avoid starvation. Here he met his future wife, Nadezhda, a practical and proactive partner, in traditional terms more a husband to the poet than a wife (in their letters they sometimes reversed their genders). Mandelstam then spent a year in Georgia, returning to the USSR in 1920. In the wake of the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, he felt compelled to settle in Moscow. There, he and Nadezhda lived hand-to-mouth, sometimes in ‘grace-and-favour’ flats, sometimes homeless, despite the success of his second book, Tristia, lauded even by Bolshevik critics, who demanded proletarian, not neoclassical, art.

For several years from 1925, Mandelstam abandoned poetry for prose and translation. However, the suicide of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky in 1930 seemed to awaken in Mandelstam, as it did in Pasternak, the sense that in the USSR poetic silence was futile and doom inevitable. Mandelstam’s poetry, its ideology challenging Stalinism, was now dangerous. Mandelstam had been under the protection of the ‘darling of the party’, the liberal Nikolai Bukharin, but once Stalin began to eliminate those around him, their protégés were doomed. Mandelstam had already publicly protested at the execution of harmless old bank clerks, but in 1934 he made a suicidally reckless move, reciting a lampoon of Stalin, in which the dictator appeared as a demi-god surrounded by semi-human, fairy-tale creatures, at several gatherings in Moscow. Initially, the tyrant was merciful: Mandelstam was allowed to live in Voronezh, five hundred kilometres south of Moscow, for three years. Eventually, however, he was swept away in the feeding frenzy of the Great Terror. He was arrested by the NKVD in May 1938 and died in a transit camp in Russia’s Far East that December.


The power and density of the unpublishable poetry he wrote in Voronezh, which only saw the light of day in the 1970s, established him as an immortal. The Voronezh Notebooks, as this work is now called, survived thanks to the efforts of the poet’s courageous widow and a number of foreign and Russian scholars. It was recognisably the product of the same mind, but the writing was now half-encrypted and sometimes difficult to comprehend because of the invocation of modern science. The Mandelstam transformed by exile was to many an alien. Only when Nadezhda smuggled out her memoirs did we get an insight into what had inspired the late poems.

Dutli could have explored more deeply Mandelstam’s Judaism. Although it was for the baptised Russian poet a deplorable source of anxiety and seclusion, it gave him examples of heroism, from biblical episodes to the 15th-century expulsions from Spain and Portugal. As for the poet’s end, Dutli sifts the probable truth from the vague memories of his fellow prisoners in the camp where he died. But Dutli fails to convey Mandelstam’s strange twinship with his nemesis, Stalin, with whom he shared a first name (variants of Joseph). Phonetic coincidence was always meaningful to Mandelstam. One poem could be about either him or Stalin:

A peacock, when he was a boy, would come to play.
They gave him Indian rainbows as a meal,
His milk was poured from rosy-coloured clay,
They didn’t stint the cochineal.
A knot of bones is built up from the pile;
The knees, the hands and shoulders humanised,
He smiles his vast extended smile
And thinks in bone and senses with his forehead
And tries to recollect his human guise.

Mandelstam and Stalin shared an interest in Lamarckism. Stalin was taken with Lamarck’s theory that acquired characteristics could be passed on, a notion that appeared to back up his belief that Homo sapiens would evolve into Homo sovieticus. Mandelstam appreciated Lamarck’s idea that after reaching its peak with Mozart, evolution could go into reverse:

Perhaps before my lips the whispering was born,
In treelessness the wind was blowing leaves,
And those to whom our life work is bequeathed
Have long ago acquired their final form.

For a Western reader with no experience of totalitarianism, perhaps the best parallels to Mandelstam and Stalin’s relationship lie in the distant past. If we read Sir Walter Raleigh’s poems written in the 1610s in the Tower of London, while King James I of England was deliberating whether to put his death sentence into effect, we get a feeling for the situation in which Mandelstam found himself.

Biographers need to attend to the books their subjects read and the music they listened to as well as the places they visited and the persons they loved or hated. The biographer of a poet who wrote in a different language faces another, almost insuperable, difficulty: to provide English versions of the poetry that speak to the reader. Dutli himself has translated every one of Mandelstam’s poems into German. Fowkes occasionally translates Dutli’s German versions into English, but more often makes use of existing English translations of Mandelstam’s poems – some good, like Bernard Meares’s, others less so.

What we have lacked until now is a Mandelstam collection in English where every poem is not only a good translation but also a poem in its own right. Thomas de Waal’s edition of Tristia, with its parallel Russian and English texts, is the first fully successful translation of a whole collection. Tristia’s title is borrowed from Ovid, who was exiled by Emperor Augustus to the Black Sea coast, as Mandelstam was by the civil war. The whole book is imbued with the rhythms of Ovid and Catullus. Its underlying theme is lamentation for a lost world and fear of a new era. Although de Waal warns the reader that Mandelstam can be obscure, his poetry is better described as multilayered and saturated with allusions and meanings, which can be unpacked through repeated readings. De Waal reproduces Mandelstam’s metre and rhythms brilliantly and copes with the near-impossibility of re-creating the richness of Russian in English, where rhymes are too predictable and risk sounding clichéd.

Dutli and de Waal have taken large steps towards enhancing Mandelstam’s reputation among readers in Europe and America. In Russia, he remains a cult figure for a minority: the country today has no time for a poet of Jewish origin and a cosmopolitan outlook. He himself prophetically doubted that there would ever be a Mandelstam Street in Russia – ‘the devil of a name sounds crooked, not straight’. Voronezh, the town where he spent his exile in the 1930s, considered renaming a street after him but decided against it. The world’s only Mandelstam Street is on the campus of Warsaw University.

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