For no particular reason, I have always tried to avoid reading Osip Mandel’stam in the past. This week I thought, that it is time to give it a try, so here we go: Journey to Armenia by Osip Mandel’stam.
The language was incredibly beautiful (no wonder, for Mandel’stam was a famous poet), also his style is quite outstanding! But now comes the downside - for the whole time I struggled to find any meaning in it. While reading, I felt like I was basically scrolling through my twitter timeline - just unconnected sentences strung together, no particular order, sequence or development to be found.
Don't get me wrong now, it was a beautiful book to read, some sentences I read 5 or 6 times, just because they were so gorgeous, but in the end, I simply don't know what to do with it.
Osip Mandelstam in the eyes of the NKVD
The people need poetry that will be their own secret
to keep them awake forever,
and bathe them in the bright-haired wave
of its breathing.
Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) was born in Warsaw to a wealthy Jewish family that was sufficiently well connected to be allowed residence in St. Petersburg and to enroll young Osip in the elite Tenishev School (in which the very aristocratic Vladimir Nabokov would matriculate a decade later). Like most Russian intellectuals Mandelstam welcomed the Revolution, but earlier than most he distrusted and then despised the Bolsheviks who purged their way to the levers of power. His friend and fellow Acmeist (an "ism" in which the Imagists could have recognized themselves), Nikolay Gumilev, was placed before a firing squad already in 1921, so Mandelstam would have been in trouble even if he didn't openly detest the new regime. His travails in the gulag and in provincial exile are well known due to his wife's, Nadezhda's, famous memoir Hope Against Hope and need not be rehearsed here.
Mandelstam and Alexander Blok are regarded by some experts as the greatest Russian poets of the 20th century. I know little about Russian poetry, and I certainly wouldn't try to choose "greatest" poets when they write in a language I do not read. But I do know that one of the greatest poets of the 20th century in the German language - the Romanian born Paul Celan - was deeply moved and influenced by Mandelstam's poems, which is more than enough recommendation for me. In fact, Celan apparently published the first book length selection of translations of Mandelstam's poetry into a European language in 1959. This book I have finally read,(*) along with English language translations of Mandelstam's poetry by a collaboration of the Mandelstam specialist, Clarence Brown, with the well known American poet, W.S. Merwin.(**)
Sevanavank monastery on an island in Sevan Lake, Armenia
In 1930 Osip Mandelstam was deep in the bouillabaisse - only Bukharin's protection held the Soviet authorities off of him, a vindictive bureaucrat was taxing him for plagiarism, and his internal sources of poetic inspiration had been dry for five years already. To put some food on his plate and to get him out of Moscow and away from his enemies, Bukharin arranged a trip to Armenia for Mandelstam and his infinitely loyal wife, Nadezhda. He was supposed to produce a text demonstrating how socialist progress had made great strides in that particular backwater.(*)
Well, he didn't write that text. Instead, he fabricated an episodic and impressionistic poem in prose, Journey to Armenia (1933), in which the ancient land of Armenia - outpost of Hellenism, first Christian state, vassal of Byzantium, occasional independent kingdom - helps Mandelstam find his place in time. Certainly, he found what he had needed, because after he wrote this text, his poetic sources flowed freely again, and he recommenced his true calling until Bukharin could protect him no longer.