Life & Culture

Osip Mandelstam: A Biography review - The poet who dared to criticise Stalin

Sympathetic grasp of artistic genius behind some of the greatest poetry of the 20th century


Osip Mandelstam:
a Biography
by Ralph Dutli
(translated by Ben Fowkes)
Verso, £25

Much has been written by and about Osip Mandelstam, arguably the greatest Russian poet since Alexander Pushkin and one of the finest writers of the 20th century.

Besides the poetry, his 1928 novella The Egyptian Stamp is a worthy heir to Gogol’s The Overcoat and Dostoevsky’s The Double, while his non-fiction essays establish him as one of the century’s finest writers on writing.

His widow Nadezhda’s own superbly written books about her husband, Hope Against Hope (1970) and Hope Abandoned (1973), did more than anything to bring the poet to the attention of the wider reading world.

Ralph Dutli, the Swiss author of this German-language biography, supplies the latest addition to an expanding corpus of Mandelstam scholarship. Dutli is concerned that “the persistent reduction of the poet’s life to a tale of martyrdom has led to a failure to recognise Mandelstam’s literary greatness”.

Mandelstam’s life story cannot be disentangled from his work. Like other great Jewish writers of the mid-20th century, such as his admirer Paul Celan, Mandelstam’s essentially lyrical voice was hijacked by the brutal times he endured.

Though famed as a founder of Acmeism, which preached clarity of language and form, Mandelstam was originally inspired by Symbolism whose “literary fury” never left him, especially in his most famous poem, the 1933 Stalin Epigram that led to his death five years later, aged 47, in the notorious Kolyma Gulag.

The blunt invective of the epigram, including the lines: “All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer, The soul-corrupter and peasant-slayer” is not typical of a poet who once claimed “comprehensible language is boring for me”, and in his later poetic credo, Octaves, placed the connection between writing and breathing at the heart of the creative endeavour.

Mandelstam did not begin by writing verse down, instead “muttering the words as he walked back and forth”.

It is telling that only when writing his later Ode to Stalin, in a desperate attempt to placate the murderous dictator who had been making inquiries to Boris Pasternak about his talent, perhaps envisaging Mandelstam as a Horace to his Augustus, did he break that rule.

Elsewhere, in a poem to Lilia Popova, one of the many women with whom Mandelstam became infatuated, belying Anna Akhmatova’s assertion that “Osip’s love for Nadia was unbelievable, unimaginable”, he wrote, "You pronounce in tender whispers Stalin’s thunderous name In a vow suffused with love and tenderness.”

Ambivalence and inconsistency permeated Mandelstam’s life and work, not least in his relationship to Judaism.

Mandelstam was not given a Jewish upbringing and felt alienated from, even hostile to his ancestral faith, converting, oddly, to Episcopalian Christianity in 1911.

“In darkness, like a cunning snake I drag myself to the foot of the Cross,” he confessed.

Mandelstam married a Jewish woman, but even Nadezhda became a Russian Orthodox convert late in life. It is thought she might have overplayed her husband’s devotion to Christianity.

In an illuminating passage, she explains that he feared the “awesome, totalitarian power of the God of the Old Testament.

For him, the doctrine of the Trinity introduced by Christianity had overcome the undivided power of the Jewish God.”

From similar pluralism, perhaps, sprang Mandelstam’s pan-European outlook on culture. Ovid, and especially Dante, fellow exiles, were central to his poetic pantheon, though one wonders whether, in Nadezhda’s Old Testament God, there was at least an unconscious hint of Stalin.

Dutli’s style is conversational rather than scholarly, but having previously translated Mandelstam’s entire oeuvre into German, his understanding of his subject is profound and his assessments informed.

More biography than literary criticism, his sympathetic grasp of Mandlestam’s artistic genius should yet be enough to encourage readers to explore some of the greatest poetry of the 20th century.

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