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Literary survival, however, was harder: the editor who published the Journey to Armenia was lucky to lose merely his job. Mandelshtam had enormous difficulty finding the meanest housing, was provoked by attacks and accusations into leaving the newly formed Union of Writers and was barred from publication. Then with suicidal spirit he composed a lampoon on Stalin – a talent for satirical verse had made him a successful children’s versifier – and no one could save him. Stalin, who had himself been a Romantic poet in Georgia as an adolescent, took a close and deadly interest in Russian poetry: he would have been unlikely to forgive Mandelshtam’s allusiveness, and the lines on ‘His fat fingers slimy as worms’, for all the acknowledgement of his power (‘He forges his decrees like horse-shoes’), were an eventual death warrant.

The intervention of Pasternak and Bukharin reprieved Mandelshtam. He was sent to a remote town in the Urals and after a suicide attempt was allowed to choose the steppe town of Voronezh for three years’ exile. But his mental and physical health was broken and after the first wave of purges began in 1934 it was clear that this first arrest was only the prelude to a second and final blow.

For thirty years it was assumed that Mandelshtam had been destroyed as a poet: it was natural that, like almost everyone else, he should be silenced by fear if not by depression. Only after 1961, when his widow and the others who had stood by him – Akhmatova and Natasha Shtempel – released the manuscripts they had preserved in pillowcases and saucepans or reconstructed from memory and scraps of paper, did it become clear that there was a posthumous Mandelshtam, at first barely compatible with the known poet, to be disinterred from Voronezh. Slowly the poems have emerged in the Soviet Union, in Literary Georgia or Questions of Linguistics, and quickly they amassed in the West. Despite the loss of Mandelshtam’s original manuscripts, the theft and destruction of much of his archive by self-appointed trustees or the NKVD, enough friends committed them to paper or memory for us to be sure that the versions now in print are as good as originals. (Many are variants, but as the notebooks were not fully prepared for publication we cannot always say whether one version of a poem supersedes another.) The Voronezh poems amount to a quarter of Mandelshtam’s work and are arguably his finest. It has taken time for those who love the measured sonority of the early work to come to terms with the sometimes harsh, nervous and very dense language of the later work, and for the continuity between the two to become apparent.

What are now known as the Voronezh notebooks are 189 pages spanning three years: they represent three intense spurts spaced by long months of almost total silence: twenty-three poems date from spring and summer 1935; the second notebook’s fifty poems come from nine weeks of the winter of 1936/7, while the last notebook holds about two dozen poems from spring 1937. The poems are precisely dated and show some thematic grouping: the first volume of Nadezhda Yakovlevna’s memoirs, Hope Against Hope, should be read for the evidence of their authenticity and their origin.

The first notebook has to cope with a new landscape – the forests of the Urals and the black earth of the steppe so alien to Mandelshtam’s urban or Hellenic scenery. Drawing on the phrase of Voronezh’s famous nineteenth-century pseudo-folk poet Koltsov – ‘step-mother steppe’ (a pun in English, not in Russian) – Mandelshtam makes literal his own image of poetry as a plough digging up time, (‘it ploughs the ear with a chilly, morning clarinet’) and arrives at a surrogate of the musicality he needs in his surroundings: ‘a mildewed flute’. That sense of a ruined instrument stays with his Voronezh poetry, culminating in the ‘Greek flute’ that slips from the poet’s hands and lips in 1937. Far from the sea that moulded St Petersburg and the Crimea, Mandelshtam feels his new element, the black earth, to be fit only for the burial of ‘This charred, bony flesh’.

A little work for radio in 1935, a sanatorium stay in Tambov, a visit by Anna Akhmatova, support from Pasternak and from Natasha Shtempel (who risked her own and her family’s lives to befriend the Mandelshtams) enabled the poet, despite the new wave of purges sweeping the country, to gather his strength for the extraordinarily productive few months of the second and third Voronezh notebooks, in which all his interests, imagery and linguistic resources combined. Modern physics and Christianity he had already discovered to be linked in the work of Pavel Florensky, priest and mathematician, who proved that Dante’s cosmology could only be reconciled with Einstein’s theory of relativity: this stimulates Mandelshtam to new syntheses. Writing his Conversation about Dante, he treats himself as an explorer of hell, and he learns to face Christian demonology in the steppes. His lines, ‘What can we do with the murderous plains?/… And is not he who makes us shriek in our sleep/Slowly crawling across them – /The space for Judases not yet born?’, sound the same apocalyptic alarm as Yeats’ ‘rough beast… slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.’

Like every interpreter of the apocalypse, Mandelshtam begins to detect ominous parallels. His verse had always invested much of its power in rhyme, in the significance of assonance. In the poems of the second Voronezh notebook, coincidences of sound between opposites take on extraordinary meaning. The whispering ‘cat language’ – k, p, t, ch – of Armenian is combined with rich earthy sounds – or, ar; traditional Russian puns, such as the rhyme of guby, lips, with gubit’, to destroy, are enlarged. Words such as os’, axis, become crucial, since they link the poet (Osip) with his persecutor, Josef Stalin, and negative images such as wasps (osy). The weft is so elaborate that Mandelshtam now begins to defy translation.

A full understanding of this poetry is perhaps unattainable, even with the help of Nadezhda’s memoirs, so varied and often private are the sources and references: Voronezh’s art gallery, chance remarks by visitors as well as new reading merge with Mandelshtam’s rekindled sense of his own Jewishness: ‘I am plunged into a lion’s den…/Under the leavening shower of these sounds:/… more potent than the Pentateuch.’ Only in 1987, for instance, were Natasha Shtempel’s memoirs published and the dedicatory import of many poems, such as ‘With her delightful uneven way of walking’, confirmed.

One clear development links the fate of the cosmos, the starry firmament, to that of the human skull, both vaults, repositories of truth now vulnerable to extinction. Poem after poem connects the movement of the human face, e.g. The birth of a smile, with the creation of order out of chaos, ‘A rainbow ties them both together,/ A glimmer of Atlantis strikes both eyes’, so that imagery of doom latent in the tender infant’s cartilage and the lost city of Atlantis coexist with the affirmation of creation. Mandelshtam, at his serenest, achieves a Lamarckian acceptance that the ‘escalator’ of evolution has to go into reverse. Just as women’s role is to mourn men, so the male poet’s role is to mourn the universe: poetry remains for him what it always was – elegy. ‘And I have accompanied the rapture of the universe/As muted organ pipes/Accompany a woman’s voice.’

Serenity did not silence protest: by the end of February 1937, Mandelshtam’s longest and most devious poem was finished: Verses on the unknown soldier. The title clearly destined it for publication: the naive could read it as a lament for the victims of the First World War, as today the Soviet editors introduce it as a prophecy of the Second. It is only too obviously a lament for the still unsung victims of the purges, and ends with a cry of fear. But the most frightening aspect of the poem is its incorporation of modern quantum physics and astronomy (a subject on which Mandelshtam’s namesake was then lecturing in Moscow University) and the anticipation of ideas yet to be born: the universe seen as a ‘black oyster’ in which starlight, once the source and image-bearer of ineradicable truths, is to be swallowed up. The starry vault whose image the human skull reflects is about to collapse. In this sense Stalin is a Copernicus capable of destroying cosmic harmony.