Book of a lifetime: Hope against Hope, By Nadezhda Mandelstam

 

In 1970, Nadezhda Mandelstam's Hope against Hope was published in English and captured the imagination of the Western world. The widow of the great poet Osip Mandelstam, she began her book with the drama of Osip's arrest in 1934, the formalities of a KGB search, and his departure for Lubianka prison where he was interrogated, and without prompting wrote his offending poems about Stalin. He was released into an exile they were allowed to share.

In the West, the evidence that Russians found poetry important enough to be dangerous was exciting. Reading Hope against Hope changed the whole course of my writing life. Nadezhda Mandelstam's seemingly artless recollections offer so much more than descriptions of unpredictable terror. It is a world in which poetry is memorable, and the ability to learn poems by heart makes them easy to transmit. Only Nadezhda's memory preserved her husband's work after his death in the Gulag.

There are vivid glimpses of Mandelstam himself, composing as he walked, and writing his poems down only later. She records his ironic amusement and absurd honesty. Around the couple is a group of friends who love his words; among them, Anna Akhmatova, a poet famous before the First World War, now also forbidden to publish and with her only son held in the camps as a hostage for good behaviour.

She was present at the time of the Moscow arrest, a living presence from the moment she gives back to Mandelstam the egg he had begged from neighbours for her supper. More influential friends, still believing Communists, notably Bukharin, took risks to help him. In his appeal to Stalin, Bukharin made sure to mention that Boris Pasternak had come to see him, upset about Mandelstam's imprisonment

In fact, Pasternak did not approve of Mandelstam's poem about Stalin, which he described to Ilya Ehrenburg as "a suicide note". Nadezhda quotes him saying that he could not imagine "how a Jew could have written it". She took some exception to this, but refuted the rumours about Pasternak's conversation with Stalin, during an unexpected phone call, insisting that his hesitation in confirming Mandelstam as a genius was not treacherous. She understood it was far from clear whether being called a genius would offer protection or increase the threat. What we remember from this magnificent book, however, is the relish he and his wife took in the years he was allowed to survive, and their love for each other.

Elaine Feinstein's 'It Goes with the Territory: memoirs of a poet' is published by Alma Books

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