Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The Noise of Time is a poet’s autobiography. Osip Mandelstam, working in the Russian genre of childhood reminiscence, attempts a completely new transformation of the form. Jane Gary Harris describes it in her introduction to Mandelstam’s The Complete Critical Prose and Letters (1979): “The Noise of Time is structured around fragments or vignettes involving recurrent poetic images and a density of references and associations unified by the autobiographical impulse and ordered ‘according to their spatial extension.’” The genre provides an unconfining frame for the fragments, images, and associations arranged like stanzas in a poem, their juxtaposition more important to the effect than chronology or causation. The internal connection of the fragments achieves Mandelstam’s interpretation of his age, his ideas about the role of the poet, the nature of the word, and his view of art. Prince Mirsky speaks of the “daring, depth, and truth” of the work’s “historical intuition.”

The work is divided into fourteen such fragments, each seemingly complete in itself. “Music in Pavlovsk,” the first, presents in sensuous detail memories of a summer concert in the mid-1890’s at the railroad station restaurant in Pavlovsk, a popular retreat from St. Petersburg, but the year-round home for the Mandelstam family in those years. Detail about Pavlovsk at that time of every kind—architectural, literary, musical, human, social, economic—saturates the three and a half pages. The description catches the moment with a fullness that combines the fresh responses of a child with the attention and understanding of the adult, letting the reader experience the way it was then for a small boy but with the irony born of hindsight.

Part 2, “Childish Imperialism,” reproduces the emotional effect on the child of the militaristic images of St. Petersburg—the equestrian statues, the horse and marine guards, the navy ships, the great barracks, the Field of Mars, the “funeral pomps of some general,” the military bands, the stately progress of the czar and his family through the streets. Mandelstam says that the “very architecture of the city inspired me with a kind of childish imperialism” and in a last paragraph distinguishes all that glitter from the middle-class Jewish family life of which he is a part.

“Riots and French Governesses,” part 3, describes first the student riots, well controlled but nevertheless an early sign of the coming revolution. This...

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The Noise of Time Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Brown, Clarence. Introduction to The Prose of Osip Mandelstam, 1965.

Brown, Clarence. Mandelstam, 1973.

Cohen, Arthur A. Osip Emilievich Mandelstam: An Essay in Antiphon, 1974.

Harris, Jane Gary. “An Inquiry into the Function of the Autobiographical Mode: Joyce, Mandelstam, Schulz,” in American Contributions to the Ninth International Congress of Slavists. Vol. 3, 1983. Edited by Paul Debreczeny.

Harris, Jane Gary. Introduction to The Complete Critical Prose and Letters, 1979.

Mandelstam, Nadezhda. Hope Abandoned, 1974.

Mandelstam, Nadezhda. Hope Against Hope: A Memoir, 1970.

Monas, Sidney. Osip Mandelstam: Selected Essays, 1977.